Alberta Cancer Foundation

Healthy Meals in a Hurry

After a long day of work and school, your house is full of rumbling tummies. You scan the inside of your freezer in the hopes of finding culinary inspiration, but find only a flat, square box: frozen pizza. You turn the oven’s dial to 400 C and in 20 minutes, the troops are fed.

Sure, it’s not ideal, but with so much on the go – soccer, parent-teacher meetings, work, house cleaning – frozen pizza is often the default choice. Finding time to cook up a healthy meal, or even knowing what to cook, can be daunting.

“People have really busy lives these days, with activities, and work and school. We live in a society where the focus has moved away from preparing family meals and sitting down together,” says Tesia Bennett, a registered dietician with the Pediatric Centre for Weight and Health in Edmonton. “We have such great access to convenience foods. You know it’s there and that you can always fall back on it.”

The trouble is, what’s fast and easy is rarely the healthiest. Bennett points out that prepared foods tend to be higher in fat, sodium and sugar than homemade meals. This goes for both the meals you find in grocery stores and the ones in restaurants, too.

In 2004, a Statistics Canada study revealed that, on average, Canadians consumed 3,400 mg of sodium a day, a far cry from the 1,500 mg maximum that doctors recommend. Seventy-seven per cent of that salt comes from processed foods.

In addition to their high fat content, prepared foods also contain higher levels of trans-fats, a kind of fat that raises the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood stream.

Trans-fats have been linked to higher incidences of many diseases, including some types of cancer. With the knowledge of the risks of prepared foods, and the benefits of a healthy diet and weight, there’s more reason than ever to prioritize eating well. But where do you start?

The first step is meal planning, says Bennett. She advises families to sit down once a week and come up with meals for the following week or, if that sounds too ambitious, the next few days. “It’s good to involve the kids, too. Ask them if there’s something they’d like for dinner, or snacks,” she says. Giving children the chance to participate creates an opportunity to teach them about healthy food.

After coming up with a number of dinner ideas, check the fridge and pantry to see what ingredients you have and what you need before drafting a grocery list. This will be your secret weapon the next time you venture into the grocery store. “Having a list reduces the impulse buying at the grocery store, rather than going in there blankly and shopping with your eyes, or your stomach,” says Bennett.

If you’re still concerned about impulsively throwing convenience foods into the cart, stick to the perimeter of the store. Most of the convenience items lurk in the aisles at the centre of the store. Meat, dairy and produce tend to be located on the far walls of most grocery stores.

While it may seem like more work up front, making a list can also minimize your time in the grocery store and the number of times you go grocery shopping each week.

The third step is cooking, but it needn’t be arduous. There are many ways to reduce cooking time, says Bennett. Sometimes your microwave can be used in lieu of the oven. You can even use a slow cooker to prepare entire meals (anything from a pot roast to lasagna) the night before. Just throw in the ingredients and turn it on before you go to work. Other strategies include defrosting meat the night before and cutting up vegetables ahead of time. Kids can often help with this.

As you’re prepping for the next day’s meal, you can also make lunches at the same time – another task kids can help with. Packing your own lunch isn’t just healthy; Bennett figures it’s about $400 cheaper annually than hitting the drive through.

Of course, old habits can be tough to break, so Bennett suggests that families make changes gradually. If you’ve been eating out five nights a week, cooking all week might not be realistic. However, if you’re opting for prepared foods for dinner, there are things you can do to improve the nutritional quality of the meal. For example, if you’re ordering in pizza, substitute salad for the wings.

If you’re unsure about how to create a balanced meal, don’t be bogged down by the contradictory health studies and other information in the media, says Bennett. In the end, healthy eating can be as basic as the Canada Food Guide. “It’s a simple guide that anyone can follow,” says Bennett. The guide outlines the number of servings you need from each food group, and the size of a serving.

Creating a healthier lifestyle for your family can be a challenge, but sending the right messages to your kids can make the transition easier, says Bennett. She suggests that families sit down to talk about the changes they’re willing to make and get everyone’s buy-in. “Reassure kids that you won’t take everything they enjoy away from them,” says Bennett. “We still want kids to have a healthy relationship with food and enjoy eating.”

Most importantly, make sure you’re walking the talk, says Bennett. What parents do has a much more powerful effect on kids than what they say.

Whether your child is seven months or 17, it’s never too late to get your family eating better. “The more you can do to prevent disease earlier on, the better off your children will be. We’d much rather be talking about prevention than treatment.”