Between personal training, teaching, studying, chasing around after my 11-month-old, running our household, and general life, I’m pretty time poor when it comes to meal preparation. But ensuring that my family has healthy food on the table is one of my top priorities so it’s important to me that I make it work.
Evenings are the busiest time of day for my family, as typically we need to squeeze in dinner time (I make sure we eat together as a family around the dinner table as much as possible), baby’s bath/story/bed time, gym sessions for both the husband and myself, and having quality time left over to spend as a couple without baby in tow. Not to mention that after baby is in bed it’s pretty much the only time of day that I can manage to write blog posts, assignments or prep client programmes without being interrupted!
Here’s how I make sure that we have healthy meals and snacks throughout the week despite a crazy busy schedule.
Become a pro in the kitchen
We rarely – if ever – eat out. This not only saves us a lot of money, it also gives me greater control over the ingredients so I know exactly what’s going into our food.
So that we never feel deprived, we have a varied diet from a range of cuisines and I’ve gotta say we’ve become pretty damn good at cooking over the years. Indian curries, Thai stirfries, Mexican burritos, Italian pasta, Turkish kebabs… For anything we would want to eat at a restaurant, I’ve searched the internet for a recipe I could try at home. If the first recipe I try sucks, I attempt another until I’ve found one I’m happy with. Once it’s a hit with the household, I add it to a recipe book of all our favourite meals which permanently sits on our kitchen benchtop.
The best way to build up your skills in the kitchen is to just get in there and practice cooking. The more you make your favourite recipes the quicker you get at making them. If it goes wrong, have your emergency backup (see the last point in this blog post!) just in case, and make sure you figure out what happened so you can avoid it next time.
It can be overwhelming trying a lot of different recipes in one week. I’d recommend to start off with what you know and just try cooking one new recipe each week to expand your repertoire. Make sure it’s on a day where you’re not rushed for time so you can go through it step by step without feeling the pressure of getting it on the dinner table quickly.
Plan your food in advance
I remember reading somewhere in the news once that the majority of households only have around nine dinner meals that are used on regular rotation. This limited home menu roster is often true for lunches and breakfasts as well; if you bear this in mind, it makes it super easy to plan your food. While I don’t plan out our meals in detail, I always have a general idea about what I’m going to do each week. Making yourself a ‘routine’ of food keeps meal prep quick and easy.
For breakfasts we tend to be creatures of habit which makes mornings simple. Quick microwave porridge sachets with a handful of frozen blueberries, peanut butter and jam on wholegrain or paleo toast, and smoothies are weekday staples that can be made in just a few minutes. Miss E may have sugar-free eggy bread or banana pancakes if I have extra time to cook. There’s more time in the weekends, so I typically have at least one day with a hot breakfast involving eggs, toast and bacon. On the odd occasion we may make pancakes or waffles (occasional treats are important too! No premade mixes – all done from scratch). These are all made from ingredients that are permanently in our cupboards and in the fridge. If something runs out it gets added back onto the shopping list straight away.
For lunches the husband almost always has leftovers from our dinners so I know they’re healthy. Emergency meals are microwave packet rice and a flavoured tuna sachet or tin. I typically have fresh soups or large, hearty salads. Miss E also often has leftovers or a bit of what I’m eating.
For dinners – during my weekly food shop, I pick out seven meal servings of protein which usually depends on what’s on sale. A week of protein could be salmon (which we always eat on the same day), two lots of skinless and boneless organic chicken breasts, one other type of fresh fish, minced beef, pork tenderloin, and maybe a vegetarian meal, lamb steaks or a roast of some kind. I always make sure any meat is in the fridge to defrost 1-2 days in advance and often buy larger quantities to have enough servings for leftovers.
When it comes to snacks, we try to be generally healthy with them. We rarely have chips, biscuits or lollies in the house (I have no self control and can’t be left alone with them!). We always have muesli bars, nut or wholefood bars, protein shakes, crackers, and plenty of fruit. Sometimes I’ll make raw bliss balls, biscuits or a cake, but I’ll always portion them out right from the get-go and they’re definitely a rare treat.
Go crazy on the fruit and veg
We get a home delivery of organic fruits and vegetables every week. As I’m a stingey miser who is unwilling to throw any unused produce out, this ensures we incorporate the whole box into our week’s meals, guaranteeing plenty of vitamins, minerals and fiber. We rarely – if ever – get sick, and I attribute this to the quality ingredients we use and the home-cooked food we eat.
If peeling, slicing, dicing and grating vegetables is too much work, make it easy on yourself. For quick and easy dinner carbs, take one potato or kumara per person, cut it into 2-6 largish chunks depending on the size, toss in olive oil with a little salt, minced garlic and fresh rosemary, and roast at 180 degrees for 30-40 minutes. Leave the skin on and just make sure they’re washed well, prep time only takes about five minutes so it probably works out the same – if not faster – than going down the road to the takeaway shop. I rarely peel roast veges or carrots, and I never grate anything!
Large handfuls of spinach and chopped silverbeet leaves can go into just about any sauce (bolognese, curry, stew…) without altering the consistency or taste. Leftover veges can be used up in savoury muffins, frittatas or omelettes. Leftover fruit can be used in crumbles, porridge or sweet muffins.
Be smart about your time
I’m smart about which dinners we’ll make on days when we are more time poor. Don’t aim to make something complicated, new, or time consuming on a day when you only have half an hour to cook – save that for the evenings when you have more time to trawl through the recipe books and to prep your food.
On the busiest days where I have little time to cook, I make easy stirfries, grilled meat with roast veg and salad, or something else quick such as teriyaki chicken on rice with lettuce and mayonnaise. These meals typically take between 30 mins and an hour to prepare, cook and serve up. Alternatively I might prep everything in advance and chuck it into my slow cooker at the beginning of the day.
We own a single appliance that does sauteing, slow cooking and pressure cooking all in one. This has revolutionised my life as it cuts prep time down enormously. Slow cooking means I can chuck everything into the pot at the beginning of the day and it will be ready and waiting for us by dinner time. Pressure cooking means that if I forget to use the slow cooker or run out of time at the beginning of the day, we can whip up a tender flavourful meal in a short time in the evening.
A good food processor is great for creating baby foods, purees, soups, curry pastes, sauces, and all sorts of stuff from scratch. If you get a more expensive one it may even come with attachment discs for special tasks such as reducing time for grating and chopping.
Also don’t turn your nose up at rice cookers. They’re one of the cheapest appliances you can get – I’m half Asian and we eat a lot of rice in our household. You can get one for around $30 and your rice will turn out perfectly fluffy every time without having to constantly watch it and stir it.
Have backup options
Some days it’ll all go tits up and you’ll have either forgotten to defrost the meat, forgotten to buy all the ingredients you need, or just plain ran out of time. Have a couple of emergency recipes up your sleeve that you could use in these situations (eggs are often good for this – a self-crusting pastry-free quiche, omelettes, frittatas…).
And know your healthiest takeaway options for extreme emergencies or exhaustion days. We would usually go for Turkish kebabs or meat on rice, Japanese, grilled chicken or fish, or Thai stirfries or curries. Though sometimes you really just feel like a massive burger with fries or a decent creamy curry; as long as they’re a treat and not the norm, there’s no reason to deprive yourself!
Image / NZ Real Health