One of the cornerstones of my beliefs as a Wellness Coach is that ultimately we are what we eat. Hippocrates said, "Let food be thy medicine" and I wholeheartedly agree. A key component to aging healthfully and beautifully is learning to pay closer attention to what we put into our bodies. There are so many diseases and maladies that can be turned around and even avoided altogether by what we eat, including many common side effects of menopause and peri-menopause. Pills mostly treat symptoms but the food that you eat can make actual changes. I can't say this any clearer: what you are eating (or not eating) directly impacts your health.
But I digress…
A common complaint I hear from my clients is that they aren't eating as healthfully as possible is because meal prep stresses them out.
Whether they are cooking just for themselves or for their partners and families, making dinner (or breakfast or lunch) can feel like a chore and ultimately creates a mini-battle in their minds. A mini mind battle usually goes something like this:
Your mind Ugh. It's 5:00 pm and I have no clue what to do about dinner.
Your inner critic: You should have thought of this earlier. Aren't you sick of having to do this all the time? Don't you wish that for once someone would just cook for you? You could try to run over to the Whole Foods hot bar but the rush hour traffic… Whatever. If you don't figure something out or you'll be ordering pizza/Thai/Indian- again.
Your mind I suck at this. I hate cooking. I'm too busy. This is hard (etc…).
Your inner critic: Stop whining! You are trying to eat healthy? You are never going to lose weight or feel better if you keep this up. Get it together!
At which point you make a beeline for a glass of wine (or two), open up Facebook for a while and avoid dealing with dinner until you are so hungry that you eat a pile of cheese and crackers and then get cranky because you feel like shit.
Listen to me you guys: this scenario can be avoided!
I know that you are juggling a zillion details large and small, including trying to eat more healthfully and mindfully. There are so many things in our lives that make us feel like we have zero control, but cooking, even just putting together a salad, gives you masses of control. When you cook you have control of the ingredients, the quality, the portion size, the cost, and the experience. You can use the time to listen to music or the news or a book, chat with your kids or better yet, have them help you.
And another thing: I have a hunch that if you are telling yourself you hate cooking or that it doesn't interest you, somewhere deep down inside it's really your inner critic who has you believing you need to do it perfectly or beautifully every time.
Newsflash! You will, in fact, burn the rice or whatever from time to time and that's OK.
Don't be afraid to occasionally fuck up. It's how we learn. If you have a sharp knife, a cutting board, a big bowl, a baking sheet and good ingredients then you can create something healthy and delicious. It might not be Instagram worthy but ultimately that's not the point.
I have learned to love cooking over the years but there are still days when I know there is no way I'm going to be able to make it happen. However those days are fewer and more far between as I have learned the true secret of success in winning the dinner wars: be prepared. I wrote about ways to do this in my blog post from last summer, Ready When You Are (Part 1).
Now, as promised, here are more tips to help you be ready for some (light) meal prep in your kitchen - even if you *think* you can't cook.
- Make sure your kitchen is stocked with the basics. A list of the basics for me include good olive oil, grass-fed butter, coconut oil, balsamic vinegar, wheat-free tamari and/or coconut aminos (found at Whole Foods and many other grocery stores), lemons, limes, onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, red or green cabbage, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, coconut milk, chicken broth, canned beans, rice, frozen veggies like chopped spinach, bell peppers and broccoli, rice noodles, feta cheese, chicken, turkey or pork sausages, eggs and finally herbs and spices like oregano, basil, thyme, paprika, cumin, coriander and chili powder and curry powder. Some of the things in this list are more perishable than others but even the most perishable will typically last around 2-3 weeks. If you have most of these on hand you will be able to throw together an easy meal in 30 minutes with a minimum of effort.
- Buy pre-chopped veggies and meat. Yes - this is a bit more expensive than chopping them yourself but it's less expensive than eating out and it’s way healthier. Most grocery stores have pre-chopped combos of veggies just waiting to be put into your stir fry or scramble or tossed with oil and roasted into deliciousness.
- Find a website, blog or cookbook that you like and go there regularly for ideas. If simply googling "pork tenderloin recipe" gives you more hits than you can possibly deal with, stick to one or 2 reliable places for ideas and how-to's. Some places I go for simple recipes include Everyday Maven, Minimalist Baker and Elana's Pantry. One important thing to note: read recipes all the way through before you commit to them! It’s a drag to start making something only to find you are missing a crucial ingredient or you need to marinate overnight.
- Plan at least one meal per week from your crock pot/slow cooker. This is a huge time saver and a super easy option! You could try chili, vegetable soup, beef stew, chicken cacciatore -- the possibilities are endless. There's nothing like coming home from a busy day and having dinner ready to go.
- When I am pressed for time I will get a couple of already cooked roast chickens and cut up the second one before putting it in the fridge. Then I have enough bones to make chicken stock and a bunch of leftover roast chicken to use in a salad or to put in chicken soup. Lots of stores have a buy one get one 50% off on roast chickens. Whole Foods even has a roast chicken punch card!
- Roasted veggies - always my go-to last minute thing because any vegetable is fair game. My family loves everything from roasted yams and Brussels sprouts to roasted cabbage steaks.
· Keep a pound of ground beef, chicken or shrimp in the freezer. It will defrost in about an hour in some cool water and you'll be good to go. Here's an idea for frozen shrimp: Mix 2 tablespoons each of olive oil and lemon juice with 1 teaspoon of cumin, coriander and paprika and 1/2 teaspoon each of sea salt and oregano. Toss your defrosted shrimp (about a pound) into that mixture. You can even let it sit there for 15 minutes while you make a salad or something. Then thread it on skewers for the grill or just put it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 8 minutes. With some rice or quinoa it's a perfect dinner idea.
· If smoothies are your breakfast jam then try putting together pre-made smoothie bags. You can take one out of the freezer to defrost for a few minutes while you jump in the shower, add some liquid and some yogurt or protein powder and you are good to go. Check out this idea from the Simple Green Smoothie folks.
· Cook once, eat twice (or even 3 times). Make extra rice or quinoa and use it for fried rice or add it to soup. Make extra corn on the cob and shave it off to add to a salad. Extra cooked veggies can go into scrambled eggs, soups or salads. You get the idea. Too much today means more for tomorrow.
We all want to be healthy - that's a no brainer.
It's more important than ever now to watch what we eat - for quality especially - because the world we live in is toxic and stressful enough without adding bad food into the mix. Don't choose convenience over nourishment! Be prepared and you will ultimately feel better, have more time and be ready to face the mini mind-battles, the dinner wars and all other manner of food fights.
PS - What do you do to be prepared? What are your tips and tricks? Let me know in the comments below.
PPS - If you find the idea of all this prep too much, check out my Kitchen Reboot program. I can walk you through it all from pantry re-do to recipe overwhelm and everything in between.