Shannon Robertson, registered dietitian at Curahealth Hospital New Orleans, says many families struggle to find time for even one home-cooked meal a week. No matter the provenance of your repast, a well-rounded meal should include protein, fruits and veggies. She suggests both ideal and realistic options for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. And don't forget dessert.
Cereals can contain a lot of processed ingredients, so choose cereals with a lot of whole grains, especially ancient grains, or oatmeal.
The ideal: Set aside at least one morning a week as a brunch day, when everyone can sit down and eat a hot breakfast together.
The real: Portability reigns. Robertson recommends cereal bars or yogurt with a little added granola, but says to check the nutrition label for excessive sugars (the American Heart Association recommends no more 6 to 9 teaspoons of sugar per day). For an easy hot breakfast, scramble two eggs in a mug with a little milk and microwave for a minute and a half. Serve with an English muffin.
Robertson suggests making lunch fun. To drink, she likes water or juice pouches with no added sugar — the more natural the better.
The ideal: Make lunch kebabs. Skewer cheese cubes, grapes, cut-up veggies and deli meat or cubes of chicken breast with pretzel sticks or bamboo skewers (cut in half to reduce the chance the kids will weaponize them).
The real: String cheese sticks and a simple sandwich will get the job done nicely. And don't forget a serving of fruit.
Portion control is the name of the game, Robertson says. Make sure dinner includes a lean protein such as pork loin or seafood, a vegetable and a source of fiber. It's OK to indulge in a little bread or even a baked potato, but be wary of adding too many salty, fatty condiments. There are ways to sneak in veggies — dishes like cauliflower rice and zucchini "pasta" make great substitutes for starchy white rice. Stay away from meal-in-a-box dinners — they're full of unhealthy preservatives, she says.
The ideal: Dishes like stuffed bell peppers cover most food groups. Robertson suggests exchanging the rice in the stuffing with quinoa or another whole grain.
The real: Opt for low-fat and low-sodium takeout, such as a rotisserie chicken and a big green salad from the salad bar. Steam-in-the-bag veggies make a great side dish.
"Look for things that are high in fiber and protein," Robertson says. "Any snacks that (kids) can help make is a big plus, such as frozen banana pops — they're really easy and good for summertime."
The ideal: Robertson loves hummus and guacamole cups accompanied by carrot sticks or other sliced raw veggies. Fruit kebabs also are filling, as are roasted chickpeas.
The real: Substitute pretzel crisps for the veggies with hummus or guacamole. String cheese is another go-to, or healthier snacks like Veggie Straws.
Fresh fruit is preferable to refined sugar-loaded items. Strawberries topped with whipped cream top Robertson's list.
The ideal: Bake fruits, such as apples and pears, sprinkle with a little sugar substitute and serve warm.
The real: "Once in a while, you just need a cookie," she says.