Six Great Ways to Prepare Healthy Chicken Meals in Advance
Making lean, protein-rich chicken a main component of a healthy meal for your family is bound to be a hit with kids and adults alike. Chicken is incredibly versatile – at home on top of any salad, in curries and stews, stir-fries, sandwiches, pasta dishes and almost any lunch or dinner dish imaginable. Cook plenty of chicken in advance and keep portions ready in the refrigerator or freezer to combine with other ingredients from day to day, or prepare full meals featuring chicken that are just as delicious served several days later. With a package of chicken and a small investment of time for prepping, you'll save yourself many hours in the kitchen and always have the makings of a quick, healthy meal on hand. Get started using these six ideas as inspiration.
1. Simply-Seasoned Pulled Chicken
Cook a large batch of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thighs or a combination of both in a Crock-Pot, seasoned only with salt and pepper, until tender enough to fall apart. This should take approximately 3 to 4 hours on high or 6 to 8 hours on low. Shred the chicken with forks and divide it into individual or family-sized portions to refrigerate for a few days or freeze for up to a few months. The reheated pulled chicken can be transformed into a healthy family meal in minutes. Add sauteed peppers and onions plus whole-wheat tortillas for healthy fajitas, or use marinara sauce from a jar and whole grain pasta for a filling meal that's ready in minutes. Use it as a topping for homemade pizza, add it to a veggie-packed soup, or toss it with a little barbecue sauce to eat in a whole-wheat bun.
2. Meal Prep Marinades
Marinating is a make-ahead technique that adds major flavor to otherwise plain chicken. Whenever you get a good deal on a large package of chicken, separate it into bags ready to put in the refrigerator or freezer with the marinade included. When you're ready to cook the chicken, whether it's in the oven or Crock-Pot or on the stovetop or grill, it will already be thoroughly seasoned and sauced-up, saving you a time-consuming step. You might use store-bought marinades from a jar, but making your own simple marinades from scratch is usually a healthier approach. Some suggestions: olive oil, balsamic vinegar, crushed garlic and Italian seasoning; curry powder, Greek yogurt and a squeeze of lemon juice; soy sauce, cilantro and freshly grated ginger; cumin, chili powder, lime juice and tomato paste; and Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and a touch of honey.
3. One-Pan Roasted Chicken and Vegetables
Roast bite-size pieces of chicken along with your favorite vegetables on a single large sheet pan before transferring them to a tightly sealed container in your refrigerator, and you'll have the makings of numerous meals ready to go. Vegetables that are ideal for roasting include onions, bell peppers, cauliflower, zucchini, eggplant and green beans. Before roasting, toss the veggies and chicken with a neutral-flavored oil, such as vegetable or canola oil, plus salt, pepper and dried herbs. The simple seasonings keep the chicken and veggies versatile, suitable for mixing into pasta sauces, folding inside omelets, tossing with brown rice or quinoa as a grain salad, or re-warming to serve with a baked potato. You might also simmer a few servings of the chicken and vegetables in a good-quality stock to make a quick, tasty soup.
4. Ready-to-Grill Chicken Skewers
Pre-made bamboo skewers of cooked, unseasoned chicken can be transformed into a delicious meal by brushing them with a sauce and grilling – or broiling – just long enough to heat them through and char the edges. Dice boneless, skinless chicken breasts into bite-size pieces and poach in plain water or stock long enough to cook them through, which should take about 5 to 7 minutes. Cook the chicken in batches, if necessary, to avoid crowding the pan. Once cool enough to handle, thread five or six chicken pieces onto bamboo skewers, leaving small gaps between the pieces. Freeze the skewers laid out flat on a cookie sheet, then transfer them to a freezer bag or other container. Take out as many as you'll eat and thaw overnight in the refrigerator before grilling them to enjoy atop a salad or alongside grilled vegetables.
5. Chicken Burgers and Meatballs
Mix a large package of ground chicken with vegetables and seasonings. Use healthy, whole grain, quick-cooking oats for bulk along with eggs as a binder and you'll have a delicious mixture for making both chicken burgers and meatballs. Add grated onion, zucchini and carrots, and give it a flavor boost with garlic, fresh or dried herbs and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Use enough oats and beaten egg to get a good consistency for forming into burgers and meatballs. Bake the burgers and meatballs in the oven, then freeze or refrigerate them ready to re-heat in seconds in the microwave. Serve the burgers in wheat buns with thick slices of fresh tomato and a smear of mustard, or on top of a big green salad. Heat the meatballs in marinara sauce to eat with whole grain pasta.
6. Lighter Chicken Salad
Slice, dice or shred cooked boneless, skinless chicken and mix it with a 50-50 blend of mayonnaise and Greek yogurt as the basis of a healthier version of classic chicken salad. Add fresh vegetables – such as green onion, celery and shredded carrots – for crunch, flavor and vitamins. You might also like to include shredded or diced green apples, sliced black olives, chopped nuts or quartered grapes. Other variations include mashed avocado in place of mayonnaise, or light sour cream instead of mayo plus black beans and corn for a Southwestern chicken salad. Divide the salad into individual portions ready for lunchboxes and to be used as sandwich and wrap fillings, snack cracker accompaniment, or lettuce-wrap filling as a light dinner.
Joanne Thomas has worked as a writer and editor for print and online publications since 2004. As a specialist in all things food and drink, she has penned pieces for Livestrong, Robert Mondavi and Modern Mom, among other names. She found her first jobs in a series of kitchens before moving on to celebrate food via the written word. Thomas resides in California and holds a bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Bristol, U.K.