Everyone loves the idea of healthy eating, but putting a new meal-prep or diet plan into action is often easier said than done, especially for busy family caregivers. Between working, taking care of your family, looking after an older adult, and other day-to-day activities, putting a healthy meal on the dinner table is probably the last thing on your mind. Many of us resort to picking up fast food, ordering takeout or relying on prepared and processed foods to feed ourselves and those who depend on us.
While the aspiration to cook more frequently and eat a healthier diet may be there, the time, energy, funds and skills are often lacking. The good news is that there are tips, tricks and shortcuts that you can use to make simple meals for yourself and your loved ones that are delicious, fast and healthy.
Plan Out Your Meals
Surely, you’ve heard about the importance of meal planning. Having a plan is essential to taking control of your kitchen, your diet and your health, even during the busiest of times. Setting aside a few minutes each week to figure out what you’re going to cook in the days ahead can save you a bunch of headaches.
When planning your meals, figure out what main dishes you’re going to prepare, which nights you’re going to eat leftovers and which nights you’re going to eat out. It is difficult to develop new routines, but I suggest aspiring to cook at least three nights a week, enjoy leftovers three nights a week and eat out no more than once a week.
Planning meals and making concise shopping lists may seem unnecessary, but these steps will help you stick to your grocery budget and reduce food waste. Not to mention, you’ll be less likely to find your refrigerator or pantry barren, minimizing the need to make last minute runs to the grocery store throughout the week and thereby saving you valuable time. Keep in mind that planning out meals takes practice, so be patient with yourself if this is a new step for you.
Leftovers may seem sad and boring but let them work for you! Variety is exciting, but wouldn’t you rather have an extra 30-45 minutes three nights a week that isn’t spent cooking and washing dishes? If you aren’t a fan of eating the same things back-to-back, opt for recipes in which the leftovers can be repurposed or incorporated into other meals with minimal effort.
For example, a hefty batch of homemade Cuban-style black beans is a simple, healthy and affordable staple for the week. These can be served over rice with a thin, quick-cook pork chop or a chicken breast and an easy corn salad for dinner. Leftover beans can then be used as a topping for taco salad or a filling for burritos, served alongside eggs and salsa for a laidback take on huevos rancheros for breakfast, or repurposed into healthy black bean burger patties for lunch. Get creative with your food!
Your Freezer Is Your Best Friend
Most people use the weekends to plan meals, grocery shop and prepare food for the upcoming week, but family caregivers typically don’t have the luxury of scheduled downtime. This is unfortunate because batch cooking and freezing meals can free up a lot of time during the week. There is a larger investment of time and money required on the front end, but reheat-and-eat meals can be a real lifesaver during especially hectic times like emergencies, which are inevitable when you’re caring for an aging loved one. If your schedule is unpredictable or respite is rare for you, it may take some trial and error to find a cooking routine that works for your situation.
The best place to start is with a healthy recipe that you already know and love. Instead of just making one batch, double it. Yes, this may come with a slight increase in prep time (think browning meat or washing and chopping vegetables), but the cooking time should stay about the same, and you’ll have saved yourself the hassle of shopping for and preparing a whole set of meals.
For example, instead of making one batch of turkey meatloaf, cook two. The second loaf will freeze well and can be served with a side of steamed frozen peas and a baked potato or quick-roasted mixed vegetables for dinner. You can also turn this classic main course into a lunchtime favorite by slicing it up thick and serving it as a meatloaf sandwich with a side salad of pre-washed greens.
While fresh produce tends to be more appealing, it also tends to expire quickly and require a lot of attention (e.g. washing, peeling, chopping, blanching, etc.). Frozen vegetables are a great item to stock your freezer with. They’re affordable, versatile and have a comparable nutritional value to what you buy fresh at the grocery store. The convenience factor alone often helps people consume more vegetables than they would normally.
If your freezer is your best friend, then think of your crock pot, instant pot or Dutch oven as your sidekick. Healthy “dump and go” recipes like soups, stews, curries, casseroles and braises are perfect for time-strapped caregivers, because they make generous batches and typically freeze and reheat well for future no-fuss meals. You can also use the slow cooker to make fillings for sandwiches, wraps and tacos as well as hearty sauces for serving over pasta, polenta, zoodles (zucchini noodles), etc.
There are even freezer meal techniques that involve placing all raw, prepped and measured recipe ingredients in a plastic zip-top bag and freezing them. When you’re in need of a hot meal, you can either thaw the contents or cook them from frozen in an instant pot, slow cooker or oven (the cooking technique and time vary, depending on the dish).
Make Breakfast a No-Brainer
Unfortunately, the most important meal of the day can also be the most difficult to squeeze in and make healthy. If you’re a working caregiver, it’s likely that mornings are always a mad dash for the door.
It helps to have healthy items on hand that you can easily mix and match for tons of different breakfast ideas. Some healthy ingredients include:
- Whole grain cereals with less than nine grams of sugar per serving
- Rolled oats (plain oats allow for more control over sugar and calorie content)
- Fresh fruit ,like apples, bananas and oranges, that is easy to eat on the go
- Frozen berries (compared to fresh, these have a longer shelf life and can be mixed into oats, yogurt or smoothies)
- Low-fat, low-sugar dairy options like milk and Greek yogurt
- Raw nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.
- Seeds like flax and chia that can be mixed into cereals or smoothies
- Eggs (splurge for free-range and organic varieties if you can)
- Sprouted grain or whole grain bagels, breads and English muffins
All these ingredients will last a relatively long time in your fridge, freezer and pantry. If you have at least a few of these on hand, you can make dozens of different items for breakfast. Toss Greek yogurt, berries, and a spoonful of chia seeds into a blender for a healthy smoothie in minutes. Top whole grain cereal with a little cow’s milk or almond milk, some chopped walnuts, and a sliced banana for a high-fiber meal that will keep you full all morning.
If you prefer something savory for breakfast but are low on time, try cooking eggs in the microwave. Beat one or two eggs in a microwave-safe ramekin or mug and cook for 60 to 90 seconds for a simple serving of scrambled eggs. You can add pre-chopped vegetables and a sprinkle of low-fat cheese for a hearty breakfast scramble in no time flat. Or, you can scramble an egg atop a slice of Canadian bacon in the microwave and turn it out onto a toasted English muffin for a quick breakfast sandwich.
Eating sensibly and healthily doesn’t need to be an arduous task. Curating a collection of reliable recipes, ingredients and simple cooking tips can take some time and practice, but these things can also empower you to make healthy choices each and every day.
For additional inspiration, tips and recipes, check out what other caregivers on the Caregiver Forum are cooking: What’s for dinner?