• Haley Dixon, Dietetic Assistant

Meal Prep for Busy Students and Families

Tis' the season of busy lives! With holidays and midterms abound, it may seem hopeless to find time to eat healthfully. However, there is a solution... Meal prepping! As the name indicates, meal prepping is the art and science of preparing meals ahead of the time you need them. Many believe meal prepping to be complicated and difficult, but it does not have to be! With a few simple tips and tricks, you will have an abundance of healthy meals to take with you on the go. Now that is REAL fast food.

1) Create a schedule:

Planning is an absolute essential for effective meal prepping. This is the time when you sit down and figure out your schedule. You need to find when you will have time to prepare and cook your meals according to your individual lifestyle. Some prefer to elect a single day of the week to prepare all of their meals for the following week while some prefer to divide the tasks throughout their week. Meal prepping is supposed to be tailored to your individual lifestyle. If you have a family, dividing of the tasks throughout the week would be incredibly efficient as well. Here is a fantastic visual resource for meal prepping: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/weekly-meal-prep-infographic.

As a busy student myself, I absolutely understand the difficulty of finding time to cook healthy meals. I am currently taking seven difficult classes and volunteering during my off-time. As a Nutrition major, I know the benefits of meal prepping, but I mess up too. Simply putting in the effort is what matters and you will find what works for you. When I meal prep, I look ahead for the next week and see what I have going on. For example, it is quite possible for me to have two big exams, a paper, several assignments, and a project due in one week. Taking into account events and amount of work I have to do, I find the slots of time when I am free and tailor my meal prepping to these times. One week I may prepare all of my meals on Sunday; the next week I may cut and chop my fruits and vegetables on Monday, cook my vegetables on Tuesday, cook my beans and grains on Wednesday, cook my tofu and remaining food on Thursday, and assemble everything on Friday. Meal prepping is all about finding what works best for you and completely subject to change with time. It is not about perfection, but taking the time to value your health and yourself.

2) Make a meal plan:

Once you created your schedule, make a meal plan and grocery list every week. Simply determine what foods you would like to include in your meals.

To create truly balanced and healthy meals, take into account MyPlate recommendations. All you have to do is go to MyPlate Daily Checklist. Once you have done this, create a simple formula according to your body and lifestyle needs. This way you get everything you need and nothing you don't. For example, for a 2,000 calorie daily need, a person should aim to consume 2 cups of fruits, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 6 ounces of grains, 5.5 ounces of protein foods, and 3 cups of dairy or other fortified foods, such as soy products or nut milks. Multiple these servings for each day and you can use these numbers as targets for assessing how much food to buy during your meal prep. Remember, it is not about perfection, but doing your best.

Once you know what foods and amount of these foods you should be eating, it is time to find recipes and determine the dishes you wish to eat. You can use cookbooks, health magazines, and online blogs to find recipes. A great tip is to include one to two new recipes to experiment with during your week. This gives your diet healthy variety and an outlet for your creativity. Make sure to mix things up. Create 2-3 options for all of your meals and snacks. Alternate these meals and snacks every day so you do not get bored!

Revolve the plan around the seasons. Look what fruits and vegetables are in season. This increases the chance of saving money, achieving peak flavor, and maximizing nutritional profiles. To further maximize savings, create dishes around foods that are on sale or having specials. Many stores have coupons and coupon apps to assist this process. Utilizing these sales to choose which foods to incorporate in your meal plan will allow variety and save money along the money.Always a big plus in my book.

Another important consideration when meal planning is your current food inventory. What foods do you currently have at home? Which foods are the oldest? Ask questions like these to figure out what foods should be eaten first as well as what foods you already have. Doing so will eliminate food waste and save you money!

I personally like to take advantage of online templates to simplify meal planning. Excel has several free templates that breaks down meals over the days of the week.

3) Go Grocery Shopping:

Once you have your grocery list and meal plan up your sleeve, it is time to go shopping. Stick to the list you created to avoid impulse buys that ultimately lead food spoilage and too much food consumed. These impulse buys are often various junk foods that are not healthy! Save your money for the healthy food and allot a small portion for your indulgences.

4) Prepare the Meals:

Now that you have your food, the time to cook has come. Your prepping schedule will come in handy for this step. Based on your meal plan, coordinate your prepping schedule with the steps needed to prepare your meals.

To make the process more convenient and efficient. make use of a variety of kitchen equipment. For example, slow cookers, steamers, microwaves, apple corers, and quick choppers are great tools to shorten prep time.

Honestly, the microwave is my best friend when it comes to meal prepping. Doing so allows me to steam vegetables while simultaneously cleaning or doing homework.

Look for shortcuts wherever possible! For example, you can make "hard-boiled eggs" in a muffin tin with a bit of water in the oven for 30 minutes. You will get perfect eggs every time.

Invest in food storage containers. They will make your life so much easier, especially if you are always on the go. Throw them in your lunchbox, backpack, or bag when you are running out the door. You can even organize your refrigerator according to each day's meals and snacks to further de-stress healthy eating.

5) Enjoy Healthy Meals:

Now that the hard part is out of the way, you now have a week's worth of healthy, prepared meals to enjoy.

Bon appétit!

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