Like many kids, my 10-year-old has participated in her fair share of extracurricular activities: piano, swimming, choir, gymnastics, drama. But up to now, we’d managed a sit-down family dinner virtually every night.
This year a trying new schedule took things up a notch. Our family was abruptly introduced to the challenges of “dashboard dining” – meals eaten in the car, on the run.
We’re far from rare. “A lot of after-school activities are taking place right over the family dinner hour,” says Andrea Holwegner, a registered dietitian in Calgary. “That supper meal is a big part of getting all the minerals and vitamins that kids need to grow and be healthy.”
dinner at McCop-Out’s just won’t cut it week after week. So how can you make sure your kids are eating well-balanced meals even as they’re being shuttled from school to soccer?
It starts with planning. Christine Walker’s two kids, 9 and 11, play hockey and take art and theatre dance classes, and their schedules are non-stop. “I write a menu out on Saturday for the coming week,” says Walker. “Sunday, I spend a fair bit of time cooking and prepping.” She makes lasagna, or cuts up veggies and meat so they’re ready for a stir-fry. She also freezes homemade banana bread or apple muffins in individual portions for ready-made healthy snacks.
Full disclosure: Walker is a chef and professor at Toronto’s George Brown College. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t learned the hard way, just like the rest of us, how to be organized about healthful meals. “The first full year, I can’t even begin to tell you how much crap we were eating from one place to the next,” she admits. “And the cost was insane.”
If the idea of plotting your full week’s menu is intimidating, just take it one day at a time, Holwegner suggests. “Even just thinking about what’s happening tomorrow and asking yourself, what are we going to do for our meal on the go?” Thinking ahead means you have time to take the leftover pasta out of the freezer, or throw stew ingredients into the crock pot. It also means, like Walker, you have the foresight to cook extra chicken tonight, so there’s enough for wraps-to-go tomorrow.
Another portable potable is a homemade smoothie, packed with calcium and fruit. Keep it cold in a stainless steel coffee mug, and throw in a straw. In our household we’re freezing away individual-sized portions of leftover everything, from casseroles to soups. Hello Thermos, our new best friend.
If you’d rather skip the reheating, try a cold pasta salad in a container. Noodles, chunks of cheese, chopped up veggies, chicken or beans, and your kid’s favourite sauce… how can you go wrong? Holwegner’s also a big fan of the “lunchable” – not the prepared, high-sodium, high-fat, grocery-store version, but a home-style adaptation. “Kids love this sort of thing,” Holwegner says. “They open up a container and there’s cubes of cheese, popcorn, crackers, super-nutritious almonds, grapes, cut up apples.”
Depending on your schedule, it may be possible to think of the dashboard dining as simply snack time, and have a family dinner much later when everybody gets home. It may mean eating at an odd hour but that way you’ll still reap the benefits of eating together like role-modeling healthy choices, and promoting positive body image.
That’s how Sandra Nielson does it. This busy single mom in Bowmanville, Ontario, is on the road six nights out of seven with her 12-year-old twin girls, who play soccer for two different rep teams. In the car they rely on snacks with a protein punch to tide them over, like hummus and crackers. They often save their larger meal for when they get home, even if it’s late.
If an at-home dinner is just not possible, consider other times for sitting down to eat together, says Holwegner. “It might be that breakfast time is the time when you’re connecting as a family.”
She adds: “Modern-day family is about modern-day strategies.”
September 29, 2009
SPECIAL TO PARENTCENTRAL.CA