I know what it’s like to be too tired to cook.

Sometimes I walk into the kitchen and all I want to do is walk right out again.  Honestly, if I didn’t have a hungry family expecting me to keep them alive, I’d pack it all in.

Sound familiar?

If you rely on professional help to get meals on the table — whether from Stouffers or from Chan’s Chinese — you’re in good company.

Many a mother has confessed her sins to me, and it breaks my heart to hear how guilty these fine women feel. Not only because I regularly engage in the same kind of food prep myself — just last night I served a completely pre-packaged meal care of the chefs at Trader Joe’s — but also because there’s nothing wrong with serving your family this kind of food.

Prepared foods aren’t going to kill your kids.  What’s more, they can actually be used to teach your tykes some excellent eating habits.

Think about it this way: how else can you expose your children to a wide range of culinary creations so easily?  I know I can’t put together a Mexican meal one night and a Chinese one the next.  At least not without devoting my entire life to cooking.  Yuk.

Read Using Restaurants Right! and When the Less Nutritious Choice is Right

There are only 2 rules to follow if you want to use the freezer or the phone to get dinner on the table:

1) Make sure that whatever you purchase looks as much like real food as possible.

These days it’s just as easy to get a rotisserie chicken as it to buy some chicken nuggets.  Rotisserie chicken might not always be a nutritional winner but it does a decent job teaching kids to eat right because it looks like what it is. It tastes like what it is too.  You can’t say the same thing for nuggets, which don’t have the taste, texture, appearance or aroma of something that once clucked.

Remember this too: Gorton’s doesn’t just sell fish sticks. They also sell grilled fish fillets.

2) Rotate what you serve.

Variety isn’t just the spice of life; it’s also the key to teaching kids to eat right.  I know it’s easy to get into a rut when you’re tired and worn out, but if the delivery guy knows your name (or knows your standard order), take that as a cue to call around to someplace new.

Establishing variety as a foundation for meals is the key to expanding your kids’ culinary repertoires.   You don’t have to use new foods to build variety.  In fact, it works best if you start by rotating through a selection of old standards.  Just keep the set of offerings spinning.  Read House Building 101 for more on this topic.

If you’re worried about the nutritional quality of packaged foods …

1) Remember that anything you buy is probably as “good” as pizza or Chinese food.

  • One slice of pizza might seem like a deal, coming in at around 200 calories, but most pies deliver a hefty dose of salt and fat too.  More importantly, pizza does not have any real nutritional value and it reinforces your children’s desire for similarly stodgy stuff.  Read Pizza and Peas: The Untold Story.
  • One serving of Kids’ Lo Mein from P.F. Chang’s has 360 mg of sodium – a big chunk of your kid’s daily intake.  Read Salt: The New Fat.

2) Everyone knows that nutritionists recommend people eat a wide range of foods to maximize the assortment of nutrients they take in — Vitamin A here, protein there.  Well, no one should make packaged food the main staple, but when you do go down that road, eating a wide range of prepared foods minimizes the amount of “bad” stuff you consume too — fat one night, sodium another.  Read It Doesn’t Matter WHAT Your Kids Eat!

3) You can always augment packaged foods to dilute the bad stuff.

Throw a bag of frozen vegetables into canned soup to cut the sodium per serving.  Or do what I did last night: mix a bag of lettuce leaves with a bag of cole slaw mix to make a salad in under 5 minutes.  Don’t think salad will cut it with your kids?  Read Salad Days.

You might not think your kids will eat black bean tacos, but the ones from Trader Joe’s are so good your kids will clamor for more.

Remember, kids eat what they’re exposed to the most.  The more you reinforce chicken nuggets, hot dogs and other standard “kids’ fare,” the more your kids will prefer that stuff.  But shift over to real food, and your kids will eat that too.  At least they will in time.

You might have to serve grilled chicken as often as you’ve served up the nuggets before you’re kids will tuck in without complaint, so don’t give up.  (Just in case the going is tough, read: The Upside of Hunger.)

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits. ~

P.S. I’m not on the payroll at Trader Joe’s. I’m just a grateful fan.


Sources: http://www.pfchangs.com/menu/NutritionalInfo.aspx accessed 5/2010