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!


Recharge with a Vacation Day!

With no end in sight to this pandemic, many of us are looking for staycation ideas. Summer vacation doesn’t have to be far away from home nor does it have to be for long. However,  it does have to refresh my mind with a sense of escape from my daily routine and recharge my body with some delicious healthy food. Why not consider a vacation day close to home? If that speaks to you, read on! 

Last Sunday, my family and I went out to Bolinas beach, Marin County, for a little surf and sun. It was only a little more than an hour from home but it felt like miles away from the urban center of the San Francisco Bay. The beach was relatively uncrowded so families were able to play together but still keep sufficient distance from others.  As I soaked up the sun on the beach, it felt as if the ocean breeze was gently sweeping away my anxiety from being sheltered at home. At the same time, the sound of the crashing waves carried my mind far away to the Hawaiian shores for a little mental escape. It only took a couple hours to forget how the Coronavirus has constricted our daily lives for the last 5 months. 

On our way home,  we surprisingly discovered a farm stand that had a pre-COVID personality of a farmers market. The quintessential experience of the farmers market – leisurely roaming through the farmer stands, chatting to the vendors, touching and smelling the freshness of the fruits and vegetables, and food sampling – were mostly intact here! From the street, it appeared to be just another roadside produce stand. The sign advertising fresh wild king salmon was the initial hook that pulled us off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Unknowingly, it turned out to be the farmers market outing that I was starving for.  Abiding social distancing and face mask rules, we chatted with The Farm Stand owner, Jim, about the source of his local products – an array of organic produce from CSAs in Marin county and Salinas area, fresh seafood from the bay, and grass-fed meat from local farms. As we were talking, crates of fresh local strawberries arrived so Jim threw one to us from a distance for sampling. We were sold!!! The woman who delivered the strawberries stepped up to a table in front of us with a picnic basket to assemble a couple of strawberry shortcakes, made with freshly baked biscuits and crème fraîche. I thought they were for sale but no such luck. They were for Jim and his co-worker as an expression of gratitude for selling her strawberries at the farm stand. With all this wonderful distraction, we had to redirect ourselves back to the the question about their King salmon. Jim excitedly told us that it was line-caught, wild and sushi-grade. We were sold again as soon as he pulled out a  piece of fresh King salmon with glistening red flesh – not a sight you see in the supermarket. He then up sold us once again with Hog Island oysters from Tomales Bay by shucking one for me to taste on the spot. By this point, I felt like an endless summer had just descended upon us with bountiful of fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood. 

Armed with all these fresh ingredients, it was easy and fun to create a farm-to-table meal in our own home! The highlight was the make-you-own sushi and bowl with salmon sashimi. An interactive meal with conversation about the beach action, the farm stand activities, the fresh local organic food and the art of making sushi rounded out this enjoyable vacation day for us!