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 reduce inflammation with Diet and Lifestyle

Many diseases are linked to chronic inflammatory. “For chronic low-grade inflammation not caused by a defined illness, lifestyle changes are the mainstay of both prevention and treatment,” says Harvard Health. The good news is that anti-inflammatory foods combined with an active lifestyle can help you stay healthy and reduce your risk of many diseases. In fact, it’s estimated that 60 percent of chronic diseases could be prevented with a healthy diet.

Chronic inflammation is often invisible without immediate or serious symptoms, but over the long-term it’s been linked to many chronic diseases such as:

  • Acne, eczema, and psoriasis
  • Allergies and asthma
  • Autoimmune diseases (arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus)
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Gastrointestinal disorders (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis)
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Lung diseases (emphysema)
  • Mental illnesses (anxiety, depression)
  • Metabolic diseases (type 2 diabetes)
  • Neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s)

How does chronic inflammation begin? 

It may start acutely—from an infection or injury—and then instead of shutting off, it becomes persistent. Chronic low-grade inflammation can also occur with exposure to chemicals (e.g., tobacco) or radiation, consuming an unhealthy diet or too much alcohol, not being very physically active, feeling stressed or socially isolated, and having excess weight.

Now that we see that inflammation underlies so many of our medical conditions, here’s what to do to put out those slow-burning, smoldering fires.

How to reduce Inflammation

Studies show that reducing inflammation can reduce the risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer. There are medications used to help lower inflammation to treat some of these diseases such as corticosteroids, immunosuppressants, and biologics. However, there are also several lifestyle changes—including a healthy diet—that can be very helpful to prevent and scale down inflammation to reduce its many damaging effects on the body. 

Eat an anti-inflammatory diet 

  • Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains (brown rice, oats, bran), nuts (almonds), seeds, fish, poultry, legumes (beans, lentils), and healthy oils (olive oil)
  • Pay particular attention to foods high in antioxidant polyphenols, including colorful plants such as berries, cherries, plums, red grapes, avocados, onions, carrots, beets, turmeric, green tea, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
  • Omega-3 fats can help to reduce pain and clear up inflammation and are found in salmon, trout, mackerel, soy, walnuts, and flax
  • High fiber foods (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes) encourage friendly gut microbes to help reduce inflammation
  • Avoid charring foods when cooking at high temperatures
  • Limit inflammatory foods such as red and processed meats (lunch meats, hot dogs, hamburgers), fried foods (fries), unhealthy fats (shortening, lard), sugary foods and drinks (sodas, candy, sports drinks), refined carbohydrates (white bread, cookies, pie), and ultra-processed foods (microwaveable dinners, dehydrated soups)

If you need a little help incorporating all these principles into your daily diet, check out Healthydigz’s anti-inflammatory eating plan . You will find weekly menus, delicious recipes, and shopping lists for your customizable meal plan.

Chickpea Quinoa Fritters (plant-based)

Be physically active

  • Regular exercise reduces inflammation over the long-term, so try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (brisk walking) per week; about 20-30 minutes per day
  • To this add two or more strength training sessions (using weights or resistance bands) each week
A person training with resistance band.
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Get enough restful sleep

  • Disrupted sleep has recently been linked to increased inflammation and atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in the vessels that’s linked with heart disease), so aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep every night to help the body heal and repair
  • Tips for better sleep: try to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule every day, get exposure to natural daylight earlier in the day, avoid caffeine later in the day, cut out screens an hour before bedtime, and create a relaxing nighttime routine

Quit smoking and limit alcohol

  • Quitting smoking can help reduce inflammation and several other health concerns by reducing exposure to toxins that are directly linked to inflammation
  • Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one or two drinks per day

Manage your stress

  • Engage in relaxing stress-reducing activities such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or tai chi
Three women practicing yoga
Photo by Elina Fairytale on Pexels.com

Be social

  • New research suggests that feeling socially isolated is linked with higher levels of inflammation, so reach out to family and friends (or make new ones)

See your doctor or dentist

  • Get your cholesterol and blood lipids tested because high amounts of “bad” LDL cholesterol is linked to inflammation and negatively affects your vessels
  • You can request a blood test to measure levels of CRP (C-reactive protein) which is a marker of inflammation (this test is also used to check your risk of developing heart disease)
  • If your gums bleed when you brush or floss, this may be a sign of gum inflammation (gingivitis), so ramp up your oral hygiene and see your dentist

Final Thoughts

Chronic, long-term, low-level inflammation is linked with many health issues. The first approach to preventing and improving this is through food and lifestyle changes. Start by focusing on adding colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish to your diet. Then layer in lifestyle upgrades like physical activity, restful sleep, and stress management.

These changes can be integrated into your day-to-day practices. First try adding one additional fruit or vegetable to your day. Then, several times a day at each snack or meal. For inspiration, try recipes from my Anti-inflammatory Meal Plan.

If you’d like a plan designed to help you enjoy more of these anti-inflammatory foods, consult a registered dietitian/nutritionist who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals.


How does intermittent fasting work

You may have tried many different diets that claim to help with weight loss and disease prevention: low-fat, low-carb, ketogenic, paleo, whole 30, vegetarian, vegan, DASH, Mediterranean, MIND, etc. Yet, still not getting the results you want. Let’s explore one of the latest trends: intermittent fasting, and see how it works and if it works.

You may be used to eating three meals every day, plus snacks. That’s pretty common. With intermittent fasting you can essentially eat how much of whatever you want—but here’s the catch: you have to stay on schedule. With intermittent fasting there are scheduled periods of time when you can eat and others when you have to fast. Unlike most other diets, intermittent fasting tells you when to eat, not what to eat.

And, many people say that it can help lead you to better health and a longer life.

Sound interesting? Let’s dive into some of the pros and cons of intermittent fasting and see if it works for you.

How to intermittently fast

Most of the diets that help achieve weight loss work by reducing the number of calories consumed. Intermittent fasting does the same thing, but in a different way. This way of eating significantly limits calories (requiring fasting) for certain durations of time (intermittently), while allowing little or no restrictions the rest of the time. 

Intermittent fasting essentially means skipping meals on a regular basis, sometimes daily, weekly, or monthly. Here are a few different approaches:

  • Time-restricted feeding—Having all of your meals during an 8 to 12 hour window each day, drinking only water the rest of the day.
  • Alternate day fasting—Eating normally one day but only a minimal amount of calories the next; alternating between “feast” days and “fast” days.
  • 5:2 eating pattern—Consuming meals regularly for five days per week, then restricting to no more than 600 calories per day for the other two. This happens by eating very little and drinking only water on those two fasting days. 
  • Periodic fasting—Caloric intake is restricted for several consecutive days and unrestricted on all other days. For example, fasting for five straight days per month.

Benefits of intermittent fasting

Studies show that intermittent fasting can achieve weight loss. The success is similar to other diets. Yes, similar—not necessarily better. 

Overall, research on the effect of intermittent fasting on people’s health is still emerging as to whether it can also prevent disease or slow down aging, in addition to weight loss.

Most of the research on calorie restriction and intermittent fasting have been conducted in cells (e.g., yeasts), rodents, and even monkeys. Some, but not all of these studies show it may help to build exercise endurance, immune function, and live longer. It also seems to help resist some diseases like diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer’s. 

When it comes to clinical studies (those done in people) on intermittent fasting, most have been pretty short—a few months or less. But, what we know so far is that it may help with markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein), diabetes (blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity), and help to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol.

When it comes to weight loss, intermittently fasting seems to work just as well—not better—than other diets. Researchers think that eating this way decreases appetite for some people by slowing down the body’s metabolism. With a smaller appetite, you simply eat less and that is going to help you lose weight. Other people who intermittently fast struggle with and are much more uncomfortable during the fasting days, and some animal studies show that when they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, many overate.

What about extending the lifespan of humans? Those studies haven’t been done yet, so we simply don’t know the effects of intermittent fasting on our lifespan.

How intermittent fasting affects health

Naturally, our bodies have survival mechanisms allowing us to adjust to periods of fasting. This has been necessary, as throughout history, humans have endured many periods where food was scarce. 

What happens when we don’t take in sufficient calories is that our body starts using up stored carbohydrates called glycogen. The liver stores enough glycogen to last about 12 to 16 hours before it runs out of fuel. Beyond 16 hours, the body switches fuels and begins to use fat as an energy source.

At this time, our metabolism shifts from a carbohydrate-burning state to a fat-burning state. Some of the fat is used directly as fuel, while some is metabolized into biochemicals called ketones. This new fat-burning metabolic state is called ketosis. The state of ketosis brings on other changes throughout the body. It’s these changes that are thought to underlie some of the health benefits seen with intermittent fasting.

Ketones are a more efficient source of energy for our bodies than glucose is and so they can help keep many of our cells working well even during periods of fasting. This is particularly true for brain cells and this may be part of the reason some animal studies show protection against age-related declines like Alzheimer’s.

Ketones may also help to ward off some cancers and inflammatory diseases like arthritis. They are also thought to reduce the amount of insulin in the blood which may help protect against type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, too many ketones may be harmful, so more research is needed to better understand the links between fasting, ketones, and health.

On a molecular level, intermittent fasting may extend lifespan in animals because of its effect on the DNA in our genes. Over time as we age, the way our genes are switched on and off changes. It appears that, in animals, restricting calories may slow down these age-related changes and help them to live a bit longer.

More research is underway to better understand the effect of fasting on these biological processes.

Before you start intermittently fasting

As with all major dietary changes, be sure to discuss it with your healthcare professional. 

Before considering intermittent fasting, know that there are certain conditions that can make it dangerous. For example, if you have diabetes you need to eat regularly to maintain your blood sugar levels, so fasting is not recommended. Also, if you’re taking certain medications like diuretics for high blood pressure or heart disease, intermittent fasting increases your risk for electrolyte abnormalities.

Intermittent fasting is also not recommended for anyone who is under 18, has a history of eating disorders or anyone who may be pregnant or breastfeeding.

Of course whenever you change your diet you may experience side effects. Some side effects of people who restrict their calories or start intermittently fasting include fatigue, weakness, headache, reductions in sexual interest, and a reduced ability to maintain body temperature in cold environments.

Beyond the health risks and side effects, fasting is simply hard to do voluntarily—especially when it’s for two or more days. Some people may have a natural tendency to indulge too much on their “feast” days which can negate some of the benefits of fasting.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “More research will be needed to determine the long-term impact of the diet on human health and provide information on when and how such a diet might be applied.”

Nutrition tips for intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting can be hard. One thing that can help is having a social support network—especially for those days when you’re fasting.

Although the premise of intermittent fasting is to restrict when you eat, not what you eat, the quality of your food choices is still very important. Regardless of your eating style and preferences, you still need all of your essential nutrients. Intermittent fasting is not a good reason to eat a lot of the high-calorie nutrient-poor foods we all sometimes crave. I recommend eating adequate amounts of lean proteins, healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Also, avoid too many sugars and refined grains. Follow a Meal plan with nutritious foods of appropriate amounts will definitely maximize your chance of success with any intermittent fasting approach you choose.

Final Consideration

The main reason for any dietary change is to have a sustainable and healthy lifestyle that helps you meet your health goals. Whether you’re looking to lose weight or prevent disease, intermittent fasting is one eating style that may work for you. The most important thing with any diet is to get all of your essential nutrients, appropriate amounts of food, and enjoy your lifestyle in the long run.

Any diet or eating pattern that helps some people may not have the same effect on everyone. That’s why it’s important to not make any significant dietary changes without consulting your healthcare professional or a registered dietitian. 


Five Easy Ways to Heal your Microbiome

What is Microbiome and why is it important to our health? I put these questions to my esteemed colleague, Lori Shore-Mouratoff, MD, at Cornerstone Integrative Medicine Clinic in Oakland, CA. This is what she shared with me:

Our body is host to trillions of bacteria, yeast and viruses that make up our microbiome. These organisms are responsible for helping us utilize and make vitamins, detoxify our bodies and maintain the integrity of our intestinal lining to prevent food sensitivities. Poor food choices, medications, stress, and lack of sleep can create an imbalance in the composition of these organisms causing gastrointestinal symptoms, joint pain, eczema, hormonal imbalance, obesity and brain fog.

Clearly, improving the health of your microbiome is vital to your well-being! Below are 5 lifestyle hacks Dr. Lori Shore-Mouratoff recommended :

1. Eat prebiotics that support favorable organisms

Inulin-type fructans modulate appetite, improve inflammatory bowel diseases, decrease colon cancer risk, increase absorption of minerals and vitamins and affect lipid metabolism by supporting the population and function of bifidobacteria and butyrate .

Foods containing inulin-type fructans for gut health:
LeeksRyeBarley
Chicory rootsOnionAsparagus
BananaGarlic Artichokes

Butyrate is an essential metabolite in the human colon, responsible for maintenance of the gut barrier, with immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties.

Foods that support butyrate forming bacteria in your colon:
Whole Grains: Brown rice, whole gluten free oats, barley, rye, quinoa, buckwheat
Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, mung beans, adzuki beans
Fruits and Vegetables: Leafy greens, apples, kiwi, berries, bananas, citrus

2. Increase polyphenols in your food plan

Polyphenols increase the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria and also inhibit growth of potentially pathogenic bacteria.

Polyphenol Rich Foods:
Black elderberryGround flax seeds (Fresh)Pecans
Black currantDark ChocolatePrunes
BlueberryChestnutRed Currants
Globe artichoke headsBlack TeaPeach
CoffeeGreen TeaGreen Olives
CherryAppleRed Onion
StrawberryHazelnutGreen Grapes
BlackberryRed wineShallots
PlumBlack OlivesRed Chicory
RaspberrySpinachBroccoli

3. Eat fermented food everyday

Fermented foods are rich in probiotics and good bacteria . Try to include them in your meals daily!

Unsweetened yogurtKimchi
KefirTempeh
PicklesMiso
SauerkrautKombucha

4. Avoid the items that are harmful to beneficial bacteria

  • Trans fat, a.k.a partially hydrogenated oil
  • Sugar
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Food additives
  • Processed food
  • Pesticides and chemicals

5. Reduce Stress

  • Try Restorative Exercises like Yoga, QiGong and TaiChi.
  • Start a meditation practice
  • Deep breathing: rub a drop of cedarwood, lavender or chamomile essential oils on your hands then inhale
  • Get enough sleep
  • Take a walk outside in nature
  • Increase your social connections
  • Engage in your community

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