Broccoli or Carrots? Meal Planning with Kids

One thing I feel I do a pretty good job at is letting my kids help in the kitchen. Even though it takes a little more time and there are a few more messes, it is fun and I know my kids are learning important skills. On the other hand, one area I don’t take the time to get them involved in is meal planning. Once in a while I will ask them to pick between a couple of choices but that’s about it. Meal planning is definitely a skill I want my children to have as adults, so now is the time!

Just like with cooking, getting kids involved in meal planning may mean it takes more time but it’s time you can spend together and your kids will learn valuable skills, including how to plan a balanced meal. And since they are helping to plan the meal, they may be more likely to eat what is served.

Want to give this a try with me? Here are some tips you and I can both use to get our kids involved with meal planning.

1. Download our 5-Day Meal Planning Worksheet. I like our worksheet because it has the food groups listed at the bottom so you can make sure you include a variety of food groups in your meals. As you plan your meals, have your kids tell you which foods are part of which food group.

2. Make a list of options. If you have younger kids, make a list of options based on what you have on hand and what items are on sale at the store. Then they can choose between options such as spaghetti or lasagna, broccoli or carrots. If your kids are older, they may want to help think of the dishes to make. Another option would be to plan the main dishes and have your kids choose which fruits and vegetables to have.

3. Have a kid’s night. If planning a week’s worth of meals with your kids sounds too overwhelming, choose one night that they can plan the meal. You can provide guidelines such as they need to include foods from three different food groups.

If your kids help you plan a whole week’s worth of meals or just one night, they will learn skills that they can use for a lifetime. Next week I’ll share some tips for how to get kids involved with grocery shopping.


Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Get Kids Involved in Healthy Cooking & Shopping

When I was a child, my mom always had me involved in the kitchen and grocery shopping. I went with her on every grocery run and was in the kitchen ready to help her cook every meal. I loved every minute of this time with my mom, whether it was getting to pick out the best tomatoes from the supermarket or learning how to whisk eggs, I had fun and learned so much about cooking. I am still passionate about these activities today, making time for grocery shopping once a week and making most, if not all of my meals and snacks at home. I feel that my story is an example of the importance of getting children involved in the cooking and purchasing of foods in order to allow them to learn valuable kitchen and shopping skills and build an understanding of their food choices.












When it comes to grocery shopping and cooking at home, we tend to hesitate when it comes to getting our children involved. At times it may be due to you being rushed to make dinner, in a hurry to get out of the supermarket, worried about the hazards that exist in the kitchen, hot ovens and stove tops, sharp knives, raw ingredients, or just afraid of the mess that may be left behind. However, when we involve our children in age-appropriate activities in these settings we are able to teach them valuable cooking and purchasing skills. Bringing your kids into these activities with you can also allow them to develop healthy habits like how to identify more nutritious food options while grocery shopping and adding a variety of fresh produce and colors to each meal, for example. Here are some ideas of how you can get your child involved in grocery shopping and in the kitchen.

In the grocery store: 

  • Give your kids the task of finding items on your grocery list in the supermarket.
  • Allow them to pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try when grocery shopping.
  • Play “I Spy” in each section of the grocery store.

In the kitchen:

  • Give your kids the responsibility of washing fresh produce.
  • Let them sprinkle on herbs and seasonings to foods you are preparing.
  • Let them tear up lettuce when preparing salads or snap fresh green beans when preparing dinner.

Take the time to introduce your kids to these activities to allow them to build core lifestyle skills that they can use for the rest of their lives. It is a wonderful opportunity for parent-child bonding. Allow them to help, try new foods, and exercise their creativity. Just take a moment to enjoy all of the messes and memories.

Written by Allie Lansman, ISU Dietetic Intern

Homemade Mac and Cheese

Our March recipe of the month is Homemade Mac and Cheese. This recipe is an easier (and healthier) way to make a classic favorite, so it is a good way to get children involved with a meal. In the coming weeks, our blogs will focus on different ways that children can grow a love of cooking by helping out in the kitchen.

This recipe starts with cooking whole wheat pasta in boiling water. While the pasta is cooking, children can measure out the spinach into the bottom of a colander. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and then pour the rest of the water and the cooked pasta over the top of the spinach in the colander. Children can see how the spinach changes from raw to cooked simply by adding the hot water.

To make the sauce, you only need to put the cooked pasta and spinach back in the pot and stir in the remaining ingredients – cooking water, shredded cheese, plain yogurt, onion powder, and garlic powder. Children can practice measuring, pouring, and mixing.

The only thing left to do is eat. Enjoy!


Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Kitchen Safety: Hot Stuff

Ovens and stoves are very useful tools in the kitchen. My oven and stove are two of my best friends; we roast veggies and meats together, we make soups together, and we sometimes even make sweets together! Even in all the fun of cooking and baking, it is important to stay safe and follow these tips on cooking safety.

1. Stick around when the stove and oven are on. Be sure to keep an eye on whatever it is you’re cooking to prevent it from boiling over, burning, or catching fire. The leading cause of kitchen fires is unattended cooking.
2. When handling hot pans, always use potholders to avoid burns. Handles hanging over the edge of the stove can be grabbed by children or knocked off accidentally. Turn all handles on pots away from you to avoid accidental spills and burns.
3. Keep all utensils away from the oven and stovetop when it is on. This includes mixing spoons, dishtowels, potholders, and paper products, that way you can avoid accidental burns or fires.
4. Turn off the stovetop and oven when you are finished using them. Once you’re done cooking and ready to enjoy your food, double check that all the stove burners have been turned off, and that the oven is no longer on. Make sure all utensils or other flammable objects are safely away from any hot surface. It never hurts to double, even triple check this step!

We hope you have learned a tip or two during our kitchen safety blog series to help keep you safe while you spend time cooking.

Written by Annie Contrady, ISU Dietetic Intern

Kitchen Safety: Knife Safety

You may remember from last week’s blog, I love prepping meals at home! I often make recipes that require quite a bit of cutting and chopping, especially when using fresh meats and produce. Knife accidents are common in household kitchens, but can be avoided if you use some good habits.

  • Always pick up knives by the handle. Never touch the blade, even when it is dull.
  • Choose the correct size knife for the task that you are doing. For instance, if you’re cutting a strawberry, use a small knife like a paring knife. If you’re cutting large cuts of meat into smaller pieces, then a larger, sharp knife would be the best choice. It is most important to choose a knife that feels comfortable and controlled in your hand.
  • Cut food items away from the body and always use a flat surface. Cutting foods away from the body decreases the chances of an accident. Cut food on a flat surface (such as a cutting board), so it stays in one place. Do not hold food in your hand while you cut it. Be sure to keep it on the cutting board at all times to avoid having your knife slip and hurt you.
  • Wash knives immediately after use. Do not place knives in a sink of soapy water to soak with other dishes. Be sure to take caution when cleaning the knife blade and let the knife air dry. When not in use, store knives safely. Knives are safe in a shield or in a drawer where the blade will not rub against other tools that could dull or damage the blade. Most importantly, keep them out of the way of kitchen traffic or reach of small children.

Next week, the last blog in our kitchen safety series will be on fire safety.

Written by Annie Contrady, ISU Dietetic Intern

Kitchen Safety: Getting Started

Cooking at home is becoming more and more popular, which is great because it usually means healthier food and money saved! I love prepping my own meals at home. It’s a chance to make something new and delicious while controlling what I want to go in it. A home kitchen can be a wonderful spot to explore recipes, try out new skills, and even spend more time with your family and friends; however, kitchens can easily become a spot for accidents if you are not taking the correct safety precautions. Here are some quick tips to get you started and keep you safe while cooking.

1. Wash your hands. Having clean hands is one of the best techniques to prevent foodborne illness and contamination. This Wash Your Hands poster gives a great example of how to correctly wash your hands. Also, if you have long hair, be sure to tie it back before washing your hands to keep it away from your face and out of the food.
2. Have a clean work area and clean tools. Having a clean area can cut down on the chances of food contamination and keep you organized. Who wants to work in a dirty kitchen anyway? Be sure that all equipment you use, such as knives, cutting boards, bowls, and other tools are clean and dry before use. Also, keep all cabinet doors and drawers closed to avoid injury and spills.
3. Wash and check your ingredients. If you’re using fresh fruits and vegetables, be sure to wash them thoroughly with cool, running water, being sure to remove all signs of dirt. Also, check them over for signs of spoilage. If you see soft spots, mold, or other signs of spoilage, be sure to throw out the piece of food to avoid food borne illness.
4. Keep cold food cold and hot food hot. Cold foods should be kept below 40°F and hot foods should be kept at 140°F or above. This helps to keep ingredients from spoiling. This means that if you need a cold ingredient, such as milk, only take it out of the fridge when you need it, and be sure to put it back when you are done.

Next week, I will share the second blog in our kitchen safety series with tips on knife safety.

Written by Annie Contrady, ISU Dietetic Intern

Honey Mustard Dressing


Our February recipe of the month is Honey Mustard Dressing.  This is a super easy homemade dressing that can be used for more than just salads.

To make this dressing, combine ¼ cup each of only four ingredients – Dijon mustard, honey, cider vinegar, and oil – in a container with a tight fitting lid.  Shake well and serve.  This dressing has many uses:

Try our Honey Mustard Dressing this month; I think you will like it!


Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Staying Active when the Temperatures Drop

Taking a long walk and playing in the park on a beautiful day are pretty enjoyable ways to be active. The sad truth is that here in Iowa, we have several months out of each year when the weather outside is less than ideal. Lately, we have had days when the temperature doesn’t even reach zero degrees, brrrr! The frigid weather combined with fewer hours of sunlight can lead to all of us feeling an energy slump.

Despite this, adults need 150 minutes of physical activity per week for good health. So how do you make it work if you do not want to invest in a gym membership and it is so unpleasant outside? You can get moving indoors with very little equipment and still raise your heart rate and work your muscles. Here are some ideas for indoor workouts.

  • Schedule walking dates with friends. Walking is great exercise and doing it with a friend helps with accountability. You can walk at the mall or use an indoor walking workout video. There are many free walking videos available to stream online.
  • The CDC has created a series of videos featuring muscle-strengthening exercises that you can do at home.
  • Make the chores you have to do part of your fitness routine. Why not put on some music while you clean the house to speed up your pace and raise your heart rate?
  • If you have little ones at your house, include them in the fun with these ideas for indoor active games to play with children.

If you choose to exercise outdoors during the winter months, make sure you do so safely. The American Heart Association has some helpful recommendations for being active in cold weather.

Share how you stay active during the winter on Twitter (@SpendEatSmart) or Facebook (Spend Smart. Eat Smart.)

Enjoy these activities while we count down the days until Spring!

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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A Three-Week Meal Plan


Last week Justine shared with you how she does meal planning for her family. I use a similar strategy for my family of four. If you are new to meal planning or starting as a new years’ resolution, we have just the thing for you, a sample three-week meal plan. It includes ideas for meals and snacks as well as links to recipes!

Our sample is a place to start and can be adapted for your family’s needs based on what they like, how many snacks they need each day, and family activities. When creating a meal plan, here are some tips to keep in mind:


  • Plan for leftovers – To help keep food costs low and reduce food waste, make leftovers a part of your meal plan. You will see in the sample meal plan that we planned to have leftovers from supper the next day for lunch occasionally. Depending on the size of your family, you may need to increase the size of the recipe if you want to have leftovers to use at another meal.
  • Prepare extra – To maximize the benefit of your time in the kitchen, plan recipes that use similar ingredients so you can cook extra of an ingredient to use in a recipe another day. For example, if you make Chicken Alfredo Pasta one night, cook extra chicken to use in Chicken Club Salad the next day for lunch. This will also help with food costs and food waste. For food safety purposes, you should use extra cooked meat in a recipe within a day or two of it being cooked.
  • Keep variety in mind – Even though we recommend using leftovers and preparing extra ingredients to use in multiple recipes, it’s also a good idea to include variety in your menu plans. This helps keep meals exciting and makes sure you get a variety of vitamins and minerals. Use a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables. Try different kinds of protein like beef, chicken, or fish and non-meat sources like eggs, beans and nuts. Use different grains like whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat bread.
  • Plan the fruits and vegetables – Many times the main meal is planned, which is often a source of protein, but not the side dishes. Be sure to plan what fruits and vegetables will be a part of the meals and snacks. This helps to be sure they are included in meals and snacks and are part of your shopping list. Use different kinds of fruits and vegetables including fresh, canned, frozen, and dried.


Meal planning may take a little time when you first get started, but it saves time when it comes to getting a meal on the table. No extra tips to the grocery store and stressing about what you are going to have for supper.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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A Meal Plan For My Family

Here at Spend Smart. Eat Smart. we talk about planning meals a lot.  This is because it is easier to save money and make healthy food choices when you have a plan.  I know that on the weeks that I do not have a plan, or on the weeks when my plan goes wrong, I end up making more trips to the store, spending more money, and making less healthy choices.  

My colleagues have written many great blogs about meal planning here, here, here, and here.  If you want more information about meal planning, take some time to read this helpful information.  Today, I am going to tell you about how meal planning works for my family of five.

I do a lot of cooking on the weekend, so I usually plan out my meals and write my grocery list on Friday.  First, I look at what I have on hand and think of what meals I can make to use up these foods before they go bad.  Then, I write down all of the meals I am going to make that week.  Our 5-Day Meal Planning Worksheet can be helpful for this step.  Finally, I write my grocery list and go shopping.

Now it is time for a confession, I rarely stick to my meal plan as written.  We are an active family and things come up, so I give myself a break here.  If it is 5:30 on Monday night and everyone is hungry but I have not even started supper, I will pull out Sunday’s leftovers and re-heat them.  This pushes Monday’s meal to another night, but that is ok.  Just remember, if you have raw meat in your refrigerator, it is only good for 3-4 days, so stick it in the freezer if you will not be using it soon.

Meal planning is a great way to get your healthy new year’s resolutions off to the right start.  So, give meal planning a try!

How to Plan Meals CALENDAR

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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