Tips for Families on the Go

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Eating Well & Staying Active for Busy Families on the Go

As pandemic restrictions start to open up, it seems our busy schedules fill right back up too. Unless you have elves who come and visit your kitchen every evening while you are sleeping, it can be a challenge to keep our families healthy and active no matter what situations we face. For those of us without magical powers, here are some tips for planning meals to help busy families eat well.

  1. Make up a standard list of healthy and stock foods. Most families eat many of the same foods repeatedly. Are carrots, onions and apples a staple in your house? Write out this list and make copies. Use this as the basis for every shopping list. You can tape it to your fridge, and when one of these stock items is nearly out or someone uses it up, mark it on the list. This can save you whenever you are short on time and can help you find a starting place with the reliable items in your house that you can count on to make dinner. Make sure to check the fridge, freezer, and pantry for items you use commonly. Rice, pasta, broth, canned goods, and frozen foods are some good staple items to keep handy (canned and frozen fruits and vegetables can have the same nutritional values as fresh foods; be sure to look for added sugar and salt).
  1. Plan out 5 meals a week. Some advocate for 7 meals a week, but I suggest five. Leftovers are a beautiful thing, and it can be nice to come home to no dishes for an evening. Ask everyone in your family to choose one meal they want to eat in the coming week. This takes the burden off one person to make all the decisions, and you know at least that person will enjoy the meal. This is a great habit to develop as a family. If you want to take it a step further you can have everyone make a list of what is needed for that meal, check to see what you already have in stock and write missing items on the list. (We’re teaching meal planning, but shh! don’t tell anyone.) As they get older you can put kids in charge of making the meals. I have two teenagers and they are in charge of one complete (vegetables and any sides required) meal a week. We look at their schedules, determine which day of the week they can provide dinner, and that is one day I have free of responsibility. They can cook ahead of time. Roasts and soups are very popular in my house, and I don’t make them. It took a small effort to get them started in the kitchen and sometimes it’s best to start on weekends so there’s time for supervision, but now they love scanning the internet for new recipes, and the sense of pride when they have created a meal everyone loves.
  1. Have backup meals on hand. Just like your list of stock foods, have 3-4 meals ready to go in case of emergency. Pasta is always a family favorite. Make sure you always have what you need to make a quick pasta dinner with some salad or veggies. Eggs for dinner is a great way for a quick well balanced meal with options for veggies. This helps avoid the “Oh, let’s grab something on our way home” trap.
  1. Prep some foods weekly to be used the rest of the week. Sliced or shredded carrots, diced onions, minced garlic. These are foods that are in many recipes. If you have a container with these things ready to go would you be more likely to get dinner going? Think of foods you can prep ahead of time so cooking time is shortened.
  1. Plan to use a food in more than one meal. If you roast a turkey breast (I love using oven bags to cook with, shortens the time, keeps the turkey moist and super easy clean up.), can you use the meat later in the week for another meal? Sandwiches for lunch? A quick soup or even in an omelet? Herbed chicken is another great option, or ground beef. You can cook a bunch on a weekend or extra for one meal, then use that later in salads, tacos, over pasta with a different sauce, or in a soup. Roasted or air fried veggies are another terrific way to have something ready to go. When you roast them or air fry them, all or part-way, the texture, color and flavor is maintained. You can use the same cooking method to heat them back up, or have them ready for a soup, stir fry or casserole.
  1. Choose prepared foods intentionally. The rule is the more a food is prepared or processed ahead of time, the more likely unhealthy additives such as salt, fat, and sugar have been added and whole grains and nutrients have been removed. But when feeding a busy family on the go, a few choice prepared items may be in order. Pre-made pizza crusts might just help to make a healthier and cheaper pizza night. Pasta sauce in a jar or can, or boxed rice mix might just be the key to a well-balanced meal in jiffy.
  1. Be realistic. If you know Tuesday night is going to be a rush, then don’t plan to make a new complicated dish that evening. Pick one of your go-to basics for that night. It’s perfectly fine to stick to the familiar. Save the complicated or elaborate meals for when those in charge of making it, have the time. And these rules don’t have to just apply to dinner. Breakfast, brunch, and lunch are great times for planning, sharing responsibility and new adventures.
  1. Keep it fun. This is where your family can express themselves, share their favorites and try some new things. Setting some basic ground rules such as “there have to be vegetables and fruits at every meal” is important. But then you can let your imaginations run wild. One family I know had the kids pick a recipe from a different country once a month. It’s now a family tradition to travel the world through their meals together.

Preparing and eating food is where many family traditions begin. With a little bit of work up front, you can help ease the burden of meal preparation daily, ensure healthy options are available, and create family experiences and memories that last.

Here are a couple of websites if you’d like some more information.

30 Meal Planning Tips for Busy Families

How to Meal-Prep a Week of Healthy Family Dinners on Sunday

The Ultimate Make-Ahead Meal Plan for Busy Families

So what about keeping you and your family active?

Some of the same thoughts apply. When families are constantly on the go, it can quite a challenge for at least some members to stay active. If at all possible plan out family events, especially with younger children. The research is clear, families who are active together increase the likelihood that their children will stay active and be active adults.

  1. Plan the activity. Whether it’s a family outing or a parent’s moment for themselves, look at the schedule plan active time.
  2. Ditch the guilt, use your time wisely. Are you sitting in your car during dance class, or attending every one of kiddo’s soccer practices? My advice, the kids will be fine. Go get some exercise. If you are at a school or a field can you walk, run or bike while the kids are doing their thing? More and more parents stay for every practice and meeting, so there’s no wonder they don’t have time for doing anything else. Grab another kid, a friend or the dog and go out and be active while they are busy, you will be glad you did, and the kids will tell you all about their time in the car ride home.

For help planning physical activity, check out the Active SWV calendar for free family friendly activities near you.

Article by guest contributor:

Lauren Weatherford, 

Associate Professor and Family & Community Development Agent for WVU Extension Service. 

Contact Lauren at [email protected]