A Happy, Healthy Family


How to Make Healthy Meal Prep a Snap

As a former teacher with a super-type A personality, I find comfort in planning and preparation. That's not always the best or most fun way to go about life, but it is an asset when it comes to healthy eating.

We've all gotten stuck a time or 100 at 6 PM, realizing there's nothing to eat and/or having no energy to do anything other than call for takeout. That's okay now and then, of course, but if you want to have a healthy diet, planning and prepping are key.

Although I never feel quite as prepared as I would like, I have developed a few go-to tactics over the years.

Make sure to have a meal plan for the week (I'll talk more about that in another post). This post is about preparing ingredients for that meal plan.

Buy in Bulk
Buying in bulk can be a great way to save money and/or time (because, let's face it, sometimes it's worth it to have a ton of something you use all the time even if it means paying a little more), but the key is to buy only what you will use and what is healthy. You don't need 10 pounds of chocolate or a gallon of coconut oil if it will go bad before you ever use it.

Here are the items I buy at Costco (all organic, if possible): rolled oats, brown rice, quinoa, sliced raw almonds, raw walnuts, raw pecans, raw whole almonds, raw honey, raisins, diced tomatoes, ground cinnamon, vanilla extract, frozen fruit for smoothies and baked goods, and some produce (only what I know we'll be able to use before it goes bad--lettuce, spinach, and blueberries, usually). I bought a 10-lb bag of dried black beans there once, and although I was using them at a pretty fast pace, they got some sort of bugs about halfway through the bag, so I'm back to buying smaller bags, but I do buy several at a time.

Rethink Your Kitchen

Although having a pantry is wonderful, it shouldn't be where you get most of your snacks or meals. It should be a place to store dry ingredients, really. Your freezer and refrigerator should be where you go to find something ready to eat. Read on to learn more!

Organize Your Pantry

I try to have "zones" in my pantry--baking supplies, oils, spices, snacks (just a few), dried pasta, etc. Not only does this make it easier to find items when I'm cooking, but it also makes it easier for me to see what I have so that I can buy what I need each week. Nothing derails a healthy-eating plan faster than missing a key ingredient and not having time to go to the store!

Make Your Freezer Your Best Friend
Until I was in my 30s, I viewed my freezer as a place to store frozen pizza, ice cream, and TV dinners. Now, you won't find any of those items in our house, yet our freezer is always packed to the brim. Here's how I use ours:

I store certain items in there to keep them fresh longer, especially if I have bought them in bulk: whole wheat flour, ground flaxseed, Bob's Red Mill 7-Grain Cereal (for my homemade bread), all nuts, and brown rice.

I make big batches of waffles, oatmeal cups, and muffins and keep them in gallon-size freezer bags. To reheat, put muffins and oatmeal cups in the microwave for 30-45 seconds; put waffles/pancakes in the microwave for about 30 seconds then in the toaster to crisp up. You could also put any of these in a 400-degree oven for about 10-15 minutes, if you have time.

I always have at least one loaf of my homemade bread frozen and ready to go so that we don't have to run to the store in an emergency. Just make sure to transfer it to the refrigerator the night before you need it to give it time to thaw.

When I make soup, I freeze half of it in quart-size bags or double the recipe and get a ton (still freeze in small portions). To thaw and reheat, put it in your crockpot on low, and you'll have soup for dinner! 

Buy fresh produce in season, prep it (dice, chop, whatever) and freeze.

I also always buy certain frozen fruits and veggies because we use them in tons of recipes: organic corn, broccoli, green peas, green beans, cauliflower, blueberries, peaches, pineapple, artichoke hearts, and berry mix (strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries).

If you have produce that is a little more ripe than you would like it to be (but not rotten!), put it in the freezer! Slice bananas, strawberries, etc. and put them in a bag for smoothies or muffins later on. Put spinach that's starting to wilt in bags to use for smoothies, soups, etc.

I make big batches of things I use in recipes all the time and freeze them in the quantities I'll need:
  1. I cook a huge batch of beans (I use black beans, pintos, and chickpeas the most often) and freeze in 1 1/2-cup amounts--this is the amount in one can of drained and rinsed beans. So if a recipe calls for a can of beans, I can pull out one bag, and I've saved a ton of money! If you're putting the beans in soup, put them in the pot frozen--no need to thaw in advance. 
  2. I cook big batches of brown rice and quinoa and freeze in 1-cup amounts. Recipes often call for 1 or 2 cups of these ingredients, so it's easy to pull out a bag or two. They'll thaw pretty quickly in the refrigerator, or if they're going into soup, throw them in the pot frozen, just like the beans.
  3. Homemade granola bars can go into the freezer (cut them first) and be taken out as needed (they'll thaw pretty quickly and can go into a lunch bag frozen).
  4. Homemade pizza crusts (recipe coming soon, I hope!) can be frozen and pulled out as needed.
  5. I often make smoothie packs so that all I have to do is dump the pack in the blender, add liquid, and blend. A typical smoothie pack might include a sliced banana, spinach, and some other sliced fruit. If you like yogurt in your smoothies, you can freeze yogurt in ice cube trays first then add a few cubes to your bag.
  6. Buy vegetable stock when it goes on sale and freeze it in smaller amounts. I've seen some people freeze "pucks" of stock in muffin trays or in ice cube trays but have never done this myself. I'll often buy a carton, use what I need in a recipe, and then freeze the remaining 1 or 2 cups in a Ziploc bag. I use vegetable stock to cook my brown rice and quinoa to add a little flavor, and it's the base in all of my soups.
Whew! Look how far my freezer has come from my ice cream and TV dinner days! Of course, if you have room, you can also freeze entire meals like vegetable lasagna, pasta shells, etc. 

Use Your Refrigerator
The freezer is great, but the refrigerator is a close second. Keep it stocked with prepped food you know you will use in the very near future:

If you're going to eat salad each day, prep your salads all at once and put them in a container to grab on your way to work. Even if you work from home, having a salad prepped means you have no excuse for not eating a healthy lunch!

While you're chopping up your salad ingredients, go ahead and prep the rest of your fruits and veggies. If you know that your kids want strawberries with breakfast each morning, slice them ahead of time so that you just have to spoon them onto the plate in the morning. No excuse for not having fresh fruit! (Of course, berries need to be eaten quickly, so do this only if you know you'll be eating them before they go bad). If your family eats a lot of frozen corn (I add it to salads), steam a big batch to use throughout the week instead of cooking it each time you need it.

Keep cooked beans in the fridge. When I'm prepping my beans after cooking them, I make sure to always put some in the fridge for salads or last-minute quesadillas, burritos, etc.

Pack lunches and snack-size amounts of fruits and vegetables so that you're not rushed in the morning.

Know Yourself
One last note--know what you will and won't eat, in terms of both junk and healthy food. If you absolutely will not eat kale, don't waste your money on it, even if you feel like you're "supposed" to be eating it. Stock the healthy foods you will eat. At the same time, if you know a half-gallon of ice cream will be gone in no time in your house (ahem), don't even buy it. Set yourself up for success!

My system isn't perfect, and I know that I rely on plastic bags way too much--I'm just not sure how else to store everything I want in the freezer. I do use glass storage containers in the refrigerator.

So what did I leave out? Do you have any other tips to make prepping for healthy eating a little easier?

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