BANGOR, Maine — September is family meals month. But for working parents, finding the time to cook throughout the week and prepare a healthy meal can be a challenge.
Many parents who are juggling busy schedules are looking for ways to get a meal in and save time in the process. Working mom Stephanie Ball said her daily schedule is "hectic."
"When we do cook, we sit down as a family at the table. But, you know, sports and work. That doesn’t happen all the time," Ball said.
As an independent home care nurse, co-owner of Ruth and Naomi Medical Aesthetics, and a mom to an 18-year-old, a 13-year-old, and a 1-year-old, Ball said she has a hard time keeping up.
Even when she stocks her home with groceries, she said she struggles to find the time to cook.
"We buy a lot of groceries, and we have a lot of great plans," Ball said. "And then, you know, it's McDonalds or Chick-fil-a has really great fruit cups."
Ball said she usually doesn't get off of work until 4 p.m., and her whole day is a rush.
She and her boyfriend, who is a full-time firefighter, jump straight into parent mode once they're off of work.
"He would leave work at 7 p.m. He would be back [at work at] 7 a.m.," Ball said. "We only had a couple of hours in the evening. And it was late. It was time for him to come home and put the baby to bed, kind of wrap things up with our teenager. And then it was a toss-up: Do we want to eat supper tonight, or do we want to get some sleep tonight?"
Picking and choosing between sleep and healthy habits is a reality for several working parents.
Dietitian Stacy Shannon said she often finds that parents are tired, stressed and looking for a break.
"When you're in the middle of your crazy days, and you're trying to get one kid to practice., and the other kid to this other thing on the other side of town, and then you've got work, and then you've got all these different things. It's really hard to be proactive about nutrition," Shannon said.
Shannon helps women between ages 30 and 60 plan healthy meals and lose weight. According to her, the best ways to combat busy schedules that leave little time to eat healthy are to prepare and plan.
Ball said she's lucky if she can cook two to three times a week. She's diabetic, and the more she outs out, the quicker she runs through her insulin.
Not getting enough meals affects her physically and emotionally, she said.
"I carry a lot of guilt when it comes to feeding the kids, because I'm worried, 'Are they getting the fruits and the veggies?'" Ball said. "Are they getting used to having convenience, you know, and am I robbing them of that tradition of being able to sit down as a family."
Registered dietitian Kris Michaud said eating out regularly onsets health issues that may be preventable.
"With a lot of dining out, we don't have as much control as to what is going into our food," Michaud said. "That can add a lot of extra calories and sodium that can really negatively impact our heart health or weight status down the road."
Michaud helps patients prepare for weight loss surgery, hoping to help them improve their quality of life.
He said planning meals ahead of time and cooking meals that stretch a few days can help busy families save time and money.
"Do a lot of batch cooking. Soups, chillis, casseroles. Things that you can make in larger volumes at once to have in the freezer that you can just pop in at the last minute," Michaud said. "Maybe throw it in a crockpot or instant pot. Something like that, that makes the mealtime, the cook time a lot quicker and easier."
Hannaford stores offer a local dietitian who helps families choose the best options for them. Hannaford dietitian Mary Levanway said getting creative and having options makes eating healthy fun and a little easier.
Levanway said in addition to cooking meals that stretch, try cooking meals that can be recreated.
She said, for example, if you have Taco Tuesday one day, make extra and turn the leftovers into a taco salad the next day by adding fresh lettuce.
Levanway also said it's helpful to have a few food items that are pre-made, like frozen vegetables, sliced chicken, and noodles. Everything doesn't have to be made from scratch, she said.
She also said people who are looking for healthy eating options can find recipes on Hannaford's website in the "get inspired" tab.