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Living Well With Life Online: Meal Prep 101

Welcome to the first week of our fall series – “Living Well with Life Online”! As we are all adjusting to a new semester, this one looks a lot different than what we are used to. Whether you are a mom working from home, or a student taking classes online, we are all finding ourselves spending a lot more time near the kitchen. Gone are the days of afternoons spent running around to various activities, lunches served on campus, and eating out at restaurants on a regular basis.. Many of us are now faced with the task of preparing 3 meals a day, which can be intimidating to say the least. Whether you are completely new to a kitchen and have never turned on the stove before, or you are an experienced cook, we can all use some tips on meal prepping as we enter this new phase of life online. Not only will your body thank you for reducing the number of meals out, but your bank account and the environment will be happier as well. 

When speaking with Molly, the first thing she emphasized is that meal prepping doesn’t have to be hard! If you google meal prepping, you can easily come across many Pinterest pictures of perfect meals prepped on a Sunday, requiring multiple recipes and spending many hours on Sundays next to the stove. Do not let these articles and pictures intimidate you – meal prepping does not mean you have to serve a five-star meal 3 times a day; instead, it’s just a strategy to make use of what you have in your pantry so you can prepare multiple meals with less cooking. Let me repeat: it doesn’t have to be perfect – you just need to grasp the basics. 

Let’s start with how to grocery shop. The main thing you want to think about before heading to the store is which items you can buy that you can use in different ways. Below are staples you always want to have on hand, as they can be used for multiple meals and allow you to create versatility for whatever you may be cooking: 

Pantry staples:

  • Olive oil, vinegars, salad dressings, and sauces such as Worcestershire sauce

  • Spices and Herbs (can be added to basic items to make things less boring)

  • Canned items including various beans, as well as diced tomatoes

  • Broth (chicken, beef, or veggie) – often in lots of recipes 

  • Whole grains including rice, quinoa, and pasta (you can even buy these pre-cooked and frozen at many stores to reduce cooking)

  • Canned fish and/or tuna

  • Peanut Butter

  • Various Nuts and seeds 

Fridge and Freezer staples: 

  • Eggs! (Last a long time and great source of protein)

  • Cheeses – cream cheese, shredded cheese, or block cheese

  • Yogurts

  • Frozen vegetables and fruits

  • Onions and garlic

  • Bread

  • Bulk meats/fish 

While these lists might look long to some, you will find that once you have these in your fridge/pantry, you have the toolkit to turn this intimidating idea of cooking into something that is doable. Instead of panicking at 6 pm that you have nothing for dinner, you will quickly be able to make pasta and pull out frozen vegetables, and maybe even heat up leftover chicken. The moral of the story is that shopping for versatile foods that don’t quickly expire will make your life a lot easier.  

When shopping at the grocery store or digging through the pantry with a grumbling stomach, ask yourself some questions – what can I cook to reuse and maximize the number of meals I can get out of something? Or what can I use that I already have cooked to make something different? If you are preparing chicken for dinner on a Sunday night, you could grab extra at the store and make double – this way you can reheat during the week and repurpose with different spices to vary the flavor. While you may use your chicken on Sunday night with veggies and a starch, you could then add taco seasoning, throw in some rice and beans, and have an easy taco night. Even more, if you don’t want to cook chicken, you can grab a rotisserie from the store to either eat plain, put on a salad, throw in a pasta dish, add to a quesadilla or use to make chicken salad. Easy enough, right?

The same goes for vegetables and starches – if you buy a cucumber, you can throw it in a salad or chop it up to eat with hummus for an afternoon snack. Or you may think about cooking extra quinoa to either use as a side, add to a salad, or mix with beans to get a whole new dish. The moral of the story is that if you are intimidated by grocery shopping and cooking in general, don’t let the idea of following exact recipes overwhelm you; instead, just think about what you can buy and cook once to turn into several meals. 

On that note, let’s think about what a meal actually is. If you are new to nutrition, then you might think the purpose of a meal is to fill you up. But then, with that as your only requirement, eating a box of Oreos would qualify. From a nutrition standpoint, when you think about making a meal, at the bare minimum you want to think about getting a combination of protein, starches and vegetables. This way you will get the nutrients that you (and your brain!) need to perform at your best, while also making sure you stay full. If you’re in a rush or are a vegetarian, the biggest challenge is most likely going to be the protein aspect. We tend to have no problems filling to starch box – most snacks and starches like pasta or rice are easy and convenient to make. But if you don’t consume any protein with the starches, you sacrifice the nutritional value you need and will be hungry in the next hour. 

For the vegetarians out there, pantry staples like eggs, beans, Greek yogurt, nuts/seeds, and even quinoa can become your best friend, as they are easy to have on hand and can be used in different ways. For example, eggs can be scrambled for breakfast, put on avocado toast for a lunch, or even thrown with rice, vegetables and soy sauce for a fried rice dinner. If you are vegetarian and are new to the kitchen, don’t shy away from meal prepping tofu or falafel and using throughout the week as well. There are many ways to get creative! For the meat-eaters, you will probably have an easier time coming up with ideas for getting protein in your diet but may lack the time or skills to cook meat. This is when buying and prepping in bulk may be handy, as you can switch up the sauces or spices for meats to eat in different ways throughout the week. 

So now that you hopefully understand how to strategize your shopping and cooking plans to create the most flexibility, you might be wondering “How do I actually make this food??” And believe it or not, the answer is easier than you think. If you are making vegetables, you can either microwave frozen vegetables, sauté vegetables on a pan with olive oil, or spread out on a cookie sheet with oil and seasonings to put in the oven and roast. If you are making meats, you can quickly google ways to season through marinates and then either bake on a cookie sheet in the oven or throw on a skillet or grill. If you cook on a skillet, make sure to add olive oil to the pan and double check that your proteins are cooked all the way through (the cook time will vary by meat type). If you are making rice, quinoa or pasta, this requires little skill other than boiling water (although you need to be exact with water to starch ratios for quinoa and rice). Just those three categories alone – vegetables, proteins, and starches – are enough to cover a vast array of meals. It’s not as hard as it sounds! 

The main message to get across here is that cooking doesn’t have to be perfect – all we need to do is dumb it down to the basics and you will find yourself saving time, energy, money, and the environment while gaining nutritional value. You also don’t have to cook every single meal in – one idea Molly suggests is tallying up the money you would be spending if you were eating out every meal, picking a couple nights a week to eat out, and treating yourself to nicer restaurants. Even if you go out, as long as you are balancing yourself by cooking in sometimes, you will surprise yourself with the money you are saving! Everything adds up – and your body will thank you in more ways than you may ever know! So now that we are all settling into this new lifestyle of life online, let’s gear up to do it right this time!! 

And don’t forget to check out our NEW recipes page to help you with your prepping! We will post a recipe every week, alternating with vegetarian options as well.  

This article was written with the help of Molly Devine, Registered Dietitian and Owner of MSD Nutrition. 

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