Healthy back-to-school meal ideas on a budget

In many grocery stores, a bag of salt-covered chips can be cheaper than a single heirloom tomato. And when you are limited on both time and money, sometimes the option that is better for your body takes a back seat to the one that’s easier on the wallet.

But eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive.

Toni Okamoto has dedicated her career to making plant-based eating attainable for home cooks on a budget. Here are some of her time- and money-saving tips to make your fall nutritious and delicious:

Keep a stocked pantry and freezer

There’s no shame in taking a few shortcuts in the kitchen. Okamoto keeps canned beans and bouillon cubes in the cabinet and bags of rice and broccoli in the freezer.

She also relies on frozen chopped onions to cut down on prep time (and tears), as well as bags of cubed and frozen zucchini and butternut squash for weeknight meals.

“If you’re busy and you want to eat healthy, [frozen produce] makes life so much easier,” said Okamoto, author of the new cookbook, “Plant-Based on a Budget.”

Avoid impulse purchases at the grocery store

Before you head to the grocery store, do an inventory check on what you already have in the fridge and pantry. Then, plan out your meals based on what you have in stock.

If you are easily tempted by end displays and goodies in the checkout lane, consider ordering your groceries online to avoid impulse purchases. Okamoto said many grocery retailers offer free curbside pickup for online orders over a certain amount.

Make mornings easier

The back-to-school morning rush can throw a wrench into anyone’s best laid plans to eat healthy, but Okamoto said a little prep the night before can save you time and headaches when you’re trying to get everyone out the door.

She recommends making smoothie bags the night before, or even several days ahead of time. Chop and portion out all of the ingredients for a smoothie into a freezer bag or reusable container and pop them in the freezer — the kids can even assemble their own.

“That way in the morning, all you have to do is throw that in the blender and add some plant-based milk and you have a delicious, healthy, plant-based smoothie for breakfast,” Okamoto said.

Another prep-ahead breakfast she likes is overnight oats. Okamoto lines up five Mason jars for the week and fills them with 1 cup of old-fashioned rolled oats and whatever toppings she is into — frozen berries, seeds, nuts, peanut butter, etc. Then, she covers the oats with 1 cup of plant-based milk and lets them soak overnight in the fridge.

“In the morning they will have softened completely,” said Okamoto, who added that the oats might need a splash of milk and a few additional slices of fruit, to taste.

Overnight Oats, Plant-Based on a Budget
Toni Okamoto has dedicated her career to making plant-based eating attainable for home cooks on a budget. One of her favorite recipes is overnight oats. (Courtesy Toni Okamoto, Plant-Based on a Budget)

A lunchtime favorite 

Looking for a new item to add to the lunchbox? Okamoto recommends calzones, which sound labor intensive, but are easy to make and freeze for future meals. Roll out already made pizza dough, which you can find in most grocery stores, and cut the dough into smaller portions (you can make the calzones however big or small you like).

Fill the dough with your favorite pizza toppings, then fold it over and bake the calzones. Once they are cool, store the calzones in the freezer and pull them out as needed.

“In the morning, all you have to do is microwave them and send them in the lunchbox,” Okamoto said.

Quick weeknight dinners

Okamoto is a big fan of sweet potatoes — “they are filling, high in nutrition and very inexpensive,” she said — and one of her favorite meals is a sweet potato enchilada casserole.

“So you roll sweet potato that has just been steamed in the microwave in corn tortillas or flour tortillas, put in whatever enchilada toppings, pour the sauce from the can [over the rolled tortillas] and then bake it for 30 minutes,” Okamoto explained.

“It’s delicious and it’s creamy on the inside because the sweet potato is soft, so it still feels like you’re having that cheesy enchilada goodness.”

Jackfruit is another ingredient that’s easy to use, since it comes canned. When you pull the jackfruit apart, Okamoto said the texture resembles that of shredded pork or chicken.

“And it has no flavor, so it takes on whatever you’re flavoring it with,” she added.

Sauté it with taco seasoning and serve a dish that’s similar to shredded chicken tacos, or simmer the jackfruit with barbecue sauce and top it with a bun, much like a pulled pork sandwich.

Kid-friendly snacks

Stave off after-school hunger with nutrient-dense snacks, like Okamoto’s no-bake peanut butter balls, which call for rolled oats, peanut butter and raisins. And the best part? The kids can help make them.

“You make what is like an art station with different ingredients — peanut butter and raisins and oats — and you have the kids make these little balls that you’ll freeze. And you pull those out as a healthy snack throughout the week,” Okamoto said.

“Kids will eat things that they have been involved in creating and so it’s a great way to get them to eat healthy.”

‘Plant-Based on a Budget’ is a new cookbook from Toni Okamoto (Courtesy Toni Okamoto, Plant-Based on a Budget)

Recipe: Overnight Oats
From Plant-Based on a Budget by Toni Okamoto (BenBella Books, 2019)

Yields 1 to 2 servings

In my home, we live off Overnight Oats. They’re so crazy simple to put together! I like to prepare up to four days’ worth at a time. I use my weekend to prep a few for the upcoming week, and it makes those busy weekday mornings that much easier to bear.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
  • ¾ cup frozen berries
  • 2 tablespoons raw sunflower seeds (no shells)
  • 1 cup plant-based milk
  • 1 banana, sliced

OPTIONAL TOPPINGS:

  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoons chia seeds
  • 1 tablespoon coconut flakes

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Add the oats, berries, sunflower seeds, and milk to a storage container, glass, or Mason jar.
  2. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.
  3. In the morning, mix and enjoy chilled. (No cooking or heating is necessary — the oats soften overnight.)
  4. Garnish with the sliced banana to sweeten.

TONI’S TIPS:

  • You can swap out the frozen berries for other fruit, or swap out the sunflower seeds for your favorite nuts or seeds.

TESTERS’ TIPS:

  • “Mashing a banana into the oats while preparing them makes everything hearty and creamy in the morning.” — Toube B. from Chico, CA
  • “It’s also a great recipe with steel-cut oats. It’s a bit more chewy, a tad ‘undercooked,’ but in a good way. I would suggest cutting both the oats and plant-based milk in half for a steel-cut oat version.” — Roxane M. from Neptune, NJ
  • “If you want your oatmeal warm, you can microwave it for a couple of minutes in the morning.” — Melanie S. from Warsaw, NY

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