While many families have found ways to be healthy together and enjoy the process of planning meals during the pandemic, others are still struggling with a variety of challenges that make putting a meal on the table nothing short of stressful.
To be sure, the responsibility of ensuring your family’s well-being, preparing wholesome menus and creating a loving space at the family table can seem daunting—especially when you are working all day, helping kids with home schooling and making sure everyone is safe and happy. But once chunked down into simpler steps, meal planning and cooking don’t have to be onerous. The key to putting these at the forefront of your family’s priority list is removing complications so you allow yourself space to do “what you can, when you can” in the manner that best fits you and your family.
Shared mealtime serves as an opportunity for bonding with family members, creating lasting memories and fueling your bodies with healthful energy. What better way to cement bonds than by making mealtime a team effort? Try some of the following strategies and recipes and customize them for your family’s lifestyle.
Plan Ahead and Keep It Simple
Naturally, family meals are unique from one family to the next. Some parents and caretakers may view mealtime as burdensome. This sense of overwhelm can stem from expectations of what a meal should look like, based on what other families do or what you see in the media. Let go of preconceived notions fueled by outside sources and stay focused on what you do best and what your family enjoys. There is no need for perfection when the ultimate goal is a chance for everyone in the household to come together and catch up with each other while filling their bellies.
Corey M. Colson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDCES, of Charlotte, North Carolina, notes that simply finding time to eat healthfully as a family can be challenging—and meal planning can help. “Planning can save time as well as save money at the grocery store,” he points out. “Figure out how often you will grocery shop and what your weekly meals will include. Also, be sure to keep it simple. Incorporate your family’s favorite meals or use leftovers. This can help your family adhere to your planning long term.”
Create a Sense of Fun and Discovery
Involving kids in meal planning and prep means weaving fun into the mix. It’s been well documented that children are more apt to eat something they put their hearts, minds and hands into planning and preparing. Depending on the kids’ ages in a household, most children are well-equipped to help in some aspect of meal-making, especially in support roles that get them hands-on and invested in the process. Safe tasks that children can assist with include chopping with kid-safe tools (keep it simple), setting the table, sorting ingredients, reading recipes and even monitoring cooking time.
In addition, research shows positive associations between family meals and healthy eating behaviors. Adolescents’ fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as their dairy intake, improved, while consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and unhealthy foods declined (Dwyer et al. 2015). Maintaining patience and grace while involving everyone is integral to forming a family mealtime that best promotes positive progress (Stanford Children’s Health).
Build a Plate Together
Now, what about the meal itself? A simple way of building meals comes through the practice of building a plate together. Meal recommendations have shifted over the decades to ensure that nutrient intakes support health along with hearty childhood development. The main stars of a plate should be abundant fruits and vegetables and whole-food sources of carbohydrate. Whole foods—foods that come from nature in their complete form—provide useful references for sustained energy, help build a solid structure inside and out, and provide nutrients to keep the life cycle constant and running smoothly (Amit 2010). Making whole foods the main component of a plate for a family meal can also deliver enough fiber to promote gut health and longevity (Bulsiewicz 2020).
An initial tip for building a plate is to use what you can access. Of course, having access to fruits and vegetables can ensure that they are the stars of mealtime. Frozen and canned options are reliable as long as their sugar and salt content is not excessive. Finding foods that are in season and within budget can make family meals more specific to your family’s individual needs.
Know the Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen
Much buzz surrounds the topic of purchasing organic versus conventional produce and the whys behind this back-and-forth. The “Dirty Dozen,” a list of 12 foods updated annually by the Environmental Working Group, reveals the top 12 produce items known to have the highest pesticide traces through testing. The “Clean 15” is a list of 15 produce items from EWG that contain the least amount of pesticide traces (Riemenschneider 2020). For families thinking about cost-efficiency and choosing between organic or nonorganic (conventional) foods, these lists can help with decision-making. Ultimately, your goal should be to purchase the best foods for your family’s budget and tastes while ensuring safety as much as possible, given cost considerations and accessibility.
Pack Phytonutrients by Choosing Plants
Scientists estimate that there are more than 5,000 phytochemicals found in whole plant foods. These compounds are found only in the edible portions of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes (Harvard Health Letter 2019). Ample evidence supports the “superpowers” that phytonutrients contribute as part of their arsenal of health benefits. Examples of phytonutrients are flavonoids, which serve as powerful antioxidants that fight inflammation and tumor growth, along with carotenoids, which may inhibit cancer growth and cardiovascular disease while boosting immunity.
Eat a Rainbow Daily
We know now that fruits and vegetables hold many different phytonutrients within their unique makeups. Depending on their color, fruits and veggies can possess powerful antioxidants, heart-healthy components, cancer-blocking chemicals and blood-clot busters.
- Lycopene, a phytonutrient compound, is found in the red category of whole foods. Foods like tomatoes, red apples, cranberries and radishes are linked to lowering prostate cancer risk while reducing DNA damage to cells (Jones 2021).
- Green fruits and vegetables, such as spinach and broccoli, support healthy cells, lungs and arteries and promote good vision (Jones 2021).
- Eating a rainbow of foods can also be fun. The whole family can look for a wide range of colors in nutritious fruits and vegetables and challenge one another to try new foods.
The Plant-Based Family
Kim Rose, RDN, CDE, CNSC, LD, of Sebring, Florida, highlights the benefits of plant-based eating as a family: “The best family meal plans are those that are easy, stress-free and, most of all, tasty! It’s a common misconception that plant-based eating can’t be any of these things,” she says. “On the contrary, plant-based family meal planning has the potential to improve your overall diet in two specific ways.
“First, when properly executed, plant-based family meal planning may help to improve nutrition. This is due to the conscious decision to include fiber-rich foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables in the diet, which are also a source of vitamins and minerals. Next, meal planning in general saves time by allowing you to prepare meals a week (or two) in advance. This is imperative because plant-based meal planning may be time-consuming. If you don’t jump in with a game plan, this can not only create unwanted stress, but it may ruin your family meal-planning experience. The take-home point to remember is plant-based [eating] doesn’t have to be cumbersome. It’s a great lifestyle to follow that can save you money and increase your nutrition when coupled with proper family meal planning.”
Nutrition Is Vital for Youth Development
Children are not able to decide for themselves how dietary recommendations can best suit their progression, so adults and caretakers are championed with this responsibility. Healthy food choices make a major contribution to cognitive development for youth. As children transition from the sensory motor period of learning into their formal operational state, healthful doses of plant-based foods can support their development (Zienstra et al. 2007). Whole-food choices provide adequate protein, carbohydrate and fat content to support youth development even through adolescent years (Amit 2010).
Introducing healthy food options through family meal planning and preparation in the formative years can help to ensure that children’s perception of these foods remains optimistic and their choices lean toward sensible options in a world filled with unhealthy temptations.
These simple steps will help you to build a sense of community within your home with a collective sense of health in mind to uplift long-term effects. Take the all-or-nothing pressure off yourself, take a breath and repeat the mantra: “I will do what I can, when I can.”
Three Simple Meal Ideas to Try
Here are three easy ideas the whole family can contribute to without much time needed for either preparation or cooking.
3–4 C of any chopped fresh or frozen veggies (e.g., mushrooms and broccoli)
1 package of Right Rice or 2–3 cups of cooked brown rice (microwaveable is okay)
3 T coconut aminos
½ T onion powder
1 chopped clove garlic
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
Sauté garlic in olive until soft. Add veggies and sauté until almost tender. Add coconut aminos (similar to soy sauce) and onion powder. Stir, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Season to taste. Serve over rice.
*Cost/time breakdown: $4–$5/10–15 minutes.
Bean and Veggie Soup
3–4 C of any chopped vegetable (e.g., fresh or frozen broccoli heads and stems)
3 x 15-ounce cans of beans (or one bag frozen or 2–3 cups dry beans: chickpeas, black-eyed peas, great northern beans or a combination thereof)
2 T vegan bouillon or vegetable soup mix (if available)
1 T onion powder
1 clove garlic, chopped
3–4 cups of water
If beans are dry, sort, rinse, soak and cook them to desired tenderness for soup. Chop produce and set aside. Add all ingredients into a slow cooker and set to high for 6–8 hours. Alternatively, pressure-cook (using dry beans) in an Instant Pot for 25 minutes on low before venting. Season to taste.
*Cost/time breakdown: $3–$4/5–10 minutes (and lives a long life in the freezer!).
Make-a-Rainbow Fruit Salad
Choose an array of seasonal fruits. Have an adult cut the produce or supervise kids’ safe chopping. Allow the children to literally build a rainbow on their plates. Complement with dipping sauces (e.g., yogurt-based or coconut whipped cream with ground flax seeds)
*Cost/time breakdown: $4–$6/10–15 minutes.
Amit, M. 2010. Vegetarian diets in children and adolescents. Paediatric Child Health, 15 (5), 303–08.
Bulsiewicz, W. 2020. Fiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome. Penguin Random House.
Dwyer, L., et al. 2015. Promoting family meals: A review of existing interventions and opportunities for future research. Adolescent Health Medical Therapy, 6, 115–31.
Harvard Health Letter. 2019. Fill up on phytochemicals. Accessed Dec. 2020: health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/fill-up-on-phytochemicals.
Jones, T. 2021. Health benefits of a colorful plate for kids and parents. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Accessed Dec. 2020: chla.org/blog/rn-remedies/health-benefits-colorful-plate-kids-and-parents.
Riemenschneider, P. 2020. Dirty dozen, clean fifteen lists updated for 2020. Accessed Dec. 2020: producebluebook.com/2020/03/25/dirty-dozen-clean-fifteen-lists-updated-for-2020/#.
Stanford Children’s Health. Why the family meal is important. Accessed Dec. 2020 from
Zienstra, G.G., et al. 2007. Cognitive development and children’s perceptions of fruit and vegetables; a qualitative study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 4 (30).
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