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It’s been a long day of work and all you want to do is have some dinner and relax. But, you don’t have anything prepared and you just don’t feel like chopping vegetables and hovering over a hot stove for an hour. So instead, you order takeout (again) and your fresh produce gets one day closer to rotting before you ultimately throw it out.
If this scenario is pretty typical for you, meal prepping just might be the trick to putting healthier meals on the table with far less stress.
Not only is meal prepping good for your health as it can help you stay on track with personal diet goals and prevent you from making potentially unhealthy last-minute menu decisions, but it is also a good habit all-around for your mental health. You can take a certain amount of mental effort off of your plate—figuratively speaking—simply by prepping your literal plates at the start of every week. When you no longer have to stress about what you’re going to eat throughout the day or plot out extensive time to cook each night, you free yourself up to focus on other daily tasks, or simply pencil in a sufficient amount of time to wind down from your busy schedule.
However, that’s all a bit easier said than done. Meal prep takes a bit of skill to learn up front, but once you have it down, you can ease into autopilot as it becomes part of your weekly routine. So how can you make meal prepping a habit and actually execute it properly? We spoke to a series of experts in the realms of food and nutrition to get their pro tips on the right way to meal prep.
So What Is Meal Prepping?
Sometimes referred to as “batch cooking,” meal prep is the act of preparing all of your week’s meals ahead of time—usually for a couple hours on a weekend afternoon—so that you don’t have to spend time putting individual meals together from scratch each day. Most people think of dinners when they think of meal prep, but maybe prepping healthy morning meals would be most beneficial for you. Or, maybe you tend to gravitate toward takeout for lunch, and you’re looking for something more economical. Whether you choose to meal prep your breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, or all of the above, one thing is for certain.
“The best meal prep can be mixed and matched to create a variety of meals throughout the week,” says Tammy Fry, certified plant-based nutritionist and author of Made with Love & Plants.
Her method, like that of most meal preppers, begins with what she refers to as “bases.” Typically these will be the cook-ahead items (like a protein source and vegetables), that can be combined with a variety of quick sides (such as rice, quinoa or salads) to create a complete meal, but with variation from day to day. She’ll cook up those bases on her meal prep day, and while everything is in the oven, she’ll also prepare meals that don’t require cooking, such as overnight oats or chia breakfast bowls.
Meal prepping is a little different for everyone, though, so don’t be afraid to tailor it to your needs. For you, it may just consist of simply slicing and dicing your produce for the week so you have one less step to take when it comes to meal time.
How to Meal Prep
Now that you know what meal prepping is at its core, let’s run through the steps to execute it efficiently (with tips from the pros, of course).
Pick out some well-balanced meals that include many of the same ingredients. (That is, a healthy mix of protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.) You can look for new recipes that you want to try, or stick to meals that you already know how to make.
Fry suggests incorporating at least two bases—which would be your main protein source— and two to three different vegetables, plus two legumes, like chickpeas or black beans. Chicken would make a healthy and versatile option for a base, but if you follow a plant-based diet like celebrity chef and Certified Nutritionist Serena Poon, you can mix things up with tofu, tempeh, or even use your legumes as your source of lean protein for a few meals.
Make your shopping list to ensure you have everything you need before you start cooking. As you plan out one to three dishes for each meal for the week, write down all of the ingredients that you’ll need and head to the store in one shot, suggests Poon. She also notes that you’ll want to make sure your pantry is well-stocked with an array of spices, bulk grains, and legumes.
Schedule a day and time to do all of your batch cooking and portioning to make sure that you prioritize enough free time to properly and efficiently execute your menu, says Chef David Rose, Food Network TV personality and executive chef of Omaha Steaks. For most people, this will take about two hours, depending on the complexity of your recipes and your familiarity with them. But, when you’re first starting out with meal prep, be sure to give yourself some extra wiggle room. And, if you find that the process is just too long for you, try utilizing a pressure cooker to speed things up.
When your designated cooking day rolls around, maximize your time by cooking several items at once. For example, you can have your proteins and vegetables roasting in the oven, and your grains cooking on the stove. Chef Rose also likes to use this time to portion out greens, raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other items that don’t require cooking ahead of time. By multitasking, cooking in phases, and pre-portioning raw ingredients, you’ll make the most of your time spent in the kitchen.
Once everything is cooked, it’s time to gather your storage containers and portion out your meals the way you’d like to enjoy them throughout the week. Often, this includes your protein, veggies, and grains in each container, though some recipes may not lend themselves to that, so use your best judgement. Raw ingredients, of course, should be kept separate as they won’t need re-heating.
Chef Rose likes to use tightly sealed containers and vacuum-sealed bags to keep out as much air as possible, effectively preventing food from drying out. Just be sure that you’re using microwave-safe containers if that’s how you’ll be reheating your food (and you know you won’t transfer the container’s contents to a separate bowl or plate).
Now it’s time to store your food properly. Chef Rose cautions that you must always allow cooked food adequate time to cool down completely before storing. Popping that steamy container in the cold fridge will just create more warmth and moisture—the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and, ultimately, fast-spoiling food.
Food that is intended to be eaten in the first two days after cooking can be stored in the coldest part of the fridge. (This is usually the bottom, as cold air sinks. But, if your refrigerator has a freezer above it, the top shelf will typically be colder.)
If you don’t intend to eat your meal prep in the first two days, however, Chef Rose recommends labeling each container with the current date and storing it in the freezer. Then, practice the FIFO (“First in, first out”) method to ensure that you don’t let anything go to waste
Reheat and eat when ready. Remove frozen meals from the freezer the night before to allow ample time to thaw. If you’re bringing a thawed meal with you to work, however, Poon recommends packing the container in an insulated cooler with an ice pack until you are ready to reheat and enjoy. Whenever you choose to enjoy your meal, the most important thing is to make sure you fully reheat it to the proper temperature, whether that’s in an oven or a microwave, or on the stovetop.
How to Turn Meal Prep Into a Habit (and Avoid Mealtime Boredom)
You won’t really get the full benefits of meal prepping unless you turn it into a consistent habit. And, in order to do that, you have to make it easy on yourself! After all, if it stresses you out or simply doesn’t enhance your life, you won’t want to keep up with it.
“One of the best ways to make something a habit is to understand the greater purpose of the activity for you,” says Poon. “Why will meal prepping support your health and happiness? Will it save you time and decision energy throughout the week? Will having food that supports your health on hand during busy times help you stay on track with your plan?”
Whatever your reason, just remember that you don’t need to go big straight out of the gate. Start with prepping just a few meals per week, and ease into things to build up your meal prepping skills so you don’t burn yourself out. Once you get into the habit, it can grow into a more comprehensive routine.
Here are a few other things our experts suggest to help form this healthy habit while also making your meals enjoyable.
Learn how to cook one ingredient and use it multiple ways all week long. To do this, Chef Rose suggests picking a protein and planning various vegetables and starches around it. For example, chicken breasts can be utilized to make:
- A salad with fresh greens and vegetables
- A quick bowl with brown rice
- A wrap with lettuce or vegetables
- A quinoa “fried rice”
- A stir fry
Don’t be afraid to switch things up and try ingredients in a way that you haven’t before.
The key to making meal prep healthy is ensuring that you’re getting enough variety to provide your body a wide range of nutrients.
“Some foods have nutrients that others do not, even within a food category,” says Nyree Dardarian, licensed and registered dietician, and board-certified sports nutritionist for MLS’ Philadelphia Union and NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. “For example, orange fruits have beta-carotene, and purple ones contain anthocyanins.”
So, in order to get a full range, she suggests selecting two different-colored fruits and two different-colored vegetables each week, and rotating the colors you select from week to week.
If you need a little more inspiration for your dishes, Poon likes to make her meal prep a seasonal process by selecting whatever is fresh from the farmers market each week.
Keep It Simple
You don’t need to be an experienced home chef in order to meal prep. You don’t even need a ton of time. There are a few shortcuts you can take (without sacrificing nutrition or taste) that you might want to utilize when you’re first starting out, or when you have a particularly busy week that might not allow for your usual meal prep routine.
Dardarian notes that frozen vegetables are a great option as they can reduce prep time significantly, and they have more nutrients than some fresh vegetables because they’re flash-frozen at their peak. She also recommends rotisserie chicken as the parts can be used in different ways throughout the week, and you get a pre-cooked, juicy protein without any of the cleanup.
Make It Spicy (and Saucy!)
“Spices are your best friend,” Poon says. “I often prepare a simple base of grains, proteins and roasted vegetables, then add a unique sauce to the meal each day. Sauces and spices can make the same meal into a totally different dining experience.”
She says that you can also utilize spices to support your health and mood. For instance, you can use energizing spices, such as pepper and ginger, on the days that you are feeling low, and grounding spices, such as cumin, on days that are charged with stress and anxiety.
Don’t Force It
As Dardarian is so keen to point out, meal prepping is not for everyone. For example, if you like getting together with friends to enjoy a meal several times per week, you shouldn’t change that simply to implement a meal prep schedule in its place.
“Food has so many facets that extend beyond feeding the body: food is part of social experiences, holidays, vacations etc.,” Dardarian notes. “Enjoy life. Food should not be a chore; it is part of life and should be enjoyed.”
So yes, meal prepping can be incredibly helpful for some to keep track of their diet and feel more organized throughout the week. But if it takes away from your enjoyment of life or adds more stress to it, then it completely defeats the purpose.
Whichever might be the outcome for you, you’re now armed with the knowledge to meal prep the right way, so you can give it a solid try for yourself.