“I just can’t do it all anymore!
My thesis advisor is riding me to get the research done faster, my reading backlog is a mile long, and I might fail medical microbiology.”
That was me, talking to my husband on my way home from an especially long, stressful day of graduate school.
“What can I take off your plate?” are the words I heard come back.
Mind you, he was a director of a global IT team at the time. Yes, it’s as busy and stressful as it sounds. Yes, he is a saint. My saint.
We both knew we needed to stay on top of our game with all we had going on, so pizza delivery wasn’t a viable option for regular dinners. Nor was skipping gym time in favor of extra study time. There’s just too much research supporting the mental performance benefits of good nutrition and physical exercise. Not to mention we were still on the hook for our youngest son’s nutrition. He was a junior in high school at the time, and the boy can EAT.
“Well,” I said, “you can help me set up a kitchen system to make sure we have what we need to keep us fed all week every week, especially on my long days.”
“Long days? Which days are short?” he teased. He knew it was rare that I left the house after 7:30 am and returned before 9 pm, and that the only difference between weekDAYS and weekENDS was that I didn’t go to class on weekends.
(He is a funny saint.)
So we put together a system for shopping and cooking that helped me pull a tense semester from the near-failing toilet up to a 4.0, without gaining the stress weight I tend to pack on. In fact, I lost 12 pounds, he lost 20 pounds, and earned a raise.
The meal planning is helping me immensely. I really think it has been my missing ingredient. I know what to eat and I even like all the healthy foods, but without enough planning, those good intentions easily slide downhill.
I talk to people every day like Teri M. that want to lose weight. They tell me they know what foods are good for them, and even like them, but their lives are so hectic that they just don’t have time to cook. So they rely on packaged foods and take-out more often than they’d like.
I know that most people instinctively know that they need to eat fruits and vegetables, limit unhealthy fats and sugars, and drink more water – because they tell me. I also know that there’s a huge difference between knowing and doing, and the difference can be incredibly intimidating.
That’s why I’m sharing our kitchen system with you, because the right system makes hard things easy and tames the intimidating.
1. Rotating meal plans with coordinating grocery lists.
Plan enough meals and snacks for one week. Do this is with your day planner, so you can make sure your meal schedule coincides with your work and activity schedule.
Next week, you’ll make another, and the following week another. Bank up 3-4 plans with meals and snacks you enjoy and rotate those.
We put together a meal calendar in Microsoft Word. We linked the meals with their recipes if they were online. Finally, we’d print the menu and recipes, and put them in sheet protectors in a binder that served as our go-to cookbook. Obvi, you don’t have to print them; you can do this on your phone or tablet. I just find it easier to work from paper recipes than a device. Nobody wants chicken fingers on their iPhone!
Plan meals that have ingredients in common with each other. It’s much more efficient and economical to cook one chicken that you use in three or more meals than it is to cook the same three meals with different main ingredients.
We plan dinners that double as lunches: The best BOGO ever! We also use the same breakfast every work day, or a rotation of two simple meals. This trick saves will-power and mental energy for the rest of the day’s bigger, more important decisions. It also saves time in the kitchen.
Once you have your meals planned and the recipes gathered, make a list of the ingredients you will need.
It’s helpful to organize your list according to your store’s layout. Being able to follow the list one item at a time as you zig-zag through your market’s aisles is much easier than trying to remember that thing you wrote at the end of the list. Doubling back is a waste of time. Don’t do it.
Now that you have a complete list, you’re ready to head to the store, right?
2. But first, inventory.
Check your kitchen for items you already have. If you have something that needs to be used that’s not in your meal plan, change a meal out for one that uses the ingredients you have on hand.
We call this “Shopping the Pantry” and it has saved us from TONS of wasted food, which of course, equates to wasted money. Tweak your list and meal plan based on your inventory. NOW you’re ready to shop.
3. Shop the Perimeter
Most stores are organized with produce, meats, and dairy along the outside walls, and the shelved aisles and freezer sections full of processed food products in the middle. Most of your time and grocery budget will be spent along the perimeter of the store, but you will dip into the aisles for some things – ie, grains, broths, canned tomato products, vinegars, to name a few.
We don’t buy a product if we can make a simple recipe from ingredients that we would have anyway. I haven’t bought balsamic vinaigrette in years; instead I shake up olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some dried herbs and spices in a mason jar. That way I know exactly what’s in the dressing that I’m eating, and I’ve saved money and space in the fridge.
Buy only what’s on your list – unless you find a great deal. If so, stock up and tweak your plan again. It’s okay. Be flexible.
Another thing: Don’t Shop Hungry! A growling stomach makes it harder to stick to your list.
4. Wash, chop, package
Plan to start your meal prep process as soon as you get home with your bounty.
Wash all produce (except berries; we’ll get to why next). Tear lettuces and store in a large zippered bag with a paper towel to absorb the moisture. Chop hard veggies and pack them in airtight containers until you’re ready to use them. Cut dipping vegetables (crudites if you’re fancy) and pack in individual servings for snacks and lunches during the week. That includes bell pepper strips, celery sticks, carrots, zucchini, etc.
Wash hard fruits. Wash berries right before consuming, because washing reduces their shelf life considerably.
Store everything at eye level, or in a bowl on your counter – where you can see it and will be more likely to grab it when foraging for a snack.
Even if this is as far as you get right now, it’ll save you time. Having all our vegetables chopped before we started cooking made such a big difference and has become a household habit.
5. Slow cookers, stackable containers, and sealable bags
Those are a few supplies that we found crucial. (In fact, we have three slow cookers. Yeah, that is a little embarrassing now that I’ve written it.)
Amass a collection of stackable airtight storage containers. You’ll need them for holding individual and family meals, in the freezer and the refrigerator. You might find a form of basket-style containers for pantry produce storage helpful as well.
Meals last 2-3 months in the freezer, and up to 4 days in the fridge.
6. What to plan and how to prep it
Again, you’ll need enough breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for the week.
You’ll also need snacks.
Many of them can be prepped and packed along with your meal prep for the week.
We have found prepping snacks VITAL to consistent healthy eating during the week. If a snack is already prepared and individually packed, we won’t automatically grab something “quick” out of a vending machine. If it’s already packed when we head out, we can slip it in our bag and have healthy snacks on the go. Oh, and those late-night study or work sessions? Life. Saver.
- Boil eggs, cool, and pack. Package nuts into snack-sized bags. Pack low-fat string cheeses with grape tomatoes, baby carrots, or an apple.
- Pack grape tomatoes with a handful of nuts in snack sized zippered bags for a quick grab and go snack.
- Pack hummus or guacamole and “crudites” in sectioned airtight containers.
- Pack Greek yogurt and fruit in individual serving containers.
Don’t neglect protein at snack time! Protein foods will hold you for longer so you can keep working without those distracting sensations in your stomach. The above list is far from exhaustive; the possibilities are literally legion.
As for meals,
- You can cook meats, vegetables, and starches separately, or as casseroles, soups or stews. Roasting, grilling, or sautéing meats makes them available to repurpose into fresh meals in a fraction of the time.
- Find a few favorite slow-cooker recipes. Put the ingredients together in a large zippered bag, then put them on to cook in the morning on low to come home to a fragrant home-cooked meal.
- You can even store these in the freezer to go in the slow cooker at a later date.
- Make double, even triple recipes at a time. It takes no more time to brown 3 pounds of ground beef than 1 pound.
See the following table for more.
Excerpted from The Healthy Habits System Workbook.
7. Your freezer, your friend.
Since you’ll be making double and triple recipes at a time, you’ll be stocking it full and you’ll have home-cooked meals at your fingertips, even on weeks that don’t slow down enough to breathe.
Plain frozen vegetables and fruits are good to keep on hand as well. The bigger the bag, the cheaper per serving. So plan to store fruits for your morning smoothie in the freezer.
In addition to the supplies listed above, Hubby bought a label-maker. He’d label every meal before it went in the freezer with what it was and the date it was made. Super important, because it’s hard to tell frozen chili apart from frozen chicken and rice.
They come naturally to my husband, with his pension for spreadsheets, automation, and Gantt charts. I’ve learned over the years that they really are a busy person’s best friend. Systems enable routines, which you know, if you’ve read any of my writings thus far, I love. They are foundational to a healthy, productive life. They help you crush your goals and win at life, whether you’re a desperate grad student, a solopreneur, an up-and-coming professional, or — well, anybody.