For busy families, it’s easy to pick up takeout or boil a pot of pasta for dinner, but neither of these options is ideal for health.
Ultra-processed convenience foods are mostly devoid of important nutrients, and meals high in refined carbohydrates, such as pasta made with wheat flour, can cause spikes in blood sugar. Over time, regularly eating these types of foods can lead to problems with how our bodies convert food into energy (a.k.a. metabolic dysfunction), which can contribute to even bigger issues. A regular diet of ultra-processed foods may increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic conditions—and may even hamper healthy development in children.
Luckily, healthy cooking can be simple. Your strategy: Keep whole-food ingredients on hand, and have a go-to menu of family-friendly meals that are easy to assemble and unlikely to spike blood sugar. Here, find expert tips and recipes that can help.
Secrets to a Quick and Easy Family Dinner
Planning is key, says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RDN, an expert on family nutrition and author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean. “Nutrient-dense meals don’t have to be complicated, so plan ahead and keep it simple,” she adds. Here are some of her top tips to make mealtime easier.
Stock your freezer and pantry with healthy, quick-cooking essentials. If you keep versatile ingredients in your pantry and freezer, you’ll always be prepared to make a nutritious meal. Bazilian loves canned foods like fish (tuna, salmon, or sardines) and beans because they’re shelf-stable and excellent sources of nutrients like protein. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh.
Here are some great examples:
- Frozen vegetables without any sauce, such as broccoli, spinach, or cauliflower rice
- Frozen fruits without any added sugar, such as blueberries or strawberries
- Nuts and seeds, such as almonds or chia seeds
- Canned legumes with little to no added salt, such as chickpeas or black beans
- Frozen or canned wild-caught fish, such as salmon
- Fresh organic, grass-fed meat or poultry, which you can freeze for several months until needed
- Healthy oils, fats, and sauces, such as olive oil or tahini
- Healthy alternatives to refined grains, such as konjac pasta
Buy fresh foods to round out meals. Focus weekly grocery shopping on fresh foods or special ingredients you may need. Bazilian recommends turning to ready-made ingredients, like bagged greens for salad and pre-chopped vegetables, to minimize prep and get dinner on the table quickly. You can use vegetable stir-fry kits in different ways: saute them for frittatas, or fold the raw vegetables into wraps.
For more fresh ingredient inspiration, check out this list of foods unlikely to spike your blood sugar.
Swap starchy ingredients for easy-to-prep alternatives. Starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes can cause blood sugar to spike—ditto mass-produced noodles, bread, and rice, which are often heavily processed. Instead, try substitutes like cauliflower rice, Bazilian suggests. Bonus: Cauliflower rice takes less time to cook than traditional rice.
Chop veggies ahead of time. Prep produce on Sunday or in the morning before everyone wakes up. You’ll be grateful that your onions are already sliced and ready to go when you need them. Bazilian also recommends doing a bit of extra work when you have the energy so you can relax when you don’t. Chop extra vegetables for tomorrow’s meal when you’re making dinner.
Bake chicken to eat the whole week. Instead of cooking a new protein from scratch each night, make a large amount of one for meals all week. A roast chicken or several chicken breasts, for example, can work in an assortment of dishes.
Make a list of go-to, healthy meals. Build a roster of recipes that your family enjoys, suggests Bazilian. When a healthy meal is a hit, make a note of it, and keep it in mind for later. As you get comfortable with the recipes, you’ll save time planning, prepping, and cooking. Love a recipe? Next time, double it so you have enough for two meals.
7 Family-Friendly Dinner Recipes for Better Blood Sugar
Meals made with nutritious whole foods with a balance of protein, fiber, and healthy fats are best for metabolic health. Ready to get cooking? Try these recipes, which you can scale up to fit the size of your family.
1. Cauliflower Rice with Pistachio Chicken
Chicken tenders are usually a winner with kids, so try this bread-free spin on the classic. The secret: A coating of crushed pistachios creates a crunch but with more protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Cauliflower rice is a low-carb alternative to refined rice and fries, which can both spike blood sugar.
2. Moroccan Chicken with Green Beans
This simple skillet meal features chicken cooked in a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and spices. You’ll get protein from chicken, fiber from green beans, and flavor along with immune-boosting benefits from turmeric. Choose organic chicken whenever possible, and to speed up the cooking process, feel free to use frozen or canned green beans with little to no added salt. Tip: This recipe is for a single serving, but you can multiply it to get the amount you need.
3. Zucchini Noodle Fettuccine with Cauliflower Alfredo
This healthy take on pasta alfredo is creamy but dairy-free, thanks to steamed cauliflower blended with almond milk and nutritional yeast for a cheese-like flavor. You’ll swap carb-heavy pasta that’s sure to spike blood sugar for zucchini noodles (a.k.a. zoodles). If you don’t have time to spiral zucchini, look for prepared zoodles near the bagged salads in the supermarket or sub in a pre-made pasta alternative like konjac noodles.
4. Red Lentils and Spinach in Masala Sauce
Lentils are the nutrition star in this flavorful dinner. Just a half-cup of red lentils provides 23 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber, and a host of essential micronutrients like folate and iron.
Though red lentils take less time to cook than their brown and green counterparts, you can speed up this recipe even more by preparing the masala sauce in advance. (Note that lentils can cause a glucose spike in some people; starting the meal with protein and fiber or consuming 1 ounce of apple cider vinegar in water with the meal can help blunt the rise.)
5. Farmers Market Frittata
Have eggs in your fridge? They’re a convenient source of lean protein. Try them in this veggie-packed frittata that’s infinitely adaptable. In the spring, use spinach and broccoli rabe, according to the instructions. But you can easily make seasonal substitutions, like zucchini in the summer and cabbage in the fall.
6. Leafy Green Turkey Tacos
The type of leafy green that you use for these satisfying tacos is entirely up to you. Mark Hyman, M.D., recommends butter or Boston lettuce for options that are slightly sweet and tender but don’t overwhelm the other flavors at play. But curly and Tuscan kale or collard greens provide deeper flavor and more support for the taco filling, so it’s less likely to spill out. For more ideas, check out the best tortilla alternatives.
7. Turkey Meatballs
Unlike most meatball recipes, this one uses almond flour rather than breadcrumbs to bind all the ingredients together. Serve the meatballs on a bed of spaghetti squash, zucchini noodles, or lentil or chickpea pasta for a satisfying meal. If you prefer, you can also plate them alongside whatever vegetables you have.