5 Strategies for Meal Prep to Make Back-to-School a Breeze

Are you a parent of children who are heading into another school season? If so, then you might be feeling overwhelmed by the preparations that need to be made for this time of year. 

There is so much to do before that school bell rings! One thing I’m really looking forward to this fall is a new well-oiled meal prep routine.

One important strategy to lighten your load this school season is your meal prep strategy. In this post we will explore five strategies for back-to-school meal prep that will save you time and energy. Plus, you’ll love that your family is eating well.

I hope it helps make things easier for you and keeps everyone happy and healthy during these busy days!

Delegate

No matter your children’s age, they can help at some level with meal prep and lunch packing. Unfortunately, this is one parenting lesson I didn’t learn early enough. So get the kiddos involved as soon as possible and make it fun! 

Kids love to participate in food prep. Whether it’s cutting up ingredients, packing sections of their bento lunch boxes or stirring muffin batter, giving them some responsibilities will help your child to eat their meals if they’ve had a role in their creation!

Kids are also more likely to try new foods – even fruits and vegetables – if they’ve helped to prepare them. I’ll never forget the time my daughter ate smoked salmon in 1st grade and loved the idea of packing her “lox in the box” for lunch.

Plan and prep ahead

It is hard for any of us to make the best food decisions when we’re tired or frazzled – even a dietitian! Having a plan A and even a plan B helps to keep meals running smoothly, no matter how the day unfolds. 

Using a meal plan as a guide can be REALLY helpful. It doesn’t mean that you have to make every meal on a meal plan but it can help to get started with preparing healthy meals the whole family can enjoy. Select three dinners and a few snacks for each week of the month. Stick with it until you have a repertoire of at least 10 dinner meals you can put into rotation – this can take up to 4-6 weeks. Dinners such as soups, stews, and roasted proteins make excellent lunch box appearances when paired with non-prep items such as fruits, vegetables, cheese, and crackers. 

My favorite dinner leftover combinations include: 

  • Shredded chicken tacos with salsa and prepared guacamole
  • Vegetable chili with cheese and crackers
  • Beef stew with rice 
  • Tofu or other protein kabobs with pasta and prepared pesto sauce
  • Broccoli Cheddar soup with whole grain toast wedges

A  helpful tip to leveraging dinner as lunch is to scale your recipes to ensure you have enough for lunch the next day. Also, pack lunches BEFORE you eat dinner to avoid adding burden to your already busy morning schedule.

Batch your work

We talk about batching work with tasks at the office, but what about in the kitchen? Same time-saving principle applies!

Here are a few ideas:

If your kiddos love smoothies for breakfast, batch your smoothie packs in cups or bags in the freezer so that breakfast is as simple as dumping the ingredients into the blender and adding their favorite milk or juice to blend. 

Cutting veggies take time so why not cut up your child’s favorite vegetables (or have your child do it with you) once or twice a week and store them in baggies that are ready to toss into the lunch box. Or store all of the sliced veggies in a container so that packing their bento lunch box is that much faster.

And if you know that you’re cooking two different dinners that call for chopped onions and celery, chop up enough veggies for both dinners. You’ll be thankful for less chopping when the time comes to cook the second recipe! 

Use a template

How else can we reduce your mental load? Follow a template whenever you can!

If your child uses a bento box to pack their lunch, assign a food group to each section. Whole grains go on the left, fruits below, a protein on the right, and so on. Discuss what “counts” for each section of their lunch and brainstorm choices that fit into each category. From there, your child can pack their lunch with less input from you.

And for dinners, have some regular meals that you can depend on to be quick and delicious, without needing too much brain power. For example, Taco Tuesdays! Use the crockpot to cook your favorite taco filling and dinner will be mostly ready when you and your crew get home hungry. A few other ideas are breakfast for dinner, pizza Fridays and getting a rotisserie chicken on Mondays. My favorite is sheet pan dinners where I roast pre-cut vegetables and protein coated with olive oil and our favorite seasonings in a 425F oven for 15-20 minutes. I have included the recipe for the Balsamic Vegetable Sheet Pan Dinner as a template below. Just vary the vegetables (remember to batch your work), protein and seasonings to make it your own.  

Adjust your expectations

When your circumstances change, so too does your patience and bandwidth. This is completely normal! In this back-to-school season, remember to be gentle with yourself. If you have more activities to attend and more to-dos each day, it is reasonable to look for ways to simplify and delegate. You do not have to do everything yourself, or create meals in the same way as when you have more time. You can have a happy and healthy family, even with a few shortcuts.

Key takeaways:

Change always comes with a bit of stress, and back-to-school is full of changes! Be patient  with yourself and your family as you establish new routines. Consider what steps you need to take to ensure that you’re eating the meals that help you to thrive. Plan ahead and don’t forget to make that plan B!


How to cook squash – from Kabocha to Delicata

I agree – they’re intimidating! The mounds of colorful, tough-skinned squash and gourds arranged in boxes outside the automatic grocery doors as their more approachable, thin-skinned cousins nestle in their cozy produce-aisle beds. There’s no doubt that members of the Cucurbitaceae family, notably pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash, are beautiful, if not interesting, ornamental works of Mother Nature. But it seems that many are destined to be arranged on the front stoop of every suburban home from November through December.

Underneath their colorful, sometimes rough, exteriors is nutrient-dense flesh that does really well in soups – it’s just the right amount of starch to yield a creamy texture. But don’t stop there. They are also delicious baked and roasted along with protein of your choice….think sheet pan dinner! Many varieties have edible skins and do not need to be peeled. This makes them easy to prepare and high in fiber. No lie – it was a game changer for me when I discovered I can cook and eat the peel.

In addition to fiber, winter squash is an excellent source of beta carotene, vitamin A and vitamin C. If the nutritional attributes alone have not convinced you to make this healthy plant-based food a part of your regular diet, I hope you will give it a whirl once you learn all the delicious and versatile ways to use them in recipes. Personally, I love adding roasted squash to salads and puréed squash to baked goods (recipe below). Here I share with you some top picks for edible varieties.

Kabocha

Also known as Japanese pumpkin, kabocha squash has green skin, orange flesh, and a shape similar to pumpkin. The flesh is super sweet when cooked and is rich in beta-carotene – 1 cup has more than 200% DV (daily value) of vitamin A! Before preparing for cooking, place whole squash in a 350°F oven for about 20 minutes to soften the skin. It will make cutting, peeling, and chopping an easier and much safer experience. Try using kabocha in place of the butternut squash in your favorite soup.

Kabocha

Acorn

Acorn squash varies in color from dark green to tie-dyed green with orange shades. The flesh is less sweet than kabocha and is more yellow than orange. Just one cup provides more than 25% DV of vitamin C. You can soften the squash if needed by heating in the oven, although it is small enough that this may not be needed. Trim the top from each squash, invert on the cutting board, and slice from bottom to top to create two halves. Remove seeds. You can bake the halves with a drizzle of olive oil and a touch of maple syrup for 30 minutes at 350°F – an excellent side dish. You can also slice into half moons to prepare for roasting.

Acorn

Sugar Pumpkin

Sugar pumpkins look a lot like carving pumpkins so be sure to select those marked especially for cooking. They are sweeter than those cultivated for jack-o-lantern displays. The best way to cook the flesh is to roast the entire pumpkin – this allows the flesh to remain moist and helps the sugars to develop. Remove stem from pumpkin, rinse, and make several slits through the skin with a sharp knife. Bake at 350°F for about an hour. Remove from the oven and let sit until cooled. Cut off the top portion (around where the stem would be), remove seeds, and scoop out flesh. Try adding pumpkin to hummus or stir some into yogurt. Of course, you can always use it for baking!

Sugar Pumpkin

Delicata

Probably on the top of my list for ease of preparation! Delicata squash has a mild, nutty flavor, firm flesh, and thin edible skin. Preparing this variety could not be simpler: rinse, cut in half, remove seeds, slice into half-moons, toss with some olive oil and salt and bake at 350°F for about 20 minutes until browned. Delicious enough to eat on their own as a fiber-rich snack!

Delicata Squash

Now that you have a little more culinary knowledge about squash, why not put it to use and impress family and friends over Thanksgiving dinner. Here’s a recipe to inspire you:

Chewy Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bars

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup almond flour
  • 1/3 cup brown rice flour
  • 1/3 cup Tapioca Starch (tapioca flour)
  • 1/4 tsp xantham gum
  • 1/4 cup ground flaxseed
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 cup pumpkin purée
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup chocolate chips

Directions

Preheat oven to 325ºF and combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. Combine all wet ingredients in another bowl. Mix the dry ingredients into the wet until well incorporated. Pour into a greased shallow 8×8 pan or mini muffin pan. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool before serving.


Nutrition


Per Serving: 167 calories; 9.2 g fat; 20 g carbohydrates; 2 g protein; 0 mg cholesterol; 125 mg sodium.

Feeding kids on Halloween to Avoid a Sugar Crash

Feeding your kids a healthy meal on Halloween night may not be the first thing on your mind. But it should be high up on the check list for a successful Halloween. Fueling their bodies with some high quality food before they dash out for a long night of trick-or-treating may prevent a sugar crash!

A blood sugar crash is a result of eating too much simple carbohydrates – in this case Halloween candies. When the body gets a flood of sugar, it triggers the active production of insulin which is the hormone that regulates blood sugar. This may cause the blood glucose to decrease suddenly, resulting in a drop in energy level, also known as hypoglycemia. Some of the common symptoms are irritability, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, excess sweating, jitters, shakiness and dizziness.

Although the response to a sugar rush is very individual but why take a chance on Halloween night when kids are out on the busy streets in the dark.

Frozen pizzas, mac & cheese packages, and the like may seem like a quick solution for feeding your kids when you are busy. Surprisingly, in the time it takes to preheat you oven or boil water for packaged food, you can whip up a nutritious kid-friendly meal without preservatives, food-coloring, and added chemicals. The recipe below, Easy Pumpkin Mac & Cheese is easy (of course), fun, nutrient-packed, and only takes 20 minutes to make. Pumpkin is a very nutrient-rich ingredient – high in vitamin A, C, and fiber. If you want to boost the antioxidants even more – without doing more work – just add your kids’ favorite vegetables (chopped broccoli is my kid’s choice) to the pasta cooking water in the last minute of the cooking time. For more healthy food and cooking tips, check out my Instagram feed. Happy Halloween!

Homemade Mac & Cheese with Broccoli

Easy Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

Ingredients

  • 8 oz dried pasta
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 Tbs flour
  • 1 cup lowfat 2% milk
  • 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1/2 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1/2 tsp granulated onion
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika

Directions

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until it forms a paste, then slowly add the milk while whisking constantly. Cook 1-2 minutes until it comes to a simmer. 
  3. Stir in the pumpkin, cheese and spices then continue to cook over medium low, whisking often. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Once pasta is done, strain and transfer to the warm cheese sauce. Stir until completely coated.

Makes 6 servings

Nutrition Facts

Per Serving: Calories 248; Protein 10g; Total Fat 7.9g Saturated Fat 4.3g Trans Fat 0.0g; Total Carbohydrates 34g Dietary Fiber 2g  


Cauliflower Rice Risotto with Portobello Mushrooms

There are many reasons why cauliflower rice is so popular. It is super easy and fast to cook, and most of all, super nutritious! What better than a substitute for starch, either as a rice or a pizza crust, that you can eat guilt-free because it is ultra low cal and low carb. At the same time, you are banking your daily servings of vegetables without even trying.

In most dishes that use rice, you should be able to substitute with cauliflower rice. Just be aware that cauliflower will not have the starchy texture and mouth-feel that you get with white rice. without the starch, you will notice that cauliflower rice doesn’t absorb sauces as well and nor does it give a creamy texture, as in the case of risotto. That said, I was very excited with how my cauliflower risotto turned out last night and I think you will like it too!

Mushroom Cauliflower Rice Risotto

1 small head of cauliflower (2 cups riced cauliflower)

2 Tbsp olive oil

1/2 chopped onion

1 chopped Portobello mushroom cap

1/4 cup vegetable broth or white wine

Salt and pepper

Directions

  1. Use a cheese grater or a food processor to grate the head of cauliflower. You can also buy riced cauliflower in most large supermarkets.
  2. In a large pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
  3. Sauté onion in olive oil.
  4. Add mushroom to pan and cook until tender.
  5. Stir in riced cauliflower and vegetable broth or wine, and cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Season with salt and pepper. Option to add Parmesan cheese if you are not a vegan.