I have four small kids — preschool through third grade — and they’re all back in school now. It’s nice to have everyone in a routine again, but you can bet your Michael’s 40 percent off coupon that it can also be a bit much. Especially for small kids, this season is so hectic that every one of them is about 10 seconds away from tears by the end of the day. When parenting mode kicks into high gear, I need a food plan that nourishes my brood quickly and simply. These are some of my go-to moves.
Use Frozen Veggies
From spinach sauteed with garlic to cauliflower you can roast right out of the bag or crispy peirogies with broccoli and sausage (pictured above), frozen vegetables are the unsung heroes of the grocery store. They’re always in season, usually a great deal, already washed and chopped, AND most frozen veggies are picked and packed at their peak ripeness.
Use Bagged Veggies
Yes, frozen veggies are awesome, but don’t underestimate the simplicity of a bag of veggies from the produce section either. Butternut squash soup becomes an instant weeknight dinner when you grab a bag of already diced squash. One bag of sugar snap peas becomes a key part of a family favorite: Sugar Snap Peas with Ginger Pork. Baby carrots slide right out of a bag and into the oven for my kids’ top-rated side of all time: roasted carrots with maple syrup. No chopping, no peeling, not so much as a rinse under the sink.
Embrace Sheet-Pan Meals
Why dirty a bunch of pans when you can make a whole dinner with one? From pork tenderloin with roasted vegetables to sweet potatoes and sausage, or Teriyaki chicken and broccoli, the method is the same every time: Throw a handful of easy ingredients onto a pan and let it politely cook while you try to figure out where that field trip permission slip could have possibly gone. (Not that this has happened to me. Twice.)
Made Dinners with School Lunch in Mind
I love a good weeknight meal that can transform itself into a tasty lunch for school, and one of my favorites is pasta cups. Super-healthy mac and cheese is an excellent candidate, but ANY pasta dish works just as well. Low-Cal Fettuccini Alfredo, Giada De Laurentiis’ Turkey Bolognese, and so on. To turn last night’s pasta into tomorrow’s school lunch, all you need are a couple of extra ingredients and a willing muffin pan.
Let Your Kids Help Out
I wrote about this recently, but it’s such a game-changer that I’ll throw it in here again. Since our kids are young, they aren’t ready to make their own lunches, but for this beginner lesson, I prep and they pack. That means I put together two trays of cut-up fruit and veggies for the week, plus one main (think corn dog muffins, chicken salad sandwiches or cheddar-scallion biscuits) each day. When I set everything out, they fill up their lunch boxes for the next day and store them in the fridge. Done!
Introduce a Snack Rotation
Our kids are supposed to bring a morning snack to school every day, so we’ve made a compromise that combines convenience with a little wiggle room for packaged treats. I send fresh fruit, homemade muffins or bars on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then it’s “pick your own snack” from the pantry on Tuesday and Thursday. We’ve got a million bags of crackers, pretzels and nut bars to choose from. And for the fresh days, we’re loving a rotation of Ina Garten’s Blueberry Coffee Cake Muffins and our No-Bake Chocolate, Fruit & Nut Bars.
Make Breakfast Ahead of Time
On a busy school morning, things run so much more smoothly when I’ve whipped up overnight chia seed pudding or breakfast burritos in advance. (Maybe it’s because we have enough time to look for lost shoes, but whatever. I’m just saying — it works better!) Even trying to do this just a couple times a week has made everything more manageable.
Charity Curley Mathews is a contributor to The Huffington Post, eHow, InStyle.com and shares kid-tested recipes full of fresh ingredients at Foodlets.com: Mini Foodies in the Making…Maybe. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, four kids, two naughty puppies and 60,000 bees.
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