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Five ways around the table

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 1:39 p.m. CDT

As the school year is in full swing, the dinner hour is a busy time. With all the running around, it can be tempting to just run through the drive-through and eat in the car on the way to the next event.

However, when we eat at home we not only are spending less money, we also are eating a healthier meal. The way to get that meal to the table is to plan, and the weekend is a perfect time to do just that. Base your meals on MyPlate — an easy visual to gauge the healthiness of your meal — with half your plate being fruits and vegetables, a quarter as lean protein, a quarter as whole grain, plus a serving of low-fat dairy.

September 24 was recognized as National Family Day to recognize the importance of eating together as a family. Benefits to children are seen when family meals happen between five and seven times per week. Those benefits include improved academic performance and self-esteem, lower rates of obesity and eating disorders and lower incidences of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. An easy way to gather everyone to the table is with a fun food station. This could happen at the evening meal or even breakfast; the important thing is that everyone is present and eats together.

Food stations can be easy meals if you do a little prep work beforehand. Have your family brainstorm ideas on toppings they like, remembering to include fruits and vegetables within the choices. Gather the family into the kitchen Sunday night to chop up a few vegetables or pre-cook some chicken breasts. You also can use frozen vegetables; thaw and then sauté them. Cooking ahead allows you a quick and easy meal during the week.

5 Food Stations for Family Meals

1. Oatmeal Bar — If you cook your oatmeal in the crockpot overnight, it will be ready to go by morning. Topping ideas include fresh fruits, thawed frozen fruit, nuts, dried fruit, cinnamon, maple syrup, flax seed, chia seed, granola and vanilla yogurt.

2. Spud Bar — Utilize the frozen Steam ‘n’ Mash potatoes or pre-bake some baked potatoes and have the following toppings available: broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, salsa, green onions, black beans, cheese, rotisserie chicken or diced ham.

3. Nacho Bar — Top whole grain corn chips with chicken, black beans, salsa, tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, pre-cooked brown rice (find it in the freezer section), crumbled cooked lean hamburger, corn, peppers, plain Greek yogurt and cheese. Bake it in the oven for 5-10 minutes, or until cheese melts.

4. Pasta Bar — Precook whole grain pasta and top with a variety of sauces, including low-fat Alfredo, pesto, marinara, steamed vegetables, cooked shrimp, cooked chicken, reduced-fat meatballs, fresh basil, cheeses and fresh baked bread.

5. Pizza Bar — Top whole grain pita crusts or whole grain tortillas with cheeses, pesto sauce, pizza sauce, cooked broccoli, diced peppers, canned pineapple tidbits, olives, mushrooms, diced ham, turkey pepperoni, cooked chicken and fresh herbs.

Chicken Nacho Supreme

• Hy-Vee whole grain tortilla chips

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 1 red bell pepper, chopped

• 2 cups diced rotisserie chicken

• 1 cup black bean and corn salsa

• 1 cup Hy-Vee finely shredded reduced-fat cheddar cheese

• Sour cream, green onions, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread a single layer of tortilla chips on baking pan.

Heat oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté red bell pepper, stirring constantly, until crisp-tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Spoon evenly over chips.

Combine chicken and salsa in a bowl. Spoon over bell peppers. Sprinkle cheese on top. Bake for 5 minutes at 350 degrees, or until cheese is melted.

Serve with sour cream and chopped green onions, if desired.

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