We all live very busy lives – working twelve hour days, running the kids to and from school and practice, hours of housework and yardwork – and the list goes on. And then, after all that, we have to prepare a meal for ourselves and our families. It would be a lot easier to run through the drive thru of a fast food restaurant or to throw a frozen pizza in the oven, but what if we want to give ourselves and our family something healthier? How do we do this without staying up until 10PM just to cook and eat? Keep reading for helpful tips and ideas!
You have probably heard that meal prep is a great way for those with busy schedules to have healthy meals, and if done correctly, that’s absolutely true. Planning meals, making lists, grocery shopping, cooking, and storing the cooked food in easily accessible containers in the fridge are all steps of meal prep and can be done when you have extra time, like on the weekends or a day off during the week.
One key when planning meals is to make sure you are including lean protein and vegetables in each meal and a smart carbohydrate (whole grain or starchy vegetable) and healthy fat with some meals. For example, if you are prepping breakfast, lunch, and dinner, make sure to include a protein and vegetable in all three of those meals and a smart carb and healthy fat in one or two of them, depending on your personal needs. Sticking to appropriate portions is also important during meal prep. One serving of protein is one palm-sized portion for women and two for men. One fist-sized portion of vegetables is an appropriate serving for women, and two fist-sized portions of vegetables are appropriate for men. A serving size of carbohydrates is one cupped hand for women and two for men, while one thumb-sized portion is a serving size of fat for women and two thumb-sized portions for men.
Both shopping and cooking in bulk are important strategies for successful meal prep. While it might take an hour to prepare one evening meal, it won’t take much more time, if any, to prepare five or six evening meals to have throughout the week. Same goes with menu planning and grocery shopping – you’re going to spend the time to do that for one meal, so why not do it for five or six meals to save yourself time during the week?
Separating foods into proper portions after preparing and/or cooking is the next step in successful meal prep. While storing foods in clear, stackable containers isn’t necessary, it is helpful. If you don’t already have containers like this and don’t want to spend the money right now, use what you have, but make sure to label what is in the containers so you know what’s in them without having to pull them out and peek under the lid. Using the same food for different meals is another benefit of meal prep: for example, if you’ve chopped up green peppers for an omelet for breakfast, use the rest of them on a salad for lunch the next day or in fajitas for dinner.
Maybe there is night or two where you know you’ll be really short on time – soups and one-pot meals (like “dump meals” for the Crock-pot) that include protein and vegetables are great for nights like this. If you’re like me and you’re short on time most mornings, breakfasts like overnight oats or pre-baked egg muffins might be perfect for you. Tired of spending money on low-quality fast food for lunch at work? Salad in a jar (throw lettuce or kale, all your favorite veggies, and a tablespoon of dressing into a jar or container with a lid and make sure to give a good shake before eating) or pre-portioned leftovers from the night before are convenient options for a healthy lunch away from home.
Once you find what works for you and get into a routine, meal prep will become second nature. Meal prep is also a great way to get your whole family involved – sitting down to plan meals, shopping, and preparing and cooking food together makes everyone feels included and helps insure the whole family will enjoy the planned meals. It’s also a great way to teach the kiddos cooking skills, proper portions, and the overall importance of healthy eating. Meal prep can be a wonderful time saver and a huge step towards better health, and it can even be fun!
Think positive, stay active, and smile. -A