Working Lunch: Meals Even When Busy

If someone had told me that once married, I would be spending a daily average of 3 hours in the kitchen, I would have told them they were crazy. (They’d also be crazy to think I’d be married, but that’s a different story.) My parents had always made fun of my cooking skills, and my youngest brother had to resign himself to eating hotdogs whenever he was left at home with me. Even when I was in my later years of medical school and living alone, my meals would consist of cafeteria food, takeout, cakes, or a meager pot of unseasoned meat. As long as it wasn’t raw, it was edible, and it was enough for me.

When I moved to Montreal to do my Master’s degree, I was able to find more time to cook and experiment with simple recipes. I was even able to do some rudimentary baking, such as strawberry strudels, as I would simply purchase the pastry sheet from the supermarket. As I grew more comfortable being in the kitchen, I learned to cook bigger portions of meals for meal planning. I also enjoyed welcoming friends into my small apartment for warm meals and bringing some sweet treats for people to taste.

However, when I got married, my husband preferred (obviously) having warm meals cooked daily. As I was working from home and on limited freelance contracts, I happily acquiesced and bustled in the kitchen, cooking and baking and learning so many new recipes, including some Polish dishes. My pregnancy had me craving a lot of my childhood favorites from the Philippines and, because the coronavirus lockdown prevented me from getting food outside, I had to learn to make these myself. No wonder I spent that much time in the kitchen!

My schedule was bound to change after starting residency and while I was progressing along my pregnancy. Instead of splitting meat from the grocery into daily servings, I kept most in their family-sized packaging. Instead of deciding the day before what I wanted to cook and then thawing it, I started writing down weekly (or longer) meal plans, and I designated cooking days throughout the week. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays are for cooking, while Saturdays are for baking. I am quite adept in preparing several dishes in different pots and oven pans all at once, so as long as I’m not distracted in the kitchen during these times of dedicated cooking, nothing gets burned!

One thing that really helped me in planning meals is the black chalkboard sticker that I put up on our aluminum refrigerator. I used to rue not having a magnetic surface on which to tack photos and a dry-erase board. I first looked for magnetic boards with suction cups but couldn’t find one within our budget, so I opted for this chalkboard sticker instead. It came with free chalk, but I also got chalk pens of different colors. I keep the right panel for the menu and the left for other reminders. Now it’s so much fun writing on the board!

Of course, the menu is not as detailed as what we actually eat. I try to always have some carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, or pasta), meat or poultry or fish, and vegetables. The menu also doesn’t say what I intend to bake or prepare for my breakfast that week, such as muffins, cupcakes, puto, or even taho. And there’s the fruits and snacks (may or may not be junk food, ha!) that we eat throughout the day.

Another tip is to plan for meals that are quick to prepare and to save the more involved recipes for the weekends. For me, one-pot stews and baking are the easiest meals to prepare, even with the preparation time of cutting the meat and vegetables. My slow cooker also gets to flex its utility every now and then, especially when I want extremely tender beef. I reserve grilling for weekends because while cooking is easy, I need to allow time for the marinade to set and for me to wash our indoor grill after.

As for packing meals, we purchased six pieces of glass containers, so I can pack our lunches for three days in a row. I pack my husband’s lunch too, even if he works from home, to make it more convenient for him. In addition, this allows us to portion our meals better so we don’t overeat and enter into an unproductive food coma for the afternoon.

Sometimes, when I’m too tired or we’re both craving something specific, we order in instead. Another option we have is to order big platters of frozen food that can be cooked or reheated later. As a last resort, I end up opting for the affordable union lunch at the hospital, and my husband prepares something quick for himself at home. I am happy to enlist my husband’s help in the kitchen, especially on weekends, as cooking together makes for a good bonding activity.

Tips for Eating at Home Despite a Busy Work Life

1. Plan your meals for a week – and write them down somewhere you won’t forget or that is easily seen.
2. Do groceries either based on your meal plans, or vice versa. It is helpful to consider a balanced diet when doing meal plans.
3. Choose meals that are quick to prepare on weekdays. Baking, stewing, and slow cooker meals are useful in this regard.
4. Designate cooking and baking days in a week.
5. Try cooking larger batches of food and pack them in ready containers for easy portability and reheating.
6. Treat yourself to takeout (or eating out) sometimes!
7. Order larger packages of frozen food that are ready for cooking or reheating.
8. Cook together with someone (e.g. your spouse) to make cooking less of a chore and more of a fun activity!

How about you? What are your tips for managing healthy meal preparation and a busy life?

Dr. Jade Marie Tomaszewski is a pathologist-in-training at McGill University, where she also did her degree in MSc Pathology. She obtained her medical degree (MD) from the University of the Philippines, after completing a BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. In her (little) spare time, she enjoys spending time with family, curling up with a book and a large mug of tea, and trying out new recipes in the kitchen. You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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