For many families, the new year can bring a time of renewed focus on eating well. But between sports, after-school activities, work schedules and homework, cooking healthy dinners can seem near impossible. Likewise, for those on a tight budget, costs can be a concern as well.

However experts say that with smart planning and good buying decisions, dinnertime doesn’t have to be a stress.

Getting started with meal planning

Does your family plan meals? Meal planning is just what it sounds like: putting together a plan for the meals (often the dinners) in a week. Doing so requires a little time, creativity and somewhere to write the plan, such as a calendar.

The key is to plan meals that are easy to prepare and that the family will enjoy.

“A lot of time, time is an issue and budget is an issue. One of the things I recommend is kind of on a weekly basis getting together as a family [to plan],” says Tama Fitzpatrick, RD, CDE, clinical dietitian at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

A great place to start, Fitzpatrick says, is by looking at both what you have in the freezer and what’s on sale at local grocery stores. “Start there to get the base and then from there you can throw in your list for vegetables, fruits and side dishes,” Fitzpatrick recommends.

When planning, she suggests planning out two or three meals that can be made, and then filling in gaps with faster options like tacos and omelets.

The pitfall of convenience

Fitzpatrick says that takeout can be alluring but aren’t the best options for your family’s health. Worse, they don’t necessarily save money.

“It costs more money to go out to these convenience places and then you get [a less healthy meal],” said Fitzpatrick.

Instead of resorting to fast food, opt for quick and easy meals that use fast cooking foods. “It’s hard sometimes to motivate families to prepare meals … Sometimes I kind of remind them of how easy it can be,” Fitzpatrick said.

Having items like canned beans and tomatoes in the pantry and ground meat in the freezer can be a good place to start for this, Fitzpatrick said.

Nutrients without big price tags

One thing Fitzpatrick hears often is the misconception that it costs more to eat healthy. That isn’t necessarily true.

“You don’t always have to get the fancy fruits and vegetables,” she said. “You can go frozen, and once in awhile you can go canned.”

Fitzpatrick suggests that families look for fruits and veggies that are in season. In season produce costs less and tastes great. For instance, citrus season is coming, so oranges and other citrus fruits will be at their freshest and most inexpensive. Also, she says to look for produce sales.

As for frozen fruits and veggies? They are nutritionally as good as fresh — especially since they are often flash frozen at the peak of ripeness, Fitzpatrick says.

Practice moderation

Are your kids begging for an indulgent pasta dish? Hoping for a tasty dessert? These things can be a part of a healthy diet too when enjoyed smartly, said Fitzpatrick.

“Once in awhile, I think it’s okay for moderation. Your diet’s not necessary going to be perfect but you can step it up a little,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s okay to have that food. Don’t put it on the menu every week.”

She also suggests practicing portion control with indulgent foods and filling up on healthier side dishes. “Fill up on the vegetables so you feel more satisfied having that higher calorie food,” says Fitzpatrick. “You can amp it up a little bit by how you eat it and what you eat it with.”

Choose better takeout

And on those nights when you just have to have takeout? Fitzpatrick says to choose wisely.

“The best options are usually the places where you have the ability to order healthier options,” says Fitzpatrick. Look for places where you can get a salad on the side, choose more veggies and fruits with your meal, etc.

This, she said, can be easier in more urban areas like Bangor, but for more rural areas, it’s a matter of finding the places where those healthier options are available — and within your budget.

Sarah Walker Caron is the senior features editor for the Bangor Daily News. She can be reached at

Sarah Walker Caron

Sarah Walker Caron is the senior editor, features, for the Bangor Daily News and the editor of Bangor Metro magazine. She’s the author of “Classic Diners of Maine,” and five cookbooks including “Easy...