Often the biggest challenge for a person who wants to maintain a healthy diet arises when life and work become packed with activities and deadlines. Some of us make our way to work within 45 minutes of waking up, and we are required to be away from our home kitchen until 7 or 9 at night.
When work becomes stressful, it is easy to go to a drive-thru or stop at a store or restaurant for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While most restaurants and grocery stores have healthy options, if we’re busy, we often run into these places hungry. We don’t give much thought to our choices and can pick up unhealthy foods, or something with empty calories.
It takes planning, but with just one or two hours on the weekend, we can prepare a robust list of basic ingredients that can be used throughout the week to ensure the food we consume is nourishing. The key is to make time on a Saturday or Sunday to prepare. Once the basics are prepared, it only takes 5 minutes or so during the weeknights to make a filling breakfast, lunch, or dinner for the next day.
On Sunday night, make smoothies for the whole week. If you only have 45 minutes after waking to leave the house for a commute or early morning meeting, the smoothie can save you. Most people get into their own smoothie ingredient bliss, but the base batch can be simple and only takes 5 minutes to make. My favorite mix contains organic soy yogurt, soymilk, frozen berries (often strawberries and raspberries), and hemp seed protein powder. Like anything related to your diet, the key is to find what you enjoy and what works with your body and make it happen. I usually blend three morning smoothies in one big batch, making my mornings less stressful.
If a smoothie isn’t filling enough, make a batch of protein bars on the last day or night of your weekend. While store-bought protein bars are available in most communities, many of these products are loaded with sugar, genetically modified ingredients, or preservatives.
Lunch and Dinner
Lean protein: In reality, when we’re busy, it can be easy to fall back on pre-cooked and packaged meats or vegetarian proteins. I’ve gone through countless roasted or smoked turkey, chicken breast, ham, tofu, and fake meat packages. Thankfully, nitrate-free versions of packaged meats are now widely available, but even the organic meats with natural preservatives are not as healthy as weekly homemade options. When meat or tofu is cooked in a factory, packed tightly in plastic, and stored for weeks or months before consumption, as a chef, it’s hard to believe that product is nourishing. Making these lean options ahead of time is simple and worth the 15 to 30 minutes of preparation.
For a quick way to ensure succulent results, try brining the meat. Creating simple, flavorful brine only takes about 5 minutes and helps naturally preserve the meat and juices.
While roasted lean meat always tastes juicier if it has been brined, it is not necessary to brine if you poach the meat or slowly roast it at a low temperature for a short time with the right ingredients. Aromatics and acid are the key ingredients to successfully poaching and roasting lean meats. For slow-roasted meat, do not overcook, and add a tablespoon or two of lemon zest, chopped fresh or canned tomatoes, touch of white wine, handful of pomegranate seeds, batch of mustard and olive oil, or even a dip in orange juice. Any of these will provide the right acidic kick. For aromatics, a mixture of spices, fresh herbs, and fragrant vegetables are easy to compose and mix in with the acid of choice. Options are endless, so rather than list them all, here are a few ideas. Just pick one from each category and add them together:
Seeds: fennel, mustard, coriander, or cumin
Fresh herbs: rosemary, bay, sage, thyme, parsley, or basil (add the last two at the end of the cooking process)
Fragrant vegetables: onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric root, carrot, celery, mushrooms, fresh peppers (when in season), or dried pepper flakes.
In addition to the acid and aromatics, a healthy dose of olive oil will help the meat remain succulent.
Prepare two batches of the lean meat or tofu on the weekend for a quick next day’s lunch or dinner on the go. Some possible combinations include brined and roasted chicken breast, sauerkraut, and mustard sandwiches; brined and poached turkey, chopped kale, almonds, and cranberries in a balsamic vinaigrette; roasted salmon or sole salad with diced celery, green onion, and homemade lemon-basil aioli (see recipe); and white beans with mustard and ginger roasted tofu, chopped romaine, and creamy lemon vinaigrette (made creamy with aioli, not dairy).
Beans: Beans have been getting a bad rap lately, which is mostly undeserved. Many people have cut beans from their meals in the attempt to rid themselves of excess carbohydrates, but the difference between carbohydrates needs to be addressed. Nutritionally, a fiber-, vitamin-, mineral-, and protein-heavy bean has very little relation to the empty calories of white flour-based carbs. If people overlook the fiber that beans provide, they might be setting themselves up for numerous health problems ranging from irregular digestive issues to heart disease and cancer. Some people claim the gas produced from beans makes them impractical to consume, but if you soak the raw beans in water for 24 hours before cooking them, the beans will not cause gas in most people.
Cook a big batch of beans in water with a bay leaf, halved onion, a few cloves of garlic, and two grinds of black pepper. If you prefer stock to water, try a low-salt vegetable, chicken, or turkey stock. Throughout the week, you can throw beans into salads, mix them with boiled eggs and sauerkraut, or heat them up as a base for any protein you enjoy. While many bean varieties will do the trick, I find that black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, white lima beans, and small white navy beans are particularly versatile.
Seeds and Grains
In less than an hour and with little preparation, you can cook a week’s worth of brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, or another grain or seed. I prefer to cook grains and seeds in a simple manner without any heavy ingredients so that I can mix them into a variety of dishes throughout the week. Almost any grain can be simmered in a stock or broth of your choice with a bay leaf and onion, and then put to work in multiple weekday dishes. Just like with beans, throwing grains into salads allows you to quickly transform that salad into a filling meal. During the week, these grains can be mixed with precooked beans and chopped vegetables, slightly heated and served with a protein and vegetable of your choice, or used as a base for a grain and bean cake. To make the grain or seed more flavorful, you can simply pull from the aromatics listed in the lean protein section (a mixture of spices, fresh herbs, and fragrant vegetables). Examples of dishes include quinoa with sage, lemon zest, mustard seed, celery, and carrot; brown rice with wild mushrooms, rosemary, garlic, onion, and Ancho pepper flakes; or amaranth with ginger, garlic, turmeric, coriander, and fresh peppers.
Most of us fall prey to unhealthy snacks when we’re pressed for time. The availability of these snacks in most schools, offices, and stores only makes it harder to avoid their temptation. Most places have fried chips, sugar-laden nuts or bars, powdered cheese coated popcorn, and other foods that diminish health. In order to turn away from this type of junk food, surround yourself with other options. Fortunately, healthy snacks take almost no prep time and can easily be prepared on your day off. Almonds, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts are readily available in most stores and make filling snacks. Nuts can be bought in bulk and roasted in less than 10 minutes. Try roasting the nuts at 300 degrees for 6 to 8 minutes, or until you can faintly smell them and they have just started to brown. While they’re hot, toss the nuts in a flavorful bath of one or two drops of olive oil, salt, and cayenne pepper. Cool, and place the nuts in a glass jar to carry with you throughout the day.
Most veggie dips contain a high amount of dairy fat, but hummus can easily be prepared in advance of the week’s chaos or bought at most stores. I prefer to avoid GMOs, so I buy organic hummus or hummus that does not contain canola oil (which traditional hummus should never have—it should only contain olive oil). On the weekend, just wash, peel, and cut up sticks or small florets of your favorite vegetables, divide them into snack portions, and place them in small glass jars or plastic bags. Carrots, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, snap peas (be sure to remove the stringy lip and hard ends), and other vegetables can be prepared in less than 10 minutes. Recently, I’ve discovered that if I toss the vegetables with a few drops of olive oil and salt (and sometimes cayenne) the night before I consume them, I don’t even need to dip the veggies in hummus. If you work out, the protein shake can be a mind- and body-saving late-afternoon snack. Right now there are many options available for the protein in your shake, from whey to hemp seed to pea powder to peanut butter powder to soy. Everyone needs to pick the protein they are most comfortable with, but attention should be paid to where and how the proteins are sourced.
With a few basic steps on the weekends, you can ensure your health no matter how jammed the weekdays become. These specific meals won’t work for everyone, but, hopefully, the approaches I’ve listed here will help you see how you can transform your busy days into opportunities to stay engaged in your work while building your health instead of destroying it.
By Gabrielle Myers