When working with clients who are trying to eat healthier, one of the biggest challenges they face is food prep. Yet, unless you have a private chef (which most of us don't), you have no other choice.
Unfortunately, without sufficient food prep, you are likely to make less than ideal choices. In a moment of ravenous hunger, we've all eaten something that isn't particularly nourishing mostly because it was convenient or cheap, or maybe both. Yet sadly, for many, convenience comes at a price: poor nutritional quality. Lucky for those of us who want to make healthier choices, a little organization and planning goes a long way. And with a little practice, it can also save us time and money.
The fact that many grocery stores currently deliver combined with the existence of a whole slew of companies that ship meal ingredients right to the front door says a lot about how busy we've become as a society. Still, despite these resources, most of us will have to shop for some if not all of our food needs. Thus our food prep often starts with our grocery list, and like many things in life, a little planning goes a long way.
1. Decide on a menu for the week and strive for overlap. For example, if you plan to serve chicken breasts for dinner Tuesday night, make enough for two nights or use left overs for an easy lunch the next day. You can also cook extra breasts and use to make something completely different, like chicken salad.
2. When planning your list don't forget snacks. Fresh fruit, veggies, hummus, nuts, nut butters, plain yogurt, and cheese all make quick and easy snacks. Choose produce with different shelf lives and then use those with a shorter shelf life first. That said, be wary of prepackaged snacks like granola bars or trail mix. Most are marketed as healthy snacks. Some might be, at least pseudo healthy, but many are not.
3. Also make sure to have a few healthy but quick back-up options for those days when time is tight. For example, a rotisserie chicken, some parboiled long grain rice with quinoa, a can of black beans, and some fast cooking veggies like broccoli and/or frozen veggies can be a life saver when life gets in the way. You can literally have dinner ready and on the table in about 15 minutes.
4. Finally, don't forget to keep your spice cabinets stocked. Basal, oregano, rosemary, thyme, cayenne pepper, chili pepper, turmeric, curry powder, coriander, sage, cumin, paprika, dill, chives, onion and garlic powder, and many others. Dried herbs and spices not only pack a huge nutritional punch, but they also make food taste so much better.
Ideally, you should be shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where most of your fresh/whole ingredients are kept. Frozen fruits and veggies are also a good purchase.
Because food isn't going to cook itself, setting aside a few hours every week for food prep is a must. It just is. No if, and, or buts about it. No use complaining. No room for excuses. If you want to eat healthy, it's something you need to do. End of story. Fortunately, like most skills we possess, the more practice you get, the better you get. I've decided that food prep is no different. And remember, you don't have to be Julia Child, Martha Stewart, or Paula Dean to get something going on in the kitchen. Not every meal has to be a culinary masterpiece, so don't sweat it.
1. Dedicate a few hours on the weekend or a weeknight to making the bulk of your food for the week. I do a lot of my prep on Sunday afternoon, but with four kids, I've got to be flexible so I am.
2. Think big. People tend to underestimate how much food to prepare. Just remember, the oven is on, the cutting board is out, and you are all geared up in food prep mode. Make the most of this time. For example, I tend to season 2 lbs of chicken thighs, 2 lbs of chicken breasts, and 1 lb of salmon and then cook in the oven at the same time. While the meat is cooking, I slice up zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, mushrooms and onion and sauté in prep for my veggie lasagna. Once my veggies are cooking, I get busy preparing some lean steak strips in another pan. Just about the time the meat in the oven is finishing, the lasagna made with the above veggies, tomato sauce and some fresh parmesan is ready to be baked. Depending on what I have planned for the week, I might also slice an acorn squash by scooping out seeds, coating with melted coconut butter, sprinkling with cinnamon and then throwing in the oven. By this point, the steak I've been cooking on the stove top is also done.
I like to precook most of my meat (which may seem like a lot as I am cooking for the family) because it is then ready to go during the week when I don't have a lot of time. I can add meat to a rice and bean dish, serve with veggies, use to top a green mixed salad, and/or use to make a chicken salad. The main point is that whenever I cook my oven is filled. This saves time and money.
3. Have a generous assortment of glass dishes with tops which can be used for cooking and then for storage. Mason jars are also nice. Fill with individual servings and keep in the fridge or maybe even in the freezer depending on the dish and when you plan to eat it.
4. Make sure to use foods with a shorter shelf life first. Obviously, some foods, even after cooked don't last as long as others. For example, I sometimes make a veggie based soup. Because I don't add my meat directly to the soup, it can be kept for a week or even longer in the fridge without going bad. Some other foods might not last as long. And remember, for those foods likely not to keep, you can try freezing as an option.
5. Using pre-cut veggies is also a time saver. However, the very act of cutting up vegetables results in a loss of nutrients. The longer cut veggies sit, the more nutrients that are lost. In addition, pre-cut produce has a relatively short shelf life, so while they can save you time if you use them in a timely manner, they can also end up costing you money, especially if they go bad and need to be thrown away. Another solution would be to buy produce that is pre-cut but frozen. The thawing process is a relatively quick one. Furthermore, frozen produce generally retains its nutrient value and has a long shelf life.
Putting together a healthy meal in a pinch
If you've heeded the above advice, you already have some quick, healthy meal options in mind. If not, I've provided some examples to get the wheels spinning.
1. Rotisserie chicken, parboiled long grain brown rice with added quinoa, a easily cooked veggie like broccoli or a frozen veggie medley.
2. A prewashed mixed green salad with the Rotisserie or some of the meat you cooked earlier in week.
3. A microwaved baked potato with skin, topped with dried chives, garlic and onion powder, paprika, and a dollop of plain Greek yogurt, sour cream, or fresh parmesan cheese, served alongside a hard boiled egg (one of six you prepared during your weekly food prep) and a vegetable.
4. A piece of whole grain bread toasted and topped with sliced avocado, mozzarella cheese, and sliced tomato or fresh salsa if you have it and oregano.
5. Plain Greek yogurt with pecans, raspberries, and vanilla.
6. Seasoned, deveined, and steamed shrimp that you purchased on shopping day can be added to a salad, served with veggies, or added to a stir fry with whole grain brown rice or other quality grain.
I also have some decent frozen foods that I keep on hand. For example, I have a frozen veggie burger that is made from kale, quinoa and a few other healthy ingredients. I can cook these in the microwave in under 2 minutes, eat on whole grain bread with spinach, sliced cucumber, and avocado, or I sometimes will serve on a plate, topped with spinach, avocado and my mother's homemade salsa. The key is to read the label when purchasing any food you don't make. Even if the food isn't as healthy as one you'd make yourself, you can improve its overall nutrient density by adding your own fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grain rice, or protein source to it. Case in point. I buy a frozen chicken, rice and vegetable medley that simply needs to be warmed up. On a scale from 1-10, 10 being the healthiest, it's a 5 at best. However, in a pinch, I will cook it but add my own frozen veggies (broccoli and string beans), essentially doubling the veggie content and bringing the overall meal quality up to a 6 or 7. It's not ideal, but certainly infinitely better than a Big Mac from McDonalds.
Practice makes perfect, but more importantly it helps to form good habits
A habit is something that doesn't require a ton of executive function. It's more automatic and thus takes less energy and thought. Food prep can feel overwhelming to the average busy individual in part because it is new and/or different. It requires a lot of energy and effort in the beginning. But it does get easier. In fact, the more you do it, the easier it gets, until food prep is the equivalent of any other habit you've ever developed in your life. The key is to stick with it. Don't strive for perfection. Strive for improvement. Bad habits don't go away overnight, and good habits take time to take hold. In the short-term, concentrate on making small changes. Seek help and guidance. Then stick with it. You won't regret it.