Healthy Family Dinner Solutions from a Dietitian

by Lauren Manaker, registered dietitian

Aug. 5, 2020

by Lauren Manaker, registered dietitian

Coming up with nutritious dinner ideas that are easy and something everybody will enjoy is a challenge I face every single day. As a registered dietitian and mom, one would think that feeding my family would be easy-breezy. But just like many other families, the dinnertime rush comes in full force in my home too, and I need to get tasty, good-for-you food on the table quickly before somebody gets hangry.

I have found that with a little planning, dinnertime can be nourishing, appealing, and simple to prepare. I am excited to share some of my tried-and-true tips to help you navigate dinnertime a little easier.

A Well-stocked Kitchen is Key

Before digging into some dinner inspo, it is important to understand why having a well-stocked kitchen is the key to a low-stress dinner rush. While meal planning is a wonderful practice, real life means that we sometimes don’t get around to writing out a well-planned menu and a perfectly curated grocery list to tackle dinnertime seven nights a week.

That is where staples come into play. Staples can help you whip up a nutritious dinner without having to run to the store or lean on takeout.

Some foods that I always have on hand include:

To make sure your family is maximizing their nutrition intake in a healthy way, focus on quality food sources:

Of course, staple lists can vary depending on personal preferences. Pay attention to which foods you tend to use often and then make sure you always have those foods onhand.

The USDA MyPlate infographic showing how much of one’s plate each food group should take up.

The USDA’s MyPlate is a helpful visual guide for building a balanced meal, and it’s an image that can make sense to even young children to help create positive habits from a young age.

Lean On Nutrition Tools to Balance Your Plate

To make dinnertime a wholesome and well-balanced experience, I aim to include servings of foods as recommended by MyPlate, a guide created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help Americans navigate their diet and mealtimes. The food groups for dairy, grains, vegetables, fruit, and protein are all represented.

Here’s a tip: Not all food groups need to be represented in the main dish! Use appetizers and desserts to your advantage to sneak in food groups and meet your goals, such as apples sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert, and carrots for snacking before the meal.

Dinner Ideas for Tonight

Some dinners that my family enjoys are listed below. You will notice that each dinner loosely follows the MyPlate guidance, and that dessert doesn’t need to be “naughty.” Even ice cream and chocolate can have a place in moderation!

  • Salad with homemade buttermilk ranch dressing; vegetable, meat, and cheese lasagna; and berries with homemade whipped cream.
  • Cheeseburger on a bun with roasted carrot fries; grilled peaches with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
  • Bean and cheese burrito on whole wheat tortilla; side salad; and baked apple.
  • Creamy tomato soup with grilled cheese on whole grain bread; sliced fresh fruit with yogurt dipping sauce.
  • Slow cooker mango chicken with sliced bell peppers; homemade chocolate milkshakes.
  • DIY mini pizzas on whole grain crust. Toppings include organic mozzarella cheese, uncured pepperoni, and a variety of vegetables. Chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Find which dinnertime combinations work for your family and use them on rotation. Just like your favorite shirt, there is no shame in repeating favorites. We can’t all be Martha Stewart.

A pan of lasagna, salad, and dishes of fruit with whipped cream arranged around plates and forks on a blue table.

Photo by Jackie Stofsick.

How to Tackle Common Dinnertime Challenges

Wouldn’t it be nice to snap your fingers and have a hot and balanced dinner on the table every evening? But in real life, even if the kids are old enough to help out, the responsibility of dinner falls on the parents’ shoulders.

While it would be a wonderful thing if we had unlimited time to spend prepping a meal that appeals to everyone at the table, the reality is that most of us are juggling a lot in life already and don’t want to spend more time than we need to in the kitchen.

To save yourself some grief, try these tips when preparing your dishes:

Take Shortcuts to Save on Prep Time

There is no doubt that a homemade pasta sauce is a good-for-you condiment to serve your family. But most of us don’t have time to sit by the stove and watch a sauce simmer. Choosing an organic jarred pasta sauce that is free from added sugar will save you a ton of time in the kitchen, and you will still have an awesome dinner at the end of the day.

Other shortcut buys include pre-chopped produce, frozen pre-cooked brown rice, and jarred low-sodium marinades. More and more stores are offering these healthy, prepared convenience items, and there’s no shame in taking advantage of them!

Go Easy on Seasoning to Appeal to the Masses

Your partner may love spice while your kids prefer more bland flavors. Save the heavy seasoning for after the dishes are served to avoid dinnertime groans and stress. Or plan a meal that caters well to DIY, like tacos, pizza, and breakfast burritos, so that individuals can spice up or down to their heart’s content.

Prep Dishes When You Have Extra Time

One dish that I like to make ahead of time is a hearty, veggie-packed lasagna. I cook the ingredients and assemble the dish on a Sunday afternoon, cover it, and put it in my fridge. When a busy weeknight rolls around, I have a nourishing dinner ready to toss in the oven with little effort.

Fold mini-prep moments into other meals too. Lighting the grill? Make good use of the heat by tossing on some burgers or sausages to have for leftovers or lunches. The same can be done for salad dressings, dips, and plenty of other dinner components.

A young girl wearing a pink shirt eats a strawberry with whipped cream.

Fruit with homemade whipped cream is a healthy option masquerading as dessert! Photo by Jackie Stofsick.

Have Multiple Ideas for Tempting Picky Eaters

I try to get my daughter to eat salad, but the request is met with refusal every time. While it is important to offer new foods to picky eaters multiple times and present them in different ways (like cooked carrot coins, raw carrot sticks dipped in peanut butter, and shredded carrots on top of a salad), I also like to include vegetables in dishes that are more unpredictable to help ensure my daughter doesn’t have any nutrition gaps.

I like to be a sneaky chef when an opportunity arises. When making a grilled cheese sandwich, spread some pureed butternut squash on the bread before adding the cheese for a burst of beta carotene. When making a lasagna, I halve the meat quantity and replace it with chopped mushrooms and carrots. My family gets dinners that are chock-full of nutrients, and they are none the wiser.

Avoid Spoiled Appetites by Including Nourishing Appetizers

When hunger strikes, people tend to run to the snack drawer and load up on empty calories. Then when dinner is ready, they aren’t hungry enough to eat a nourishing meal. Frustrating, right?

I don’t think that an entire meal has to be enjoyed at the dinner table. Yes, my mother would disagree, but hear me out. There are foods that would normally be a part of a dinner meal that I am able to serve as more of a snack. I know that my family enjoys snacking, and the important thing is that they are getting the important nutrients I know they need. If you have a picky eater in the house, presenting a “disliked” food as a snack rather than part of a meal they’re expected to eat might change their perception of that food.

Putting out some homemade buttermilk ranch dressing with fresh-cut vegetables or some cheese cubes with grapes as an appetizer fills parts of the MyPlate guide, helps control hunger, and keeps my family from loading up on empty calories before dinnertime.

Want more? Here are more meal prep strategies that actually work!

A mom, dad, and daughter enjoy a meal of lasagna, salad, and Organic Valley Grassmilk.

The author with her family enjoying a healthy meal together. Photo by Jackie Stofsick.

You Can Win at Mealtime!

Dinnertime doesn’t have to be a source of stress for you and your family. Sitting down with your crew and providing them with nourishing, organic, and simple dinners that meet everyone’s needs and taste buds can be a breeze with a little strategy and a smidge of planning. From keeping staples in your home, to making use of mini prep moments, to sneaking extra nutrition into your recipes, these tips should arm you with dinner solutions for years to come.

Author Lauren Manaker

Lauren Manaker is an award-winning registered dietitian and book author. After spending over 15 years working in healthcare and industry, she started a consulting business focusing on reproductive, pediatric, and women’s health. Lauren resides in Charleston, South Carolina, with her husband and young daughter. In her spare time, she can be found enjoying an outdoor oyster roast in the cooler months, doing anything on the water in the warmer months, and practicing yoga year-round.