The Home-Plate Advantage: Low Cost, Low Maintenance Tips For Eating Healthy Together
Getting a balanced meal into our busy mouths every night has been a struggle since Swanson’s TV Dinners first slid onto tables in the 1950s. Those silvery slabs of frozen food were popular because they were convenient, a catchword still central to the modern lifestyle. It’s hard to find time (and money) to make meals from scratch and sit down together to eat them. We’re eating in our cars, at our desks, or on the fly instead, often relying on fast- or pre-packaged foods that could make the nutritional pyramid crumble with shame. This trend away from home-cooking may play a role in America’s major health epidemics such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
In addition to being better for our diets, sharing meals at home also has social benefits. Caregivers can teach good habits to kids by modeling them at the dinner table (“Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t double dip. Put your phone down – oh, wait, is that a PCM article? Let’s talk about that.”) They can also impart cultural values, a sense of belonging, and self-esteem: children who eat with their families five nights a week or more perform better at school and are less likely to have eating disorders or problems with drugs. Older adults who dine with others are more likely to meet their nutritional needs than when left to feed themselves. For many people, dinnertime offers a chance to de-stress and reconnect with family and friends.
If the demands of the day keep crashing the dinner party in your household, here are some ideas that might help restore health, order, and community:
Nothing leads to bad decisions faster than deciding what to eat when you’re already stressed and hungry, so be armed-and-ready. Shop ahead for healthy, low-prep foods like canned beans, frozen vegetables, eggs, whole grain pasta, couscous, quinoa, rice… Keep the staples stocked, too –flour, milk, oil, butter – but keep in mind that “cooked at home” doesn’t automatically equal “healthy”. According to the USDA, Americans get the bulk of their calories (roughly 2,568 per day, way over the recommended average) from wheat flour / bread products and added fats, so leave these items on the back-burner and let low-fat dairy, produce (the fresh stuff – French fries and ketchup don’t count), let fish and meats be the stars of your menu.
America’s favorite sources of protein are chicken, beef and pork: for a healthy, low-maintenance diet, choose leaner cuts and explore non-breaded, non-fried cooking methods such as grilling, stewing, roasting, etc. Crock pots are genius for serving up low-fat, low-maintenance recipes. You can also cut your prep-time by buying pre-chopped produce or meat and vegetable ensembles (stew kits or ready-t0-cook kebabs) in most grocery stores; or, stretch your grocery dollar by buying items when they are on sale, such as bulk meat or produce in season, to be chopped or portioned and frozen – just thaw as needed (some veggies can even be tossed in right from the freezer). Cooked meals can be frozen for later, too: don’t be afraid to make extra batches, or label and stash leftovers before they die unloved in your refrigerator.
You can also maximize your time and capitalize on team spirit by enlisting housemates in the cooking process. Even kiddos can be put to work, if they can hold a spoon: have others help chop, sort, measure, or line up ingredients, read recipe steps out loud, stir a simmering pot, set the table, take drink orders, or wash dishes while you go, to clear space and avoid the soul-crushing scene of an overcrowded sink at the end of the meal.
And while home may be where the heart is, dining out now and then can also be both a time-saver and stress-relief, allowing people to focus on each other’s company rather than the fuss and bother of preparing dinner. Eating out can be hard on your wallet, though, and also on your diet. If you want to shrink both kinds of spending, pass on the extras like bread and chips that fill you up with low-benefit calories. Consider drinking water (which is usually free) instead of soft drinks, tea, or alcohol, and skip the appetizers (unless you really, really need to try those fish tacos).
Reduce your portion-size by ordering from the small-plate options (available at many modern restaurants) or ask for a take-home box and set aside half your entrée, which is usually oversized, anyway – two meals for the price of one! Or, in the spirit of togetherness, you can always share, whether family-style (serving everyone at the table from several large dishes – a long-standing tradition in many of America’s favorite ethnic dine-out cuisines such as Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and Japanese) or a la Lady and the Tramp: one plate, two mouths – messier than Disney made it look, but just as fun.