Our resident nutritionist and PT, the amazing Laura Hilton take us through her Top 10 tips for making the weekday madness that little bit easier… we were blown away by some of her suggestions…
Mid-week evenings in our house are frantic, as they no doubt are in many other houses. Often there is a very small window of time between the school run and ferrying the children to and from their various after-school clubs in which to get a meal on the table whilst also serving after-school snacks, sorting out washing, helping with homework, finding sports kit or Beaver’s/Cub’s uniforms and maybe even having a cup of tea. It is most definitely a challenge to serve a nutritious meal whilst doing all of that, but I have found a few little tricks to help me do so and thought I would share some of them with you.
- Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
This is a mantra from the brilliant Gretchen Rubin which I find myself referring to time and again, and most definitely when I feel like I am trying to do six things at a time, as I am every week-day evening.
Some examples of ways to do this in reference to cooking mid-week meals include using tinned, frozen or prepared veg, buying pouches of rice you can heat in a minute, buying pre-cooked meat such as chicken breast, or picking up a rotisserie chicken on your way home from work that you can serve with veg or salad. If doing those things stops you from reaching for foods and meals that are low in nutritional value then they are far worth doing.
2. Invest in a slow cooker
If you don’t have a slow cooker I highly recommend getting one, especially at this time of year. You can use them to make stews, soups, curries and I have even used mine to cook a whole chicken. It’s brilliant to walk through the door at the end of the day to have a meal ready and waiting for you, and the dishes you can make using themselves lend themselves to lots of root veg and protein, meaning they can really help keep the nutritional intake of your whole family on track.
3. Utilise your oven’s pre-set function
Get ahead of yourself and put a meal in the oven set to be ready when you need it. Great dishes for this include things like casseroles, cottage/shepherd’s/fish pies, pasta bakes and lasagnes. The meal I most use my oven’s pre-set function for is most definitely jacket potatoes. It takes me no more than two mins to get the potatoes on a baking tray and to set the oven timer, which I tend to do most on the evening my kids have swimming lessons. When we get in all I need to do is sort toppings and we have a filling and nutritious meal ready in minutes.
4. Embrace “convenience foods”
Perhaps this is not what you’d expect a nutritionist to suggest, but although “convenience foods” get a bad name, the reality is there is a broad spectrum of meals and foods that fall into this category and some are most definitely worth welcoming into your mid-week repertoire. Here are some that I turn to on a regular basis:
- Breaded fish – Not only is this easy to cook, but it is a sure-fire way of getting my children to eat some fish. Some contain quite a few additives in the breadcrumb coating that you may wish to avoid (such as sugar), but personally I feel the nutritional benefit of my children eating the fish outweighs the downside of the additives in the breadcrumbs if you buy good versions. The Waitrose lemon sole goujons, and cod and haddock portions are regular items in our online shop.
- Ready meals – Not all ready meals are created equal, and anyone who’s been following me for a while will know I’m a big fan of the M&S ‘Balanced For You’ range of meals. These fresh meals contain a good serving of both protein and veg, taste great and come in at around 450 calories at most. These are not only great for dinners but work-day lunches too.
When it comes to choosing ready meals it’s best to opt for those containing lots of veg, and where a sauce is used opt for veg-based rather than cheese or cream-based sauces. Those featuring pasta can also be pretty high in calories but checking the label before you buy the meal will help you choose meals wisely.
5. Cook double
It’s an age-old tip but this post would not be complete without it. When cooking a meal double your ingredients so that the meal will be large enough to feed your family for two nights instead of one. This takes hardly any extra time at all and means that you only have to reheat the meal on the second night.
6. Make friends with your freezer
Over the weekends my husband and I each prepare a meal and freeze it for later in the week. The meals we tent to make include fish, cottage and shepherd’s pies, pasta bakes, chilli, curry, and bolognese and are always very welcome come the frantic mid-week evenings when all we have to do is heat it up and cook some veg, rice or pasta to go with it. Often the meals we make are big enough to feed most if not all of us for two nights, meaning that some weeks we hardly need to cook at all during the week.
7. Enjoy ‘Easy Cook’
/Most supermarkets offer something in the way of “easy cook” meals now. By this I mean meals in a foil tray you simply have to pop in the oven and there is a huge variety to choose from. To get the most nutritional value from these meals I recommend steering towards those based around fish or meat portions that contain a good serving of veg, and avoiding those based around cream and/or cheese-based sources, or large amounts of pasta or potatoes.
8. Take 30
Try to get into the habit of taking 30 seconds every morning to think about your evening meal. Take something out of the freezer if you need to or make a note of anything you need to buy while you’re out and about during the day. Taking those 30 seconds to think about your evening meal can really help prevent that “5 o’clock freak out” when you realise that there’s nothing for dinner and the kids are all getting hangry.
9. Lower your standards
Again, this is possibly not what you’d expect a nutritionist to say, but I’m all about challenging the status quo on what we have all been lead to believe about nutrition and ensuring that your nutritional intake is great but not necessarily perfect. Perfection is simply not sustainable. It’s far more realistic to try to do well most of the time than to try to be perfect all of the time. If you aim for perfection all of the time you will simply end up very quickly throwing that plan under the bus.
In this age of Instagraming our meals often people feel that if the meal they’re preparing is not worthy of a post then they are in say way inadequate. If you ever feel like this bin that thought right away. Beans on toast is fine, soup from a can is fine, pasta and a jar of sauce is fine. Our youngest son’s favourite meal is “cheese wraps”, which consists of a tortilla wrap with soured cream, grated cheese and cucumber. While I wouldn’t let him have that every night, every so often on a day when he’s had a cooked meal at school I’m fine with him having that.
This leads me to an aside note worth mentioning: Try to look at your children’s nutritional intake on a weekly, rather than a daily basis. As long as their week contains lots of fruit and veg, good sources of protein, including some fish, and healthy sources of fat it is totally fine for them to have some meals that are you might feel a slightly lacking in nutritional value.
10. Try something new
Today we have millions of recipes available to us for free thanks to the internet. Embrace this and use the wealth of inspiration available to regularly try new recipes. As I said in the last point the meals don’t have to be super fancy Instagram-worthy creations, but trying something new regularly will help keep mealtimes interesting, and you may well discover a new favourite meal.
I shop with Ocado and regularly use either the Ocado or the BBC Good Food recipe finder for inspiration. I always opt for meals that are quick to prepare and use the function of being able to add ingredients straight into my online shopping trolley, thereby eliminating the need to spend ages hunting round the shops for an ingredient I’ve never bought before. All of this means my family gets to try new meals with minimal hassle on my part, so is an all-round win in my opinion.
I hope these tips help you make those mad mid-week evenings slightly more manageable. Please let me know if they do, and please share any other tips you have, as I always love discovering new life hacks.
Laura Hilton is a nutritionist, personal trainer and mum of three from Timsbury, near Bath. For more healthy tips for busy parents head to HiltonHealth.co.uk, ‘Hilton Health’ on Facebook or ‘Hilton_Health’ on Instagram.