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!


Healthy Greens To Eat Now: 5 Not-So-Basic Leafy Greens

When it comes to leafy greens, most of us rely on the basics like romaine, leaf lettuce and spinach week after week – and while all of these provide health benefits, there is a huge selection of leafy greens in the produce aisle that you could potentially be missing! Shaking things up can help keep things fun and interesting in the kitchen while also diversifying your nutrient intake.

We’ve all heard that it’s important to eat those green vegetables and I have to say, that age-old recommendation has merit! Leafy green vegetables are a total nutrition powerhouse providing plant-based calcium, iron and magnesium, plus vitamins A, C and K (vitamin K is necessary for blood clotting and bone health). 

If you don’t like the taste of one variety, chances are you can find an alternative. It might also be a matter of preparation method, so don’t hesitate to do some experimenting.  Here are some of my favorites healthy greens along with simple ways you can try incorporating them into your regular rotation:

Arugula

Swapping arugula for romaine is a great way to spice up a salad (literally!). This  leafy green has a peppery bite and delicate texture. It pairs perfectly with a light citrus vinaigrette and some shaved parmesan cheese (aka – the ultimate no hassle dinner side salad).

Arugula is a cruciferous vegetable, like its cousins broccoli and cauliflower, and therefore has added disease-preventative effects. Try tossing some arugula in a balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkle on top of baked flatbread and pizza – great way to amp up the nutritional value and add a refreshing flavor!

Arugula

Lacinato Kale

You might already be familiar with traditional “curly” kale that has become a grocery store staple in recent years. Lacinato or “dino” kale is the one that has a long flat leaves with a bumpy texture and newer to the scene. Add it to your favorite soup or stew near the end of cooking time for a pop of bright green color and an extra element of texture.

Cooking kale mellows its bitter flavor, so a quick sauté in some olive oil with a bit of lemon juice is a delicious way to enjoy this nutrient powerhouse. If you don’t want to turn on the stove, try massaging the chopped kale with a little salt and olive oil to soften the leaves for a more digestible salad.

Lacinato Kale

Chard

This leafy green comes in many varietals. The stem color ranges from white to purple and bestows its varietal name, such as red chard. Swiss chard is most commonly known and typically has a gorgeous bright pink or yellow stem.

Due to the large size of the leaves, chard makes a nice swap for tortillas (a great low-carbohydrate option!). Use the leaves to wrap hummus and vegetables or stuff with your favorite filling. You can also sauté the delicate leaves, as they cook up quickly. The stems are full of nutrition so chop them and sauté first with some onion and garlic for an amazing side dish. For an easy plant-focused meal, simply add in some chickpeas.

Red Chard

Watercress

Watercress is a cruciferous vegetable with long stems and small, circular leaves. It makes a great sandwich topper in place of traditional leaf lettuce for a fun presentation.

The bright, peppery taste does well with just a bit of vinegar and olive oil. You can also drop into soups just before serving for a burst of flavor. One of my favorite salads includes watercress, cucumbers, and radishes – fresh and delicious!

Watercress

Bok Choy

Bok Choy is a type of Chinese cabbage with a bright white stem surrounded by dark green leaves. Baby Bok Choy has a green stem and tends to be a little more tender.

It’s most commonly used in Asian cuisines including stir-fries and soups like ramen, but feel free to add it to salads and slaws. You can also cook Bok Choy on a sheet pan very easily –  simply place quartered bok choy on parchment-lined sheet pan and toss with freshly grated ginger and sesame oil.  Roast at 350° F until softened and serve with fresh lime wedges. Baby Boy Choy is also delicious grilled – place the quartered Baby Bok Choy on an oiled grill and brush with your favorite Asian-inspired marinate and cook for approximately 4 minutes or until tender.

Baby Bok Choy

Take Action

Leafy greens are available year-round in the supermarket. Make it a habit to add greens to your grocery basket very time you shop. Produce should be eaten as fresh as possible for maximum quality and nutritional value – greens are no exception. With such vast varieties, it’s time to try a couple new ones!


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.