It’s 5 p.m. and you suddenly find yourself scrambling to throw together a healthy family dinner. Sound familiar? We’ve been there too! Between work, school, clubs, sports, and other weeknight activities, preparing easy, healthy weeknight dinners can be a daunting task. We are here to help you come up with some healthy family meal ideas so that you can feed your family deliciously nutritious meals every night!
Why are family meals important?
Research shows that families that eat dinner together at least four times per week have improved health outcomes (1). Children that sit around the table with their families tend to perform better in school, have healthier weights, be less likely to engage in substance abuse, have lower prevalences of eating disorders, and have better mental health (2, 3, 4, 5).
Additionally, the kitchen and dinner table are great places to teach kids healthy cooking and eating habits. Plus, cooking and eating together can be great bonding experiences; they provide a space to teach culture and cuisine, share stories and events, and create memories and traditions. In order to optimize learning and sharing opportunities, limit distractions such as the TV, cellphones, or other technology, and use the kitchen and table as places to converse together.
If you’re not already in the habit of having meals together as a family, start by implementing one family meal per week, then work to build from there. And family meals don’t just have to be at dinnertime! If mornings work better for your family, start your day together over a healthy breakfast.
What should I make for family dinner?
We recommend using MyPlate or Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate as guides for healthy meals. Our article on how to build a healthy plate provides more specific advice on how to do this. In general, we recommend including whole grains, vegetables, fresh fruit, lean protein, and healthy oils. We recognize that it’s unlikely that you’ll include all of these ingredients at every single meal, but try to make a habit of thinking about your meals and plates in this way.
How do I make healthy family dinners when I’m short on time?
We all have busy schedules. But a busy schedule shouldn’t cause your health to take a backseat. Stocking your kitchen with staple ingredients and preparing ingredients ahead of time can help ensure that you’re always ready to make healthy, realistic meals, no matter how much time you have on your hands. Pasta dishes, stir fries, sandwiches, quesadillas, and salads are some examples of quick and healthy recipes that can provide a lot of nutrition while taking up very little time!
Also, take some time to plan your meals at the beginning of the week; this will save a lot of time in the long run. Choosing a few “themed” dinners each week, such as Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Pizza Friday, or leftovers night can make planning much faster and easier.
How to Make Healthy Family Meals on a Budget
Affordability is a big factor in determining what you buy, make, and eat. We have a lot more to say on this subject, so keep your eyes out for an article coming at a later date for this. In the meantime, here are 5 easy tips for eating healthfully on a budget:
- Buy in bulk. Choosing to not pay for excessive packaging can save a lot of pennies, nickels, and dimes. Over time, these cents add up!
- Choose storebrand products. Food companies make you pay a lot extra for showing off their name brand!
- Cook at home more; dine out less. We’re all for the occasional restaurant outing, but eating out frequently can start to break the bank when you’re trying to save!
- Buy in-season produce. In-season produce tends to be less expensive than out-of-season. Local farmers markets may also offer good deals on in-season produce.
- Include more plant-based proteins. Aim to get the majority of your calories from plant-based foods such as beans and whole grains. By weight, beans and grains cost significantly less than meat and dairy!
If you’re looking for some inspiration for easy weeknight meals on a budget, Budget Bytes has tons of great recipes!
How to Make Healthy Meals with Kids
Did you know that it takes 8-15 exposures of any given food to develop a taste for it? (6, 7) Developing an adventurous and mature palate takes time and a lot of patience. We recognize how frustrating it can be to make healthy family dinners for picky eaters (kids and adults!). But don’t give up after just one meal. Try using foods and ingredients in a wide range of dishes, using a variety of cooking techniques. For example, roasting vegetables is one of the surest ways to improve their flavor; there’s a world of difference between steamed broccoli and roasted broccoli!
Involving kids in the kitchen is another way to increase their likelihood of trying new foods and flavors. When they get to chop, crush, mix, stir, season, sprinkle, and taste foods, they’re much more likely to try and enjoy their culinary creation!
Of course, there will always be foods that you or your kids still won’t eat, even after trying them time and time again, and that’s okay! However, if you don’t like a particular food, be careful how you model that dislike; kids pick up on these cues very easily. Before ingraining that dislike into your children, give them the opportunity to develop their own taste preferences. Who knows, maybe they can help you fight food waste by eating all of the raw red onions off your pizza for you!
Key Takeaways when Cooking for Family Members
- Talk to your family about the importance of family dinners
- Set down the digital devices and turn off the TV
- Use MyPlate as a guide
- Stock your kitchen with staple ingredients
- Do some weekly meal planning and prep
- Get kids involved in the kitchen
- Be patient with developing taste buds
- Model good eating behavior
Healthy Dinner Ideas
Again, in order to maximize the nutritional quality of a meal, aim to include some form of whole grain, non-starchy vegetable, fruit, lean protein, and healthy oil. We’ve provided some fun dinner ideas that can help you and your family on your way to health.
Here are some of our favorite easy weeknight dinners for family:
Black Bean Corn Salad Quesadillas + Seasonal Fruit Salad
We also asked our RD community for some of their favorite family dinner recipes. Here are 25 dinner ideas approved by dietitians.
Meat / Chicken / Turkey / Seafood
- Quinoa Mushroom Blended Burgers – Sarah Anzlovar, MS, RDN
- Herbed Chicken and Pasta Skillet – Marie Dittmer, MA, RDN
- Peanut Sauce Ramen with Chicken & Stir Fry Veggies – Megan Byrd, RD
- Simple, Healthy Thai Peanut Chicken – Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
- Veggie-Loaded Turkey Bolognese – Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RDN
- Tuna Salad with Honey Mustard Dressing – Chrissy Carrol, RD
Vegetarian / Vegan
- Pumpkin Kefir Pancakes – Judith Draughon, MS, RDN, LD
- Burrito Bowl Meal Prep – Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC
- Loaded Veggie Nachos with Homemade Tortilla Chips – Stephanie Van’t Zelfden, RDN
- Vegetarian Enchilada Casserole – Colleen Christensen, RD
- Zucchini Pizza Boats – Michele Sidorenkov, RDN
- Vegetarian Chopped Salad Recipe with Hard-Boiled Eggs – Amy Gorin, RD
- Instant Pot Chana Masala – Grace Shea, MS, RDN, CSP, LDN
- Stuffed Acorn Squash with Curried Lentils – Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, LYD
- Enchilada Casserole with Frozen Spinach – Liz Weiss, MS, RD
- Vegan Sweet Potato Quesadilla – Kristina Todini, RDN
- Loaded Southwest Sweet Potatoes – Karman Meyer, RDN
- Vegan Tikka Masala – Shahzadi Devje, RD, CDE, MSc
- Lentil Stuffed Peppers with Orzo & Feta – Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN
- Street Corn Pizza – Kathy Levin, RDN, CDE, DipACLM
- Easy Black Bean Pasta – Rebecca Clyde, MS, RDN, CD
- Healthy Pumpkin Pasta for Toddlers – Kacie Barns, MCN, RDN
- One Pan Pasta with Chickpeas and Tomatoes – Melissa Altman-Traub, MS, RD, LDN
- Spaghetti Stuffed Bell Peppers – Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD
- Vegetarian Skillet Lasagna Recipe – Melissa Nieves, LND, RD, MPH
We hope that these recommendations provide a good place for you to start or continue along your and your family’s health journey. What healthy family meal ideas would you like to share with the To Taste community? Let us know in the comments section below!
To YOUR Taste,