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CALS Wellness Committee tip: Meal planning advice from a registered dietitian nutritionist

While I’m a little sad to see summer end, I must admit as someone who is no longer a student, I still get excited to see the Back-to-School flyers and sales, and the general feeling of anticipation as the new semester starts up.  More so this year, than past years, as UW gears up to welcome students and staff back on campus.

With the anticipation of the new school year also comes the feelings of getting back into a routine, waking up a little earlier, and perhaps some anxiety. Old questions arise as what to feed your child(ren) as they go out the door, what to pack in your lunch (and theirs), and the somewhat dreaded, “What’s for dinner?” continual question.  Will you remember to grab yourself something for breakfast, or how will your finicky kindergarten survive on only a 15-minute lunch with no one coaching him or her to take another bite, or how will you manage your now back-in person work meetings plus your child’s extracurriculars, and still eat a healthy dinner?

The best recommendation: PLAN AHEAD.

While it can be a pain, it can make your life (and those around you lives’) easier, and less hectic.  Consider these tips for getting organized this fall and to help keep yourself sane!

  1. Prep Ahead-on multiple levels:
  • Keep a running grocery list, or keep a pre-printed grocery list, and just mark on what your current need is.  Don’t wait to go grocery shopping the day you need something. Do not go on an empty stomach!
  • Draft a dinner menu for the week.  Include other members of your household. Take stock of what you might need and add it to that grocery list. Consider adding the dinner menu to your calendar to remind you what’s on the agenda for the day.
  • Take a day, perhaps a weekend afternoon, and prep ahead.  Make and freeze meals, individual containers are handy for lunches. Wash, peel, chop all those fruits and veggies ahead of time. Pre-bagging snack type items, can make them easier to grab and go, and helps limit eating straight out of the box or bag.
  1. Breakfast:
  • Breakfasts do not have to be pancakes, eggs, and bacon every day of the week. Consider items that aren’t the “norm” breakfast items, such as left-over dinner.
  • Include three food groups, think whole grains, fruit or veggie, and a lean protein.  It could be something as simple as whole grain toast with peanut butter and 1/2 banana. Or an egg, with some shredded cheddar and few leaves of baby spinach in a cup to microwave right before you walk out the door, or when you get to work.
  • Not a breakfast person/family?  Consider grabbing a granola bar (look for <200 calories, <7 grams of sugar, and > 3 grams of fiber per bar) and say a piece of fruit before you walk out the door, or making a smoothie or parfait (with Greek yogurt + fruit) or overnight oats in jar the evening before, to grab and go.
  1. Lunch:
  • For School-Agers: View the school menu ahead of time with your child. Mark the days on the calendar in which he/she will need a packed lunch. This works for work events too; in case you don’t need to pack yourself something.
  • Plan to pack the night before. It’s good to include your kids from an early age. Again, aim for 3 food groups.  To avoid the PB&J sandwich burnout, think variety in food, but also the presentation.  Compartmentalized Tupperware containers can help make it “fun”.  Think of making your own version of a Lunchable.  Kids love things that are “bite-size”, dippable, and come in different shapes, and bright colors. Who doesn’t?
  • Freeze small water bottles to double as a drink and an ice pack.
  • Foods like yogurt are OK if kept cool with an ice pack for up to 4 hours.
  • Having containers/baskets/drawers with appropriate choices already prepared in the fridge or cupboard ready to go. This allows one to pick one option of each food grouping basket, to assist in healthy choices, for kids it also allows some freedom of choice.
  1. Dinner:
  • Stick with the menu. Don’t forget to account for cooking time. Keep the simpler meals for those busy on the go nights.
  • Set guidelines. If your child said they would eat a particular dinner, don’t diverge from the plan if they are now saying they won’t.  Don’t be a short-order cook. If they are not going to eat what is provided, consider having them skip that dinner for the day, or offer a fruit or vegetable replacement snack. If they know they can get something better, they will.
  • Encourage family meals-sitting together. Ask each dinner participant to share one thing that went well in their day, and one thing that didn’t go so well.
  • Keep food off the table, and in the kitchen, to limit easily grabbing seconds. If second and third helpings are an issue, consider setting a timer for 5 minutes after the first plate has been cleared before offering more. Vegetable helpings should come before more of the starch or protein.
  • Pack up left-overs for next day lunches during the after-meal clean-up to save the hassle of packing the next morning.

Lastly, hit the hay early! Avoid electronics at least 30 minutes before bed-this includes cellphones and Facebook surfing too. You’ll feel more well rested, and easier to meld into that back-to-school (and work) routine!

Taiya Bach is faculty associate and registered dietitian nutritionist with the UW-Department of Nutritional Sciences, and a member of the CALS Wellness Committee.