Soups and stews are perfect for working veggies into your diet—and you can whip up large batches in no time. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

During any season of life, it’s easy to lose inspiration for meal planning.

Life gets busy and we quickly fall back into old meal patterns.

Enter COVID-19.

A season of stress and strain, limited access to grocery stores, fewer fresh ingredients—actually, fewer ingredients in general—all caused by a global pandemic.

When we’re stressed, it’s harder to manage daily decision-making without feeling overwhelmed.

Even if we do find inspiration to create a meal plan, we might arrive at the store only to be greeted with empty shelves.

Bam! Right back into the realm of frozen pizzas and Rice-A-Roni.

What to do?

Rather than seeking out exotic new recipes to decorate your meal plan, consider a few of the balanced meals below.

These are simple meals shared by Spectrum Health dietitians, created from staples you’ll have on hand or you’ll find readily available in stores.

Make extra

This rule is ironclad: If you’re already in the kitchen, make extra.

Cathy Monsma is a whiz at whipping up large batches of chili and cabbage soup, pairing her dishes with warm cornbread or French bread.

“Any type of soup or stew is a great way to get veggies in to help maintain your immune system,” Monsma said.

The same advice holds true for staples such as beans, chicken and ground meat.

I rely on my InstaPot each week to quickly cook a single bag of dried garbanzo beans. A single 1-pound bag yields enough cooked beans to last me long into the week, often with plenty to freeze.

Hilarie Dreyer saves time in the kitchen by cooking ground beef in bulk and freezing it in 1-pound increments.

She has found this helpful for last-minute meals: taco salad, burrito bowls or anything taco-related.

Vegetables work great in bulk prep. On Sunday, dust off your roasting pan and flood it with sliced sweet potatoes, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, parsnips, celery or any vegetables on hand.

Drizzle them with a splash of olive oil and a sprinkle of whatever spice combination strikes your fancy. Roast for 30 to 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

Build a Buddha bowl

A true Buddha bowl is built on vegan basics such as whole grains, plant proteins and vegetables with a delicious dressing made of healthy fats found in olive oil, avocado or nut butters.

But this simple formula can be expanded to include animal-based proteins such as eggs, chicken, salmon or ground meat.

Cait Melamed is fully on trend.

“You can take some brown rice or quinoa and top with sautéed onion, sweet potatoes and black beans,” she said. “Oh, and don’t forget to add spices like chili powder and cumin while sautéing for added flavor.”

Get creative with toppings like sunflower seeds, Greek yogurt, lime juice, avocado, feta cheese or other crumbly cheese.

Make healthy easy

As simple as a veggie bowl may be, even the easiest tasks can feel difficult if you’re overwhelmed.

Some tasty advice from Stephanie Patterson: Stock up on convenience options—frozen vegetable blends and pre-cooked protein such as cooked baby shrimp, pre-cubed tofu or pre-cooked chicken.

Just heat and serve over brown rice, quinoa, farro or your favorite pasta.

“I like the high-protein pastas made from legumes—black beans, garbanzo, soy or lentil,” Patterson said.

Add a low-sodium sauce or seasoning blend and you’re good to go.

Cook what you crave

During times of stress, we often desire foods linked with happier times. Food has a great deal of memory attached to it.

“Comfort foods are always good,” Ruth Kaufman said. “And for my family this may be pasta dishes, stir fry with chicken and fresh vegetables—and even homemade chili when it’s cold outside.”

Even traditional spaghetti can receive a nutrition boost by using whole grain noodles. Pair it with a simple salad, said Marta Johnson.

Wake up ready

Craving something sweet upon waking?

Take some advice from Lindsay Schulz: Whip up a smoothie.

“One thing I have noticed is the freezer section is often sold out, but the stores have a good selection of fresh produce,” Schulz said. “I bought Kefir—a protein-rich, drinkable yogurt—and fresh kale and bananas, and blended that up with some frozen pineapple and mango for a delicious smoothie.”

Always wash your fresh produce before eating.

The PBJ mainstay

What’s more comforting than a good ol’ peanut butter and jelly?

You can expand your horizons by adding nut butter to your oatmeal, or even using it as a base for a marinade or dressing.

Patterson has been using nut butters on fruit and beans/legumes for all sorts for inexpensive proteins as snacks.

Her favorite? Add a little cocoa powder into hummus or create a Thai-inspired nut butter sauce to drizzle over proteins.

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