Nutrition Counseling

Make Meal Prep Work

If you’ve been a dietitian for any length of time, you’re familiar with the concept of meal preparation. With so many clients looking to get healthful meals on the table quickly and easily, it can seem as though meal prep and being a dietitian go hand in hand.

This is true now more than ever. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, most clients want to go to the grocery store as little as possible, yet they’re cooking at home most of the time. And though events and gatherings are canceled, parents and caregivers with school-aged children are overwhelmed with work, childcare, and/or home-schooling for the first time. In light of this, clients may perceive meal prep as another chore to add to their to-do list, as they’re already overwhelmed with running their households.

But this a golden opportunity for RDs to show clients how meal prep can be a game-changer, especially since everyone must make supermarket trips count. This post highlights why meal prepping deserves the hype it receives and how to make it work for you and your clients.

Benefits of Meal Prep
Whether you or your clients are meal prep pros or newbies, it’s important to explain why meal prepping is heavily promoted in the nutrition community. Here are just some of the possible benefits:

  • money saved, since meal prep reduces ordering takeout/delivery and eating out, because restaurants are closed);
  • eating more fruits and vegetables, since they’re already prepped and ready to eat;
  • better portion control and ingredients, since the cook gets to control exactly what goes into the food and how much is served;
  • time saved, since most of the work is done ahead of time and just a few steps are left when assembling the meal;
  • reduced stress associated with meal times, since there are fewer last-minute decisions about what to eat and less work to do after a busy day;
  • better overall health, since eating planned home-cooked meals is associated with a more healthful diet and less obesity; and
  • improved cooking skills, since you and your clients will get more experience in the kitchen and discover what flavor profiles are family favorites.

Top Meal Prep Tips
Now that you’ve had a refresher on the advantages of meal prep and why dietitians should promote it to clients, let’s break down how to make this task work. Anyone, regardless of how busy they are or their resources, can learn how to implement basic meal prep techniques. Here are 10 strategies for RDs and clients alike:

1. Plan for it. Schedule meal prep on your calendar as you would an appointment for yourself—you’ll be more likely to stick to it.

2. Batch cook. This means intentionally cooking large portions of versatile ingredients such as grains, veggies, hard-boiled eggs, and meats to have readily available during the week. Cooking double or triple batches of favorite meals is another excellent way to save time in the long run. Prepare, store, and enjoy when ready.

3. Create a weekly (or biweekly) meal plan and work within it. This can be as simple as a list of three meal ideas for the week. Organize your grocery list around those meals as well as staples you and your family like to eat throughout the week. Having even a loose menu can save money and time at the store and reduce food waste. To save even more money, determine what ingredients you already have in your kitchen and base your meals around those.

4. Keep a prepared kitchen. Create a list of some favorite “go-to” meals for which you’ll always have ingredients (eg, tacos, chicken parmesan, or a stir-fry). Examples of items that always should be on your grocery list because they can be incorporated into a variety of meals include:

  • three to four protein sources (eg, fish, poultry, beans/lentils, cheese, eggs);
  • two to three types of fruit (canned, frozen, or fresh);
  • three to four veggies (prechopped, frozen, fresh, or canned);
  • two to three whole grains (eg, brown rice, quinoa, pasta, whole grain bread);
  • two to three multipurpose dips/spreads/sauces (eg, hummus, tahini, tomato sauce, salsa); and
  • two to three snack items (eg, nuts, popcorn, favorite crackers, bars).

5. Capitalize on your cooking time. If you’re already planning on using the oven, is there another food you can throw in there with it? If you’re cooking on the stove top, can you get another pot going simultaneously? If you’re chopping veggies for dinner, consider chopping for tomorrow while you’re at it (time permitting).

6. Check your schedule. Use your calendar as a guide so your plan for meal prep actually works with your schedule. If there are nights you won’t have time to cook, plan ahead to put a meal in the slow cooker that morning, or make a larger meal earlier in the week so you’ll have leftovers to eat.

7. Embrace frozen foods. Frozen vegetables and fruits always are healthful, but convenient mixed dishes or vegetables with sauce can be, too. Just be sure to check the nutrition and ingredient labels, and feel free to throw in your own additions to make these dishes more of a complete meal.

8. Repurpose leftovers. Get creative and experiment with turning last night’s dinner into tomorrow’s breakfast or lunch.

9. Invest in high-quality storage containers. You’ll need an appropriate place to store all those yummy ingredients, meals, and leftovers. Choose glass or silicone to reduce exposure to BPA and other toxins in plastic. Mason jars and glass storage containers also work well.

10. Have a backup plan. Sometimes life gets in the way and meal prepping won’t always happen, but this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to the drive-thru. Keep a few “go-to” foods, such as boxed/canned soups and healthful frozen meals on hand at all times for these occasions.

Examples of meals that work well for meal prepping include overnight oats, soups, anything in a Crock-Pot, shredded chicken (which is so versatile), and roasted veggies.

Final Thoughts
Have your thoughts on meal prepping changed at all yet? As RDs, it’s important that we practice what we preach, as this gives us more credibility. Gaining experience with meal prep can only help us better promote it to whom we counsel.

Lastly, in the midst of our busy lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic, please remember that you don’t have to do it all. Nor do your clients and patients. Find what works for you and them and celebrate any progress made as success.

— Joanna Foley, RD, CLT, has been practicing as a dietitian for more than five years and is the owner of a private nutrition counseling practice at Joanna believes that food really is the best medicine and that we all have the power within us to create the healthiest versions of ourselves. Joanna is also passionate about helping others transform their relationship with food and create positive eating environments.

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