Let’s face it, the back-to-school season is busy. While our intentions to meal plan and prep are good, it doesn’t take long for competing priorities to take precedence. As a result, we find ourselves regularly eating out, ordering out, and/or digging in the kitchen for something quick to eat. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case. With a just a little planning and practice, you can have balanced meals ready for the nights you’re on-the-run as well as those when you’re able to sit down and enjoy the meal as a family.
Here are 7 go-to strategies for meal planning and prep during the back-to-school season:
- Stock your freezer. Prepare soups, casseroles, stuffed peppers or mushrooms, turkey or veggie burgers, veggie egg muffins, and similar types of foods in advance, and then freeze them for a hassle-free meal that just needs reheating. Keep a healthy supply of frozen fruits and veggies, free of added sugar and salt, on hand at all times. Freeze homemade or store-bought pesto, chicken broth, and tomato paste in ice cube trays for portion control and convenience.
- Simplify the menu. Consider making one or two-dish meals a standard. They’re less taxing, and there are fewer dishes to wash. A stir-fry, soup with an open-faced sandwich (1 slice whole wheat bread = 1 Healthy Snack), omelets and fresh berries (3/4 cup berries = 1 Healthy Snack), or a salad filled with vegetables are but a few options.
- Batch cook & work ahead. Grill several chicken breasts, hard-boil a dozen eggs, make a big pot of chili, prep a large veggie tray, and roast or steam a medley of vegetables to have for the week. Bake vegetable egg muffins for a grab-and-go breakfast option and pre-portion bags of raw veggies and nuts to throw into lunch boxes. Peel, cut, wash, and chop all of the veggies you’ll need for your meals on a day when you have a little extra time.
- Look for shortcuts. Buy pre-washed and cut veggies, including cauli-rice, zucchini “noodles”, baby carrots, and lettuce. Look for quick-cooking whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, and farro. Consider purchasing pre-cooked and/or pre-portioned protein options, like grilled chicken breast strips, canned tuna (packed in water), canned beans (no salt added), hardboiled eggs, pre-cooked shrimp, and individually wrapped frozen fish filets.
- Use your kitchen gadgets. Slow cookers, rice cookers, pressure cookers, microwaves, toaster ovens, immersion blenders; utilize them all! These appliances will drastically cut down on prep time.
- Find ingredient overlaps. When picking recipes for meal prep, try grouping them by overlapping ingredients. If you need to make cauli-rice one night for stuffed peppers, you can use it later in the week to make a cauliflower crust pizza. Spinach can be used in a salad, crustless quiche, or as part of the filling in eggplant rollatini. Already prepped chicken and vegetables can be an Asian stir-fry one night, Mexican chicken fajitas the next, and Italian chicken cacciatore another.
- Make a list. Determine what foods you will need for each meal, make a list, and grocery shop. While grocery shopping, don’t forget to stock up on healthy staples, like low-fat Greek yogurt, pre-portioned packs of nuts, low-fat cheese sticks, and fresh grab-and-go produce (e.g. apples, bananas, pears, and mandarin oranges).