By necessity, parents learn to feed their families quick, healthy meals. We somehow manage to cook with one eye on the clock and the other on our offspring. And when restaurant dinners enter the picture, we keep nutrition in mind as best we can. But the worsening recession has added a new wrinkle: These days, we’re not just trying to serve our kids quick, healthy meals. We’re trying to serve them quick, healthy meals that don’t cost much. And that’s where it gets complicated. Eating cheaply is often synonymous with eating badly. Inexpensive options that are quick to prepare at home are often packed with sodium, refined flour and high-fructose corn syrup. Less expensive cuts of meat tend to be higher in fat. And when dinner at The Olive Garden gets replaced by takeout from McDonald’s, veggies fall by the wayside. As we cope with tightening budgets and skyrocketing stress levels, many of us are wondering: How do we feed our kids well on a budget, without adding a lot of extra time and effort to our already overbooked lives? Babble asked three nutrition experts for advice that can make the job easier, and here were our ten take-aways.
1. RAID YOUR PANTRY
Before your next grocery-shopping trip, empty your pantry and freezer to see what’s there. Pull out everything – even the canned goods collecting dust and the meat you froze months ago and forgot about. Planning ahead reduces stress on weeknights, and building balanced meals around what you’ve already got shrinks your grocery bill.
2. BUILD UP WITH STAPLES
Meat goes much further if it’s used in soups, chili or casseroles with plenty of whole grain rice or pasta and lots of vegetables. These dishes are also a great way to sneak extra veggies past your kids, says Stephanie Otto, who teaches nutrition at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. You’ll save time with these one-dish meals, which can be prepared ahead and require little tending. Also, “never underestimate the power of a potato,” says Otto. “They’re high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.” Build a meal around baked potatoes (a five-pound bag lasts for weeks and doesn’t cost much) topped with low-fat cheeses, vegetables and a bit of meat. Kids can choose their own toppings, adding to the appeal.
3. EAT WITH THE SEASONS
Fruits and vegetables bought in season are cheaper, healthier and better tasting, says Lisa Barnes, a professional cook and author of the cookbook Petit Appetit: Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Easy, Organic Snacks, Beverages, and Party Foods for Kids of All Ages. Kids may balk at not buying their favorites year-round, but this is a chance for a quick nature lesson.
4. BECOME AN EXPERT RECYCLER
When leftovers go uneaten, it’s like throwing money away. But rather than simply reheating, get creative: Shred last night’s chicken and saut’ it with a can of black beans, then add whole grain tortillas for instant enchiladas, says Dr. Susan Fisher, a registered dietician and associate professor of foods and nutrition at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. Chop yesterday’s pork roast and stir-fry with rice, or turn leftovers into hash with diced potatoes (keep the oil to a minimum). Your food will go further, and the family won’t feel like they’re having the exact same meal twice.
5. GO BEYOND TYPICAL DINNER FARE
Fruit smoothies made with plain yogurt may seem like snack food, but they’re packed with vitamins and protein – perfect for dinnertime, says Barnes. They’re great for using up any overripe fresh fruit, and leftovers can become a frozen dessert. Oatmeal and other cereals are another cheap-but-healthy option for dinner (just watch sugar content). Make a large pot of plain oatmeal (use low-fat milk, rather than water, for extra protein), then let each family member customize their serving by adding raisins, cinnamon, fresh fruit or maybe something savory, like shredded cheese and bacon bits. Another option: Use whole grain bread to make sandwiches with natural peanut butter and ripe fruit (bananas work well), served with carrot sticks on the side.
6. THE FREEZER IS YOUR FRIEND
“Don’t invest the cooking time and get just one meal out of it,” says Fisher. Whenever you cook, make extra to freeze. You’ll end up with a stash of homemade frozen options that are healthier and cheaper than frozen food from a box. Ditto for individual ingredients: If you’re chopping onion for a recipe, chop double and freeze half. Next time you make the same dish, your prep work will already be done.
7. BRING IT HOME
You don’t have to skip restaurant food entirely, but you’re better off ordering to go. Restaurant portions are huge, so split a few entrees (kids who don’t like sharing a meal in a restaurant won’t know they’re sharing if you portion it onto plates at home.) Also, says Fisher, “you’re not as tempted to buy beverages that are empty calories and cost more by the glass,” plus there’s no tipping or pressure to buy dessert. You’re eating at home but still getting a break – no cooking or dishes to do. Fisher also says prepared meals from grocery stores are a growing trend. They offer the “somebody else cooked tonight” treat without the oversized restaurant bill.
8. BUY FAST FOOD WISELY
Fast food is often a nutritional nightmare, but there are a few decent options. Otto recommends Subway (go heavy on the veggies, she says, choose spinach over iceberg lettuce, and take the whole grain bun) and Fisher says some Mexican fast food chains, like Moe’s Southwest Grill, have healthy options focused on beans rather than meat or cheese. Beware the salads on fast food menus: Otto says if you use all the toppings and dressing you’re given, it can add up to more calories than a Big Mac.
9. DO IT YOURSELF
Skip store-bought ice pops this summer, says Barnes. Combine juice and water, then freeze it yourself – you’ll save money while eliminating sugar and artificial color. Same goes for snack food: Make fresh popcorn in a large pot on your stovetop (it’s easy and fun), sprinkle with grated cheese, then seal in small zip-top bags. And save by making your own pizza with low-fat cheese and lots of veggies. Whole-grain crusts are available at many grocery stores, though whole-grain bagels or English muffins work, too.
10. PLAN A COOKING DATE
You probably don’t have many evenings to spare. But try to meet up with your spouse or a friend one night each week for a cooking session after the kids are in bed. Put on some music, maybe crack open a beer and try new recipes. You can do two nights’ worth of cooking in just a few hours, while catching up with each other.