My classmates used to joke that the “Freshman 15” has become the “Medschool 20” (and maybe even the Resident 30”). It’s easy to see that there is a little bit of truth in these statements. Medical students and residents work and study for unhealthy lengths of time. Luckily, you can stave off the pounds and make some healthy meals at the same time. Read on to see how the TwoGreenDocs do healthy fast meal prep for the hospital/clinic!
Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.
Check out our other food posts on our Evidence Based Kitchen series!
In order to get 5-6 hours of sleep a night after working 12+ hours a day, you have to find ways to minimize time spent on other activities. Unfortunately, cooking is often the first thing we cut out on when the hours become unbearable. There are just too many easy alternatives: eating in the hospital cafeteria, grabbing some free pizza from the medical student lecture, or ordering take out on the way home. All of these options are unhealthy (plus the hospital cafeteria is priced as if the Oreo cookies were gluten-free, vegan, organic and fair-trade).
I hate to admit it, but I actually succumbed to the Medschool 20. Although I was able to stave off the pounds for the first two years by healthy cooking and working out, the long hospital rotations made getting to the gym and meal prepping difficult to do. I usually justified my last minute Chipotle run by reminding myself that I had to study and that these hours were temporary (oh sweet summer child). Since graduation, I have actually been able to drop most of it off mostly through strategic, healthy and fast meal prep.
What is meal prepping?
Buddha jars! My better half takes such better pictures of her cooking than I do!
Healthy and fast meal prepping involves cooking all of the food that you plan to consume for several days at one time. For example, think of making 3 pounds of spaghetti (we don’t recommend this) and storing it in a way that allows you to eat a portion of it every night for the next five days. We usually try to store each portion in a separate container so that we can grab one and eat it anywhere. This has several advantages:
- By separating everything out into separate containers, you are better able to portion control. I know that if I get near a tray of pasta when I’m hungry, I am more likely than not to consume most of it. However, if I open a pre-portioned container I will almost always just eat that amount and stop. To me, portion control is the single biggest benefit to meal prepping.
- You save $$. Because you are know you have a healthy meal waiting for you, you will not be tempted to order the pricey meals on the run. This can add up to save big bucks when on a tight budget.
- Efficiency = more time to do other things. As you save time on planning for each meal, you will have more time for other things. IE that side research project you have to get done. Or your exercise that has been lacking as of late. Or call your family because that is something we all need to do more. Or hit the nail salon. Etc etc.
- It FEELS good. When work hours are hectic, it has been weeks since you have seen the light of day, and you are groggy and stressed having a balanced, colorful, healthy meal will perk you up. Taking pride in your food and yourself is amazing, especially when it is difficult. Seriously, try it and see!
Best containers for meal prepping
We have used many different types of containers in an attempt to find the best for our daily use. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nicole and I tend to prefer different things to hold our meals. She likes to use large mason jars to hold everything, while I find that circular tupperware tends to meet my needs better.
I will admit that her mason jars look awesome when you layer your meal right, and aesthetically put my plastic containers to shame. They are also better sealed, and not made of plastic which are two huge positives. However, I find them to be a bit heavy, and don’t stack well if you’re running low on refrigerator space (which you are likely to do if you are make many meals at once).
On the other hand, my tupperware dishes are lightweight and easy to fit anywhere. Our resident refrigerator is almost always packed with forgotten leftovers and I am still able to find a place to put my lunch. The big drawback is that they are plastic and don’t look nearly as good on our instagram feed.
These are the mason jars that we use: Ball Pint Regular Mouth Jars and Lids BPA Free, 16 oz, Set of 12. The one-quart size is enough for even a large meal, and can be used to hold liquids too. We find the lids to be a bit clumsy and sometimes leak, so we switch them out for Masontops Tough Tops Premium Reusable Mason Jar Storage Lids - 4 Pack - Fits Any Wide Mouth Ball Kerr Bernardin Mason Jar . These lids take a beating and are easier to get a seal than the standard ones.
I tend to get the really basic tupperware that’s easy to replace. If I’m in a rush (and let’s be honest, when am I not rushing) I often forget about these things and lose them, so there’s no reason to get anything fancy. The containers I use are very similar to these: Rubbermaid Easy Find Lids Square 3-Cup Food Storage Container (Pack of 4)
How to meal prep:
Now for the fun stuff. The key to healthy fast meal prep is cooking in bulk. If you’ve never had to cook family portions before, it can be intimidating to deal with such volumes of ingredients. You may not have a pan large enough to hold several pounds of chicken at once, or an oven tray capable of roasting six sweet potatoes. The last thing you want to do is to have to cook the same dish twice because of the sheer volume.
Luckily, there are fairly standard kitchen items/appliances that make this process easier. The vast majority of my cooking takes place in three items: a slow-cooker, an oven tray, or a wok. There isn’t much else you need.
The number one item that makes cooking big dishes so much easier is our crock-pot (slow cooker). With an 8-quart slow cooker, you can easily make enough food to feed two people for several days. We use ours to make oatmeal, soups, and chilis. The best part of the slow-cooker is that you don’t have to watch it. Just set it before you go to bed and unplug in the morning. Super easy.
Roasting is another easy method to cook meats and vegetables in bulk. I usually toss a pound of carrots or big head of cauliflower on a large oven tray and let it roast for 350 degrees until it is soft enough. A good rule of thumb for firm veggies is to set your oven to 350 and let it ride for 45 mins.
I also use a large wok to saute large a huge amount of veggies. This thing is amazing! It can handle a few pounds of broccoli with onions and mushrooms without any problem at all. I use mine almost every week.
What should you cook?
I’m not going to give you specific recipes, because a) we’re not a food blog, and b) because using a set recipe is a surefire way to get bored. Instead, I’ll give you some suggestions on what to look out for when you somehow find time to get to the grocery store.
You may notice a lack of meat suggestions in this post. Thanks to Nicole, we’re probably 85% vegetarian. If we go out to eat I’ll sometimes order a chicken dish, and I’ll even have a steak if my dad throws one onto the barbecue once or twice a year. But otherwise we focus on vegetable dominated dishes.
Overall, most of our meal prep revolves around making buddha bowls (sometimes called Hippy Bowls). Buddha bowls are basically containers with 3-4 different dishes/ingredients in them without any separation. I try to divide each container into four quadrants and cook something different for each area. Rice in one corner, broccoli in another, and inbetween lie the chickpeas and roasted tomatoes. When you think about cooking only 4 dishes a week, it becomes much more managable.
Breakfasts are probably the easiest to make. Really, there is no excuse for grabbing a donut or eating sugar puffs in the morning. You can make some awesome and healthy slow-cooker oatmeal to last you all week.
One of our favorite breakfasts involves layering a mason jar with a carbohydrate, a protein, and some fruit. For example: put a half cup of oatmeal at the bottom, top with another half cup of non-fat greek yogurt, and finally top with frozen berries or banana. When placed in the fridge overnight, the yummy flavors of the fruit and yogurt drop down to the oatmeal and make it taste amazing.
These are great for on-the-go, and if you’re super sneaky you might be able to eat it during morning report. Yay 15 more minutes of sleep!
Some amazing breakfast oatmeal jars!
I'm lazy and cheap. So when I go to the grocery store I try to pick ingredients that are both on sale and require very little input on my part to taste good. Everyone has different tastes, and what is on sale usually varies based on season so I won’t try to make too many specific recommendations. However, there are some general tenants that will help you make tasty and healthy bowls.
In my opinion, the best way to construct your bowl is in quadrants. I try for 1 starch/carbohydrate, 1 protein (veggie or meat), and 2 veggie dishes. Again, the goal is to find the least work for the most flavor.
Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite starch ingredients. I rarely have to add anything to them, and if you wash them thoroughly you don’t even have to peel them. Just dice it up, throw it on the baking sheet and roast. If you have the time brown rice is also tasty, although I find I usually have to add a sauce to make it palatable after re-heating it.
Chickpeas and black beans make great protein additions. I make a low-salt version of chana masala by throwing in two rinsed cans of (no salt added) chickpeas in the wok with a can of (also no salt added) diced tomatoes and some indian spices. Simply let it simmer for 5-10 minutes and it’s done. Black beans are also super easy. Just throw in two rinsed cans with some barbecue sauce and warm up. It takes less than 5 minutes.
Lately I have been using onions, brussel sprouts, carrots, and broccoli for my other dishes. They are all super easy to roast and can be done right alongside your sweet potatoes.
Anyways, there you have it! Simple, healthy and fast meal prep as a resident/student. I spend less than an hour on Sunday evenings making just about everything I eat for the week. It’s cheap, healthy, and fun.
You can see some of our recipes, travel pictures, and more on our Instagram: @twogreendocs !
What are your meal prep tips?