Guide to Faster, Healthier Meals

Three easy meal prep ideas and seven healthy shortcut ingredients

By Kristine Mickelson and Danielle Hill, RD, LDL

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Good nutrition is vital to tolerating cancer treatment and may also play a role in preventing recurrence. However, preparing healthy meals, whether you’re a patient or caregiver, can take time and energy that you may not have right now.

Clinical oncology dietitian Danielle Hill, RD, LDN, Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Chicago, is passionate about teaching patients and survivors tricks and tips to help make meal planning feel less like a burden and more like an important step toward healthier living.

“Meeting nutritional needs helps patients better tolerate their cancer treatments, and a plant-based diet along, with regular physical activity, may help reduce recurrence of a variety of cancers,” Hill says. “I encourage my patients to save energy during treatment by modifying their usual meal prep by sitting at a table when chopping fruits or veggies or using a crockpot to decrease cooking time.”

Hill explains that there isn’t one right way to prep meals. She recommends trying a variety of methods to figure out which ones work best for you and your lifestyle. She adds, “meal prep can also save you money and, because it’s done in advance, makes it easier to choose healthy ingredients.”

Three easy meal prep methods

  1. Make ahead meals – Great for preventing you from succumbing to restaurant or takeout food. By cutting, mixing and measuring all ingredients in advance, the only thing left to do is cook! Hill recommends preparing ingredients that can be baked together in a “sheet pan” or cookie sheet with sides. All ingredients can be prepped the night before and cooked the next day in about 20 minutes.
  2. Batch cooking, then freezing – Ideal for soups, stews, chilis and even some pasta dishes. Simply freeze in portion-sized containers, thaw and reheat as needed. Note: the textures of some ingredients can change due to freezing.
  3. Individually portioned meals – Frozen meals have come a long way and can be an option when you’re in a time crunch or need to save your energy. The most important nutrition item to monitor in frozen foods is sodium. Hill recommends choosing frozen meals with 500 mg of sodium per total meal (not serving) or less. If small portion size is a problem, round out your meal with a side of fresh or frozen fruits or vegetables.

If making your own pre-portioned meals for the week, keep meals nutritionally balanced by including a lean protein (chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, tofu, beans or eggs), vegetable and whole grain (brown rice, quinoa, barley, farro and whole wheat pasta).

You can make meal prepping go even faster by taking a trip to the grocery store for convenient yet healthy prepackaged ingredients. Fresh, canned, bagged or frozen, the following items pack a healthy punch to meals.

Seven healthy shortcut ingredients

  1. Pre-packaged foods – Can be good sources of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants since they are often processed at peak ripeness. Read labels to avoid items with added sauces and seasonings, which can be high in sodium and sugar. Look for canned items labeled as “no salt added” or “low sodium”, meaning there is less than 140 mg of salt per serving. Frozen vegetables, fruits and dried grains are best if no other ingredients are listed.
  2. Boil in bag brown rice – Compared to regular brown rice, boil in the bag options are par-cooked prior to packaging, allowing you to enjoy this healthy grain in a fraction of the time. Be sure to purchase products that are unseasoned. Quinoa and farro are whole grains with short cooking times to consider. For extra flavor, substitute low-sodium broth and a bay leaf for water.
  3. Bagged fresh spinach – Cut down on prep time by avoiding rinsing and drying unwashed versions of this green. Straight out of the package, spinach can be added to sandwiches, smoothies and make a tasty base for a salad. Frozen spinach is the ideal ingredient to give pasta recipes a nutritious boost. 
  4. Canned black beans – Like all canned goods, buy products labeled “low sodium” or “no salt added”. Black beans can replace ground meats in dishes, such as tacos or burritos, or can be added to salads and egg dishes for extra texture.
  5. Plain non-fat Greek yogurt – Use as a high protein, low saturated fat replacement for ingredients like sour cream and mayonnaise. For a creamy dip for veggies or a spread for sandwiches, blend 6 oz of Greek yogurt with ½ an avocado, 1-2 tablespoons of lemon juice and your favorite spices (cumin, pepper, chili powder, etc.).
  6. Lemon and lime juices – Many recipes call for fresh-squeezed lemon or lime juice, which can be time consuming. Keeping bottle juices in the fridge makes it easy to kick up the flavor of recipes.
  7. Lentils – Often underutilized but, like beans, are a quick plant-based protein. Lentils go from dry to cooked in about 20 minutes and can be added to salads for texture, soups for starchiness or substituted for ground meat. Green lentils are firmer and meatier; red lentils are soft and break down when cooked.

To prevent meals from becoming boring, Hill also suggests trying new combinations of herbs, spices, vinegars, juices and oils. Since it can be overwhelming to know which ingredients complement each other at first, she recommends starting with these tasty combinations:

  • Chili powder, cumin, and oregano for Latin dishes
  • Lemon juice and dill for poultry and fish
  • Basil, oregano, parsley for Italian dishes
  • Sriracha, honey and low sodium soy for stir fries and various proteins
  • Garlic, tahini, and lemon juice for vegetables such as cauliflower or zucchini
  • Rice vinegar, soy sauce, and peanut butter as a peanut sauce
  • Dijon mustard, apple cider vinegar, and honey as a marinade for meats.

“Like any lifestyle change, healthy meal prepping and planning may take some time to master,” Hill says.  “But there are always new ways to improve on what you did before. Just keep trying new ideas and techniques with the goal of adding one or two new favorites to your recipe roster.”