If you are a working parent like me, the last thing you want to do when you get home from work is cook an elaborate dinner. And if you are a working parent with a child like my son, you need to have dinner ready ASAP to avoid a total meltdown (him, not me). In the limited time between daycare pickup and bed time, it can be tempting to just zip through the drive-thru for some chicken nuggets or pick up a sandwich at the nearest sub shop. While this is fine for an occasional treat, it might not be the best way to introduce healthy food habits to your child (never mind the effect it has on your wallet).
Here are a few tips and tricks for getting a healthy, balanced meal on the table for your demanding toddler in no time:
The key to cooking meat is to plan ahead. Buy a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store and carve it into toddler-sized portions. It will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days or two to six months in the freezer. You could also buy some ground sirloin and form it into toddler-sized hamburger patties that you can quickly cook on an indoor grill. Uncooked patties can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days and in the freezer for up to four months. Cooked patties will keep for three to four days in the refrigerator and up to four months in the freezer. (Check out FoodSafety.gov for additional information on food storage.)
Your freezer can also be your best friend when it comes to vegetables. Buy bags of frozen peas, carrots, corn, or beans and heat in the microwave. Many brands offer “steam in the bag” packaging for convenience. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days, so you can use the entire bag over the course of the week. Alternatively, you could buy a simple microwaveable steamer at any kitchenware store and use it to steam individual portions of fresh or frozen veggies in half the time it takes to steam them on the stove.
Grains and starches
The main trick here is, again, to plan ahead. Roast and mash one to two sweet potatoes on Sunday night, and you have three to four servings that you can reheat during the week. Cook an adult-sized serving of whole-wheat pasta or brown rice and toss with some olive oil and Parmesan cheese. This will be enough for three to four toddler-sized servings. For an extra dose of veggies with your starch, try Dr. Praeger’s pancakes (available in the frozen aisle at most large supermarkets)—an absolute favorite of my son’s!
Mom and dad’s leftovers
Finally, if you eat dinner after your toddler goes to bed, simply make extra of whatever you’re having and reheat it for your child the next day. The following recipe is a staple in my household and is enjoyed by grown-ups and kids alike:
(serves two adults with leftovers for two to three toddler meals)
8 oz. whole grain penne or rotini pasta
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 red bell peppers, chopped
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
1 9–12 oz. package sun-dried tomato & basil chicken sausage links, sliced and then cut in half (good brands are Sausages by Amylu or Trader Joe’s)
¼ c. grated Parmesan cheese
Cook pasta according to package directions (eliminating salt and fat). Drain. While pasta cooks, heat olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add peppers and Italian seasoning and sauté for five minutes, until peppers begin to soften. Add chicken sausage and cook until lightly browned. Stir in the drained pasta and Parmesan cheese. Enjoy!
Jennifer Eckert is a supervising editor at National Geographic Learning and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago with her husband, son, and three cats.