Preparation is the key to success in most avenues of life, including healthy eating. As a dietitian, I believe taking the extra time at home to prep and cook most of your daily meals can help you maintain a healthy body weight and support your overall vitality. When you make a meal like a power lunch it sets you up for success. Plan meals for living life on the go and you’ll notice the positive effect on your day.
Where to Begin?
The best approach in the meal prep game is to have a plan and keep it simple. I find many people will fix something at home for breakfast and come home at night to prepare dinner, but lunch is the meal that most need help planning for healthy habits.
Here are some of my secrets to a successful lunch:
Pre-cook Whole Grains
Buying whole grains such as quinoa, barley, or brown rice and cooking a batch ahead of time helps making lunchtime meal prep easier. Many stores sell whole grain varieties that only take 10-15 minutes to cook—or you can find value in the bulk bins if you are willing to soak and pre-cook. You can easily add some sautéed veggies, beans and/or your favorite animal protein to the mix for a quick and easy on-the-go meal.
I am a huge fan of pre-cut vegetables. You can purchase them already cut or pre-cut them yourself and store in them in bags or containers in the fridge. Vegetables such as bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, celery, and many leafy greens can be chopped up and kept on hand to add to a salad, stir-fry, or grain dish for nutrients and extra flavor.
Have your favorite proteins cooked and ready to go. Season with spices and leave a few pieces in a glass storage container ready to be added along with your pre-cooked grains and vegetables. (Warning: if you’re prepping fish, cooked fish can get odorous sitting for extended periods of time.) For vegetarians or vegans, having beans, tempeh, tofu, or other protein analogs prepared and seasoned can help decrease prep time.
Spices and Seasonings
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be boring; spices can really make a difference. My absolute favorite spices are from Flavor God, a company based out of San Diego. These seasonings are chemical- and filler-free and have low sodium levels; the have an assortment of blends, which is helpful for those who enjoy variety.
While there are a number of available brands of reusable packable containers, my favorite on-the-go container is the classic Mason jar. You can put smoothies, oats, soups or salads in Mason jars. Glass doesn’t leach chemicals into food, it is easy to wash, and the jars are so easy to carry around. Go for the quart-size jars with wide-mouth lids since these are easier to fill; use the jar for serving and even for eating on-the-go or during your lunch break.
The Perfect DIY Mason Jar Salad
Start with salad dressing.
Since you keep the jar upright, the salad dressing will stay separated from the veggies. This is great if you don’t want to pack a separate container for dressing.
Start with denser veggies like carrots, radishes, onions, and chickpeas that will taste delicious after soaking in the dressing. Top with anything else such as bell peppers, chopped cucumbers, or cherry tomatoes.
Layer the leafy greens.
These should take up at least half the jar. As mentioned earlier, go for pre-cut greens to save time, or if you’re using your own, make sure they’re dry before you add them to the jar.
At last, the protein.
Sprinkle sautéed tofu, beans, grilled chicken, or shredded cheese on top. These will help push the lighter-weight greens down so you can add more to your jar. You can also add avocado, nuts, seeds, or dried fruit.
Shake or pour when you’re ready to eat. At lunchtime, you can shake up the container to distribute the dressing, or pour the entire contents into a bowl and mix it up with your fork.
Some of my other favorite lunchtime recipes include a stir fry and a grain dish. Here are the basics. Experiment with combinations and flavors for the seasons.
Easy Prep Stir Fry
1/2 cup quinoa, cooked
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup broccoli, chopped
½ onion, chopped
1 cup cremini mushrooms
2-3 tbsp grapeseed oil
1 tsp Liquid Amino Acids (Bragg’s or Coconut Aminos) to taste.
Prepare quinoa as directed.
Lightly coat sauté pan with cooking spray or grapeseed oil.
Add all vegetables and cook at medium heat for about one minute.
Add grapeseed oil and about 1 tsp of Aminos, sauté 3-5 minutes.
Toss the vegetable mixture with the quinoa.
Optional: Add 4-6 ounces of cooked and spiced protein of choice.
Arugula, Barley, and Bell Pepper Salad
8 ounces barley (equivalent to one Trader Joe’s bag of 10 minute barley)
1 bag of organic arugula (6-8 ounces)
2 organic bell peppers (colors of choice), chopped
1/4 cup pinenuts (optional)
3 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp chopped garlic
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Cook barley as directed. (This is about 10 minutes for 10 minute parboiled barley or soak and then simmer bulk barley for 40-50 minutes.)
While the barley is cooking, rinse arugula add half of a bag of arugula or three to four ounces of arugula to a large bowl.
Chop the bell peppers.
When the barley is cooked, add it to the arugula, then add the chopped bell peppers.
Meanwhile, combine the dressing ingredients in a small cup.
Stir and pour over the salad.
Add the pinenuts (or other nuts) if desired.
Toss and enjoy!
Carrie Gabriel is a food-savvy dietician who has dedicated her life to helping guide others up the stairway to overall health and wellness. She has a Master’s Degree in nutritional science from CSU-LA, has experience at hospitals and in diabetes education; she is currently a freelance consultant working with private and corporate clients developing meal plans, conducting nutrition sessions and cooking demonstrations, and teaching seminars.