Many of us today feel constantly stretched thin, moving from one to-do list to the next, balancing work and family life, and often making shortcuts when it comes to our health–especially with our diets. We may have the best intentions to eat whole, plant-based foods at every meal, but when time is short at the end of a long, hectic day, we find ourselves reaching for whatever is quick and easy: junky fast food or store-bought frozen dinners. How can we avoid these common pitfalls? One of the best ways is to prepare healthy ingredients, snacks, and meals in large batches before we need them. To be sure, that preparation takes some planning and a larger investment of time up front, but the result will be time and money saved over the long run.
By prepping key ingredients and recipes ahead of time, you put healthy foods at your fingertips during those busy weekdays. There’s nothing better than reaching in the fridge and grabbing some already cut fruit, a pre-cooked veggie burger, potatoes that can be warmed in a toaster oven, or a homemade bowl of soup that can be reheated in the time it takes to set the table. Salads and power bowls can be put together in minutes if the right ingredients are ready to go. Lunch and dinner come together without having to put that much thought into it. It just makes life so much easier! As an added bonus, your grocery bill will be lower as you only stock up on items you need for your planned meals.
Here are some tips I have found useful:
Before you head to the grocery store, make a menu for the week, then check your pantry and refrigerator to review what ingredients you are running low on. You may want to keep a list of all the ingredients you stock in your kitchen. There are a number of convenient apps that can help you do that. One of my favorites is Anylist. Paprika Recipe Manager is another of my favorite apps to store recipes, make weekly menus, and compile shopping lists.
Weekly shopping ensures that your produce stays fresh, and it minimizes waste. It is also much easier to plan meals for seven days than for an extended period of time. Choose a day of the week to shop and schedule time for menu planning before then. For instance, you may do grocery shopping on Friday and place everything inside the fridge until Sunday when batch cooking and prepping is more convenient.
There are many ways to plan your meals. Here are some popular ones:
a. Choose themes for each night – Monday may be Mexican Night, Tuesday Asian Night, Wednesday Italian Night, Thursday Burger Night, Friday Pizza Night, and so on.
b. Cook meals that can be combined with new ingredients – Monday’s chili can be used to top baked potatoes on Wednesday. Tuesday’s crispy lentil “bacon” can be used as a pizza topping on Thursday and as a power bowl ingredient for lunch on Friday. Quinoa can be served with veggies and beans one day, and added to your oatmeal or soup on another day. The possibilities are endless!
a. Buy a variety of fresh, seasonal fruit every week
b. Create a “Salad Bar” in your fridge
c. Make salad dressings – Salads can be simply dressed with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, italian herbs, and a vinegar of your choice. Alternate making your favorite dressings with new ones for a fun and creative way to dress your veggies. Some of my favorites are non-dairy caesar, ranch, miso ginger, and thousand island.
d. Make a big pot of soup – Soup is an easy meal to prepare as everything goes in one pot. Switch it up and cook a different soup every week.
e. Make a big pot of chili – Chili can be eaten in so many different ways: alone, over grains, on top of potatoes, over homemade baked tortilla chips, in a power bowl, etc.
f. Make a “Burger of the Week” – Double or triple the recipe for your chosen burger of the week. Save some to be eaten that week, and freeze others to be saved for a later time. It is better to freeze them after they’ve been cooked so they don’t fall apart in the freezer.
g. Cook a large batch of grains – Brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, and wild rice can be used to make soups, casseroles, bowls, and veggie burgers, or they can be enjoyed with beans and veggies. Try cooking different types of whole grains a few times a week, and then freeze them for later use. This way, you always have them available for recipes.
h. Cook a large batch of beans – Dried beans such as pinto, black, chickpeas, or lentils can be quickly cooked in an Instant Pot or pressure cooker. Try cooking a different type of bean a few times a week and then freeze them for later use so you always have them ready for recipes.
i. Bake a bunch of potatoes – Scrub some potatoes and sweet potatoes and put them in the oven at 400°F to bake for about 30-40 minutes or until you can stick a fork in them. You can serve them with steamed veggies, leftover chili, or as a side dish. Or pack them as a snack when you are on the go!
j. Make some breakfast recipes – During the week, you may too busy to stop and make a wholesome breakfast. If you make Sunday brunch, just double or triple the recipes to eat throughout the week. How about thinking outside the box and eating vegetables for breakfast? Popular recipes to batch cook for breakfast are:
a. Glass containers that are oven safe are the optimal storage containers for the refrigerator and freezer. This way you reheat your meals in the same container in the oven and minimize dish washing. Before closing the container for storage, you may want to cover the food with parchment paper to prevent freezer burn.
b. BPA-free freezer bags work great for freezing lots of different items.These may be washed and reused to minimize waste.
c. Mason jars are convenient to make personal overnight oats and salads, and for storing dressings and sauces.
d. Green bags extend the life of fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator. Make sure your produce is dry to prevent mold, and remove the air from the bag before closing.
(foodsafety.gov, realsimple.com & USDA)
a. Refrigerator – Cooked food generally stays fresh for about 4 days in the refrigerator.
b. Freezer – This depends on the type of food and your freezer. To avoid the dreaded “freezer burn,” don’t freeze your food longer than 2-3 months, and pack food tightly in containers so that there is minimal air space in the bag or bowl.
c. Special Instructions for Fruits:
|Apples||3 weeks||1 week|
|Blueberries||1 week||1 day||1 year|
|Citrus Fruits||2 weeks|
|Cooked Beans||5 days||3 days||8 months|
|Cooked Rice||6 days||4 days||6 months|
|Dark Leafy Greens||5-7 days||8 months|
|Onions||2 months||6 months|
|Quinoa||1 week||4-6 days|
|Strawberries||3 days||1 year|
|Winter Squash||1 week||3 months|
***The shelf life of all produce also depends upon the variety, how ripe they were when picked, and how they were stored after picking and prior to distribution to the retail store or market.
Source: Boyer, Renee, and Julie McKinney. “Food Storage Guidelines for Consumers.” Virginia Cooperative Extension (2009): n. pag. Web. 7 Dec 2009.
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