It's been a long day of work and play, and then along comes dinner. It's always the same question: What do you feed the children?
They have their place, but we cannot live on canned soup and ramen alone.
With the goal of creating simple meals that leave my family better nourished, less grumpy and more energized (because someone's got to do the dishes), here are five tried-and-true tips for creating a simple and well-rounded dinner plate.
Plan around protein
In my own family, if meals are planned around protein first, adding in side dishes with whole grains and fat is easy. Protein helps us feel full sooner, makes us less prone to late-night snacking and helps sugar cravings disappear. One serving of protein is quite small and can include a couple of eggs, 5 ounces of chicken or 5 ounces of tuna. One cup of lentils provides a whopping 18 grams of protein.
It's hard to go wrong with a plate bursting with green, orange, red and yellow. Colorful food usually means a variety of fruits and vegetables. Even if you're just pulling out the leftovers, eating multicolored food helps everyone eat smaller portions of many different foods while packing more nutrition into one meal.
Fruits and vegetables also provide carbohydrates, which are your body's No. 1 energy source. Feeling tired? Try eating more colorful food.
At dinnertime, pediatrician and mother of four Sarah Lester has a "no thank-you, bite" rule. Everyone (even Mom and Dad) has to take at least one bite of every vegetable served. If one bite is enough, then it's enough. For added produce variety, Lester's household joined a summer CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. Rather than scavenging for vegetable ideas, they have a box of produce paradise delivered to their doorstep once a week. Lester's husband has learned to cook with rutabagas, turnips, potato fingerlings, eggplant and squash. Lester says her kids don't always like it, but that's what's for dinner!
It might take a while (sometimes a long while), but our taste buds are constantly changing. Repeated exposure will pay off. After 38 years, I've finally discovered the brussels sprout. Who knew it was so tasty when roasted in olive oil, salt and pepper?
Eating vegetables in season is a great way to add variety, experiment with new tastes and pack in loads of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Vegetables are also filling, stave off hunger later in the evening, support the immune system (for fewer colds and flu this winter) and provide long-lasting energy.
As a basic rule, stay away from "white," which is usually processed food that contains very little nutritional value.
Whole-grain foods are defined by the Whole Grains Council as foods that contain "all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed in their original proportions. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded and/or cooked), the food product should deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed."
Examples of whole-grain side dishes include a slice of whole-wheat bread, oats, wild rice and barley soup, quinoa salad, farro, cornbread and brown or colored rice.
Everyone appreciates a sweet after-dinner treat. Fruit can be incorporated into the meal or served as dessert with whipped topping. Applesauce, canned peaches or pineapple are such sweet fruits that kids will often not ask for more dessert. One cup of pudding made with milk, 1 cup of frozen yogurt or 1-1/2 cups of ice cream count as one dairy serving each. Sweets need not be forbidden — just managed.
Making dinner isn't always convenient, but it's certainly rewarding to see the differences in energy and health that appear when you feed your family well.
Nice work! Now repeat.