A Nutritionist’s Secret to Healthy Back-to-School Meals

Create meals your family will love (even on busy school nights) with these 10 dietitian-approved shortcut ingredients.

Twelve cans of open vegetables sit next to one another in three rows.  There are peas, carrots, beats, snow peas, corn, chick peas and Lima beans in the cans.


Twelve cans of open vegetables sit next to one another in three rows. There are peas, carrots, beats, snow peas, corn, chick peas and Lima beans in the cans.

Photo by: Getty Images/FotografiaBasica

Getty Images/FotografiaBasica

I always strive to serve my family healthy — I’m a nutritionist, after all! and delicious meals all year long. But between dance lessons and helping with homework during the busy back-to-school season, getting a homemade meal on the table that I can feel proud of can be a struggle. That’s why I’m sharing my secret to success in the kitchen: canned foods!

Yes, you read that right! Not only do canned foods help me cut down on prep time in the kitchen so I have more time to spend with my family, but they also help us eat more nutrient-rich foods, leading to healthier overall diets. And, you may not know this, but studies have shown that kids and adults who use six or more canned foods per week are more likely to have diets higher in 17 essential nutrients.

Help your family ‘ace’ the back-to-school season by keeping my top 10 favorite canned ingredients in your pantry.

1. Chickpeas

Also called garbanzo beans, these are a great addition to salads to boost both fiber and protein intake I also love to roast them in the oven for a crunchy snack (check out my Roasted Chickpeas 3 Ways). Canned chickpeas are already prepped so there’s no need to spend hours soaking and cooking them. This allows me to enjoy dinner with my family.

2. Anchovies

Anchovies are chefs’ secret for adding rich umami (or savory) flavor to dishes. Just puree half of a filet into a salad dressing or tuck a filet or two into your tomato sauce. The final product won’t taste one bit fishy so your kids will never know the difference and it’ll deepen the flavor while also contributing some calcium, iron and zinc to your meal.

3. Apricots

If you love peaches, then you gotta give apricots a try! Adding apricots to snacks and meals is a simple way to boost fiber, beta carotene and vitamins A and C in your diet. But if you think they’re hard to come by, think again! Seasonal vegetables and fruits like apricots are available year-round thanks to canning, which keeps food fresh and flavorful without the need for preservatives and additives. Sweeten up dinnertime with Golden Rice Pilaf featuring canned apricots, slivered almonds and golden raisins.

4. Beets

Beets are chock-full of essential everyday nutrients, like B vitamins, iron, manganese, copper, magnesium and potassium. Despite my best efforts, whenever I purchase fresh beets, they often go bad before I get around to cooking them. Thankfully, canned beets help me reduce the amount of perishable fruits and vegetables I purchase and then throw away. Plus, since they’re already prepped, I can skip the messy preparation that leaves my hands looking red, and easily add them to my salads.

5. Tuna

Canned tuna is a family favorite in my house. It’s a delicious way to boost heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, leading to a healthier diet overall. I love incorporating tuna into salads, sandwiches like these Tuna, White Bean and Olive Sandwiches and even pastas.

6. Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes

Make room in your pantry for a smoky version of your favorite diced tomatoes. Canned fire-roasted tomatoes are the base for my favorite “dump and stir” tomato sauce. The tomatoes are harvested at the peak of ripeness and canned within only four hours, sealing in their nutrition and flavor. Plus, the cancer-fighting antioxidant, lycopene, found in canned tomatoes can be absorbed by the body more efficiently (compared to raw), making them a nutrition superstar in our house.

7. Salmon

Canned salmon as well as tuna is the easiest and most common way for me to get those brain-healthy omega-3s into my girls’ diet. These 5-Ingredient Salmon Burgers hit the spot every time. Plus, the girls love helping me recycle the empty cans when we’re finished meal prepping. Little known fact: Cans are completely and endlessly recyclable.

8. Peas

My love of canned peas started at a young age when I would top my mom’s mashed potatoes with a hefty serving of them and now my girls do it too! I always have a can on-hand whenever the mood strikes. And, I don’t have to worry about fresh peas spoiling in the fridge before we get a chance to enjoy them. Plus, who has time to shuck the raw peas out of the pod?

9. Sweetened Condensed Milk

Quite possibly the hidden jewel of the dessert world, sweetened condensed milk is the stuff that even Martha Stewart dreams about. (Seriously, we talked about it when I was on Martha Bakes, and she spilled the details of her love affair with it to me behind the scenes!) Sweetened condensed milk is real dairy milk that is condensed to about 60% of its original volume and then sweetened with sugar. It is rich, thick and has a light caramel color, making it an ideal addition to baked goods, desserts and more.

10. Black Beans

A can of black beans is incredibly versatile: great for a salsa, salad, soup, skillet dinner or folded into quesadillas and breakfast burritos. And here’s the best part: They add a hefty dose of fiber, folate, manganese, magnesium, iron and plant-based protein.

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