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Make Space For: Healthy Meals

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Cooking for your family doesn’t only set your kids up for appreciation of whole foods and home cooking but also has a huge impact on your own health and longevity. I have always liked cooking, ever since I made my first recipe (out of Seventeen Magazine!) when I was 15. I’m not super creative but love being inspired by recipes and of course eating what I make.

But during the 20 plus years that spanned my child-raising career cooking felt less like something I liked to do and more like a chore. I worked full time and was tired when I got home. I had lots happening on the weekends and it was really hard to squeeze in shopping time. And I will share that my kids were pretty picky and usually didn’t appreciate the effort I put into the meal I had just made for them. So it was a pretty strong current I was swimming against.

Making space for healthy meals was important to me, both for my own health but also to set an example for my kids, so I had to figure out how to make it work.Over time I learned the secret that has unlocked the preparation of thousands of dinners (spoiler alert it’s the same one that keeps my fitness routine consistent): remove friction from the process.  Below are 3 of the biggest unlocks that remove friction from weeknight cooking,try them and see how to fit healthy meals into your busy life!

Find Inspiring Recipe Sources

This is the first step, you need sources for meals. I love food and am inspired to make something I would like to eat. There are thousands of food bloggers out there; I like to follow my favorites on Instagram and then I save anything that I might want to make at some point. My favorite food bloggers are Nom Nom Paleo, Salt and Lavender, Half Baked Harvest, Pinch of Yum and The Modern Proper. My other primary source for recipe inspiration is The New York Times Cooking app, subscription only but I probably get 60% of my recipes from them. I do have favorite cookbooks and am always excited to dig into new ones (my latest loves are Gregory Gourdet’s Everyone’s Table, Ottelenghi Simple and Primal Gourmet.) Do a little exploring to see what floats your boat, another thing that works for me is just Googling the name of what I want to make + recipe.  Possible sources are endless and you can curate based on any dietary goals you are trying to accommodate (vegetarian, paleo, vegan, Whole30, Keto, etc.)  If you start accumulating recipes first then you will have a stash to choose from when it’s time to plan your meals, eliminating the friction points of research and decision making.

Batch The Meal Planning Process

Deciding each day what you’re going to do for dinner leads to multiple shopping trips, anxiety and lots of takeout coming through the door. What you need to execute successfully is a batch system for meal planning. ‘Batch’ just means you are doing the planning and the shopping once for the whole week.. Doing the planning and the shopping ahead of time eliminates several friction points; all you have to do at the end of your busy day is execute. No decision-making, no searching for ingredients.

The first thing you’ll want to do is select the recipes you want to cook, using the handy stash you have been collecting from all of your sources. (I like to perform this part of the process curled up on my sofa watching TV.) 

The next thing is to read through the ingredient list for each recipe and make a shopping list (on your phone!)  You will likely have staples already on hand so only list the ingredients that you need to buy at the store. Another piece of advice: make note (also on your phone) of what recipes you chose and the source for each, there have been many times I have forgotten where to look for the recipe I chose and waste a ton of time tracking it down.

The last step in the planning batch is shopping. I like to do mine early in the AM when there is hardly anyone else in the store so I get in and out of there quickly. If you don’t have time to shop or don’t like it, Instacart is another option. There is a big unload to do since you have a week’s worth of food in one shop but once that is done you have set yourself up for the week and all there is left to do is cook!

Don’t Cook Every Night

Sometimes you have a tough day and cooking just isn’t in the cards. I used to feel defeated when this happened to me (which it did once almost every week) until I realized that I didn’t have to make recipes every night of the week. Four or five nights was sufficient. We started doing takeout on Fridays, often had social plans on Saturday and I left one weeknight ‘blank’ to accommodate the unforeseen. On those nights we’d just do Hot Dogs or sandwiches. It was a bit disheartening to see the kids get excited for the ‘free’ night because they preferred dinosaur chicken nuggets to my home-cooked meals. They did grow out of that eventually but I did begin to recognize my limits and 4 to 5 nights of cooking was it! If you are all in for cooking dinner every night you will likely burn out, and that defeats the goal. Planning some nights off removes the friction point of ‘I’m too tired to cook.”

The more you cook, the better you get at it. I now strive for variety but when the kids were smaller I had a few staple recipes that I made a lot. I was faster and more efficient when I made those recipes and expended way less energy. Eventually I planned to make those specific dinners on the nights when I knew ahead of time I’d be really tired; if you can pretty much make a recipe in your sleep it isn’t intimidating to think about cooking dinner (another friction point removed!)

At the end of the day you have to balance cooking healthy home-made meals with your energy level and when your energy is low it’s okay to bail. But if you plan ahead by stockpiling fun recipes, batching the planning and shopping, and not over-burdening yourself by cooking every night you will find that you are able to keep the rest of your life going while also serving up delicious and healthy meals for your family. Bon Appetit!

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