Meal prep is one of those things that makes eating well feel super manageable. But when you’ve got a baby, time is never really on your side. Especially 2 or 3 uninterrupted hours to devote to cooking.
These days you can probably squeeze out half an hour tops. It’s not a ton of time, but people, you can work with it. The key is managing your time wisely by picking a mix of tasks that you can do simultaneously, which lets you reap the biggest bang for your buck.
Not quite sure what that looks like in practice? Here are three different meal prep strategies for when you need to eat well on not a lot of time. Dive in as soon as you put your baby down for a nap (you’ll be good to go even if they wake up early) or right after they go to bed (you’ll still have time to chill when you’re done cooking).
Or hey, whenever you can find the time. You’re in survival mode RN.
Like having a bunch of different items on hand so you can throw together quick grain bowls and salads? Here’s the meal prep strategy for you.
Step 1: Prep a protein
Start by roasting chicken breasts or extra firm tofu on a baking sheet, since these will take 20 or 30 minutes to cook.
Step 2: Cook a quick whole grain
You can make a pot of quinoa or millet in 20 minutes, so put one on. Or try whole wheat couscous or bulgur wheat — both are done in 5 minutes flat.
Step 3: Make a dip and a dressing
A few options in the dip and dressing department keep things interesting, so pick two fast-prep choices with different flavor profiles. Try lemon-herb white bean dip and sesame ginger dressing, or everything seasoning hummus and apple cider vinaigrette, for instance.
Step 4: Prep your veg
Wash, dry, and chop lettuce or other leafy greens and pick two other easy options. Maybe shred carrots and break down a head of broccoli florets, shred beets and break down cauliflower florets, or slice cucumber and dice summer squash.
Like the idea of making a big batch of something that you can nibble on all week? You’ve got plenty of options for making it happen in half an hour. Pick two or three dishes to tackle over the course of the week and you’ll always have something good in the fridge.
Toss leftover cooked vegetables with eggs plus whatever cheese you have on hand and bake until puffed and golden.
Don’t have any cooked vegetables sitting in the fridge? Get creative with whatever’s in your freezer. Frozen thawed peas or stir-fry mix are great choices, or take 5 minutes to sauté frozen thawed spinach with garlic and oil.
Red lentil soup
Use whatever lentil soup recipe you like best. Just switch out the brown or green lentils for red ones. They’re just as nutritious, but they’re thinner, so they cook up in less than 20 minutes.
Whole wheat baked ziti
It’s a lot faster than lasagna since there’s no layering involved, but the overall taste is just as satisfying.
If you use pre-made or store-bought sauce, you can easily assemble the entire dish in half an hour. You can bake it when you’re hanging out with the baby — just stick them in their swing or seat when you pull the ziti out of the oven, of course.
Dinner with a baby doesn’t have to mean rotisserie chicken and microwaved frozen veggies every night. (Though if that’s your jam, go for it.) You can totally shake things up even if you only have 30 minutes to prep.
Black bean tacos
Sauté canned black beans with chopped onion and garlic, plus a generous shake of cumin until warmed through. If you have a bell pepper or zucchini, chop it up and throw that in too.
While the beans cook, make a quick batch of guac (smashed avocado + lime juice + salt = done!). Throw a few handfuls of shredded cheese in a bowl and warm a stack of tortillas in the microwave.
DIY taco bar done, and you can use the leftover beans in rice bowls, stuffed into quesadillas, or as a dip for tortilla chips.
Slow cooker chicken vegetable stew
Thirty minutes is enough time to brown your chicken pieces, chop up all your veggies, and throw everything into the slow cooker with your favorite flavorings and seasonings.
The slow cooker will need 4 hours to do its thing, so do this prep early in the day, like when your baby is down for their morning nap.
Pesto pasta with chickpeas and ricotta
Make a big batch of pesto with basil or whatever other herbs or leafy greens you have on hand. Toss half of the pesto with whole wheat pasta, canned chickpeas, and a dollop of ricotta.
Save the rest of the pesto to use throughout the week: Swirl it into soups, drizzle it on veggies or cooked proteins, or use it as a spread for sandwiches or wraps.
Marygrace Taylor is a health and parenting writer, former KIWI magazine editor, and mom to Eli. Visit her at marygracetaylor.com.