Get Organized for Healthy Eating During This Back to School Time of Year
This back to school time of year can be exciting for everyone, but, if your family is like mine, it can also mean that things get quite a bit busier. Afterschool, evening and weekend activities; exercise; homework; meetings; and oh yes, the regular work that pays the bills. To some degree it all has to be done (or does it? Click here for more on how to prioritize), but where does that leave eating healthy foods that give us the energy to do everything we need to do? When things get busy, it’s all too easy to throw up our hands and do drive-thru yet again. It really doesn’t have to be that way though, and while my family is by no means perfect, I wanted to share my top 5 tips for getting organized so that you can eat healthy during even the busiest of weeks.
1. Meal planning. This is the first step to take in organizing how you’re going to eat for the week. If you plan your meals and snacks in advance, you’re taking control of what you eat. That means planning out every meal, the ingredients needed for those meals and having that list at your fingertips when you head out for your weekly shopping trip. Yes, a weekly shopping trip is much more efficient than just getting enough to get through a couple of days. Besides, you never know what the week is going to throw at you and already having ingredients on hand makes it much easier when that meeting or practice run long. If you need suggestions on how to make meal planning work for you, check out Meal Planning Tips and Tools for Healthy Living.
2. Prep fruit and veggies. Once you’ve bought your groceries, it’s easiest to go ahead and carve out time before your week gets started to prep any fruit and vegetables that you may need for meals or snacks. With activities that can take up most of the weekend, I know this is easier said than done, but it is a time saver for once you get into your busy week. If I’m doing it by myself, I usually try to set aside one to two hours where I can just focus on food prep. This means washing fruit and cutting up vegetables that may be eaten by themselves or are needed as part of recipes. Even if I don’t have time to go ahead and prepare the full recipe, having the prep work done is often more than half the battle. We all know that when a recipe gives the prep time, it usually doesn’t take into account the time it takes to shred, cut up or mince whatever ingredients are needed.
Another way to get this done even faster and to start teaching your kids the skills they’ll need in the kitchen is to get the entire family involved. When I do this, I usually say that we’re going to set aside one hour, and we’re all going to pitch in and help. With everyone working, this is usually more than enough time needed for straightforward prep. Younger children can be in charge of washing fruits and vegetables, while older ones can learn to peel and cut them.
3. Cook ahead. If you can add an hour or two to your time in the kitchen on the weekend to cook ahead, you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration during the week. Some dishes can be completely cooked and just reheated in the oven or microwave when you need them. Others can be put together ahead of time and then cooked when the time comes, and still others may need to be put together when you’re ready to eat them. For those, you can at least go ahead and cook individual components such as pasta or grilled chicken or beef. You can even fire up the grill or get the water boiling while you’re prepping any fruit and vegetables.
Another advantage I’ve found to cooking ahead is that as kids grow older and are involved in more activities, eating together is a challenge. While I’m all for family dinners, it just sometimes isn’t a possibility. That doesn’t mean though that everyone has to do drive-thru or takeout. If meals are cooked ahead, everyone can get what they need when they need it.
4. Divide food into portions. If you have enough smaller containers, this tip can be a huge time, sanity and health saver. If you’ve cooked ahead and know that this is going to be a week where everyone is eating piecemeal, just quickly divide what you’ve fixed into single serving portions – complete with the main course and side if it all has to be reheated.
I love my boys, but they have been known to come in and not eat a perfectly good meal just because it wasn’t completely portioned out and ready to pop in the microwave. Yes, I am still working to teach them not to be so effort averse (ahem… lazy!), but I’ll admit that after a long day of work or running behind from getting someone somewhere, it is nice to come in and all I have to do is grab a container filled with a healthy meal and just heat it up.
This can also be done at the beginning of the week with lunches (other than sandwiches. Very few people like sandwiches that have been sitting in a refrigerator for more than a few hours.) Salads can easily be done this way as can main dishes, vegetables, applesauce, etc. Simply go ahead and divide it all into containers for the week. If you don’t have enough containers for a full week, do enough for a couple of days and then you can wash and refill them. Whether you fix lunches at night or in the morning, for yourself or for your kids, this little bit of prep work ahead of time may just change your entire outlook!
5. Invest in lunch bags, cooler bags, coolers and ice packs. If you or your kids take lunches to work or school, it’s obvious that you’ll need a lunch bag. But what about for evenings where activities are taking place during dinnertime or you need to take a quick snack or meal to your child? All of the prep in the world won’t make a difference if you don’t have a good way to transport the food when you need it.
In the spring, my youngest son’s baseball games during the week regularly take place in the evenings, often right after he finishes another practice. Since we’re all rarely eating at the same time or places on those nights, I pack up a bag for each of us (usually in the morning) and distribute it to the appropriate person as we go through the evening. For weekend travel ball tournaments, we pack an entire cooler full of already prepared food that can easily be eaten on the go. While I can’t say that concession stand hotdogs or nachos are never eaten, I can say that healthier options that we bring with us are the norm.
I know that actually doing all of these things may sound a bit daunting, but I can attest to the fact that it is possible and that it does make a big difference. I know weekends are busy, and if they’re not, it’s hard to give up even a couple of hours of precious downtime to dedicate to food prep. But for most people, the choice is either to set aside a focused amount of time on the weekend, spend 30 minutes to an hour cooking every night or to let someone else do the cooking for us – in which case, we lose all control over how healthy it really is. Getting into the routine of being organized and preparing food ahead of time helps to make sure that you can eat healthy during even the busiest of weeks, which makes those times feel a little less crazy and a lot more enjoyable.