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Monday, Aug. 23, 2021

PREPARING FOOD IN ADVANCE

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Dinner time doesn’t have to be stressful

School is back in session, which means the hustle and bustle of the fall season is in full swing. While we pivot back to the school night routine, it can be challenging to get back in the habit of making dinner in the evenings. Making dinner at home can save you calories and money, but sometimes it can be so difficult to do!

Planning is key to making regular weeknight dinners a habit. When planning meals, think about your family’s schedule for the week, and make a calendar of the meals you will serve based on the week’s events. For example, if soccer practice is on Wednesday night, maybe that’s the day you choose to make a slow cooker meal, eat leftovers or whip up something in a pinch. Suppose there’s a night with no extracurriculars or events. In that case, this could be an evening you spend a little more time making a meal at home (and involve your kids in the cooking process, too!) — another thing to consider when planning meals is what’s realistic for your family. If you’re not used to making dinner every night, an entire week’s worth of homemade dinners may not be realistic. Instead, start slow by making one or two dinners at home each week, then gradually increase to making three, four or even five dinners weekly.

Remember, any small change is a step in the right direction. It’s also important to consider the recipes you plan to cook. Choose recipes you are familiar with and that your family loves, especially on more chaotic nights. If you want to try some new recipes, try no more than one or two per week to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Even the quickest recipes can take longer when you’re unfamiliar with all the steps needed to prepare the dish. When planning meals, be sure to consider all components of your meal. It’s important to have various food groups on your plate and make each choice count. Try to make half of your plate vegetables and fruits, choose lean protein choices, incorporate whole grains as your grain choice as much as possible, and choose low-fat or fat-free dairy.

To ensure you’re getting a variety of nutrients, include as many colors on your plate as possible, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. After making a schedule for the week, be sure to grocery shop for ingredients and try to take time during the weekend to pre-prepare some components ahead of time. Chopping vegetables, cooking rice or pasta, washing lettuce and cooking meats for mixed dishes and casseroles are all things you can do ahead of time to make weeknight cooking easier. In addition to planning out meals for the week, I always like to keep one backup meal on hand. This is usually something that I can prepare in a pinch and with ingredients that can be stored in the freezer or the pantry, so they don’t perish quickly. Life happens, and sometimes our best intentions fall by the wayside if an event or emergency pops up. This is why it’s helpful to keep a quick backup meal option on hand. Make a double batch and freeze half of it when making dishes like soups, stews, casseroles, spaghetti sauce, jambalaya or chili. Then, you’ll have another dinner ready in the freezer for a later time, and you will have only cooked once. These frozen favorites could even serve as your backup meals. Be sure to label and date the container or bag that you use to store your frozen meals!

During the weeknights, it feels like time is never on our side, especially if you have kids. It may seem like getting takeout or fast food is the quickest option, but in the time it takes to drive to a restaurant, order food wait for the food and bring it home, you can create a quick, healthy meal at home. With a little bit of planning and a lot of practice, you can have dinner on the table for your family even amid busy school nights.

Abigail McAlister is an associate extension agent (general nutrition) for the LSU AgCenter. She is also a registered dietitian. Her main focus is adult nutrition education and promotion in Caddo and Bossier parishes. She can be reached at amcalister@agcenter.lsu.edu.

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