Melissa d'Arabian's Cooking Tips for Busy Moms

Food Network host gives insight on how to keep your cooking inexpensive, yummy and nourishing

Melissa d'Arabian, host of the Food Network's Ten Dollar Dinners, grew up on a budget but didn’t let that stop her from learning to eat healthy. Each week on her show, she whips up a wholesome meal costing only $10. At home, she fights another battle: picky eaters. 

We chatted with the busy mother of four, and here's what she had to say.

Do you find it hard to get your children to try new foods? Do you have any tricks for turning “scary” food into kid-friendly food?

I have four girls who are right in the “prime picky” ages! So I know a lot about finicky eaters. I don’t want to cater to everyone’s tastes; I’m not a short order cook after all.  But I also want to let my children know their tastes and opinions do count in the kitchen.  I make one meal every night, and I include at least one thing that I know the kids will like (and something healthy enough that I can live with, such as whole grain pasta or sprouted wheat bread). I never force anything. I can’t dictate what my kids eat, but I can control what the choices are on the table and in the house. If I want to introduce something completely new, I am sure to include something very familiar alongside. Kids find comfort in what they know…don’t we all?

What is the best age to start teaching your kids about the basics of healthy eating?

I’ve been talking to my kids about healthy foods since they were babies. My 4-year-old once ordered “protein” from the waitress in a restaurant. They get the broad strokes about what foods provide which benefits…vitamins? Fiber? Proteins? And they love imagining that their muscles are building up as they eat a high-protein meal.

You encourage your audience to have faith in the notion that $10 goes further at the grocery store than it does at a fast-food drive through. Why do you think it’s important to cook on a budget vs. just taking the family out for a cheap meal?

I believe in everything in moderation, so I have nothing against the occasional trip to the fast-food joint if you consider that a treat. But the notion of the drive thru being faster or cheaper than food you can make at home is quite simply a myth. Everyone should have a handful of recipes that are super quick at the ready, to avoid the “fast food because it’s fast” temptation.

Even on busy days, I do my best to preserve the family dinner at home. It’s a time of unexpected bonding; you can’t plan those sweet intimate moments where your child opens up to you about something important. And so many of them have happened around our dinner table; I can imagine how much I would have missed had we not made sitting down together as a family such a priority.

Do you have any advice for mothers who struggle to find time to pack a lunch for their kids?

I pack four lunches every day, so I feel the pain of parents across America trying to do the same! Here are a few tips I have found helpful:

Invest in some really great containers that you can use over and over again.
Go browse at the Container Store and you’ll be inspired by the funky and useful lunch packing gear. It makes the whole project less daunting to have a bunch of reusable baggies, cartons, small boxes, ramekins and bowls -- all perfect for lunch-packing.

Think about making a little extra food at dinner and then serve leftovers for lunch.
Be sure to use that handy thermal bowl you bought from previous tip! Just heat up the leftovers in the morning as you make your morning coffee.

Sketch out a very rough schedule of the lunches for the week.
It takes a lot of the pressure out of the chore (nothing more stressful than staring at a pantry and seeing absolutely nothing to get into the lunch box before the bus arrives in five minutes!). I plan with four food items in mind: protein, complex carb, veggie/fruit and treat, such as pretzels or a granola bar. Having categories helps me stay focused and keeps the lunches fairly balanced over the week.

Buy high-fiber and high-protein pastas. 
They keep forever on your shelf, and in a pinch, you can pull a pasta together quickly and it will be filling for the kids. Sometimes I just sprinkle olive oil and some Parmesan cheese on the pasta and put it in the thermal bowl for an easy alternative to a sandwich.

Buy your own little drink containers.
They’re much cheaper (and greener) than little milk boxes or juice boxes.

Become a mini-muffin maker
I make mini-muffins like crazy…full of fiber, bran, protein, etc. I keep them in the freezer in labeled freezer bags so I can pop one or two out to round out a lunch, to have as a snack or even a hurried breakfast on the go.

Check out Melissa's recipes for Fish Piccata and her Magic Fruit-and-Veggie Cupcakes!
Learn more about Melissa d'Arabian here or follow her on Twitter!

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