I’m not a mom. Nor do I even own a pet. In fact, the only living thing I take care of in my one bedroom loft is myself. As long as I make it to the gym 3 times a week, make time to cook all my meals (and have the capacity to forgive myself when I don’t), successfully battle writer’s block and maintain a moderately vibrant social life, I’m perfectly content. Simple.
However, my schedule is about take a turn for the worse and I will admit I’m afraid my healthy eating habits may suffer for it. No, I’m not having a baby. But there’s something equally stressful, if not more so, that will consume my leisurely post-work evenings (I may regret this statement when parenthood is upon me): The Graduate Management Admissions Test (The GMAT).
The Economist and other sources recommend 10-17 hours of studying every week and a total of about 80 – 120 hours (or more) to snag that comfortable 700+ score that graduate schools will salivate for (or at least we hope they do). That’s the equivalent of a part-time job on top of a full-time job all while keeping up with other priorities such as personal hygiene, grooming, eating right, working out, attending social events, so on and so forth. Something has got to give, right?
If there’s anything I’ve learned from being apart of a team that’s hell bent on simplifying meal planning for busy people (especially busy parents), eating healthy is the first to get the boot when people feel overwhelmed. There are just too many stricter deadlines to meet and a plethora of on-the-go meals to pick from for one to stress out about sodium levels and calories.
However, there are quite a number of success stories we have come across in our quest to develop the perfect meal management app. The most astonishing stories come from working parents. It’s mind-boggling how some manage to slog at work all day, pick up the kids from day-care/school, whip up a wholesome meal (perfectly balanced with high fibre carbs, veggies and lean protein), battle picky-eaters, help out with homework, and still find time to floss before bedtime. How do they do it?
The focus groups held by Meal Garden reveal two distinct groups of working parents:
1) Those that have found the perfect work-life balance through years of trial and error and
2) those that create strict schedules for themselves for all food related priorities from the jump and stick to it.
I, for one, shiver at the thought of a strict 7-day meal plan and workout routine but I certainly do not intend on taking on the next few treacherous months surviving on lazy oatmeal and PP&J sandwiches (been there done that).
So how do I plan on continuing to maintain a balanced diet during these next few months of GMAT hell? By behaving like a working parent would and putting to use all those meal planning tips and tricks I’ve learned through my job (thank you, Meal Garden!). If there’s anything I’ve learned about juggling a busy life is that it all requires planning, more planning and of course setting a ton of reminders on a smart phone. Yes, even when it comes to food. But the plan cannot be too rigid. It has to give me the flexibility I need to not feel trapped but enough structure to maintain my healthy eating habits.
Here are my commandments for the next few months courtesy of all the super men and women we call parents:
1. Don’t Over-Plan
Weekly plans don’t work for me. I’ve learned the hard way that my foresight for 7-day meal plans does not extend more than 3 (at most 4) days. After attending a few focus groups with working parents, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has taken the time to jot down a 7-day meal plan only to opt for Thai take-out by Wednesday. Meh. It happens. But taking it in 3-day chunks helps me stay focused and doesn’t drain the spontaneity and fun out of cooking.
2. Stock up on essential pantry items
Once the pantry is full of all the essential condiments, oils, spices, canned beans, tuna and whatever else you can’t live without, avoiding Ramen Noodles for dinner is that much easier. All I need from that point forward is to make 2 or 3 stops to the grocery store every week to pick up lean meats and veggies to roast or sauté.
Here’s a list of essential pantry items to help you start: http://theeverygirl.com/feature/pantry-essentials-food-items-that-should-always-be-in-the-kitchen
3. Stock up on frozen vegetables
Veggies go bad, and they go bad fast. On days when the last head of broccoli in the fridge has turned an odd shade of yellow, frozen veggies may just save the evening. They’re affordable, easy to cook, and best of all, they’re already chopped and prepped. Not to mention they may be nutritionally superior to fresh produce as they are flash frozen soon after harvest to slow down the decay process (slows down nutrient loss that would otherwise occur during the time the veggies make it from the farm to your table).
5. Stock up on protein (lean meats)
Chicken lasts in the freezer for about 9 months. Not that it's advisable to keep meat in there that long but having a stock of lean meats at the ready is a sure way to save you a much dreaded trip to the grocery store. Buy enough chicken, turkey, or whatever lean meat you prefer to last you a week, separate them in small zip-lock bags and store them in the freezer with enough space between each bag (otherwise they will frozen get frozen stuck together). On the days you'll be cooking, take out a bag or two in the morning and place them in a bowl/baking dish in the fridge. By the time you come back home from work, they'll be ready to slice up.
5. Stick to what you know
Most people have a handful of healthy go-to recipes that they’ve mastered over the years. This is not the time to get adventurous in the kitchen when grad-school applications are at risk. Don’t try to make a gourmet side dish when you can just steam and season broccoli. Stick to what you know!
6. Stick to the budget
This is a huge one. Have a solid idea of what you’ll cook for the next few days and only buy the ingredients for those meals. Cutting down on the rotting veggies is easy when you know exactly what ingredients to buy and do your best to not stray away from that.
7. Freezer meals for the win!
And by freezer meals, I do not mean “frozen meals” from the grocery store. Freezer meals are meals you prepare at home and freeze for later use. The freezer meal possibilities span from spaghetti sauce, to full-on casseroles. If you know you have an unbearable week coming up, yet you find yourself with nothing to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon, make a few of your favourite meals, divide them into meal sizes and stick them in the freezer. So, on a days that you are too pooped to pick up a kitchen knife you can just leave one out in the morning and it will have defrosted by the time you get back from work. Dinner is ready!
This phenomenal woman blows the freezer meal competition right out of the water. See how she does it: http://www.mamainspired.com/2011/06/freezer-meals.html
8. Snack well
We have a whole blog on this one; complete with tips on prioritizing snacks that are healthy and keep you full for longer. Check it out here.
9. Stay Hydrated!
Keep a water canteen with you wherever you go. This will help you stay off the pop and sugary juice options. Not to mention, staying hydrated will do wonders for your energy level.
10. Make room for a little self-forgiveness
I recently read a blog entry by one of my favourite mom bloggers out there, Emma Waverman, who happened to write an entry about being in a “dinner slump” and ways to get around it. The central theme around this entry was imperfection. It’s ok to mess up sometimes. It happens. Don’t waste time beating yourself up about it. Just try to do better tomorrow and find shortcuts to do them. Check it out: http://www.embracethechaos.ca/blog/2014/6/9/when-it-comes-to-dinner-get-out-of-your-own-way.html
I'll be taking the GMAT test in the next 3 months in hopes of getting into a masters program in business analytics by the fall of 2015.
Stay tuned to hear about how well I did in keeping up my juggling act with lessons learned from busy parents: Follow the Meal Garden blog at the bottom-right corner of the screen or get updates on our Twitter and/or Facebook page.