First, if you aren’t already meal prepping — you should start. All the cool kids are doing it.
But seriously, it makes things immeasurably more efficient. It also boosts your likelihood to stick to a healthy diet, saves money and time, and creates a self-awareness and pride in regards to the food you’re eating. Often when I talk to people who do (or did) meal prep, they absolutely dread it and think it’s a tedious undertaking. I also used to feel that way, until I changed my strategy and perspective. Therefore, in the list below I’ve explained some of my favorite tips for meal prepping gained through my personal experience that should make a world of difference for you going forward. And regarding perspective, take a moment to consider that this process is perhaps a blessing in disguise. Use this time to collect wholesome food, organize your materials thus setting yourself up for a successful week, and enjoy some calm kitchen time where you can reflect on your intentions and embrace the opportunity to be in control of how you nourish your body.
- Make a plan and a list
Have some structure for the week ahead by planning out your meals and snacks ahead of time. If it’s too overwhelming for you to forecast 7 days out, plan 3-4 days. All it takes is a piece of paper, a pen and 10 minutes of goal-oriented thoughts and you won’t be aimlessly wandering aisles at the grocery store or realize you forgot something when you’re already unpacking bags back at home. In your head, walk yourself through the process of cooking and eating it, too. When I skip this step, I always forget things like baggies to put food in, spray for the cooking pan or cinnamon for the decadent finishing touch to my morning oats.
- Schedule the time
This may be one of the most magical steps of the method: meal prep as you’re unloading the grocery bags. If you pack it all in the fridge and cabinets with the intent to meal prep later, you may never get to it, or waste time digging it all out again trying to figure out what’s old and what’s new.
When you get home from the supermarket, put the cold stuff away (such as bacon, dairy products, freezer items), and leave everything else out. Then ask yourself what takes the longest: baking before steaming, cutting and separating last. Preheat the oven and place all items to be baked (i.e: potatoes, chicken, veggies) on their appropriate sheets prepped to go. Next, place eggs in a big pot covered in water ready to be hardboiled. Then, while those two items are cooking slice up all your cold veggies and fruit and place in containers (more information on containers in tip #3). Lastly, sort snack items like cheese slices, almonds or granola into easily grabbable zip-tight bags and put away. By executing the steps in this fashion, everything finishes about the same time — saving you minutes in the long run, and making cleanup a breeze.
- Those darn containers
Plastic containers can be a pain: you can never find a matching lid, they’re a nuisance to wash, and you never have the right size for what you need. For these reasons, keeping everything in gallon-size zip-tight bags is a great method. However, I still like the look and feel of rectangle containers so here’s my approach for those: use big containers of the same size. The small, individual container system is why I believe most people are emotionally scarred from meal prep. The large ones stack nicely and it’s easy to see what’s inside when you open the fridge. Keep all of one food product in a container and measure it out as you use it.
For example: if you know you want to eat 4 oz. of chicken everyday for lunch, it takes less than a minute to complete that measurement in the morning before you take it with you to work. It takes a wasted extra amount of time, containers and fridge space to measure out several portions of 4 oz. of chicken for the week.
- How much to buy: bulk shopping and wasting less food
I eat a lot of food, and I still can’t finish the container of fruit you buy at Costco before it goes bad. Buy in bulk what stays good for a while such as frozen fish and chicken or oats, for example.
If you’re new to meal prepping: you probably need more food than you think you do. Consider that two bags of broccoli will only last you a couple days, or one potato won’t get you very far.When you give it your first go, do your best to guess based on portion sizes listed on the label (or how much you’ll actually eat, who really eats just 2 tablespoons of peanut butter?) and then either keep your receipt or write down how many of everything you purchased while you’re prepping. That way, you’ll have some data to reference for making modifications to quantities next grocery trip.
What I’ve discovered works well is to pick a central couple foods from each category to eat that week, and rotate to maintain variety. I suggest picking two or three to eat in a given week; then buy the others the meal prep after and rotate. It takes more money and time spent prepping for an unnecessarily wide variety.
For example: chicken and beef this week, fish and turkey the next.
- Keep it easy breezy
It’s not practical that you’re going to made slider burgers, BBQ this, lemon-crusted that and rosemary something or the other every single week, or want it every day for that matter. Complicated recipes can be exhausting to repeat and the extra ingredients make tracking macros a little harder. I stick with basic stuff for the week, and let myself spend extra time on the weekends to have a culinary experiment. Spices have a long shelf-life, and simple ingredients like spinach, bell peppers or onions can be thrown in to add a pop of flavor (and nutrients!) to many dishes.
For example: bake sweet potatoes plain for the week and add cinnamon when you’re heating them up to eat. Mrs. Dash makes great salt-free seasonings that I love to sprinkle on vegetables, Old Bay is killer with beef and chicken, low-sodium soy sauce or olive oil in small amounts go a long way, and a pinch of salt and pepper are the perfect touch for many things.
We’re in this together
It’s probably rather silly how much I enjoy both meal prepping, and talking about this stuff. I suppose I have a soft spot in my heart for it, because I’ve learned all of these things first-hand and can emphatically say there’s no way I’d be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle without taking time to meal prep — it’s a conscious decision to prioritize your nutrition. Afterall, the saying goes, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”.
Don’t let it stress you out, enjoy the adventure of learning a technique that works for you. I hope you find this list helpful, and please share with a friend who needs to take control of their kitchen, too! If you have additional suggestions for how to make meal prep even more awesome, or feedback on these ideas, I would love to hear from you in the comments below. Happy prepping!