The school year is now in full swing, which means dinner hour can be a busy time.

With constant running around, it can be tempting to hit the drive-through and eat in the car on the way to your next event. However, when we eat at home, we tend to spend less money and eat a more balanced, healthier meal.

Sept. 24 is National Family Day, recognizing the importance of eating together as a family. Benefits of family meals include children with improved academic performance and self-esteem, lower rates of obesity and eating disorders, and lower incidences of substance abuse and teen pregnancy.

The best way to get a meal on the table with a hectic schedule is to plan ahead. This can be easier said than done, but the benefits of planning are truly worth it. The weekend is a perfect time to do just that.

Take a look at your upcoming schedule for the week and plan your meals based on the preparation time needed. Many Sunday afternoons, I take the time to chop up a few vegetables or pre-cook some chicken breasts to use during the week for quick, easy meals. Or I’ll prepare two to three meals throughout the weekend that I freeze for later in the week.

An easy way to gather everyone to the table is with a fun food station. Food stations can be offered at any meal, and with prep work done ahead of time, they can be set up in a snap. Have your family brainstorm ideas on toppings they like. Make it a goal of the meal that everyone must include foods from each food group on their plate. Kids also tend to eat better at meal time if they are involved with preparing the meal.

5 food stations for family meals

Oatmeal bar: If you cook your oatmeal in the slow cooker overnight, it will be ready to go by morning. Topping ideas: fresh fruits, thawed frozen fruit, nuts, dried fruit, cinnamon, maple syrup, flax seed, chia seed, granola and vanilla yogurt. See the overnight oatmeal recipe below. Tip: Use a slow cooker liner for a quick and easy cleanup.

Spud bar: Pre-bake baked potatoes and have the following toppings available: broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, salsa, green onions, black beans, cheese, rotisserie chicken or diced ham.

Nachos: Top whole-grain corn chips with chicken, black beans, salsa, tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, pre-cooked brown rice, crumbled cooked lean hamburger, corn, peppers, plain Greek yogurt and cheese. Bake it in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes until cheese melts.

Pasta: Precook whole-grain pasta and offer a variety of sauces and toppings: low-fat Alfredo, pesto, marinara, steamed vegetables, cooked shrimp, cooked chicken, reduced-fat meatballs, fresh basil, cheeses, fresh baked bread.

Pizza: Whole-grain pita crusts or whole-grain tortillas with toppings: cheeses, pesto sauce, pizza sauce, cooked broccoli, diced peppers, canned pineapple tidbits, olives, mushrooms, diced ham, turkey pepperoni, cooked chicken and fresh herbs.

Overnight Oatmeal

Nonstick cooking spray

2 cups uncooked steel-cut oats

8 cups water or skim milk

1/2 teaspoon salt, optional

Assorted toppings such as brown sugar, maple syrup, cinnamon, raisins, fresh fruit or berries, optional

Coat a 6-quart slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Stir together oats, water and salt, if desired, in slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or overnight or until nearly all water or milk is absorbed.

Stir well before serving. Serve with assorted toppings, if desired. Refrigerate leftovers. Makes 16 servings (1/2 cup each).

Per serving: 40 calories, 0.5 grams fat, no saturated fat, no trans fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, 7 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, no sugar, 1 gram protein.

Chicken Nacho Supreme

Whole-grain or baked 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 finely shredded cheddar cheese

Fat-free plain Greek yogurt, 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 fat-free plain Greek yogurt and chopped green onions, if desired. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Economy is a Winona dietitian. Her information is not intended as medical advice.

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