I’m always a fan of learning from other people’s mistakes or painstaking experimentation. But in my life, I’ve noticed that my trial and error pays off for others in the area of food and nutrition.
To give a smidge of context, about 10 years ago my natural doctor helped me to discover that I had food allergies:
wheat (almost all breads, pastas, crackers, toppings, creamy ingredients)
soy (goodbye most Asian foods, vegetarian meat options, sauces, and anything cooked in vegetable oil)
dairy yes, all. I have no words on this front 🙁 🙁
Oats (low allergy)
cranberry (low allergy)
Essentially, these allergens made it close to impossible to eat anything that I didn’t cook from scratch. The years of research it took to understand food labels, ingredients and how to cook tasty substitutes should be a topic for larger blog series. So lets fast forward a few years to the most valuable lessons I learned about myself through this journey:
Stressing out about food restrictions and what to eat caused more negative effects on my body than the actual allergens.
So first, I had to accept that my new dietary restrictions had to be a permanent lifestyle change.
After that, I had to accept that I could no longer rely on convenience foods (processed, frozen meals, boxed or prepackaged ingredients).
WAY easier said than done, especially for a very busy teacher.
The good news though is that the ingredients and foods I had to avoid are actually not healthy for me anyway. So in order to refrain from stressing myself too much from meal prep anxiety, I submitted myself to this personal goal:
Don’t obsess with avoiding my allergens 100% of the time. 80%-90% is my goal. This allows me to let an ingredient or a part of a meal pass here and there…far easier than the frustrating work of completely replacing the meal due to one ingredient.
After two or three years of experimenting with different methods of food prep, this is what I found works for me.
Grains- 30-45 min:
Brown rice, Quinoa, or another gluten and wheat free grains are my best friends! I bought a small, low priced rice cooker about 10 years ago that still serves me faithfully. I just add 2 cups of water to every one cup of brown rice or quinoa. White rice is a 1:1 ratio of water and rice. The steamer never burns or makes the grain mushy and, best of all, needs no babysitting. During the time this cooks by itself, I work on cooking proteins and vegetables.
Storage: I place the quinoa in a large bowl in the fridge for up to 7 days, or I meal prep individual single serving bowls to bring to work.
Ideas: Quinoa or Rice can be used as
- A basefor rice bowls (Asian, Mexican, Buddha bowls, etc)
- A quinoa salad- add in diced cucumbers, tomatoes, kalamata olives, spinach, parsley, diced chicken, dried cranberries, and lemon juice olive oil (a MUST)
- It can also be used as an addition to green salads or wraps to make it more filling
- Brown/wild rice can be added to soups or stews such as chicken and rice soup, creamy wild rice and mushroom soup, chili, stews.
Proteins 30-45 min:
I cook chicken or other proteins for the week at one time. You can cook chicken thighs or breast on a pan or even bake in the oven. Ground turkey or beef can also be pan cooked. Season with basics that can be used in various dishes like salt, pepper, garlic powder, or even oregano. Finally, vegetarian proteins like beans and lentils can be boiled while the grains cook (for my own convenience, I use canned beans).
Storage: When it cools, place into a large bowl to use at your discretion throughout the week. Or, again, incorporate the protein into your specific dishes for the week and serve into individual bowls to bring to work.
Ideas: Chicken breast or thighs can be used to
- top green salads
- added to fajitas, wraps, or
- added to grains like quinoa or rice for bowls
- mixed into other salads like quinoa
Ideas: Ground beef, turkey, or vegetarian proteins can be used to
- make chili
- Italian meat sauce (serve with regular pasta or zucchini noodles)
- Mold into burgers- regular, turkey, or veggie
- Tacos, fajitas, wraps
- Beans, lentils or hummus can be added to wraps or green salads
Vegetables 15-30 min:
Vegetables are a great source of fiber and add nutritional bulk to your meals. I know not everyone can do vegetables; it took me at least 4 years to start tolerating broccoli or carrots in tiny pieces soaked in sauce.
Simple rule of thumb: do whatever works for you… as much as you can.
Depending on what meal I’m prepping, I steam or sauté veggies that go well with it. Here are my most common choices:
- Mirepoix: a mix of chopped carrots, onion, and celery that is used as the base for all my soups, chili, and stews. I usually chop this fresh, but it can be stored in the refrigerator for up two 2 or 3 days.
- Sautéed Veggies: These are great as a side with any meal, including breakfast, or even added to a wrap, tacos, or rice bowl. Usually, I chop red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, onions, and Bella mushrooms into even sized pieces and sauté in coconut oil and some kind of acid (apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, or lemon juice). The acid here is SUPER important as it gives a great flavor profile. Toward the end, I add some spinach on the pan for just one or two minutes to let it wilt.
Storage: This can be stored in a container for up to 5 days in the refrigerator.
- Steamed veggies: I make it easy and buy frozen bags of broccoli, stir fry, green beans, or any number of vegetable blends. I most often use my microwave vegetable steamer, which helps to keep the stove burners open for whatever proteins or vegetables I am cooking there. Sometimes I just dump the frozen veggies right into the pan or the food I am cooking. I know that sounds sloppy, but the water from the frozen veggies will evaporate from the pan or incorporate quickly into the food without ruining it.
Storage: This can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week.
- Fresh veggies: I keep spinach or greens in the fridge for up to 7-10 days by placing a paper towel inside the bag or the container. I add this to just about any meal from soup to nourish bowls to fresh green salads. Tomatoes and cucumbers get sliced or diced and added to just about any meal as well. Fresh red or orange bell peppers get sliced and used for dipping into hummus or guac. Avocadoes are diced and added to just about everything!
Breakfast and snacks 15-30 min:
My allergies to eggs and cheese make this so difficult to be convenient or inexpensive. But I have found ways around it. Most of the following ideas are only about 10-20 minutes of prep time for an entire week of breakfasts or snacks.
- Overnight oats: (yes I’m cheating a little here). Oats, chia seeds, almond milk, cinnamon, chopped apples, chopped nuts, pumpkin seeds, and vanilla extract.
- Chia seed pudding: chia seeds, full fat coconut milk, some flavoring (matcha powder, cacao powder, or vanilla extract), and toppings (frozen berries, sliced peaches, chopped nuts, jam, etc)
- Protein smoothie: vanilla or chocolate protein powder, strawberries, and water. I often add things like collagen, probiotic, and super food greens powders and for added healthy fat: MCT oil.
- Apple slices with almond butter or sunflower seed butter
- Sliced veggies with hummus
- Vegan peanut butter oatmeal cookies (appr. 30 minutes for prep and cook time)
- Trail mix- cashews, walnuts, almonds, cranberries, allergy-free chocolate chips
These are just my staple meals and food prep that I commonly do on a Saturday or Sunday. There are many other meals I cook for myself; I like to experiment making allergen free versions of my favorite dishes. For the most part, I decide by Friday or Saturday (usually when I am grocery shopping) what one or two meals I want to eat for the next week, then I make the meal, placing it into separate lunch and dinner bowls right there. My goal is to think about cooking or food a total of ZERO minutes between Monday and Friday.
It took me about 2 ½ years to be ok with eating the same meal for lunch or dinner each day of the week. It was quite difficult because I need variety. But between my food allergies and very limited choices for stopping somewhere to get a meal, I had to train myself to be ok with just one or two meal options for the week. That is what works for me, or should I say, that is what had to work for me. One of my best friends cooks from scratch a completely different meal every weekday, and then goes out to eat on weekends. Different things work for different people.
I’m aware that this takes a person who is comfortable with cooking, experimenting and getting creative with whatever ingredients are in the cupboard. But my staple meals really don’t require much skill beyond chopping, steaming, pan frying, or sautéing. More importantly, those of you who do not have the limited choices that I do can replace a lot of the cook time with easier and more convenient choices. Here is a list of foods I really miss that can make life so much easier for you:
Cubed or sliced cheese
Most frozen meals!
If these are foods with which you do not react poorly, you can cut down a ton of cooking time by directly portioning out these ingredients for your meals and snacks. This is how you can start out slowly.
That is my best piece of advice when it comes to changing one’s diet or lifestyle. Start out slowly… Learn one new recipe or test out an ingredient every few weeks. Try one new prep strategy each month. Change the timing or the portion of your meals once a month. Do what works for you and your body, not what others tell you that you must do. Start there, then build off the knowledge you gain about yourself.
What are some of the food prep or meal planning tips that have helped you?