Easy, Quick and Healthy: Your Family’s Recipe for Successful Eating

Don’t eat from a drive-thru for a hasty meal or sacrifice health for valuable time. Use these tips to prepare delicious, nutritious food—quickly.

The juggling act

Modern families have more demands on time than ever before. Combine a long workday with after-school practices, games or other activities, and many families struggle to get a quick, healthy dinner on the table. In many cases, the traditional sit-down family dinner has been replaced by quick bites in restaurants, at ball fields or even in the car.
Of course, these challenges aren’t unique to families who eat gluten free, but adding a dietary restriction can make
a challenging task seem overwhelming.

Drive-thru and takeout meals are more popular than ever before, but they can be problematic for those on
the gluten-free diet. Fewer options, increased cost and the inherent risk of cross-contamination are all issues
when eating away from home. In addition, restaurant meals are often high in calories and fat—even those from
fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle. Some of these establishments may seem to be a “fresh” and healthier option, but a study in the May 2016 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that meals at such fast-casual restaurants contained significantly more calories than traditional fast food.

How can busy families put emphasis back on healthy meals this school year, while still accommodating busy family schedules? How can families save time without relying heavily on processed, convenience or restaurant foods? And finally, how can kids take an active role in healthy snacking at home and on the go?

Planning for success

Planning ahead can go a long way in accomplishing the goals of healthy meals. “If I’m trying to figure out what to
make for dinner at 4:30, it’s all over,” jokes Jen Graham, mom to Melissa, Paige and Colton, of North Lewisburg, Ohio.

Photo by Kelly Heasley Photography, LLC
Photo by Kelly Heasley Photography, LLC

“I do at least a one-week and sometimes a two- or three-week meal plan,” says Graham. “It helps me with my grocery shopping and planning ahead.” Try to find a less busy time on a weekend to sit down, either alone or ideally with input from other family members, and make a plan for the week. How many dinners will be at home? How many on the go? What ingredients could be prepared ahead of time or even cooked during the day?


Keeping dinners simple can help with the planning process. Lara Field, registered dietitian and owner/founder of FEED—Forming Early Eating Decisions (www.feedkids.com)—encourages her clients to create balance, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy and gluten-free whole grains. “Take an inventory of the family favorites, maybe eight to 10 options, and rotate through these choices for one to two months,” Field advises. “Make sure all family members put in their two cents and voice their favorite meals so that everyone participates in planning.”

If only one or two members of the family are following the gluten-free diet, this can pose more of a challenge. For this reason, it may be beneficial to serve gluten-free meals for everyone, with additions of gluten-containing foods as needed. For example, everyone can enjoy gluten-free pasta with sauce, which saves preparation time and also reduces the risk of accidental cross-contamination. “There are two of us that have to eat gluten free, but everyone in the house eats that way now, except for regular bread on sandwiches,” Graham notes. “It’s made things a lot simpler.”

It’s also a good idea to have three to five “emergency” meals that can be quickly prepared if a last-minute snag in the evening schedule has family members arriving home later than planned. Scrambled eggs, gluten-free granola and yogurt, grilled cheese or a gluten-free bagel with peanut butter are quick and can even be prepared by an older child or teenager.


Making convenience healthy

Convenience foods often get a bad reputation for being unhealthy; however, some can be very good choices
and help facilitate a healthy meal. Janelle Smith, M.S., R.D.N., “Ask the Dietitian” for the Celiac Disease Foundation, suggests utilizing convenience foods that help cut preparation time. “Pre-cut vegetables and fruits are just as nutritious and require far less preparation.” She also advises her clients to look for gluten-free foods that are
fortified or enriched with vitamins and minerals, as well as ones that contain whole grains instead of just starches. Frozen fruits and vegetables are also examples of healthy convenience foods. In some cases, frozen vegetables may be nutritionally superior to fresh, without the disadvantage of spoilage before they can be used.

Field suggests utilizing other healthy convenience foods. “You can purchase par-boiled whole-grain brown rice or quinoa, rotisserie chicken (be sure to select one labeled gluten free), steam-in-bag vegetables, fresh fruit, and you have dinner!”

Consider making your own items that can become convenience foods later. Preparing ingredients ahead of time and utilizing your freezer can make quick dinner preparation a snap. “I always have stuff in my freezer,” says Graham. “I try to freeze sweet corn and green beans in the summer, but I have found that I can also freeze cooked ground beef and chicken. I cook extra and freeze them in portions I can later use for spaghetti sauce or casseroles.” Graham has found that cooked rice and quinoa freeze well, although she suggests utilizing the microwave to thaw them. “It seems counterintuitive, but I have found the microwave works much better. On the stove, they tend to be mushy.”


Field suggests simple changes that can make kid-friendly foods easy and healthy, such as preparing gluten-free chicken nuggets with chicken tenders coated in amaranth flakes or gluten-free whole-grain corn flakes. These can be frozen and then cooked for a quick weeknight dinner. Kid-staple macaroni and cheese can be made with brown rice or quinoa pasta, topped with heart-healthy olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Pizza can be made easily with a ready-made gluten-free crust, sauce and veggies. Kids can become involved in prepping their own pizzas on individual gluten-free crusts.

Leftovers and planned-overs can also be great options for busy nights. Consider making a larger batch of minestrone soup or chili, meatballs, turkey or beef burgers that can be reheated for main dishes throughout the week. If you have more time on Sundays to cook than during the week, make items that take longer and then pre-portion them out for a weeknight dinner.

Consider a Tapas-style menu—small dishes that everyone can share—later in the week to use up leftovers. A meal can even be as simple as sliced deli meat, cubed cheese, hummus, gluten-free whole-grain crackers, and sliced fruit and veggies.


Slow-cooked convenience

Slow cookers can be used for full meal preparation or for preparing specific ingredients to use in other dishes. Smith suggests keeping it easy and naturally gluten free. “Chili, potatoes and meatloaf cook well in a Crock-Pot™.” She also suggests prepping items ahead that can be quickly put in a Crock-Pot on hectic mornings before school or work. Graham says she uses her Crock-Pot primarily for preparing meats and poultry that she can later shred, although,
“I do use my Crock-Pot to make roast with carrots and potatoes, a naturally gluten-free meal my whole family enjoys.” Graham and Smith both caution that pasta recipes may not work as well in the Crock-Pot because gluten-free noodles may not hold up as well and become mushy.

Field suggests utilizing the Crock-Pot to make gluten-free oats for busy mornings (see below for recipe). She also suggests preparing chicken breasts with salsa, which can be shredded for tacos, salads or baked potato toppings.

Other kitchen equipment, like food processors and blenders, may also ease preparation and reduce waste. “I save
the heels of my expensive gluten-free bread and use my food processor to make breadcrumbs that I can use in
other recipes,” says Field. Smoothies in the blender, with fresh or frozen fruits and yogurt, are also quick, kid-pleasing breakfasts. “My kids like the smoothie, and even the pickiest kid can’t tell if there is spinach or blueberry in it.”


A healthy haven

There are a bevy of gluten-free snack foods available—a blessing and a curse for families who are trying to eat healthier but still want convenience. “Many families that I meet with in my one-on-one counseling are frustrated about the amount of ‘junk’ their kids are exposed to on a daily basis,” Field says. “But the reality is, if we don’t buy it, they won’t eat it.” She suggests making home a healthy place, and keeping the not-so-good-for you items as an occasional treat. Smith suggests pairing a convenience food with a healthier food, like gluten-free cookies and a piece of fruit, or pairing gluten-free crackers with almond butter or a slice of cheese. Graham relies on seasonal fresh fruit for snacks, and suggests having pre-cut items to make it easy for kids to grab a healthy snack. She also recommends keeping cheese, yogurt, berries, fruit and nuts ready to go. “My kids also really go for flourless muffins [see below for recipe], which I can make when a bunch of bananas is going bad.”

For kids who are away from home for several hours in the evening, portable snacks are a must. Smith likes to encourage trail mix. “It’s tasty and seems like a treat, but it’s made up of whole foods.” If refrigeration is available,
she suggests hummus with veggies or turkey roll-ups made with lettuce and cheese on gluten-free tortillas.
Invest in a cooler bag and ice packs, or even freeze water bottles to keep items cold. Kids who are old enough
can take an active role in selecting and packing their own items, cleaning out their snack bags and preparing ice
packs for the next day.

Bars are another option. “I think a natural nut or dried fruit-filled bar is the best choice,” says Field. “It provides lasting energy for sports and is a great tide-me-over snack.” She recommends Kind or Lärabars. Graham adds, “The only time I use granola bars is when we are on the go. It’s so much easier.” For younger children, she suggests applesauce or other fruit pouches.


Turning challenges into changes

While it may seem like a lot of work to plan meals in advance, the time saved on busy weeknights will be worth it. Browse blogs and Pinterest for new recipe ideas. Get kids involved in meal and snack planning and prep to set a healthy eating example, as well as build skills for their future. Utilize kitchen equipment that can help prepare items that take longer to cook. Don’t be afraid of all convenience foods; many are healthy timesavers. Finally, don’t beat yourself up if even the best plans go awry occasionally. Just return to your planned meals as soon as you can. Even with the increasing demands on family time, eating well should be a priority. Your recipe for successful eating should combine both planning and flexibility.


Slow-Cooked Oats

Courtesy of Lara Field, MS, RD, LDN
Prep: 5 Minutes
Cooking time: 8-10 hours


  • 1 tablespoon coconut oil
  • 4 apples, chopped
  • 2½ cups gluten-free oats
  • 2 cinnamon sticks or ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 cups unsweetened almond milk
  • ¼ cup brown sugar


Grease Crock-Pot with coconut oil. Add all ingredients but do not mix. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

Crock-Pot Meatloaf

Courtesy of Janelle Smith, MS, RDN, “Ask the dietitian” for the Celiac Disease Foundation


  • 2 pounds ground beef, bison or turkey
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 3 tablespoons gluten-free Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • ¾ cup dry gluten-free breadcrumbs
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • ½ teaspoon gluten-free Worcestershire sauce


Mix ground beef, onion, Worcestershire sauce, garlic salt, salt, pepper, eggs and breadcrumbs well in large bowl. Shape into rectangle or oval that won’t touch the sides of the Crock-Pot. Place in Crock-Pot; cover and cook on low for 6 hours or high for 3 hours.

Whisk ketchup, brown sugar, mustard and Worcestershire sauce in a small bowl; spoon sauce over meatloaf and warm in Crock-Pot for last 15 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting. Serve with asparagus or broccoli sautéed in olive oil with a dash of garlic salt.

Find more slow cooker recipes at http://celiac.org/slow-cooker-recipes/

Stovetop Mac N’ Cheese With Broccoli (pictured above)

Serves 4-6


  • 12 ounces gluten-free pasta, your favorite kind
  • 4 cups broccoli florets
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 3 tablespoons gluten-free all-purpose flour
  • 1⅓ cups low-fat or whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 cups grated cheddar cheese


Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions. When pasta is 3 minutes from being done, throw the broccoli florets into the pot. Drain pasta and broccoli and let sit in the colander while you make the cheese sauce.

Melt the butter in the pot you cooked the pasta in, over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add the flour and stir until combined. Add the milk, salt, garlic powder and pepper, and cook until sauce has thickened, 3-5 minutes, stirring regularly.

Once sauce has thickened, add in the cheese and stir until it has melted and a smooth sauce has formed. Add the pasta and broccoli back into the pot and mix until everything is evenly coated with the cheese sauce.


MOM TO MOM: Jen’s Favorites!

“The kids’ favorite! Flourless Muffins”

“My go-to basic baking resource.”

“Our favorite pizza crust, and it freezes well. I do the first bake, let it cool, wrap it and freeze it. The day I use it, I top it and bake it an extra few minutes. Good way to do mini individual pizzas, too.”

“For special treats and baking.”


Amy Jones is a registered dietitian and celiac disease support group leader in Bellefontaine, Ohio. She is the chair of the Dietitians in Gluten Intolerance Diseases practice group for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She also serves on the dietetic advisory board of Gluten-Free Living and is a regular contributor to the magazine.



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