I know this goes against most everything you read, but healthy and busy can actually coexist. And it doesn’t require marathon meal prep sessions either. The secret is in simplifying everything as much as possible and committing to small daily tasks that help set you up for success all week long.
It’s no secret that I love food, but to be honest there are about 467 things I’d rather do on a weekend than spend an entire day in my kitchen. I guess you could say I’m a lazy cook. Maybe not so much lazy as obsessed with efficiency, but you will almost never find me spending hours preparing a meal.
It’s not exactly my favorite thing to admit, but I’m incredibly impatient. By the time I finally decide I’m hungry, it’s usually about 20 minutes too late. I even wrote into my wedding vows that I would promise to always eat a sandwich before getting angry. But real life happens. During the week there’s work and school, shuffling appointments, trying to do all the things.
The days can be long and unpredictable and honestly, none of us show up as our best selves when there’s hanger involved. Fortunately, just a little bit of prep in the kitchen goes a really long way, and makes it SO much easier to throw together a healthy dinner in minutes. Even on the days when you run in late from work and there are hungry kids already pawing at your legs.
Try to think about what meals you feel most stressed out about and how you could simplify them.
What are the things you could do now to make later just a little bit easier?
I like to think of my future self being so impressed with me and my foresight. Waking up to coffee beans already ground and lunches packed, Oh, you’re welcome! Relying on simple hacks like these to simplify mealtimes helps to decrease feelings of overwhelm when it comes to food. Simplify your meals, plan just a little bit ahead and save your brainpower for more important things, like cuddling with your humans.
Just remember to start small. Small steps are easy and easy is sustainable.
We have to get away from the idea that we have to be so extreme in our efforts. We’ve been so conditioned to think that we have to go big or it just doesn’t count, but that mentality is less than helpful.
So, if you’re like me and not super excited about spending hours in the kitchen chopping, here are 6 simple strategies to make mealtimes just a little bit easier.
Decide in advance what you’re going to make for dinner + then double (or triple) the recipe
This is my number one strategy. We are a family of four but it almost always looks like I’m cooking for a party of 12. If you’re already doing the work, it’s usually minimal effort to make a little more for the freezer. This strategy works particularly well for things like soups and stews, but you would be surprised by how many things freeze well. Everything from breakfast burritos to black bean brownies. Your future self will thank you.
One of my favorite things to freeze batches of is brown rice. It reheats perfectly in a fraction of the time it takes to cook fresh, and there is evidence to suggest that cooking and cooling rice converts some of the starch into a resistant starch which is helpful for your gut microbiome.
Prep some ingredients in advance
Chop your veggies. Pre-chopped containers of red cabbage, greens, cilantro, and radishes means you can pretend you’re at Chipotle building killer burrito bowls in minutes from the comfort of your home. Pre-measuring spices is another favorite trick. For things that I make often, like kale chips and roasted chickpeas, I’ll quadruple the spice mix and put it in a small jar. Then, instead of having to get out 10 different spices and measure them all out, I can just grab a tablespoon or two whenever I need.
Same thing for granola bars or anything you make regularly. Just mix the dry ingredients together, put it all into a mason jar and add a little sticky note to the lid that has the remaining ingredients needed and the instructions written on it. Done. Start thinking through anything that could make it easier for you later and do that.
Pre-make just a part of your meal
Take a few minutes to make the sauce, dip or dressing you know you want to have later in the week. Bonus points if you make more than one and store some in the freezer. Chimichurri, pesto, tahini sauce, hummus, olive tapenade… I could go on and on. A good sauce is just such an easy way to take any meal from simple to gourmet.
Tonight I want to make stir fry with peanut sauce, so yesterday I made the sauce, the tofu is baked, I cooked a pot of brown rice earlier in the week. So when I get home from work, it’s basically just assembly. Who needs Uber Eats when healthy meals are this quick and easy?!
Cook an entire dish once a week
I tend to make things like lasagna or enchiladas on Sundays so we can eat it for a few days. This strategy takes the most time commitment but just being able to reheat something makes for super easy weeknight dinners. And it always makes you feel good to be eating homemade lasagna on a Wednesday. If you put the leftovers right into containers while cleaning up, lunches are packed too. Gotta love the easy wins!
Don’t forget about the trusty old slow cooker
I know everyone is obsessed with the Instant Pot these days, but sometimes I love the slow cooker exactly because it takes so long. I love knowing I can throw something in it in the morning and have dinner waiting for me when I get home. I imagine that’s what having a personal chef might feel like?!
And don’t forget about breakfast. It’s not only for soups and stews, slow cooked oatmeal or yogurt started the night before makes for fuss free mornings too.
It really doesn’t get more simple than this. Plus, everything tastes better in a bowl, right?!
Bowl meals really speak to my desire for nourishing, beautiful meals that are ready in minutes. They don’t really follow much of a recipe, more of a loose structure. Here are the basic bones of building the perfect bowl meal so you can cook once and eat well all week long:
Anatomy of the perfect bowl
Start with the foundation: fresh greens + whole grains (arugula and brown rice are my most frequent go-to’s)
Protein for staying power (tempeh, tofu, lentils, beans, salmon)
Crunch factor (nuts, seeds, roasted chickpeas and fried onions are crowd favorites)
Rainbow of raw + roasted veggies
Good sauce for the #joyfactor
When dinner time rolls around, simply fill your bowl with greens, add a scoop of grains, mix and match veggies, protein, drizzle a little sauce on top and done! The possibilities are endless and it’s a great way to get a lot of different colors on your plate… I mean bowl.
These are a few of the strategies that work well in my house and I hope will make mealtimes a little more simple in yours too. Start small and stay flexible. Something is better than nothing and done is better than perfect.
Here’s to easier weeknight dinners!
How to Simplify Your Meal Prep in 5 Easy Steps // Four Wellness Co. is written by Melissa Norton for fourwellness.co