Gabriel Contreras, 5, left, looks at his full plate of food while his younger brother, Miguel, 3, gets a spoonful of quinoa with rice from the two siblings' mother, Sarah Berglund, as they eat dinner in their Bloomington apartment on Aug. 15.
BLOOMINGTON — Gabriel and Miguel Contreras sat down to dinner as their mother, Sarah Berglund, placed plates of protein and vegetables, bowls of salad and cups of milk in front of them.
"I like salads," Gabriel, 5, said excitedly before taking a bite of romaine lettuce.
"And I like chicken," he said before taking a bite of tilapia. When it was pointed out that the protein he and his brother were enjoying was fish, he said "I call it chicken because I don't know what is fish."
No matter. Gabriel and Miguel, 3½, were eating their lettuce, tilapia, steamed broccoli and carrots, pinto beans and red quinoa with brown rice and drinking their milk.
"I like carrots and broccoli," said Miguel, as he took a bite. "I like beans."
Yes, the boys were eating and enjoying their balanced meals.
"Mom is in a hurry," Gabriel noted.
Yes, she was. The 27-year-old Bloomington woman, after she served her sons, served herself, encouraged her boys to finish their dinners even though they were distracted by visitors and wanted to play outside with water balloons, talked with her sons about their days as she ate her dinner, kept an ear out for their two dogs in the other room, then dipped a plate for the boys' father, Oscar Contreras, when he joined the family after finishing work for the day as a dry wall hanger.
"This is our time of day to reconnect," Berglund said calmly.
It was busy. But variations of this scene from the evening of Aug. 15 are being played out in households throughout Central Illinois, beginning last week, as another school year begins and families get back on a regular schedule.
It is possible for families to eat healthfully — and sometimes together — on those busy school nights when dinner is crammed in after school, work, practices and rehearsals but before homework, dinner cleanup and household responsibilities.
It just takes a lot of planning.
Berglund knows. A Heartland Community College student who wants to become a nurse, Berglund works two part-time jobs — as a breast-feeding peer counselor and certified lactation consultant at the McLean County Health Department and as a patient care technician at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center.
Gabriel is a kindergartener at Thomas Metcalf School. Miguel attends Chesterbrook Academy Preschool.
"They like their vegetables," their father, 27, said as he enjoyed dinner.
"We try not to give them too many sweets. And they prefer water over anything else. It's always because of her," he said nodding to Sarah.
But it takes effort.
"When I was pregnant with Gabriel, we (she and Oscar) both improved our eating habits," Berglund said. She got information from her obstetrician/gynecologist, her own research and from the health department's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal nutrition assistance program for low-income pregnant or breastfeeding women and their children.
"The WIC education really helped," she said.
"I nursed both of them," Berglund said. "Miguel is still nursing." So she ensures not only that her sons are eating healthfully but that she is as well.
Berglund uses a variety of resources to find healthful, easy recipes.
"We cook Thai. We cook Indian. We try different things so the kids don't get bored with the same foods," Berglund said. Plus, the variety of recipes introduce the children to different foods.
During the weekend, she purchases ingredients called for in those recipes. WIC vouchers were used to help to purchase most of the food that she and her family had for dinner on Aug. 15. The others were purchased at a discount supermarket or farmers market.
During the weekend or early on weekday mornings before the boys wake up, she cooks the meat so it's ready to reheat on those busy school nights. She pointed to pork that she had cooked earlier in the week and that remained in the refrigerator for use later in the week.
If she knows she won't cook the meat for several days, it goes in the freezer, she said, pointing out her well-stocked freezer.
Raw vegetables such as carrots are cleaned, cut and placed in containers with wet paper towels to keep the veggies moist. That way, they're ready for quick snacks or to add to casseroles or slow cooker meals.
Having meat already cooked and some vegetables already cleaned makes it easy to throw ingredients into a slow cooker in the morning for dinner that night.
It also quickens prep time for casseroles. Berglund said that sometimes she makes large casseroles, such as chicken and broccoli, during the weekend and leftovers are enjoyed during the week.
Leftovers can be revamped into a new dish. For example, Bergland was planning to use the leftover fish, beans and rice from the Aug. 15 dinner for a fish taco or bean and rice fajita dinner later in the week.
In addition, she makes sure that she has fresh fruits on hand for quick healthful snacks, side dishes or desserts. Her family enjoyed watermelon slices for dessert on Aug. 15. Apples, mangoes and nectarines also were out and available.
"Watermelon is my favorite," Gabriel said.
Isn't salad his favorite?
"Watermelon is my favorite fruit. Lettuce is my favorite vegetable," he clarified.
His mother smiled.
Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech