It is possible to plan and eat nutritious meals and snacks during busy times. When it comes to planning, preparing and serving meals, one size never fits all. However, the planning process can be helpful for everyone. What are some things that you need to take into consideration for menu planning? How many people are you serving? Are there any specific dietary needs? Where will you be serving the meals (at the table, on the go, etc.)? What does your schedule look like?
A few reminders:
You don’t need to be a gourmet chef nor do you need to spend the whole day in the kitchen to eat a healthy meal or snack. If you want to brush up on some basic kitchen skills, Utah has a series of “Create Better Health” instructions for creating your own basic types of meals such as Create a Pizza or Create a Stir Fry. The Canned Food Alliance has a chart to show how “Just Add One” additional ingredient to popular dishes can add nutrition, value, convenience and taste. Obviously they are sharing about canned food but the same concept can be used for frozen and fresh foods as well. For example, once spring arrives, I am happy to “just add one” fresh herbs like chopped chives to garnish to our dishes to add taste and make them look gourmet.
- Create a two to four-week menu cycle. Although my example isn’t the same as day-to-day plans at home, it dawned on me a few years ago that I can use the same meal plan, cooler packing list and shelf stable ingredients for all our camping trips. Sure, it’s the same meals but we only camp a couple times of year so not only does no one mind the same menu, they actually look forward to those favorite camp meals. I have also brought a few of those menus “home” by adding foil pack meals on the grill to our regular household summer menu plan. (see Grill below)
- Keep your plan, ingredients and favorite kitchen and travel tools (for on-the-go meals) easily accessible.
Food Preparation and Planning Ideas
- Double the recipe to eat a couple meals.
- Plan a food prep day and create freezer meals. Instructions here for a two-week freezer plan
- Individual Servings Meal Prep
- https://dinnertonight.tamu.edu/meal-prep-healthy-weight/ Make healthy meals ahead of time helps to include a variety foods and make different combinations every week.
- https://livesmartohio.osu.edu/food/meehan-89osu-edu/meal-prepping-how-to-plan-for-your-week-ahead/ Pre-cooking and portioning food out into individual containers ahead of time helps throughout the week.
- Overnight oats in the refrigerator https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/quick_and_easy_overnight_oats
- In addition to preparing fresh food in individual containers in the refrigerator for the week, meals can be portioned out and stored in individual freezer containers for longer periods of time and thawed when needed. I like to do this when we have leftovers from a large meal where we purposely cooked extra.
- Upcycle a main ingredient or as described here as “Two day, two ways food, Act 1 and Act 2”. https://food.unl.edu/how-cook-once-and-eat-twice
Basic Back Ups
What are some meals you can pull together in ten minutes or less? You probably already have some ideals that work for you. These are the examples of shelf stable food that you keep on hand for those times to text or ask “whoever is home first” to pull together quickly. One example: 3 can chili + crackers + cheese + dried fruit. These ingredients (other than cheese) can be stored together on a shelf. Need some additional ideas for easy, quick meals? Try these Top 10 Ideas for 10 Minute Dinners.
If you have it, use it!
Having different kitchen appliances can offer some advantages but that doesn’t mean that you need any new equipment. What kitchen appliances or tools do you already own that can help make meal preparation easier?
- Slow Cooker. On the run all day? Slow cookers can be working all day while you do and serving whenever needed.
- Pressure Cooker. In the house at the last minute? The pressure cooker can produce food fast.
- One pot meal. Save time on dishes with a one pan dish such as a skillet meal.
- Sheet Pan (and oven). https://intranet.ces.ncsu.edu/2017/02/whats-trending-for-suppertime-sheet-pan-dinners/
- Grill. Make up foil packets of your favorite protein and vegetables.
- Waffle Maker. As the author of this Grilled Cheese Wafflewich (sandwich) pointed out, “I don’t really want to buy a sandwich press – I already have too many kitchen appliances.”
Food Safety for Food on the Go
A few tips about meals that aren’t eaten in the house. These might be meals that individuals take to work or school or they might be meals like picnics or dinner on the run. Some food is safe without a cold source like whole fruits and vegetables, dried fruits and vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat and fish, breads, crackers and chips, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles.
The Two-Hour Rule. Foods should not sit at room temperature for more than two hours.
The following tips on keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot are from the Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA. Freezing sandwiches helps them stay cold. For best quality add mayonnaise, lettuce, or tomatoes later (they don’t freeze well)
The following tips are for individual lunch bags verses a large cooler:
- Insulated, soft-sided lunch boxes or bags are best for keeping food cold, but pack at least two ice sources with perishable food in any type of lunch bag or box you use.
- To keep lunches cold away from home, include at least two cold sources.
- You can use two frozen gel packs (not smaller than 5×3-inches each) or combine a frozen gel pack with a frozen juice box or frozen bottle of water. Freeze gel packs or drinks overnight.
- When packing, place frozen items on top and bottom of the perishable food items to keep them cold.
- If there’s a refrigerator available, place your insulated bag in the refrigerator and leave the lid or bag open so that cold air can keep the food cold.
Use an insulated container to keep food like soup, chili, and stew hot. Fill the container with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food. Keep the insulated container closed until mealtime to keep the food hot — 140 °F (73.9 °C) or above.
Ideal conditions: wash hands with warm water and soap, lather and scrub hands and fingers for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food, after using the bathroom, changing diapers, and handling pets.
If running water is not accessible:
- Use a water jug, soap and paper towels or depending on your situation, make your own outdoor handwashing station.
- Moist disposable towelettes
- Alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
Cleaning and Sanitizing, handout and research on using common bleach, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide to sanitize kitchen surfaces.
While the busiest times might not be the best times to try out new recipes, these are just a few examples of websites that share recipes that are easy, nutritious, tasty, and economical:
- Chop Chop Family https://www.chopchopfamily.org/
- Food Hero https://www.foodhero.org/recipes/healthy-recipes
- Choose MyPlate Recipes https://www.choosemyplate.gov/myplatekitchen/recipes
Additional Resources from Ohio State University Extension, Family and Consumer Sciences
Message to Future Self blog post describes, “Planning this way allows me to see which days should be a slow cooker meal, which evenings we can cook together in the kitchen, and which nights are going to be a creative use of leftovers” and shares links to templates and menu idea inspirations.
Making Your Own Convenience Foods Factsheet. Tips and suggestions for planning and preparing parts of meals ahead of time can make you feel in control as you start your day.
Sometimes busy times are also stressful times. By eating a healthier diet we may reduce our risk of chronic inflammation and diseases.
Thank you also to Amanda Bohlen for her 2018, Stress Less with Meal Prep. Count CALM Down for the Holidays Challenge Week 3 Message 1, Live Healthy Live Well, Ohio State University Extension.