Mom, I’m hungry!” I hear that desperate exclamation constantly. It’s often the first thing I hear in the morning. It’s almost always the first thing I hear after picking up my boys from school. And it is certainly something I hear after a long afternoon and evening of sports practices and school events. Do these kids ever stop eating? The answer is . . . of course not! They may pause a bit, but then the growth spurts require more food.
But how do you make sure that they eat well after school, especially when you’re constantly shuttling them to this practice or that rehearsal or that game? How can you get food for them quickly without going through a drive-through five times a week? How can you get healthy, fast food?
Now, first of all, I’m no dietician. And I don’t consider myself a cook with any type of extraordinary talent. I also don’t think you need to be either in order to see that a tired, hungry kid equals a heap of trouble. I’m just a mom who has learned—yes, the hard way—to think ahead and prepare for the nights when things are going to be tight because the schedule is hectic.
The place to start is with your children. Teach them to recognize when they need to eat—and I’m not talking about noticing at the point of being ravenous. I’m talking about looking at the day ahead and planning for it. Younger kids will, of course, need your help with this. You can plan and pack extra food for them when you anticipate the need. But middle schoolers and teenagers can make the connection. If your fifth grader has a practice after school, have him prepare for it. He can put together a snack of trail mix or cheese, crackers, and beef jerky. He can spread cream cheese on a whole grain bagel and put the snack in his sports bag to save for later. Not only will you be teaching your kids healthy eating habits but also a sense of independence. Start young with eating right, and they won’t forget it when they are older.
When I was growing up, I was required to pack my own lunches for school. My mom taught me that a meal just isn’t a meal without a fruit and a vegetable. To this day I rarely prepare a meal that doesn’t contain these items. My mom taught me a valuable lesson about eating well that I’ve taken with me into adulthood and shared with my children. God has given us these bodies to live in. He wants us to take care of them. It’s never too early to teach that to your children.
Okay, so snacks are pretty easy. But when do I make dinner if I’m driving to or from practice or rehearsal? Here are some things that have worked for our family. They help us make sure we eat good, solid dinners even on nights when we’re on the run:
- Menu planning. Get the kids involved. Sit down as a family and plan out a couple weeks’ worth of meals. Take into consideration the nights when you’ll have time to prepare meals and nights when you need what I call desperation dinners. For me a desperation dinner is some thing I can make quickly any night because I almost always have the ingredients on hand for it. For example, scrambled eggs, pizza, or tacos. Once you’ve planned your menu, hit the store and make sure you have the ingredients. It’s hard to make a meal quickly when you have to stop at the store first. Planning menus ahead has worked great for our family. If nothing else, it takes the pressure off of deciding what’s for dinner. Just look at your calendar and go to it.
- Cook ahead. Maybe you have a free Sunday afternoon or even a free evening. (What’s that, right?) Try cooking up some lasagna or soup for eating later in the week. Reheat it when you get home from late practices and games instead of stopping by a fast-food restaurant on the way home. Dinner can be waiting for you!
- Make extra. Do you usually grill four chicken breasts to feed your family? Make double. Maybe later in the week, you can have chicken salad. The chicken is already cooked. Choose recipes that make larger portions. Leftovers are always quick and easy.
- Pre-pack a picnic dinner when you know you won’t get home until 7:00 or 8:00. Homework and dinner in the car help pass the time as you travel from practice to rehearsal and home again.
- Get a slow cooker. It’s a wonderful piece of kitchen equipment that allows you to cook without even being home. Just throw in the ingredients in the morning, put the setting on low, and your meal slow cooks throughout the day. When you arrive home, your dinner smells great and is ready to eat. There are tons of slow cooker recipes on the Internet for anything from roast beef to barbecued chicken to chili.
- Hit the drive-through. What?! Yes, an occasional stop at a fast-food restaurant is often unavoidable. Even supermom and superdad can’t make it all come together sometimes. No one’s perfect, after all. In recent years, many fast-food restaurants have tried to offer healthier options to their consumers. Just make your choices wisely. Psst! Letting your kids have fries or a shake once in a while isn’t the end of the world. Live a little! Just don’t let it become a habit. Too much sugar can produce a wicked sugar high, leading to an equally wicked crash later on— hopefully not in the middle of a basketball court. That makes for a rotten time. If you want to avoid burger joints, sub restaurants are a great choice. There you can order whole grain bread with veggies and meats.
- Give yourself a break. A couple nights a week, take a break from all the running and enjoy a sit-down meal with your family. Family dinner is a great time to pray together, to share the events of the day, and then to spend some time in an after dinner devotion. No sports practice or music lesson is more important than time spent as a family, and better yet, time spent as a family studying God’s Word.
Amanda Swiontek and her husband, Craig, live in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, with their three boys: Evan, Orie, and Sam.