I don’t know about you, but everyone I know is super busy. Every client who comes into my office seems to be juggling long work hours, a demanding career and family obligations while trying to maintain a social life and some semblance of a healthy lifestyle. The number-one reason people give me for why they don’t eat well or exercise is lack of time. Self-care seems to be the first thing to go out the window when we get overwhelmed and busy.
Luckily you don't have to spend countless hours cooking or prepping meals each week to maintain a healthy diet. There IS a better way! In fact, if done right, meal prep can actually save you time while helping you look and feel your best. So why not give it a try? You’ve got nothing to lose (except maybe a few pounds) and who couldn't use more free time in their schedule?
Below are my top tips for streamlining your meal prep and making the most out of the time you spend in the kitchen.
1. Cook once, eat twice (or more!) You may have heard me say this before and that's because it’s the best way to make mealtime most efficient. Some of us refer to this approach as “batch cooking.” You'll do one set-up and one cleanup, but you'll end up with multiple meals. Here’s what you do:
• Pick a cooking day. Instead of cooking every night -- pick a day or two when you’ll make the recipes for the week ahead. Sure, you’ll spend a little more time in the kitchen on your cooking day(s), but you’ll get an extra hour or two the other days (or evenings) of the week! I recommend you also prepare snacks and lunches on your cooking day. I cook on Sunday afternoons or evenings which works for me, but you'll need to pick a day that works best for you.
• Double or triple your recipes when cooking. When you prepare more than you need for one meal, you have plenty to pack for lunches and you’ll find that dinnertime is fast and easy. Learn to love leftovers!
2. Have it your way. Try different ways to eat the same meal – if you’re grilling chicken breasts, make extra to chop and include in salads or soups. Make a large batch of quinoa and add it to soups, salads or use it in place of rice with a stir fry or curry. I even use it in place of oatmeal to make a hearty breakfast porridge by adding coconut milk and topping it with shredded coconut, walnuts and cinnamon.
3. Plan ahead. We all know we shouldn’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach, but you also shouldn’t go without a list! And the only way to have the most effective list is to plan your recipes for the week and get everything you need for those meals.
4. Delegate! Use grocery delivery services like Instacart, Amazon Fresh, or Amazon Prime Now. For a small delivery fee you'll save all the time you would have spent driving to and from the store and shopping. You also won't be tempted by impulse items so that fee may pay for itself! And if your kids are old enough, get them involved! Teach them how to wash produce and safely use a knife, and give them a special reward if they help with cleanup. The more involved they are with the process, the more they'll want to try new and healthy foods. This applies to spouses too :-).
5. Invest in quality storage containers. Now that you’ve made extra food, you want to package it in single-servings or family portions, then freeze or refrigerate it. Don’t forget to label and date the container – I use glass containers with seal-tight lids (don't store food in plastic!), mailing labels and a Sharpie for this task. Then when you’re ready to prepare, just take out the number of containers you need for the number of people who’ll be eating with you; warm it up, and serve! See what I mean by less time in the kitchen on the other days of the week?
6. The freezer section is your friend. Many grocery and health food stores carry high-quality, organic, non-GMO frozen vegetables, fish, berries, and more. This will significantly reduce your cooking time and ensure you always have something healthy and fresh to eat. The same goes for pre-washed salad mixes and greens like arugula and baby kale. I keep organic arugula on hand at all times so I can throw together a quick salad to get my greens in when I'm short on time or energy.
7. Stock your kitchen with standbys. Foods I always have on hand include: organic arugula, organic, pasture-raised eggs and chicken breasts or thighs, pre-cut celery, radishes (great with guac!), bell peppers and cauliflower (SO versatile), avocado, salsa, guacamole, organic sauerkraut, brazil nuts, pumkpin seeds, organic extra virgin olive oil & raw organic apple cider vinegar. The pre-cut and pre-washed veggies really help reduce my prep time! With these standbys on hand, I can always make a salad or lettuce wrap. I also keep my kitchen stocked with coconut milk, quinoa, and frozen berries (which I use in my morning smoothies).
8. Prepare for the next day tonight. If you pack a lunch, select your favorite mix of leftovers the night before, and pack it in an insulated lunch box. Include everything you’ll need to enjoy the meal at work, school, or wherever you’ll be for lunch! Also include your snack(s) and water. Try to avoid microwaving your food if at all possible. I know this can be tough in the workplace but there are alternatives. This Lunch Warmer by Crock-Pot is a great and affordable option.
9. Fast times call for slow cookers. Invest in a high quality slow cooker and buy the biggest one possible. Throw in your ingredients in the morning, set the timer and voila! Dinner is ready when you get home from work. This is a super-efficient way to make several meals worth of a delicious and hearty dish that you can easily reheat on the stovetop or freeze for future meals.
10. Buddy-up and swap meals! Make arrangements with a family member, friend or neighbor to cook and swap! You make one soup or meal and they make another and you split them in half and share.
I’d love to hear how “cook once, eat twice (or more!)” is working for you! There are loads of benefits, including:
- Sticking to your healthy eating goals
- Saving hours during the week
- Reducing the stress of those three little words: "What’s for dinner?"
- Saving money by sticking to your list and resisting “impulse” buys at the store
- Trying new recipes and food combinations
- Less waste by using up leftovers throughout the week
- Being more present with family at dinner time