Meal prep is a hands-on practice for so many looking to improve their health and focus on nutrition. In fact, #kitchenrestock has over 460 million views on TikTok. It’s strangely satisfying to see influencers cleaning, prepping, organizing, and stocking their kitchens. Sparkling waters perfectly lined up, clear containers overflowing with pre-washed berries, fresh herbs sitting in glasses of water, but who has time for all that? As a registered dietitian, I’m sharing some tips on how to eat healthy without prepping meals that will keep your kitchen well stocked for quick meals without such a time commitment.
I mean, who really wants to spend three hours preparing food on Sunday while battling fears? Here I’ll look at each of the kitchen’s major food storage areas—pantry, freezer, and refrigerator—offering ways to prioritize nutrition, organization, and reducing food waste. I’ll also share some of my favorite foods to have on hand for quick, easy, and downright delicious meals. Let’s jump.
How to eat healthy without preparing meals
Of all the kitchen storage areas, the pantry is by far the most famous for housing foods that have passed their best dates. To avoid this, move older foods to the front of the shelf, placing any new additions behind, otherwise known as first in, first out. The pantry is one place where clear containers can actually be your friend, especially if you’re shopping in bulk, helping you keep an eye out for freshness or mold. Plus, they can help stimulate craving signals, making you more likely to choose the healthy foods you’ve stocked up on. Here are some favorites I like to keep on hand:
- grains: Hot and cold whole grains, granola, whole wheat bread, pasta, rice, cornmeal, bread, potatoes, rice paper, these complex carbohydrates make breakfasts, lunches and dinners quick and easy. Simply add fruit, yogurt, nuts, seeds, your favorite milk or any other ingredient you love to hot or cold cereal for a perfectly balanced breakfast, whip up a quick sandwich for lunch or spring for a quick pasta, rice dish, polenta , baked potatoes or spring rolls for dinner. Be sure to look for low-to-no added sugar and 100 percent whole grain options here to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.
- Fruit: Nuts, unsweetened applesauce, and fresh options like bananas, apples, and oranges boost the fiber, vitamin, and mineral content of your meals by adding fruit to breakfast cereals, smoothies, or simply enjoyed as a snack or side dish.
- Healthy Fats: The fats from nut butters, avocados, and oils like avocado, olive, walnut, and safflower are key to creating a filling, satisfying meal or snack. Nut butters can be added to smoothies, cereal bowls, sandwiches and more. Avocado is also the GOAT when it comes to toast and salad dressings. Meanwhile, healthy oils are an absolute necessity when it comes to cooking, because what’s more tragic than your perfectly seared salmon sticking to the pan?
- Legumes: While dried beans and lentils require some soaking and cooking to use, it’s not a problem if you have an Instant Pot or remember to soak them the night before. They make the best addition to grain bowl, soup, stew and rice dish.
- Canned fish: Ethically sourced tuna, salmon, anchovies or sardines, I always use these options for a quick salad, sandwich or quick puttanesca sauce.
- Broths and preserves: Beans, soups, salsas, tomatoes, coconut milk, and greens, choose wisely here as the sodium content of some canned goods can be a concern. But luckily, most options come in low-sodium varieties. Broths are perfect for quick soup or curry, canned tomatoes quickly turn into an easy tomato sauce, and there doesn’t get much quicker than a big brand of canned soup.
- Herbs, spices and seasonings: These are essential when it comes to cooking quickly and tasty. Herbs and spices can quickly add flavor to dishes without having to simmer for hours on end. Condiments can offer the same benefits, just watch out for the sodium content in go-tos like soy sauce, barbecue sauce, hot sauce and mustard, and enjoy them in moderation.
- Snacks: Skip stocking up on chips and cookies and prioritize nutrient-dense foods to load your clear containers like dried fruit, unsweetened applesauce products like Gutzy Organic, whole grain products like pita chips, and healthy fruit snacks like produce Solely.
The freezer is your friend in the game of assembling quick meals on busy weekdays, but it can also be a black hole of no return for many foods. It uses the same concept as the pantry in terms of moving older objects to the front so they’re used first to address this issue. Let’s jump into some great go-tos:
- Fruits and vegetables: I love starting a smoothie recipe with frozen fruits like berries, bananas, pears, or mangoes, and veggies like frozen spinach, cauliflower, or avocados. Not only do these ingredients add tons of nutrition, but they also eliminate the need for ice in your recipe. Frozen fruit is also perfect with hot cereal, just pour it directly over the fruit to defrost it instantly. Frozen vegetables are perfect for busy weekday meals where they can easily be added to quick soups, fried rice dishes, stir fries, and even roasted. If I see a fresh fruit or vegetable in the fridge about to expire, I chop it and freeze it too.
- Nuts and seeds: Yes, you read that right, I keep all nuts and seeds in the freezer! These healthy fats contain many oils that are super good for our health, but will go rancid pretty quickly at room temperature. You can store nuts and seeds in the refrigerator for the same reason, but you’ll get double the storage time in the freezer for at least six months. They’re great in smoothies, hot and cold cereals, snack mixes, and salads.
- Protein Options: Whether it’s chicken, turkey, fish, or whatever, it’s always nice to have individual servings of protein in the freezer—you can even freeze them in a marinade to make cooking that much quicker. One of my favorite 30-minute meals is searing a single serving of salmon that I pulled out of the freezer the night before (I love Chilean salmon because it’s especially high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury) and serve it alongside quick-cooking polenta and baked vegetables.
- Leftovers, broths and sauces: I also always have leftover meals, meal components, homemade broths, and sauces ready to pop in the freezer for easy access. These can be thawed straight from the freezer when it’s time to cook, no need to think too much ahead.
Organization also really pays off when it comes to keeping your fridge tidy and free of odors. While I rarely prewash or cut my produce when I get home from a grocery store, I usually wrap perishable vegetables, including herbs, in biodegradable paper towel and store them in an airtight container. While I know storing herbs in water-filled glasses will increase their shelf life, this is a trick I simply can’t be bothered with (nor do I have room in my fridge).
I also go through all the berries I’ve purchased, immediately freezing the ones that look like whipped ones for smoothies, chopping up the ones that look good for breakfast, and putting the ones that look great in an airtight container. That’s because I’ve found that fresh berries can go moldy quickly and are one of the most wasted produce in kitchens.
Here are some other foods that I usually eat all the time:
- Fruits and vegetables: No matter how you slice it, fruit is perfect for smoothies, cereals, puddings, parfaits, and to-go snacks. Meanwhile vegetables are key components to virtually every quick meal I prepare, whether it’s eggs, salads, sandwiches, pastas, rice dishes, soups, stews, you name it. And while you can buy these pre-chopped to save time, you’ll save money and food packaging waste if you make it yourself.
- Dairy products and alternatives: Yogurt and kefir (I love Lifeways’ options) are excellent sources of probiotics to support gut health and pair perfectly in smoothies and parfaits. Probiotic ricotta or farmer’s cheese is delicious spread on toast and topped with spinach and a runny egg. And, of course, milk (or alternative milk) is a necessity for cold cereals, smoothies, and a whole host of morning beverages. I love cashew milk, because it’s the creamiest of the bunch, IMO. Other cheeses (cow or alternative) are perfect for quick toast, pasta or nachos.
- Proteins: Tofu, tempeh, eggs, cured meats without additives, chicken or fish cook quickly to be served together with starch and vegetables or mixed in scrambles, soups, risottos, pastas and salads. Look for lean options here with little to no visible fat to keep your saturated fat intake to a minimum and your heart health to the point.
- Drinks: Swap the perfect rows of sugary drinks for low-sugar, decaf options that will keep you hydrated and feeling great. I love Rowdy Mermaid kombucha and soda, Wild Tonic jun, Culture Pops no sugar added probiotic sodas, and all the flavored waters out there. You also can’t beat a homemade iced tea, cold brew, or low-sugar lemonade.
- Snacks: I always have hummus, guacamole or yogurt-based dips on hand for a quick snack with cucumbers, carrots, chips and celery.
So while that was a lot of information, it just goes to show that when it comes to healthy eating without meal prepping, there are so many ways a stocked kitchen can whip up quick meals for you without a TikTok-level stock or extensive planning every day. week.
Having a mental rolodex of quick-cooking meals is also very helpful here. I have at least six recipes I can always turn to if I’m exhausted and need to toss something along with the foods I already have on hand—no special expense required. By learning these tricks of the trade, you can get tasty and healthy food to the table fast, no matter how tired you are after a long day at work.
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