As the very well known saying goes “variety is the spice of life” and so it is with our food. When our diet is varied we are much more likely to get all the nutrients our body requires to be healthy and active. Ensuring that our diets are complete with loads of different fruit and vegetables, meat and legumes, breads and cereals and dairy ensures that we are giving our bodies all that they need. 

Our diets have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. For many of us growing up, the typical NZ dinner consisted of meat and three veg. Today I don’t think there is a ‘usual’ dinner type meal. For many it is still meat, potatoes and veg but in my practice I hear about all types of meals including one-pan dinners, takeaways or foods from a packet and while others love to experiment with new recipes. There are many factors that have influenced this change including greater availability of ethnic foods, both parents working and changing lifestyles.

Meals for me while growing up definitely meant meat and three veg. Within this is still the possibility of variety. My mum’s guiding rule was never to eat the same meat or vegetable (other than potato) two nights in a row. As a mum feeding my own children, I usually favour one-pan dinners. While my children would be forever grateful to live on spaghetti Bolognese and other pasta dishes I work to provide a greater variety.

Creative family meals

Whatever meal is the usual in your home it is still possible to eat a wide variety of different foods, although less so if relying on takeaways and packet meals. Most cooks have their favourite ‘go to meals’ that occur regularly and these help to keep us sane and reduce stress levels. When you do feel like a change it can seem too daunting to try new things or too time consuming, but with a little planning I bet you’ll be glad that you did.

My favourite idea for increasing variety is to create a weekly/fortnightly meal plan. I know this sounds like a complete contradiction! A plan to be creative? Surely creativity is all about going with the flow and what you feel like eating at the time? I personally don’t find that this is the case. Without a plan I get to five o’clock and I still don’t know what I’m going to serve the family in an hour. I start to feel a bit stressed; I have had it in the back of my mind all afternoon. My internal dialogue is something like this: “I need to get some meat out of the freezer. What is in the freezer? What do I feel like? I can’t be bothered cooking. What’s easy? What will the kids eat? I really need to get some meat out to defrost, but what?” So by the time I have decided there is very little time left, I don’t always have the ingredients I need and I make whatever is quick and I am rushing to get it made before the kids start going into hunger overdrive. Sound familiar?

Last year I decided that I would sit down before grocery day and make a plan for the fortnight. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I decided what I wanted to cook. I sat down with my favourite cookbooks and picked out recipes that I had been meaning to try for a while but hadn’t because I wasn’t organised enough to have ingredients etc. I had a real mixture of tried and true along with some weird and wonderful new recipes. As I chose the recipes I started my shopping list as well so that I knew I would have everything I needed. It takes me about 45 minutes to decide on meals for two weeks. I plan for two weeks as I try to only shop once a fortnight. Share the responsibility and involve the family so that they choose some of the meals as well. This allows them to have some ownership of the meals and encourages their participation, and can make your life a little easier.

Planning family meals

We have had some fantastic successes like spicy bean soup which has become a family favourite. I thought the kids would hate it as it has red kidney beans but everyone always asks for seconds and it is super easy to make, which gives it a big tick from me. Another one that I have been pleasantly surprised about is tofu. I have to admit I am not a huge fan and thought the texture would put my kids off. Both asked to try some while I was cutting it up and I almost let my prejudices cloud their judgement as I caught myself about to say “I don’t think you’ll like it, I haven’t marinated it yet”. Luckily I stopped myself just in time and they thought it was great, even unflavoured and uncooked.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t come out as good as the picture or your family don’t much care for it. It is only one meal and these things happen even to the best of us. Tomorrow is another day and another meal and next time it might be something that becomes a family favourite. I have decided to stop trying to second guess what my family will like as I often end up getting it wrong. So we have a variety and sometimes it is a hit and other times it is most definitely not and gets struck off the list.

Having a plan doesn’t mean you are stuck when things change. I often swap the meals between days or decide I don’t want to make a specific dish because we are having friends over or we decide to have a bbq or it just doesn’t suit on that day. Having a plan means I don’t have to think unless I want to.

Now that I have been doing menu plans for a while I can mix and match from previous weeks as well. This makes it a lot faster and I still put in some different recipes. I like going to the library and finding recipe books, it is a great, cheap way to get inspiration. I am also a huge googler of recipes. Lately it has been “courgette recipe” to deal with my glut of courgettes from the garden but I do it for everything I want to try new. Some great websites that I like are BBC Food and www.taste.co.nz. I am also enjoying Annabel Langbein’s Free Range Cookbook that I have borrowed from the local library. I add recipes to my website that have been a hit with my family, check them out at www.foodhabits.co.nz/recipes. Don’t forget that Kiwi Families also has some fantastic family recipes. Wherever you find your recipe ensure that you make a note of where to find it again. I write down the book author or title and page number on my menu plan or if it’s a webpage I save it into an app on my phone and sometimes I don’t have an actual recipe so I just write down the main ingredients that I want to use.

You can find lots of different apps to help with menu planning and while I haven’t used any myself there are plenty of reviews online. I googled menu planning app reviews and got a lot of different options and it’s good to get some different opinions, sometimes it adds to the confusion but it’s a place to start. I haven’t ventured there yet and mine remain as messy notes on a piece of paper.

Whatever your recipe try to add in some extra vegetables. To get the variety you need you should aim for at least a third of your meal as vegetables. This can mean having a salad on the side or adding in some chopped and grated vegetables to your sauce or meat, or simply having some steamed/boiled/roasted veg on the side. If you have a colourful plate then you are providing variety. Each vegetable type has it’s own unique blend of vitamins and minerals. Eating fruit and vegetables in season means they are cheaper and they have a higher nutritional value. Fruit and vegetables lose their water-soluble vitamins, C and B, when stored for long periods. Tinned and frozen vegetables can be a good alternative to the wilted carrot lost in the back of the vegie bin as the nutrients are locked in during processing.

Have fun experimenting. Find a website or cookbook that inspires you and whether you choose to follow a meal plan or not, try out something new this week. It could be as simple as a new vegetable or a complete meal. You won’t know until you try.

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Andrea has a passion for food and health and has turned her passion into a profession. As a qualified dietitian and chef Andrea wants to help others feel the same way, which is why she started her own business Food Habits based in Lower Hutt. To find out more go to www.foodhabits.co.nz.

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