We know family meals are important. They are a strong predictor of kids’ nutrition, happiness, self esteem, and even success. Research suggests that the modeling that happens at family meals helps increase kids’ food acceptance. Family meals do not need to be complicated and it's okay to rely on convenience foods to get dinner on the table. The benefits of family meals are not necessarily about what one is eating, they are about the family time together and the communication that happens over food. I believe if we are too black and white about what a family meal is, we can fall into a routine of not eating as a family very often, because the bar is set too high. When working with families, I’ll hear this dichotomous thinking of either cooking with recipes or having take out in front of the TV. There is a lot of grey area between these two scenarios in which family meals can happen.
Meal Make Up
Like many of us, I’m often coming in from work or a kid’s activity right before dinnertime and, therefore, I rely on convenience or quick prep foods to get dinner on the table. I use a basic template for our meals of providing at least a protein, starch and fruit or vegetable. Providing this structure and offering different foods without pressure helps kids learn to eat different foods overtime. However, again, it doesn’t need to be complicated or gourmet. Sometimes, I need the fruit or vegetable to be quick and easy.
Go-To Fruit and Vegetable Sides
Here are 6 of my convenient go-to fruit and vegetable side dishes that I rely on to round out family meals:
- Bagged Salads: I find sometimes I need to let others do the chopping. We enjoy the Eat Smart Sweet Kale Salad Kit. It’s more like a slaw than a salad and contains kale and chopped up brussel sprouts. I find I’ll often plan to have this with a slow cooker pulled pork or pulled chicken meal. My son doesn’t eat a ton of it, but will pick out and eat the dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds. I will also often rely on a bagged caesar salad. This is a hit with everyone at my house and while it doesn’t have the same "nutrition punch" as other salads, its a great way to expose kids to salad and then they can sneak up on the more complex ones. I have found, recently, that I’m making more of my own salads with Elizabeth’s easy directions. If I add in a chopped fruit and some yummy crumbled cheese or avocado, I find my pickier eaters will try it.
- Simply sliced apples, clementines, grapes or berries: I do this a lot. If my meal is lacking a fruit or vegetable, or I think the planned vegetable may be a bit too adventuresome for some of my eaters, I’ll quickly chop up an apple or add another fruit to the table. My dad liked to chop apples by slicing the apple beside the core in 4 straight cuts, and then cutting thin, ¼ inch slices from each quarter of the apple with the cut side down. He would always say more apples were eaten if he cut it that way. I think he was right.
- Crudités tray: From a financial standpoint, this doesn’t make sense, but from a convenience and providing another opportunity for kids to try vegetables standpoint, it does. If I know I have a particularly busy week, I’ll buy one of these small veggie trays from the grocery store and set it right on the table. Also, if kids and adults are getting hungry before dinner I’ll bring it out early and often more is eaten at that time. I’ll also use it to add veggies to packed lunches.
- Roasted broccoli or asparagus: This is a quick and easy go-to side dish in my house. I’ll chop broccoli or cut off the ends of the asparagus, toss in olive oil and kosher salt and spread out on a cookie sheet. Often, I like to add cumin and coriander to the broccoli. Roast at 450 degrees until tender on the inside and crispy on the outside - about 10-15 min. Toss after 5 min.
- Frozen Veggies: This is another way that I let someone else do the chopping for me. I’ll use frozen, bagged sirfry vegetables when making stirfry and will often add frozen broccoli to my macaroni and cheese or jarred tomato pasta sauce. Frozen vegetables often do not have anything added to them and are very similar nutritionally to fresh vegetables.
- Sautéed Spinach - This is another quick vegetable side that doesn’t take a recipe. I’ll sauté some garlic in olive oil and add in bagged, prewashed spinach. After it wilts down, I’ll add toasted pine nuts (you can also add other nuts) and raisins or dried cranberries.
There are so many "shoulds" and "have to’s" out there and food can certainly become a big part of that. Remember that food doesn’t need to be perfect and it’s okay to use easy and convenient items to get food on the table. I’d love to hear about your easy, convenient fruit and vegetable side dishes and add them to my list.
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