Meal Prep Like a Pro
Lately, I have been inundated with requests for information regarding my meal prep practices. I always am a little surprised by these requests, because meal prep has become so second nature to me after years of repetition that I am thrown off slightly when people treat it as an exotic practice. It’s like someone noticing how easily you perform contralateral movements (swinging your arms opposite to your legs while walking). If someone ever pointed it out to you in awe, you would say, “Well, I’m just walking.”
That is how easy meal prep can become. “I’m just cooking for the week.”
Why Meal Prep Is Important
Clients sometimes rankle when I use this phrase, but the reality is that meal prep is important simply because it reduces choice.
Why would anyone want their choices reduced?
Here’s why: we often don’t make good choices, and we can’t rely on willpower alone. Willpower is finite (meaning it runs out), so we tend to make poor nutritional decisions when we allow ourselves to be confronted with infinite choices at every meal. We need to save our willpower reserve for when it is really needed. 95% of the time, we need to let a combination of routine and limited availability dictate our meal choices. As I said in a previous blog post, creativity should be left at the edges of cooking, while repetition will be your friend.
Even as a personal trainer and pretty savvy eater, I’m not good at choosing foods that support my goals or lifestyle when I allow myself to get too hungry or out of touch with my routines… because I’m a human being. The key is always having cooked food and smart snacks on hand, so that I prevent food detours through preparation.
Meal prep puts you on auto-pilot in a good way, making positive, intentional choices about your food every day for 95% of the time.
What is Meal Prep?
Meal prep, in my definition, consists of the following actions:
- Grocery shopping with a menu in mind, and getting all of your groceries within 24 hours
- Cooking all of the upcoming week’s food in one session (usually takes me about 2-3 hours)
- Immediately packaging all of the food into individual, portion-sized containers (using correct portion sizes based on your dietary needs – very important!!!)
The meals should be 99% ready to go, and should only need re-heating. This way, when you get home from work and feel the urge to order out with perilous results, you open your fridge to find an army of patient, delicious meals just waiting to be ready in about two minutes – before any delivery guy could ever get to your place!
I will spell out specific recipes over the next few weeks, but suffice it to say for now that there are certain foods that keep well and certain foods that fail the meal prep road test. Poultry and beef, for example, perform well in the quality control category over the course of a week, while fish should be prepared to order every time.
How many meals should you make per week?
This really depends on the size of your household. It’s just the two of us in our house, and we cook three meals (six servings each) each week – we start each week with 18 packages in the fridge. And we eat all of it, even taking into account that we eat out a few times a week.
Don’t Let Creativity De-Rail You
When it comes to meal prep, it’s best to have a small arsenal of trusted meals that you make frequently. We don’t exactly make the same meals every week, but there are about 5-10 that make frequent appearances in our diet. This is the “reduce choice” principle at play again.
You will receive the recipes to these meals in the upcoming weeks, as exclusive members of my mailing list. These are tried and true meal prep examples that perform well in storage and stay delicious throughout the week.
But before the rest of the e-mails, I want to anticipate some FAQ:
What should you do if you don’t have time to cook at all?
I must admit, I am skeptical of people who claim that they don’t have time to cook at all. It comes across to me not as an obstacle but as an objection – what the person is really saying is that cooking is not impossible, but it is not a priority.
My question to you is: how important is it to you to have fresh, healthy food always in abundant supply? If you say very important, I say: you will find a way to make it happen if it is truly important to you. We have a way of prioritizing what really matters, no matter what we say.
That being said, there is a spectrum of ease. Some weeks, I am short on time so I intentionally choose fast, set-it-and-forget-it recipes and can be done in an hour. On other weeks, I have an easy Friday so I spend 3-4 hours creating some very cool, memorable dishes.
What kind of kitchen equipment do I need?
The key to meal prepping is cooking everything at once (your stovetop will be completely full), so I recommend the following items:
- Pasta pot
- Pot or saucepan for browning meat and sauces
- Two frying pans
- 2-3 baking pans (not sheets)
- Cutting board
- One great sharp knife
- One large mixing bowl
- At least 20 individual packing containers
When I cook, I don’t really use food processors, blenders, or any other kind of equipment. When it comes to kitchen supplies, I think basic is best.
In fact, when I moved into my current apartment, the building had just shut off the gas because of the explosion that had just happened in Greenwich Village the month before. As a result, I cooked only on an electric, two-burner, plug-in stovetop for almost six months and couldn’t bake anything. I tell this story to illustrate this: where there is a will, there is a way.
What if I have picky kids?
Disclaimer: I don’t have kids, and I don’t want to be the know-it-all non-parent. But from what I have heard from other parents, getting your kids involved in the cooking is a great way to short-circuit a lot of picky eating behaviors. Also, I was an elementary teacher for five years, and I know that kids like to be hands-on in “grownup” things whenever they can be!
Here’s the skinny on most pickiness: kids have more sensitive taste buds than adults, and tend to be overly skeptical and cautious when they are presented with food combinations. Because they can taste a great degree of complexity and nuance, but don’t know what they’re eating when things are combined (as in a one-pot meal), they tend to reject mystery flavors.
Getting kids in the kitchen to play sous-chef can help de-mystify the process for them, because they have a degree of autonomy over what they are eating and what ingredients are going into each dish (especially if they can help pick recipes and help with shopping). Remember, kids as young as first grade can chop, peel, grate, and mince (as well as more mundane tasks like washing vegetables), and by third grade kids have the maturity to work around a stove (with supervision). By the end of elementary school, kids can work independently in the kitchen.
Is that image idyllic? Yes, perhaps. But it’s a great goal to move towards, even if it’s not accomplished perfectly.
Ready to Get Started?
Over the next six weeks, I’m going to be sharing my absolute favorite recipes and methods for prepping meals, in order to help you create a healthy, varied diet that is easy to maintain.
I will also rate a dish based on how easy, difficult, or time-consuming it is.
Most of all, be creative and have fun! The kitchen can be an empowering place!