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Summer Meal Planning: 5 tips for quick and healthy meals

By Heidi Gunderson, MS, RDN, CDCES May 17, 2022

Does summer meal planning sound like an unnecessary chore to you? It needn’t be! When summer arrives, none of us wants to be stuck cooking in a hot kitchen or making frequent time-wasting runs to the grocery store. Especially when we’re busier enjoying all of the activities that summer has to offer.

Well, summer meal planning done right can actually free up our time. Not only that, everyday challenges we face can be prevented or easily solved with a little advance planning. Before we get to those challenges and planning tips, let’s take a closer look at why summer meal planning is a good idea.

Summer meal planning: more than a time-saver

Devoting just a couple of hours a week to summer meal planning can save a lot of time for those warm weather activities we want to enjoy.  It can save money by limiting impulse purchases and too many last-minute take out meals.  And finally, summer meal planning can promote better health. Benefits we can all appreciate!

While summer is often viewed as a season of wellness and vitality, if we aren’t thoughtful about what we eat and drink, our health goals may head in the wrong direction.  It’s soooo easy to over-indulge in summertime favorites like brats and hotdogs, fried chicken, creamy pasta salads, ice cream treats, and fruity summer cocktails. 

But the excess calories these foods and drinks provide, along with the saturated fat, sugar, and alcohol aren’t good for any of us! 

And something else to be aware of in the summer months is the greater risk of food poisoning, as bacteria grows faster when food is left out too long in the heat.

Summer meal planning can restore balance by offering healthier options in the mix.  And, by following a few simple tips to overcome common challenges, meal prep can be quick, easy, enjoyable, and safe. 

Read on for the first of these tips on how to plan healthy meals with busy summer schedules.

Challenge #1: Decision fatigue. Solution: Use menu themes!

Summer often leads to schedule changes at work, school and home. Vacations, home projects, sports, summer jobs, outdoor activities and social events may interrupt our meal planning efforts and eating schedules.

One way to lessen the pressure of daily meal planning is to create a flexible schedule for the week, or for an entire month, in just an hour or two!  Knowing ahead of time that it’s “Taco Tuesday or Sandwich Saturday” takes away the last minute decision of “what’s for dinner?” and another time-wasting run to the grocery store.

Create several options of meal themes that you and your family like and assign them to different days based on your weekly activities and meal prep time needed.  Then, choose 1 or 2 meals that fit each theme, add the meal ingredients to your grocery list and aim to shop just once a week. Time saved!

Summer meal planning menu themes

Below is a list of some ideas for healthy, quick and tasty summertime meal themes.  Most of the meal suggestions can be ready to eat in under 30 minutes.

  • Monday: Meatless Monday
    • There’s more than spaghetti and tomato sauce, or veggie burgers!  Try your favorite pasta with chickpeas, lemon and garlic. Or a Cucumber sandwich. How about zucchini quiche? For 15 easy meatless meal recipe ideas, click here.
  • Tuesday: South of the Border
    • Switch it up!  Offer a variety of fixings for a taco bar such as black beans, cooked lean ground beef or chicken,  lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shredded cheese. Tired of tacos? Try grilled steak fajitas, chicken enchiladas or homemade burrito bowls for a twist on the usual fare.
  • Wednesday: Fish and be Flexible
    • Keep a bag of frozen filets like tilapia, cod, salmon or halibut  (or buy fresh and use within 1-2 days). Fish cooks very quickly on the grill or in the oven. No time to cook?  Top a big crunchy salad with canned tuna or salmon. To save more time, buy bagged salad greens and add pre-chopped vegetables and shredded carrots.
  • Thursday: Slow cooker (or instant pot) Sandwich 
    • Cook a pork roast with sliced onion and your favorite seasonings and a small can of ginger ale on low for 7-8 hours (or follow directions for the instant pot). Remove the pork and shred with 2 forks, then add back to the slow cooker and mix in your favorite BBQ sauce to heat through. Serve on whole grain buns with coleslaw.
  • Friday: Grill out!
    • Lots of choices here!  Grill a meat or plant-based burger, or chicken and vegetable kebabs. For summer favorites like bratwurst, hotdogs and sausages, look for lower-sodium and lower fat options. Serve with whole grain buns. Another easy-to-fix favorite? Grilled corn on the cob!
  • Saturday: Skillet dinner
    • Stir-fry cut up chicken sausages in a small amount of olive oil with sliced red onion. Add fresh bagged spinach and cook until wilted then add cherry tomatoes and sliced Kalamata olives. Serve over cooked pasta with shredded parmesan cheese.
  • Sunday: Charcuterie night
    • So many options for this casual weekend meal! Shrimp and cocktail sauce, cheese and crackers, smoked salmon, olives, mini carrots, grapes, nuts, popcorn and more! There is something for everyone. Check out these ideas for your next board night!

The bottom line? Have a basic framework for meals by choosing themes and then create your grocery list from that.  You can keep this plan super flexible and move meals around based on what is working for your schedule since you’ll have your meal ingredients for the entire week. 

Remember to add fresh fruits and vegetables to your weekly grocery list, as well as standard pantry staples like whole grains, eggs, and low fat dairy to round out your meals.

Too hot to cook? Check out the next section of meal ideas that won’t heat up the kitchen and may even cool your body temperature as well.

Challenge #2: Too hot to cook! Solution: Keep the oven off. Here’s how!

When it’s simply too hot to cook, it might be a good time to use a slow cooker, instant pot, or grill to prevent heating your house up too much.  

Even then, sometimes hot food isn’t appealing. We want something cold. Like ice cream!  But until ice cream makes a nutritious and balanced meal, we need some other ideas for delicious, cooling foods. 

Try these lighter, cooler meals the next time you’re feeling overheated:

  • Fresh fruit plate with low fat cottage cheese
  • Chopped salads with cold ingredients added (meats, cheeses, beans, veggies)
  • Gazpacho (chilled tomato, onion and cucumber soup; best to make ahead of time to blend flavors)
  • Veggie and cream cheese tortilla roll ups
  • Tuna pasta salad (tuna, cooked elbow pasta, green peas, light mayo and shredded cheddar cheese)
  • Chicken (leftover or canned) salad with chopped red grapes, celery, walnuts and light mayo
  • Greek yogurt and fruit parfaits
  • Watermelon salad with feta cheese, red onion and cucumber slices
  • Egg salad on pita bread 

Spicy foods can also be cooling too, if the spiciness leads to sweating (our bodies cool down when sweat evaporates). Try spicing up your sandwiches and salads with a little salsa!

Since the summer heat makes us thirsty, and may increase the risk of dehydration, let’s review healthy hydration tips next.

Challenge #3: Dehydration. Solution: Hydrate with better beverage choices!

We lose water through sweating, so it makes sense that the summer heat may increase the risk of dehydration. Dehydration can happen quickly; review the signs and treatment here.

In order to stay well-hydrated and decrease the risk of dehydration, plan to:

  • drink before feeling thirsty, and throughout the day 
  • keep track of your fluid intake 
  • follow the guidelines for your individual needs
    • a minimum of 8 cups of fluids per day, or
    • half your body weight in ounces (example: 80 ounces for a weight of 160 pounds), or
    • enough fluids to produce light yellow urine color (like straw or honey)

Comparing popular beverages

With so many types of beverages to choose from, it can be confusing to decide what to drink! And lots of these beverages are high in sugar and calories that we may not want or need. 

In comparison, most regular (not diet) beverages provide between 80-150 calories per serving. That’s one 12 ounce can of soda pop, 1 cup of juice, lemonade or sweetened iced tea, or 1 bottle of beer. 

But, some popular summertime beverages may have a whopping 250-800 calories! 

Fruit smoothies, margaritas, pina coladas, strawberry daiquiris, frappuccinos, flavored iced mochas, frozen lemonade, root beer floats and ice cream shakes are some of these calorie-laden drinks.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s room in a healthy lifestyle budget to enjoy a refreshing glass of your favorite summertime drink occasionally, but it’s not a great idea to quench our thirst on large amounts of sugary drinks or alcohol. Plus, alcohol contributes to dehydration, which in the heat, can be extra challenging for the body to handle.

Better summer beverage choices

This summer, give some of these healthier beverage options a try:

  • Flavor-infused water
    • Fill a pitcher with ice and fruit, cover with water and chill for 3-4 hours
    • Citrus fruit slices, berries, watermelon, mint leaves, basil, and cucumber slices are some good options to try
    • For 8 great infused water recipes from Culinary Hill, click here
  • Non-alcoholic beverages
    • Flavored sparkling water
    • Real fruit juice-dilute with water and ice
    • See this article for 7 recommended non-alcoholic beverage brands
    • For 28 simple non-alcoholic summer beverage recipes, check out this resource from Women’s Health magazine.
  • Lower calorie, lower sugar alcoholic beverages  
    • Vodka with unflavored club soda, garnished with a lime wedge
    • 5 oz glass of white wine 
    • 12 oz light beer
    • Gin and diet tonic water
    • Rum and diet cola
    • For healthier summer cocktail recipes, click here
    • Limit alcoholic beverages to 0-1 serving per day

And if you are very active in the summer heat, you may benefit from drinking beverages with added electrolytes to replace what is lost in sweat. For dietitian-recommended sports drinks, see this article.

What about when we are traveling or on the road? How do we choose healthy food and beverages in unknown situations? Read on for a tip on summer meal planning away from home.

Challenge #4: Eating well on the go. Solution: pre-plan and pre-pack for summer meal planning success!

From picnics to beach days to family reunions and vacations, summer meal planning might seem like it’s too much work or not in our control.  A little pre-planning  and pre-deciding can turn this around!

First, plan to take some healthy foods for snacks and meals on the road with you.  Keep a cooler in your car or reusable cold freezer traveling bags.  Availability is a key step to making healthier choices.

Good traveling fruits and vegetables include:

  • Grapes, apples, unsweetened fruit cups, cherry tomatoes, carrot and celery sticks, cucumber slices, mini sweet peppers  

Other easy-traveling foods to take along:

  • Peanut butter, packaged hummus, protein bars (non-chocolate to prevent melting), beef sticks, cheese sticks, trail mix, hard boiled eggs, pre-bagged popcorn, whole grain crackers, nuts, raisins 

Wherever you end up eating, whether at a restaurant, ball game concession stand or a friend’s backyard barbecue, remember basic nutrition when perusing the offerings on the menu or table.  There is usually a healthier option, and even if there isn’t, remember perfection is not the goal. Balance happens over time, not at one meal. 

Summer meal planning wouldn’t be complete without discussing food safety. Because none of us wants to get food poisoning! Do you know the guidelines? Be safe and not sorry- review the basic tips next!

Challenge #5: Food poisoning- oh no! Solution: follow food safety guidelines

We can get so busy enjoying our summer outdoor activities or social gatherings that we forget all about food safety.  But 1 in 6 Americans get food poisoning each year and it’s more likely to occur in the hot summer months. (1) Within minutes to days of eating contaminated food, mild to severe flu-like symptoms may develop. 

The most likely culprits? Chicken(other meats and fish too), often due to cross-contamination in preparation, or undercooking. Other common offenders are eggs, and unwashed produce, such as leafy greens, cantaloupe and sprouts.

How do we prevent food poisoning? Follow these food safety basics:

  • Clean
    • Wash hands and work surfaces before, during and after food preparation
  • Separate
    • Raw foods from ready-to-eat foods
    • Use separate cutting boards 
  • Cook
    • To the right temperature; use a food thermometer to check it
  • Chill
    • To 40 degrees or lower

Basically, the risk of getting food poisoning in summer months will be lower if we:

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold!

Temperature Guidelines

  • 40-140 degrees is the danger zone when food is prone to bacterial growth
  • Refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours of purchase, preparation or serving (1 hour in temperatures over 90 degrees)
  • Place leftovers into shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze for more rapid cooling. Use cooked leftovers within 3-4 days.
  • Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees to kill foodborne pathogens

Meat and refrigerator thermometers are an inexpensive investment that can help monitor your food temps. It’s also a good idea to put one in your cooler when traveling.  For more information on how to keep your food safe to eat, keep this resource handy.

Summer meal planning: key takeaways 

This summer, use summer meal planning to enjoy your summertime favorites and stay healthy at the same time. Just remember the tips reviewed above: use themes to plan easy prep meals and a once-weekly shopping list, rethink your drink choices, choose cooling foods when it’s too hot to cook, pre-plan when away from home, and keep food safety practices in mind.  

Ready to enjoy a summer that is free of dinner decision fatigue? Need more help with meal planning to meet your needs?  Contact me for a complimentary discovery call here.

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