Updated: Jun 15, 2020
One of the biggest hurdles I had in switching my family over to healthy, paleo meals, was the amount of time it takes to make everything. Even prior to paleo I tried my hand at doing weekly meal prep. I'd spend a long, labor-intensive day in the kitchen chopping, sorting, cooking, bagging, and then labeling a week's worth of meals, only to decide that the meals I'd picked sounded awful on their intended night, or no one wanted to eat them. We would also run into the problem of too few or too many leftovers, which I admit was a planning problem, but it just wasn't for me.
When we made the switch to paleo there was a huge learning curve as I searched for the tricks that would make it possible to make healthy meals without spending every day in the kitchen for hours for each meal. I also needed to balance that with a tight budget as well as not getting into a food rut, where there were only a handful of fast and easy meals that would be rotated (we won't even add in the adjustments made for my son's sensory processing disorder). It's taken years to really sort out what works best from the duds, so I'm going to share my best tips, in hopes it will help someone else stick to it.
Keep it simple.
The first rule of from scratch club? Yes, you can tell people about it. The first rule is simplicity!
I don't mean prepping as I mentioned above, but instead knowing your schedule. If you know Mondays are always hard because everyone is too tired to cook, this is the day to have the crockpot set in the morning. Peel a handful of carrots and put it in there with a beef roast and some quartered onions. Turn it on low and get to your day, knowing that when you drag your tired self home, there will be a delicious meal waiting for you. Get together a handful of easy crockpot recipes that you can set and forget for the days you KNOW are going to be tough.
Fast and easy meals:
Every night doesn't have to be a gourmet masterpiece of picture-perfect food, and not everyone wants to eat out of the crockpot every day, either. Sometimes you have an unexpected overly-busy day. That busy Tuesday when you worked 11 hours, your significant other is under the weather, and the kids are starving? Don't stress over chopping up pounds of vegetables for a stirfry! Microwave a sweet potato, throw chicken thighs with some spices onto a sheet pan and shove it into the oven, and wash a handful of celery pieces. It's not something you would do every night, but it gets you a filling meal, with healthy, filling vegetable sides. Have a list of easy meals that take 10 minutes or less of prep time.
Keep the freezer stocked.
This is a critical one around here since vegetables should make up the biggest volume of what you eat (meat still makes up the biggest portion if looking at calorie intake), and sometimes this is the hardest part. It can be easy, even when you're busy! A bag of frozen broccoli (or three) can be spread out on a sheet pan, sprinkled with salt and garlic, and roasted until delicious. You can do the steam-in-bags type of vegetables, you can throw them in the air fryer, you can even give them a fast sauté in a cast-iron skillet (yay, extra iron!). Fresh vegetables are great, and I love them, but, nutritionally speaking, there is nothing wrong with frozen. We still get all the lovely, healthy nutrients our bodies need without always having all the work of cleaning and chopping up fresh.
When you do have time to make those fancy meals or prep-heavy meals; make extra portions. It only takes a few extra minutes to chop 5 peppers instead of 3. Cook everything up as directed and, when cleaning up, freeze the leftovers so you have your own, absolutely healthy, frozen meals that can be reheated in the microwave or oven. Some of my favorite things to make into frozen meals are chili or stews. They taste even better reheated than they did when fresh since the flavors have had lot's of time to meld together and enhance each other.
Don't forget the other meals!
I've noticed a lot of these kinds of lists forget that dinner isn't the only important meal that's hard to keep up with. What do you do for breakfast? We love our eggs here, and our house of 7 people (5 adults and 2 littles) goes through three dozen eggs per normal day. Kallo leaves for work before 5 am, so I cook his eggs for him the night before and put them on top of his lunch container, or I make huge batches of boiled eggs in the instant pot, which might as well be called my boiled egg pot since that's almost exclusively what I use it for. Eggs fry up fast and have plenty of variations to keep you from getting bored. My current favorite is sunny-side up with coconut aminos and hot sauce.
If eggs just aren't your thing, or you can't eat them, it's doesn't have to be an obstacle. It can be as easy as rethinking what breakfast food is (any food will break your fast, have a salad topped with chicken and ranch if that sounds good in the morning!), or you can come up with fresh twists on old ideas. Sweet potato 'toast' with almond or coconut butter, jelly, smashed avocado, or your favorite healthy fat with salt and pepper smeared across the top. Mini muffins made with banana or pumpkin (don't forget a smear of healthy fat on there, like coconut oil to fuel your body) are easy to make on the weekend and eat off all week. Precooking bacon in the oven on sheet pans is not only healthier (fewer nitrosamines created), but makes breakfast so easy and delicious.
This one is my cop-out, sorry. Lunch is leftovers or lunch is a salad. Done. I make extras of whatever is for dinner and that's the meal the next day. If people are extra hungry and gobble up the delicious dinner with no leftovers, then the next day is salads, which doesn't have to mean lettuce. Chicken, egg, tuna, or ham salad are all delicious and can have lots of veggies hidden inside. Granted, this is more work since there is chopping involved, beyond what you already made for dinner, but it's much better than grabbing fast food or junk while on the job or at school.
I know kids are the exceptions to so many of these tips, mine included. I still won't go into the sensory processing disorder, but sometimes little kids don't want to eat stew or roasted bell peppers stuffed with cauli-rice, or coconut chicken curry. This is where crudites come into play. Find the veggies they love and keep them on hand. Junior doesn't like chili? Sliced cucumbers, carrots, celery, etc. can be thrown on a plate or in a container with a favorite dip. A plain protein of some kind and you have a balanced meal that's simple enough to please picky littles.
I simplify these by saving out some of the meat going into the meal to put on their plates. If I am making chili, for example, I save out some of the ground beef before adding in the rest of the ingredients, or if it was crockpot chili, I fish out the biggest pieces and serve just that to the kids, alongside their favorite vegetables.
And a PSA since I mentioned chili multiple times: Beans do not belong in chili! - but it is an excellent place to hide vegetables that might not be on your favorites list.