Stress-Less Dinner Time and No Cook/Low Cook Meals

Dinner is the perfect storm at my house. There's my preschooler who brings new meaning to the word "picky" on a regular basis. Then there's my toddler, who will eat just about anything as long as she can smear equal amounts of her meal into her shoulder-length hair.
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Dinner is the perfect storm at my house. There's my preschooler who brings new meaning to the word "picky" on a regular basis; her list of unacceptable foods includes meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, ketchup and all other sauces and dressings, potatoes (in every form), pancakes, waffles (excuse me here, but WTF? What kid won't eat French Fries, pancakes and waffles?), and anything she deems "new" or "different" which can change from day to day, depending on her mood, the changing of the seasons, or planetary alignments. Then there's my toddler, who will eat just about anything as long as she can smear equal amounts of her meal into her shoulder-length hair.

And then there's me, the Mommy who doesn't cook. My aversion to cooking is an unhelpful combination of can't and won't, but the point is, I rarely cook, and when I do, I find the whole experience terribly unpleasant. I want my daughters to eat a healthy, diverse diet; I just don't want to be the one to make it. Yet it seems to be my job to feed them dinner every. single. night. Over the past few years I have developed a few rules that have made dinner prep a lot less stressful while keeping it relatively healthy.

1. Always whole grains. We only buy whole wheat bread and pasta, multigrain tortillas, and brown rice. Always. That right there is a big, and easy, step in the right direction, health-wise.

2. At least one color of the rainbow at every meal. If my daughters had their way, their meals would be mostly tan and white. To balance that out, we have red strawberries or bell peppers, orange clementines or carrots, yellow bananas, green broccoli or avocados, or blueberries at every meal. (We still haven't figured out purple. I don't think I could get my kids to touch an eggplant if I bribed them with every single Doc McStuffins toy on the shelf, and the crazy kid WON'T EAT PURPLE GRAPES. Gah.) Every single one of these fruits and veggies can be served with little or no preparation, and even my absurdly picky kids will eat them.

3. Repetition is OK. The idea that we have to eat something completely different at every meal is relatively new, and if I dare say so myself, relatively ridiculous. My kids eat noodles (their starch of choice) several times a week. Sometimes it's pasta with tomato sauce, sometimes it's plain noodles, sometimes it's Mac 'n Cheese, but when you boil it down (HA!), it's just noodles.

4. Mac 'n Cheese is just fine. I'm talking about straight out of the box, people (remember, people, Mama don't cook). Yes, I love the idea of my kids never eating processed foods, but we're going for stress-less here, not perfection. Also, if you read the ingredients on Annie's Mac 'n Cheese (which we at least once a week), they're not that bad: whole wheat pasta, cheese, whey, and salt.

5. Cook the starches in bulk. About once a week, I cook up an entire package of noodles and store them in the fridge. No, they don't get sticky and icky, and that way I know that I will have something of substance to put on the girls' plate at every meal.

6. Cook your sauces and soups ahead of time and freeze them. My picky kids won't eat soup, so we're in the clear there, but about once a month my husband or I will cook up a big batch of pasta sauce with tons of pureed veggies (for hiding purposes) and ground beef. We freeze the sauce in disposable sippy cups (which we never actually dispose of) -- they're the perfect size for a meal for both girls.

7. Frozen is fine. Frozen vegetables are just as healthy as fresh, and my daughters eat their veggies in such small portions (although a reasonable size for their little bodies) that it makes more sense to keep a range of frozen veggies in the house than to buy fresh every night.

8. Dessert can be healthy too. Dessert in our house is yogurt and/or fruit. The girls might get ice cream, cookies, or pudding, as a special treat at their grandparents' house or a birthday party, but it's not the norm at home, and they know that.

9. Stay focused on the big picture. Don't stress about any one meal. Kids are much better at regulating their food intake than grown-ups, and if they're not hungry, they won't eat. Look at what they eat over the course of a week, not a day or a meal. Pay attention their energy levels and growth charts, not the amount of food left on their plate.

10. Ignore the blog posts with advice on how to feed your kids. You are the expert on your kids. If someone else's opinion doesn't resonate with you, let it go. (Unless you're feeding them fast food several times each week. Then you should pay attention to the blog posts.)

With those tips in mind, here are some of the no-cook/low-cook meals my girls eat for dinner on a regular basis. (Much of the meals are vegetarian, as my older girl rarely eats meat and I prefer veg myself.)

- Plain whole wheat noodles, veggie meat balls (frozen), hummus, carrot and pepper sticks

- Mac 'n Cheese, steamed broccoli and cauliflower

- Pasta with meat and veggie sauce

- Whole wheat bagels with cream cheese, strawberries, blueberries, and clementines

- Quesadillas with multi-grain tortillas, shredded cheese, guacamole (recipe: mash avocado, add salt and lime. I use one lime for two avocados), and carrot and pepper sticks for dipping.

- Cheese pizza (We buy Amy's organic frozen; our attempts at homemade pizza in the past were rejected immediately), steamed broccoli and cauliflower

- If and when my daughters start eating them, I will add turkey hot dogs, whole grain pancakes, and cheese omelets (combined with sides of fruit and veggies) to the list.

What tips do you have to ease up the dinner-time stress? What are your favorite fast and easy meals?

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