Prepare and store your meals in advance

As a Girl Scout, I learned the motto, "Be Prepared". This mostly meant building first aid kits, knowing how to start a fire, setting aside water and food or other preparations for emergencies. In my current career (no longer a Girl Scout), the advice to be prepared takes on a bit of a different meaning, although no less practical or important. Being prepared can mean saving time and money on food and food preparation as well as helping meet nutrition goals like eating more fruits and vegetables, controlling calories for weight loss or weight gain or getting enough vitamin C.

While long distance caregiving for my east coast dwelling mother, I often wished that there was tasty, nutritious food in the refrigerator or freezer for her. She didn't qualify for any home care support and for best health she needed a menu that considered diabetes, high blood pressure and all the challenges that low vision creates in the kitchen.

One solution could have been commercially prepared frozen meals. But, we all know that no matter how good these are, they aren't like homemade and they definitely aren't as nutritionally sound. Processed foods are almost always lower in protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, D, and E and minerals zinc, magnesium, potassium and calcium. These foods are also often higher in salt, fat and sugar and calories – exactly what we don't want for better health. Even top quality deli foods couldn't provide the comfort of Mom's customary foods and recipes or the variety of fresh foods that she preferred.

Had I been in the same town, I would have tried to follow some of the "cook once and eat healthy for a week" ideas. With the increased busyness of modern families (seniors included) homemade, pre-prepared foods are all the rage and there are plenty of ideas and suggestions on-line, on TV or in magazines with recipes and tips for preparing ahead. If we start with our nutrition goals in mind, we can easily plan and prepare most of the week's menu, shopping one day and cooking the next, leaving more time for other things during the rest of the week. Know what you need and plan down to the individual serving size – this will help you limit calories, fat, salt and sugar.

Maintaining quality and safety

Let's start with how long food keeps in the refrigerator and freezer. Most planned "leftovers" will be safe to eat and good quality for two four days. Cooked meat, seafood or chicken, chili, soups, pizza, casseroles and stew can be safely kept for three to four days. Always heat leftovers to the safe internal temperature of 165°F before eating. Potato salads or cooked potatoes will last three to five days, cooked vegetables last two to three days and fresh salads last one to two days for maximum flavor and freshness.

Some ideas for cooking ahead include: baked white or sweet potatoes, rice, kidney beans, chicken breasts, whole roast chicken, meat balls, macaroni and cheese, oven baked oatmeal with raisins and apples. Freezing foods gives another dimension to the planning ahead with many foods able to be frozen for three or more months.

Food should be cooled and refrigerated or frozen as quickly as possible after cooking – this may mean dividing hot food into several small containers. Storing the food in individual portion sized pieces or containers adds convenience and helps maintain quality and safety – this way you can take servings out of the freezer without defrosting a whole batch. For seniors who are struggling with cooking for a household of only one or two, preparing a full recipe of something (lasagna, minestrone soup, etc.) and portioning food into single servings for storage can be a great way to avoid eating "leftovers" for three days in a row. Prepare for your day of cooking, with appropriate freezer and refrigerator containers such as freezer bags, small foil casserole or pie pans, easy-to-open, freezer safe plastic containers, muffin tins. Try portioning food into lightly oiled muffin tins or other single-sized containers and freezing them. Once frozen solid enough to keep their shape, they can be put into a large freezer bag.

One final idea for preparing for good nutrition is the recently popularized "salad in a jar". Your choice of ingredients can be layered in a wide mouth jar starting with dressing on the bottom. Follow with some harder vegetables like carrots or radishes that won't get soggy; next some protein – hard boiled egg, chicken, tofu, garbanzo beans, flaked cooked salmon or cheese. A third layer could be sliced olives, diced sweet peppers, mandarin oranges or blueberries, and finally greens or shredded cabbage. Use very fresh, blemish-free produce and keep all ingredients cold while assembling.

"Be Prepared" is a motto for more than just scouts. For more information about how you can prepare for good nutrition for yourself (or your mom), please contact Leslie Shallcross, Cooperative Extension Agent at 907-474-2426 or

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Extension.