So You Can Veg Out
bhofack2/istockphoto

12 Healthy Meal Hacks for Hectic Households

View Slideshow
So You Can Veg Out
bhofack2/istockphoto

So You Can Veg Out

Imagine life with three or more kids, all involved in extracurricular activities well into the evening — and maybe one spouse travels. It's unlikely there's much time for meal prep and family dinners during the week. The reality for many families is that some nights there is barely a half-hour for dinner. Luckily there are some easy hacks to help provide healthy meals and snacks anyway.

Related: 50 Ways to Save Money at the Grocery Store

Plan Your Meals
AndreyPopov/istockphoto

Plan Your Meals

Once a week, take the time to plot out your meals so you don't end up with a night without a dinner plan. Then shop for everything at once. You won't be running to the store daily for dinner, and you won't be eating out last minute because you can't think of anything else.

Do Food Prep for the Week
Milkos/istockphoto

Do Food Prep for the Week

A lot of food prep for meals and snacking can be done ahead of time. Pick a day when you have time. (Sundays work well for many people.) "Wash and cut up your fruits and vegetables and store them in individual containers so you'll know exactly what you have on hand. Cut-up vegetables also do double duty for quick meals, after-school snacks and school lunches," says health journalist Julie Revelant, whose website shows parents how to "raise healthy kids who crave healthy food."

Prepare Breakfast Ahead of Time
Arx0nt/istockphoto

Prepare Breakfast Ahead of Time

Breakfast is the meal that's easiest to prep ahead of time. Your cut-up fruit can be frozen in individual "smoothie" bags that can be simply emptied into a blender in the morning for a quick and healthy breakfast. Revelant likes to fill mason jars the night before with oats, fruit, nuts or seeds, and milk for a quick and easy breakfast.

Buy Pre-Cut Vegetables
Tim Allen/istockphoto

Buy Pre-Cut Vegetables

If a food prep still sounds like a burden, go one step further and buy pre-cut vegetables. "Snacks and sides for meals are made easier when there is no chopping, bagging, and storing needed. My favorite way to do this is to purchase fruits and veggies that are bite-sized or pre-chopped, like cherry tomatoes, or discounted fruit and/or veggie trays," says Renata Trebing, of the healthy food blog Nourish With Renata. "In addition to saving time, these items often have reduced pricing for quick sales, so you are saving money too. Prepackaged veggie trays can also be used to help make sheet pan dinners, soups or stews."

Use Frozen and Canned Vegetables
belchonock/istockphoto

Use Frozen and Canned Vegetables

Keeping frozen and canned vegetables on hand can come in handy. Even if you are just doing pizza, adding a vegetable side ups the health factor instantly. "These are convenient to keep on hand when you don't have time to run to the store. They keep well, are healthy, and can be prepared quickly," Nutritionist Amanda Barnes says.

Double Up
deepblue4you/istockphoto

Double Up

Many recipes freeze well to provide meals when you are short on time. "When you do have the time, try to batch cook big pots of soup, lasagna, and other family favorites. When you are low on time you will always have a healthy option waiting for you," Barnes says.

Always Have Healthy Meal Helpers on Hand
Source: instacart.com

Always Have Healthy Meal Helpers on Hand

Flexible foods such as vegetables or microwavable pouches of rice or cauliflower rice can take a meal quickly from just meh to fabulous, so keep them on hand. Sonila Zarate, the food blogger behind Mediterranean Latin Love Affair says she always has handy tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, avocados, apples, bananas, berries, and items such as watermelon and peppers in the summer or leeks and cabbage in the winter. "You can come up with healthy meals to cook on the spot if you have some of this stuff handy. And if you don't use them for a few days, you can easily make a salad to ensure they don't go bad," she says. The principle works for prepared foods too, of course; pairing Costco's frozen Orange Chicken with Trader Joe's frozen fried rice makes a nutritious meal in less than 15 minutes.

Use One Pot
clubfoto/istockphoto

Use One Pot

For easy cleanup after a meal that pretty much cooks on its own, use just one pot when cooking meals. "One pot, one pan, Crock Pot, Instant Pot, tray-bakes, casseroles. Dump veggies, sauce, and protein of choice, and cook that stuff. Use Pinterest for recipe inspiration," Zarate says. "It just takes a few minutes of active cooking. The rest is done by itself."

Pull Together Appetizer Plates
Josef Mohyla/istockphoto

Pull Together Appetizer Plates

For an option that gives kids a say, enhance a meal with appetizer platters of cut vegetables, cheese slices, almonds, sliced apples — whatever healthy stuff you have on hand from your food prep night — and let the kids pick some food for their plate to go with the entree. This adds a nice amount of fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats to the meal.

Have a Pantry Snack Bin
Kontrec/istockphoto

Have a Pantry Snack Bin

It's okay to put healthy snacks within reach of most kids, including a variety for when it's mid-meal or time to put together a lunch bag. "Put kid-friendly food at kid level," Trebing says. "The kids can feel independent picking their food, and you can do the other 995 things you have to do in order to get them out of the house at the right time."

Make the Mundane Healthy and Fun
antares71/istockphoto

Make the Mundane Healthy and Fun

Variety is key to keeping meals healthy and fresh, so look for ways to update the classics to make them healthier and keep them easy, suggests chef, dietician and nutritionist Nicolette Pace. Peanut butter and jelly can use different nut butters, whole fresh fruit slices, and nutritious bread. Mac and cheese, which can be packed with calories, can take a variety of cheeses and and sneaked-in vegetables such as zucchini or broccoli, and chicken for protein.
"Salads are never easy to get a kid to eat, but if you deconstruct them with the components that they do like, this is the perfect way to turn them on to eating healthy and trying new things," Pace says, suggesting a bento box approachusing fruits, vegetables, or nuts kids already enjoy as snacks.
"Several snacks add up to one delicious and nutritious meal. Think small portions of olives, carrots and celery with dip, berries, nuts, hummus and crackers, cheese, tuna, avocado, dark chocolate. Your children can guide you or even help you create this lunch option," Pace says.

Have a Leftover Night Once a Week
wwing/istockphoto

Have a Leftover Night Once a Week

Don't waste nutritious food — empty the fridge once a week with a leftover night. It's a quick option made up of other meals you know are healthy. Just get everything out, heat it all up and let family members pick from the leftovers what they want to eat.