In an ideal world, the whole family would sit down together every night for a healthy dinner. But let's face it, it's not unusual for sports or clubs to keep kids out past dinnertime. And if you're the chauffeur, you're kept away from the kitchen.
Still, a busy family social calendar is no excuse for heading to the drive-through for dinner. When packed schedules are a fact of life, it's important to have a plan in place for balanced meals — for you and your kids. Armed with these tips from busy moms across the country, you can help the next generation to be healthy eaters.
Plan ahead and cook extras
Put aside some pasta
"If I know that, say, Tuesday's going to be crazy, I'll cook a lot on Sunday and Monday," says Mary Sue Milliken, one of the founding chefs of Santa Monica's Border Grill, and a mother of two. "Then I have leftovers that I can pack up in a lunch or dinner." On pasta night, for example, Milliken might make a little extra and leave off the sauce. "For my younger boy, who's a less adventurous eater, I'll add a little olive oil and grated cheese," she says. "For the older one, some chopped olives and cucumber, and maybe a little feta. Then on the morning that he'll be taking it with him, I'll add a little fresh vinaigrette."
Cut up extra chicken
Milliken also roasts chicken on weekends with her sons' weekday meals in mind. "I know my younger son likes the drumsticks, so I'll save those for him." Stocking up on travel containers made it easy for her to send off her kids with lots of little parcels: "I'll do one with cut-up vegetables, and a small one of a dipping sauce," she says.
Stock up on soup
There's an added bonus to cooking ahead, says real estate developer Brennan Kearney, a stepmother of a 14-year-old and mother of two toddlers. "Making a big batch of soup to eat throughout the week is my secret weapon," she says, as much for the convenience factor as for all the vitamin-rich foods she can sneak into it. "Sophie [the teenager] willingly eats bean soup, lentil soup, or chicken soup, so I'll add zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, celery, and sometimes corn — these are things she would never normally eat, but chopped up small, they're unrecognizable."
Even better disguisers, says Kearney, are pureed soups. "Cauliflower cheddar soup is a big hit, because of the cheese, but meanwhile I can sneak all sorts of vegetables into it. It's pureed, so she has no idea what's in it." Packed in a soup thermos, these nutritious soups can become a warm, filling meal on the go.
Ask your kids for help
Erica Hirsch, a former nutritionist and mother of three, gets her children involved in meal-planning at all stages, from shopping to packing. "When you shop together, you empower kids," she says. Hirsch builds meals around her kids' requests. "If they ask for barbecued chicken, I'll put a vegetable with it," she says. "They love couscous, so I'll flake some salmon into it."
Milliken agrees. "Sometimes they bring home what you've packed for them and it hurts your feelings." Milliken notes that as her older son became a teen, it was the containers his mom used that he objected to more than the food itself. "So I asked, what kinds of packages won't you mind taking to school? I made an effort to use wax paper to wrap food, and other things that were disposable."
Maintain a stash of healthy snacks
Asa Ersgard stays home full-time now, but when her two oldest daughters were small, she worked full days. She learned that healthy snacks were essential to helping tide them over until dinner, a lesson that's even more valuable now that she also has twin boys. "We keep a big bowl of fruit on the counter, and in the fridge there's always yogurt. My littlest has the same snack every day after school: lingonberries, cornflakes, and milk."
Kearney finds this particularly important with her two babies. "I always carry around a sandwich of natural peanut butter on whole-wheat bread," she says. "When I'm out with my son and he sees candy or ice cream, initially the only thing he wants is what's in front of him. But if he's hungry, he'll accept the sandwich." Fruit, too, is the ultimate portable food, she says: "Strawberries with the tops cut off, blueberries, bananas, cut-up plums, nectarines, pears. Grapes are good because they don't bruise."
Though sports and clubs do sometimes keep kids away from home at dinnertime, on the whole, moms value them as an integral part of teaching them about the balance of fitness and appetite. "My kids' coaches encourage them not to drink soda and not to eat junk food," says Lina Wong, a part-time nurse studying to earn a Masters degree in literature and mother of six. "It helps that this good advice isn't coming from me."
Shop smart in a pinch
"Sometimes I don't have food with me, and we'll go into a deli," says Hirsch. "Actually, it's good when this happens, because we can buy all sorts of fruits that I wouldn't be able to carry with me. And we get granola bars, squeezable yogurts, or little sandwiches."
"Aim for the mom-and-pop places," recommends Milliken. "It's your better bet for a healthy meal. We try to avoid the drive-through greasy meals, although it does happen every now and then — we wouldn't want it to have too much of a mystique."