Making Mealtimes Manageable
You’ve prepared your kids for the start of school.
You’ve organized their closets and created a special place for them to hang their backpacks.
The whole family has started waking up earlier and going to bed earlier.
Don’t panic — you can still catch up on the first three posts in this back-to-school organization series:
Preparing to Go Back to School
School Routines: Morning, Afternoon, and Bedtime
This week I’m focusing on making mealtimes more organized and less overwhelming. If you have a picky eater in your family, want to stop feeding your kids so much processed food, or feel stressed out by meal planning — this post is for you.
When in doubt, throw it out!
First things first. Go through your refrigerator/freezer and throw away anything that’s expired, spoiled, has freezer burn, or you know will just continue to remain uneaten. Wipe down the shelves and drawers and then rearrange things so that like items are together.
consider healthier options
The choices you make about food for your family are yours to make. I’m not in any position to tell you what food to buy or how to prepare it. But I will share the choices I make for my own family, as well as some resources to check out.
Several years ago, I became interested in learning more about why so many of today’s kids develop food allergies, as both of my daughters suffer from them. I read Robyn O’Brien’s The Unhealthy Truth, an absolute must-read about the toxins in America’s food supply.
Little by little, I made changes to our family’s diet. I began by limiting the amount of processed foods we ate and eliminating anything with high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils, and loads of sugar. I matter-of-factly explained to my kids why I wouldn’t buy their favorite treats anymore and found healthy alternatives. One app I frequently used for this was Fooducate, which helped me transition to making better food choices.
Now I buy only organic produce whenever I can, and choose packaged foods that are verified non-GMO products. Foods with GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” have been scientifically engineered and don’t occur in nature. They’ve been linked with health and environmental problems, so I avoid them whenever possible. Yes, I spend more money on groceries. But it’s worth the extra cost to me knowing that I’m feeding my family the most nutritious foods available.
My kids still eat some junk, but mostly at birthday parties or restaurants, where we don’t have as much control over the menu options. (Even at birthday parties, though, I usually pack food for the kids since they have allergies.)
On to mealtimes…
Don’t worry about serving the same thing for breakfast every day. In fact, when breakfast is consistent, mornings tend to be less hectic and there are fewer food battles. Some quick and easy breakfast foods are:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Cottage cheese
You can also make healthy muffins, mini-quiches, and pancakes ahead of time and freeze them, so they’re easy to grab and go in the mornings.
LUNCH is in the bag
I’ve always had a rule when making my kids’ school lunches: they need to include a protein, a fruit, and a vegetable. Simple.
Proteins: Lean meats, eggs, cheese, nuts (if allowed), hummus, beans, tuna, organic tofu
Fruits and Veggies: Try to choose produce that’s in season and locally grown. For info about what’s in season where you live (N. America only), click here. To find local farmers’ markets, click here.
My favorite website for healthy school lunch ideas and inspiration is 100 Days of Real Food. The photos alone are worth the look.
Several research studies have shown that children who eat dinners with their families have better overall mental and physical health, get better grades in school, and are less likely to use drugs and alcohol.
Family dinners are opportunities for connection. You get to spend time together, talk about the day, practice social skills, and create lasting memories.
Some tips for successful family dinners:
- Turn off the TV
- Involve kids in the process. They can help prepare food, set the table, and clean up.
- Have some sort of symbolic start to the meal — a prayer, a moment of silence, or an expression of gratitude.
- You’re responsible for providing healthy meals. Your child is responsible for eating them – or not. Mealtimes should be enjoyable, not adversarial.
- If you find that your child isn’t hungry at mealtimes, you might try limiting snacks and beverages (except water) between meals.
In the book Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne writes about how we can help our children thrive by providing them with rhythm and predictability. He suggests that families organize their meals by days of the week.
Of course, you can choose whatever themes you want. The idea is that there’s a sense of order and calm when dinners are predictable. Children know what to expect, parents can prepare in advance, and there are no surprises.
Many people think this system sounds boring at first, but you can vary the foods and flavors quite a bit. For example, you can experiment with different soups, pizza toppings, and kinds of burgers. And when you occasionally break from the rhythm, it can be a special treat for everyone.
Speaking of special treats, my family has Dessert Night every Saturday.
the batching benefit
“Batching” means making larger quantities of food at once. This saves time and money and allows you to have healthy meals prepared in advance.
My fellow mama blogger, Nicholette von Reiche, is a health coach in Colorado. She wrote an article about batching that you can read here. Her website is full of great recipes, tips, and resources, too.
This whole organizing series has been about creating systems to prepare your family for the new school year. They’ll take some time to set up initially, and once you’re using them on a regular basis, they’ll become second nature to you and your kids.
In the comments below, let me know which of these ideas you’re inspired to try first, and please share some of your own tips for keeping mealtimes drama-free.
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This is fantastic advice. You inspire me to get more organized. Thanks!!
That’s great, Jane! What idea is calling you the most?
Love these simple tips for keeping meal times healthy and do able in our busy schedules Pam.
I also always include a protein, veg and fruit for lunch and sometimes include a protein/fat combo.
I have been trying to cut our snacking down to smaller portions or only having one after nap snack and then my toddler is super ready for meal times. I serve his veg first, then protein and fat and then his fruit. I get the most success serving it in “courses” and sitting next to him and eating with him.
Thank you again for these super helpful tips and resources.
Thank YOU, Nicholette! Just curious — can you give an example of a protein/fat combo?
Here are some that come to mind.
Overnight oats/steel cut oats with chia seeds or sprinkle flax seeds or hemp seeds and fresh fruit for fiber.
I make paleo pancakes – fat + protein or scramble egg and sneak in a little spinach or kale.
Black bean “burger” patty or normal burger patty (I sneak in veggies into the burger) and serve it with extra avocado on some days.
Most meats will have a fat and protein combo, but we want to up the healthy fats in our diets. Avocado, fish, nuts, seeds, coconut etc.
My toddler loves dipping at the moment, so I make him some mashed avocado/ guacamole (fat) or hummus (protein) with some veggies as a snack or “starter”
I make nut and seeds clusters with a little raw honey/maple syrup and tamari. It’s a great travel snack.
Fresh berries with hemp seeds.
Smoothies with coconut milk (fat) and greens (they have protein) and blueberries and banana.