Registered dietitians share their secrets for making meal planning and prepping a no-brainer.
We’ve all been there: you come home from a long day at work and you’re exhausted and starved, so you start munching on a bag of chips as you plan dinner. Before long, you’ve snacked yourself full. Luckily, implementing the nutritionist tricks that follow can help you throw together fast, simple, and healthy meals on even the busiest nights. Pretty soon, using them will become second nature, and the “What should I make?” dinnertime crisis will become a thing of the past.
Stock your freezer with fish
The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish per week. To make that happen, pick up fish that can go from your freezer straight to your oven, suggests Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, a nutritionist in the Chicago area. Typically, frozen fish should be thawed before cooking, but “some brands are marinated, individually wrapped, and can be cooked from frozen,” she says. (Look for phrases like “no need to thaw” or “from freezer to oven” on the package.) Also smart: Pick up a bag of cooked, peeled, and deveined frozen shrimp (a great source of low-cal protein) to quickly heat up and add to pasta dishes, stir-fries, and salads.
Do just a little prep work
If you love getting all your veggies, proteins, and grains cooked for the week ahead, more power to you. But if it’s something you dread, skip it. "It’s easy to get overwhelmed with meal prep," says Amy Gorin, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area. Instead, she recommends taking the prep down a few notches by chopping on Sunday only the ingredients you can incorporate into meals during the week. For example, Gorin keeps sliced mushrooms and onions on hand for stir-fries or omelets; it removes some of the prep burden, and you don’t have to start dinner from scratch.
Embrace short cuts
Fact: No one actually likes to peel and cube a butternut squash. Or mince garlic, or chop brussels sprouts. That’s why store-bought prepped produce can be a lifesaver. “They may be a little pricier, but they can save time and help you eat healthier at home in the long run,” says Lindsay Livingston, RD, a nutritionist in Columbus, Ohio. Look for creatively prepped veggies to jazz up meals, like spiralized carrots and zucchini, shredded brussels sprouts, or bagged cauliflower rice.
Make smoothie cups
What’s better than a blend-and-go smoothie when you’re running out the door? Prepack an individual container with fruit, nut butter, and any other additions (think coconut, greens, cocoa powder, chia seeds, or cashews). The next morning, dump the bowl into your blender and add your liquid of choice (milk, coconut water, kefir). Gorin always keeps frozen wild blueberries in her freezer (some research has found that raw wild blueberries have twice the antioxidants of the raw, farm-raised ones) and combines them with plain Greek yogurt, milk, peanut butter, banana, and a tiny bit of maple syrup.
Keep these go-to foods on hand
There are days when you come home and are so starved you need to eat ASAP. Always have quick-cooking 10-minute grains on hand, like bulgur or barley, says Retelny. Toss with ready-to-eat bagged salad, and throw on a pre-seasoned package of tuna or salmon. This meal comes together fast, so you can eat well no matter what. More staples to keep in the house, according to Holley Grainger, RD, a nutritionist in Birmingham, Alabama: eggs, canned beans, frozen cooked chicken, jarred spaghetti sauce, hummus, veggies, noodles, and frozen pizza. Yep, frozen pizza really is OK from time to time.