Being a parent means having to answer a lot of questions, like “Are we there yet?”, “Ugh, do I have to?" and “But why can’t I put the cat in the dryer?” Still, the one that makes me clench with irritation the most is, “What’s for dinner?”
A lot of parents struggle to feed their kids. Picky eaters, snackers, grazers, only-eat-one-food-groupers—kids don’t make it easy on us. Weekday morning and after-work stress doesn’t help either—it can often feel like it’s literally just not possible to make a quick nutritious family meal, whether it be breakfast or dinner, from scratch.
But is it possible we feel that way because the idea has been sold to us? In the modern world of “busy,” I argue that an entire industry has tricked vulnerable, time-crunched adults into thinking they can’t prepare nutritious food for their kids, because it takes too long.
This is not a guilt trip. Parents, you are doing amazing things. You are juggling jobs and households while keeping small humans alive—and sometimes pets and grandparents, too! Most of us have caught ourselves reaching for the toaster waffle or the pizza pop. I’m only one person, we think. I can’t be all the things, and today, this is gonna have to do. The problem begins when we start to use the cheats so often that we don’t even notice it’s become our status quo. And if there weren’t growing rates of childhood diabetes and obesity, or if we didn’t know that our kids’ outcomes are better when they consume balanced meals (a la the revamped Canada’s Food Guide), then we could all just settle for knowing our delivery person by name. But that’s not the case.
I recognize I’m coming from a place of privilege—I have access to, and enough money for, nutritious ingredients. But I’d argue that in most cases, this isn’t an issue of food insecurity. It’s that we’ve been sold an idea that benefits marketers, not our kids. So as your slightly-older sisterly type who does this on the daily, on her own, with a tween and a teen, I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be this way. That with the right hacks and a few tricks, you can up your family food game. Here’s how.
The easiest way to make meal prep convenient is to plan your shop around what you’re going to make that week. Have a loose idea of busy mornings or evenings when you won’t get to do anything really fancy. It’s nice to be optimistic, but come on—are you really roasting a chicken on Wednesday before hockey? A balanced plate is all you’re going for here, not Ottolenghi perfection. Try delegating responsibilities for certain nights to other family members; for example, I get my tween to pop the casserole I made on the weekend into the oven so it’s ready when I get home. Write it all out where everyone can see what the plan is. Once you’ve done your shop, make sure to leave a bit of time to process your wares. Bonus: You’ll use up what you bought, preventing waste and saving money. Canadians waste tons of food each year, and it’s not just the food waste but the waste of the resources it took to produce, ship and pay for that celery that is now looking so sad in the back corner of your fridge.
Take the time to set yourself up. You know if you don’t strip that kale off the stems and wash and dry it, you’re never making those kale chips, soup or salad. No, you might as well pay for liquified mush each week. So just do it. Put on a podcast or a show that doesn’t need your eyes on it the whole time and just get it done. Chop up those veggies. Cut up that pineapple. Wash out old jam jars and make a week’s worth of overnight oats. I set aside a couple hours on Sundays, and Future Me always thanks Sunday Me for making the effort.
Your veggie game doesn’t have to be fancy. You’re not Martha Stewart. Heck, you’re not even Snoop Dogg. Most kids take time to come around to their veggies touching other veggies on the same plate. Take advantage of this by chopping them up ahead of time and serving them up next to your protein and carb options. Keep the chopped veggies stored in the fridge in air tight containers. Pair them with dips. Throw them in lunch boxes. Take them to picnics where other people’s kids will also naturally eat them. If your kid says, “But I hate tomatoes!” have a “two have to live on your plate” rule. Eventually they get chatty and pop a cherry tom in the mouth without noticing and realize they like them after all.
Full of protein, eggs (and even brain-boosting Omega-3s if you shell out a few extra bucks) are the quickest easiest way to make sure your kid stays full until lunchtime. Sure, a bowl of cereal is quicker, but it takes less than five minutes to beat and scramble an egg to perfection. Six minutes (in boiling water) for those who enjoy a dippy soft boil. Barely long enough to make the toast to accompany it! You can pop a hard-boiled egg (10-15 minutes) into a lunch box. Hard boiled eggs keep for a week, so you can make a few in advance to save lunches, salads and ramen cheats (see below).
Store-bought gnocchi is nothing like Nonna intended, but it cooks in three minutes. Sauté some garlic and mushrooms in olive oil or butter and then stir with those delightful potato pasta puffs. Toss some frozen peas on top to cool it down and avoid the “Too hot, mom!” while sneaking in a sweet veggie.
Thin egg or rice noodles can be the basis for a fake ramen. Make stock ahead of time and store in a glass jar in the fridge for up to a week, or just use a low-sodium boxed broth. Sauté some ginger and garlic in sesame oil and low-sodium soy sauce, toss in whatever fresh or frozen veggies you’ve got on hand and top with that hard-boiled egg (sliced in half) you had the good sense to make ahead of time. Slurp away.
The slow cooker and Instant Pot can make you feel like a home-cooking star with little effort. I don’t have an Instant Pot, but in my slow cooker, the secret seems to be, “throw in the meat thingy and the veggie thingies and pour a saucy thing over top and forget about it.” Coming home from work to a house that smells like pulled pork will make you want to marry yourself. (But I’m a single mom, so take that with a grain of Maldon salt.)
On those really busy weeks, meal prep kits like Hello Fresh can save your bacon. Most of the thinking and chopping is done for you, and if you get your kids to help, they will often eat something they would never have touched if they thought it came from your brain alone.
Just like dress season makes you look like you’re trying but you actually only put one piece of clothing on, BBQ season is my favourite cooking equivalent. Toss a protein-y food item onto a hot grill beside some of nature’s finest rainbow-coloured yummies and try not to burn them. Ta-da! Healthy dinner from scratch. Steak and asparagus. Chicken and grilled zucchini. Corn! Bust out your crudités on the side for some fresh crunch. Look at you! You’re basically amazing at this.
There are nights where you are just one person and frozen dish with the unpronounceable ingredients is going to have to do, dammit. Accept it. Love yourself for wanting to do right by the living things in your household. Keep trying. You’re doing great!