Let’s be honest: Cooking healthy dishes requires planning, time and thoughtful use of your grocery budget. But, it’s not impossible and with a little practice it’s actually quite simple (and affordable!). When I first began preparing meals for our family after our daughter starting eating solid foods, I struggled with two extremes: Either spending half the weekend doing meal prep or not being prepared enough and having oh-god-i-have-an-empty-fridge-and-don’t-know-what-to-make-but-my-toddler-is-screaming-for-lunch-now episodes throughout the week.
It took a while to figure out a system that works for us, but I now have 5 meal prep strategies to minimize prep time (hello lazy Sundays!) while keeping my fridge stocked with healthy options throughout the week.
- Make a big batch of your favorite grain to use over-and-over-and-over again. My go-to grain is Quinoa for its low-glycemic index and high-protein power. I make a big batch (about 10-12 servings) to be used throughout the week. Made plain, it’s as simple as boiling and storing — then gets mixed with leftover sweet potatoes to make quinoa patties, hot cereal using quinoa instead of oats, tossed with a vinaigrette and fruit and raisins to become a salad, reinvented as a tofu & veggie stir fry, sautéed with garlic & kale and topped with a fried egg. You can also do the same with a wild and basmati rice, couscous or whatever preferred grain you like. The key is to make sure it’s healthful and something you enjoy, and mix it up on occasion so you don’t get burnt out on any single type of food.
- Make a roast chicken every week. I have a super simple roast chicken recipe that makes an appearance once a week in our house. Whatever meat is leftover gets shredded and stored in the fridge (or I just whip up a quick chicken salad for lunch the next day or two before putting in the fridge). Plus, the bones can be used to make stock….just pop the carcass in a freezer bag until you’re ready to use it!
- Pre-slice fruits & veggies…every 2-3 days. The internet is full of people boasting “prep a week’s or month’s worth of meals at once” — but by washing and chopping too far in advance, most veggies and fruits’ nutritional value is diminished (not to mention taste and texture). While it’s ideal to cut only before using, that’s really not an option for the busy mom or dad. Most nutritional value is lost within 5-6 days (also the amount of time it usually takes to begin decomposing or spoiling) — but I also know that if I don’t do some advance prep, I’m less likely to eat or use fruits and veggies. Instead of the ‘weekly’ or ‘monthly’ strategy, I prep only enough to cover snacks, lunches and dinners for 2-3 days at a time. This ensures nutritional value, taste and texture is preserved as much as possible — while reducing my kitchen time if I were to need to prep those items before each meal.
- Make ‘flavor cubes’ with leftover herbs and garlic. This is my secret to quick pasta dinners, delicious fish, easy marinades, herbed rice or quinoa side dishes or perfectly spiced vegetables. Whenever I have a leftover supply of herbs, I pull out my food processor and combine them into ‘flavor cubes’ — once processed, simply freeze in ice cube trays and once frozen, pop into clearly labeled ziplock bags. Whenever needed, I grab a cube or two to toss into a marinade, dressing or side dish to add a fresh burst of flavor without any effort. Some of my favorite combos? Cilantro, Garlic & Parsley // Basil, Sun Dried Tomato & Sunflower Seeds // Mint Cilantro & Dill // Parsley, Dill, Capers & Lemon Zest // Cilantro, Coconut Milk & Crushed Red Pepper.
- Open a can. Canned food gets a bad rap for alarmingly high amounts of sodium as well as endocrine-disrupting linings (although, in the sake of not being an alarmist, I’d recommend reading this). I do choose low-sodium or no salt added canned items OR make sure to rinse anything that isn’t to help reduce the sodium. My pantry has a mix of regular and BPA-free cans though I do tend to choose BPA-free brands like Eden Foods or Westbrae Naturals as long as I can find the type of item I’m looking for and my budget allows. With all that being said, canned items are quick, healthful and help keep your food budget down because there’s rarely any food waste. Plus, you can’t beat their convenience. I love cans of chickpeas to make hummus or add to salads or stews, pole-caught tuna to add to pasta or salads, black beans to mix in with veggies or grains, canned corn to serve with cilantro and lime, pumpkin to add to baked goods for extra moisture, tomatoes! for sauces, grains and braising meat.
These five strategies each week help make sure I can make meals or snacks throughout the week that are healthy, affordable…and best of all, don’t require an entire weekend to prep for!