Back-to-school meal planning tips

Can I tell you secret? I don’t usually meal plan in the summer. We really like to relax and just go with the flow in the summer, so getting back into a routine for back-to-school is an adjustment, for sure. If you’ve been following on my Instagram stories, I’ve been posting some of my favorite meal planning and prepping tips pretty regularly. Those tips will certainly help you get through the first few weeks back-to-school, as kids and adults adjust to a new routine, but this post will help with a few major school-related obstacles:

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How to meal plan, prep and pack for camping

When we go camping or out to the lake, our biggest obstacles are usually how to keep the food cold (cooler space and/fridge space) and how to pack enough food in one cooler to last the weekend. These obstacles are easy to overcome if you plan and prep before you go.

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Maximize cooler space

I mentioned in How to pack efficiently for your weekend getaways, one of my favorite food packing tips. Freeze everything you possibly can, so it can act as an ice pack and save valuable real estate in your cooler. Another way to maximize cooler space is to bring smaller containers of larger items like condiments. Do you really need a whole bottle of Ketchup for one weekend? Not likely. Using small mason jars or reusable containers will help you save space.

Minimize ingredients

It’s easy to save space when you bring less stuff. My best tip for reducing the number of ingredients to pack, is to try to use them in more than one way. For example, you can use naan for Breakfast Pizza, then use it again for Greek Chicken Wraps for lunch or dinner. When planning your menu, start with one meal, then see what ingredients you can use in the next.

Prep before you pack

There are very few disadvantages to prepping before you pack. You will save on cooler space and you will save on cooking time when you’re camping. A general rule that I follow when packing a cooler is that anything that is frozen stays in the original packaging or in Ziploc bags (double up meat and liquids to avoid a mess in your cooler) and anything that is cut or pre-cooked goes in containers.

How to prep and pack meats

  • Smoked meats (hot dogs, bacon, farmer sausage, breakfast sausage) should stay in their original packaging and frozen to function as ice packs.
  • Whole cuts of meat (chicken breasts, steaks, fish, shrimp) should be portioned and sliced if necessary prior to cooking, then frozen in Ziploc bags to act as ice packs.
  • Ground meats can be frozen in Ziploc bags uncooked, or take it a step further and cook it (for example for tacos, pasta sauce or meatballs) then freeze it once it has been cooked.
  • Pre-made burger patties should be stored in containers so that they don’t get squished.

How to pack and prep fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are the number one space hogs of the cooler. I remember going on an Outdoor Ed. hiking trip with some grade 11 and 12 students and one student actually packed a whole watermelon in his backpack! Totally unnecessary.

  • Large fruits like melons and pineapples have staying power if they’re cut in advance, so storing them in a container is sure to save you space and time.
  • Berries tend to spoil quicker if washed and cut ahead of time, so keep those in their original containers if you can, and wash and eat as needed.
  • Whole fruits like apples, oranges, peaches and bananas don’t need to take up valuable space in your cooler, so store them in a large storage bin with your non-perishables. This is a tip you’ve seen before in How to pack efficiently for your weekend getaways.
food packed in a storage bin
Using a large storage bin for non-perishables helps keep food from getting crushed. It also allows for easy access throughout the weekend and is convenient for storing in your vehicle to keep the bears away.

How to pack and prep non-perishables

As I just mentioned, it’s a good idea to store non-perishables in a large storage bin, to avoid squishing, crushing, and for easy access throughout the weekend.  Also great if you need to store food in your car to keep the bears out. Storing in a bin makes packing a breeze, because when you get home with your groceries for your trip, you can pack them directly in your bin.

Sample meal plan

I’ve included a PDF sample two-day meal plan here, if you want a detailed look at how I plan. It includes ingredients required, pre-pack prep instructions, on-site prep instructions, and additional considerations.

Greek Chicken Wraps – Three ways

Construction, deconstruction, reconstruction

Deconstruction – Greek Mezze plate. Sometimes simple is best.

One of my favorite strategies when meal planning is to deconstruct or reconstruct to make a favorite meal slightly different. This allows us to keep the flavors that we love but change up the way we consume them, to add variety to our weekly menus.

The key players, a.k.a. what you will need

  • Naan
  • Hummus (Homemade or store bought)
  • Tzatziki (Homemade or store bought)
  • Greek dressing (Homemade or store bought)
  • Lemons
  • Chicken breasts
  • Garlic
  • Red and green bell peppers
  • Red onion
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Black olives
  • Feta cheese

Mise en place

The teacher in me loves French words! The foodie in me loves them even more when they refer to food or cooking. Mise en place is a French term used to describe the set up required before cooking. This means, prepping and having everything ready to go for when you start cooking.

We’re going to do a little mise en place here to set you up for constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing Greek Chicken Wraps.

Sauces and dressings

In this case, hummus, tzatziki and greek dressing. You can go store-bought all the way, or homemade. It really doesn’t matter. Use what is convenient, use what you like.

Hummus: I always like to make my hummus from scratch. My go-to for years, has been Real Simple’s 5-Minute Hummus. It never disappoints. Simple ingredients, whips up in five minutes. I love adding a bit of harissa to it for a spicier version.

Tzatziki: Making homemade tzatziki is not difficult and requires few ingredients: Greek yogurt, cucumber, garlic, lemon, salt. Do I love grating and squeezing out the cucumber for this recipe? Not really. Do I have time for that? Not really. I usually go store-bought on this one, because I love the flavor and thickness of PC brand Tzatziki. (Not an ad, it’s just one of my faves!)

Greek Dressing: Whichever dressing you choose to use, use it to its full potential: as the salad dressing and as the marinade for the chicken. Again, the ingredients are so simple that I like to make this one myself. One part lemon juice, two parts olive oil, oregano, salt & pepper and garlic. I like to use a bit of garlic powder in the dressing (maybe 1/4 teaspoon), then add a couple more cloves of fresh garlic to the chicken while in marinates. The fresh garlic is a bit too harsh for the dressing, I find. I also like to zest the lemons before juicing and add that to the chicken marinade as well. This lemon herb marinade also works well, but has a few more ingredients.

Chopping and cooking

Salad: Chop all your veggies, add feta and dressing and you’re done. One thing I like to do is switch up the size of the veggies, depending on what I’m making. A chunkier greek salad is really stands out on the mezze plate, whereas a smaller, diced greek salad works well in a wrap.

Chicken: I went all sheet pan dinner on the chicken, because it’s just too easy not to. I sliced each chicken breast into about five fingers, so they would cook faster, marinated for about half an hour, spread out on a parchment covered baking sheet and baked at 425 degrees F for 25 minutes. So basically while your chicken is cooking, you’ll have time to prep your salad.

Naan: I love how pillowy soft the naan gets when it’s warmed up. I just popped it in the oven on a sheet pan for five minutes while the chicken was cooking, to make it pliable enough to contain the wrap ingredients. For the mezze plate, I brushed it with olive oil and sprinkled it with salt, and baked it a little bit longer to give it some color and to hold up to dipping in the thick tzatziki.

Construction – Greek Chicken Wrap

Now that you have your mise en place ready to go, you can build your wrap.

  1. Spread hummus or tzatziki (or both) on your warmed naan.
  2. Fill with chicken, top with salad. (You can also add some lettuce to the wrap for some filler.)
  3. Eat it taco-style.

Variation: Try roasting some of the salad veggies (peppers, red onion and olives) with the chicken. Top with cucumber, tomato and feta and a drizzle of dressing.

Deconstruction – Greek Mezze Platter

Deconstruction is usually the easiest method to use when trying to change up your meal plan because all the ingredients are already ready.

  1. Spread the hummus and tzatziki on a plate or shallow bowl.
  2. Top with chicken pieces, salad, and naan triangles.

Reconstruction – Greek chicken pizza

Reconstruction is probably the most difficult and labour-intensive of the three processes we just covered. You may need a few extra ingredients in order to create something slightly different. In this example, I’ve used most of the same ingredients, but prepared them differently.

  1. Use a piece of naan as your crust and lightly brush it with olive oil.
  2. When cooking the chicken, throw on a couple whole cloves of garlic and some grape tomatoes so they roast up nicely.
  3. Spread the roasted garlic over the naan, the smash some tomatoes over it too.
  4. Top with chopped chicken, peppers, onion, olives and feta. (You could use raw or roasted veggies here.)
  5. Grate a bit of lemon zest over the top.
  6. Add a bit of mozzarella if you like your pizza extra cheesy.

Variation: You can go vegetarian on all of these by simply omitting the chicken.

Apply this method to another meal

Now that you know what to do, try this method with another meal. Check out these dressings, marinades or five things you could make for supper that may fit into your construction/deconstruction/reconstruction plan.

Have you tried this method? I love to hear your ideas! Comment on this post or email me at info@toobusylivin.com