Realistic Strategies for Weeknight Meals, By Ashley Reaver, MS, RD, CSSD

Getting food on the table during hectic weeknights can be a challenge. In an ideal world, we’d all be able to set aside a few hours over the weekend to make a list, head to the grocery store, and prepare gourmet meals to have for the next seven days. But, since we live in the real world, having realistic strategies for weeknight fueling is key.

Employ these simple tips to take the stress out of weeknight meal planning.

Cook protein and grains in advance

In most recipes, the protein and grain components take the longest time to cook. Once you arrive home from a long day, waiting 40 minutes for your brown rice to cook is too long! Instead, cook your grains over the weekend to have them readily available when you get home at the end of the day. The same goes for protein. Season and cook your proteins all at once. They’ll be waiting for you when you get home to transform into a satisfying and flavorful meal.

When proteins and grains are prepared ahead of time, you will be more likely to eat higher quality grains like brown rice and quinoa instead of quicker-cooking ones like white rice and pasta. Likewise, with all of your proteins prepped in advance, you can ensure that your meals will include adequate protein to support your training and nutritional goals. This one step can take as little as one hour in the kitchen.

Have a stocked freezer and pantry

Rely on ingredients that don’t expire in your weeknight meals. Have a variety of frozen vegetables, grains, and protein sources available in your freezer for easy additions to meals. Frozen shrimp and edamame are fast and non-perishable sources of protein. Mix them with frozen broccoli, brown rice, and some soy sauce for a 10-minute dinner that took no pre-planning and no time to make.

Make sure to have beans, canned tuna, bean-based pastas, and easy sauces in your pantry to create balanced and delicious meals even when you haven’t had the chance to make it to the grocery store. Beans, salsa, and brown rice make a hearty meal in minutes. Bean-based pastas can be mixed with marinara for a filling and protein-rich plate in no time at all. Set yourself up for success with foods that will be available when you need them.

If you’re skeptical about the nutritive quality of frozen vegetables, don’t be!

Frozen vegetables are equally if not more nutritious than fresh vegetables. Consider that frozen vegetables are processed typically with 24 hours of being picked. This locks in the vitamins and minerals until they are cooked. On the other hand, fresh produce can be off the stem for 4 weeks before it finally makes it into your body. Once picked, fresh produce can be stored for a week before it’s transported for sale. The transportation process can take up to a week depending on the destination. Then, it sits in the grocery store waiting for you to purchase. Lastly, it may be in your refrigerator or counter for a week before it makes its way into a meal. Every day after it’s picked, it’s losing nutrients.

To preserve their texture, sauté frozen vegetables in olive oil instead of boiling them. Mushy and faded green broccoli is not appetizing!

Have a quick meal in the plan

Take the pressure off yourself to have a homemade meal every night. Choose one easy dinner item and add it to your shopping list. That could be a frozen pizza, a premade chicken pot pie, or a can of soup. There will inevitably be at least one night when you do not have the time or the energy to invest in cooking. Take advantage of at least one convenience meal per week to reduce feeling overwhelmed by the thought of feeding yourself 21+ times a week!

This quick meal can also be takeout from your favorite restaurant. Save yourself from feeling like you’ve failed for requiring some help with dinner. Plan it into your week and enjoy the benefits of modern convenience! You can always boost the nutritional composition of the meal by including items from your pantry and freezer. Missing vegetables? Add some microwaved broccoli on the side (microwaving vegetables actually preserves the most nutrients). Mix in some pre-prepped ground turkey to a can of soup for a bit more protein.

Make enough for leftovers

If you do end up having the time to make a meal on a weeknight, don’t waste those precious minutes for just one dinner. Make enough to eat it again later in the week. You are already investing time in the kitchen; make it work double duty. Soups and stews are great options that taste even better after a few days in the fridge.

If you are turning the oven on, consider what else you could toss in there at the same time. Bake sweet potatoes, roast vegetables, or add an extra chicken breast without an additional time requirement. Maximize your efforts!

Hopefully this has inspired you to step away from the effort-heavy weekly meal prep if that is not realistic for you. When it comes to fueling yourself, there is no such thing as perfect. Set yourself up for success by implementing these weeknight eating strategies and reap the delicious benefits all week long.

Ashley Reaver is the founder of Ashley Reaver Nutrition, a private practice that offers nutritional services. She also created  My Weekly Eats, a health/wellness blog-social media brand that focuses on easy, make-ahead recipes and meal plans.

Ashley’s knowledge areas and counseling specialties include sports nutrition, weight loss, cooking classes, meal planning, and intuitive eating principles. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Science from Cornell University. In addition, she completed her dietetic internship at California Polytechnic University. Afterwards, she earned her Master of Science in Nutrition Science and Policy from Tufts University.

Ashley is also a Certified Sports Specialist Dietitian.



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