When I talk about meal prep with clients, sometimes I forget that the concept of meal prep itself can be an entirely unfamiliar idea. When people don’t cook regularly, jumping from sporadic cooking (and lots of takeout or convenience food) to a fully-planned week can not only be intimidating – it can be a complete unknown.
“Meal prep,” rather than being self-explanatory, can turn into a meaningless phrase bandied about on mommy or fitness blogs without explanation, leaving the uninitiated confused.
For people who don’t feel confident using meal prep as a strategy, sometimes it’s not that they don’t feel competent or capable – for some people, the issue is that they can’t even envision what the end product is supposed to look like.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. In many ways, how we interact with home cooked food comes down to personal preference and priorities as much as it does skill. For example, even though I personally love to cook, many people do not have aspirations of being a “good cook,” regardless of job role or employment status. And that’s okay.
However, it’s much easier to eat healthfully – both in the sense of nutrition and weight management – when most meals are eaten at (or from) home. When we cook at home, we have more control over:
- Use of ingredients
- Type of ingredients
- Quality of ingredients
- Ultimate portion sizes
- Big picture planning
Therefore, even if you don’t have aspirations of becoming the next Ina Garten, learning to plan and cook food skillfully is a worthwhile effort.
The purpose of this blog post, in that spirit, is to help you – in the words of Stephen Covey – “begin with the end in mind.”
What should meal prep look like in action, on a day-to-day basis? I’m going to start with the end product (the food itself and how it’s distributed), and walk backwards through the process to recipe selection and gear purchases. I’ll also give you some special tips for making meal prep easier and more efficient (as well as tastier).
My Meal Prep Week
Last Step: Eating
Every day, I open my refrigerator when I’m hungry, and there are pre-portioned meals ready for me to heat up. It’s that easy. Three minutes in the microwave, and I’m eating.
Although some time management strategies would advocate batch-making large portions of ingredients and then mixing and matching according to mood (like brown rice, protein, and roasted veggies, for example), I do better if everything is pre-assembled. Personally, I find it to be faster and cleaner, and also easier to watch portions.
It also makes meals easier to pack and take with you to work.
Today, for example, I’m going to eat pesto with ground turkey and brown rice pasta with a side of carrots for lunch, and mac and cheese with ground turkey and brown rice pasta with a side of salad for dinner.
Tomorrow, I’m going to eat mac and cheese with ground turkey and brown rice pasta for lunch with a salad, and have quesadillas with a salad for dinner.
Most of the food is pre-packaged in individual meal-sized containers. The only exception, usually, is the quesadilla filling, which we keep in a large batch.
By Wednesday or Thursday, I will have run out of food, because I meal prep in the middle of the week (to keep the weekends free – more on that in a moment).
Each week, I make six to eight servings of each big meal, and I make three big meals – meaning that there are 18 to 24 servings total for me and my husband.
We make the salads fresh, and I steam frozen veggies in the microwave for veggie sides. I do it this way because I do not feel that veggies “keep” as well in storage containers, and are better fresh or frozen.
In terms of breakfast and snacks, I keep it simple. Breakfast is either a smoothie or eggs with toast. Snacks are either fruit with nuts or rice cakes with nut butter.
Side note: we don’t eat every single meal at home. I would estimate, off-hand, that we probably eat out 3-4 times per week. If you think about the numbers, I need 14 meals per week (not including breakfast). For two of us, that’s 28. So you can see that 18-24 meals, even though that sounds like a ton of food, isn’t quite enough for an entire week.
This is where we enjoy our meals out – we usually have date nights once a week or so, and also have meals out on weekends. Sometimes these meals out are as simple and healthful as hitting the salad bar at a Whole Foods or Wegman’s, or as indulgent as splitting the nacho platter at our favorite dinner spot.
But because of meal prep, we enjoy these meals out and they’re special and different – not a blur of eating on the go.
Middle Step: Shopping and Cooking
Each week – often on Wednesday mornings – we head to the grocery store immediately after the gym as early as possible in the morning to get in, beat the crowds, and get out.
Typically, we buy what’s on our plan, and we keep it very simple. Usually we buy several pounds of ground meat (more on that in a bit), typically turkey, and we stock up on our staples like brown rice, brown rice pasta, quinoa, oatmeal, and the foods we need for snacks and salads like greens, vegetables, fruit, nuts, dairy, and bread.
I also, as I noted before, grab frozen vegetables to supplement my meals – since Michael doesn’t like cooked vegetables and prefers them raw, I can get whatever I feel in the mood for!
The shopping list is quite similar from week to week, except on weeks when I go for an extra trip to really stock up at Trader Joe’s, where I tend to buy items on a monthly basis for a good price. This is where I buy the non-perishables like oils, vinegars, salsas, almond milk, and olives.
We tend to make different foods each week, but probably only have about 10 meals in a regular rotation. I try to create variety (for gut health, among other things) in the fruits and vegetables that I eat, but I don’t sweat the idea of churning out complex new meals every single week. Part of the purpose of meal prep, after all, is to take the pressure off – not add more.
I (or we, depending on the week) typically cook that night or the next night for dinner and multi-task several meals at once, or sometimes I will knock out the task early in the morning after the gym, before I start working. It just depends on the week.
In any case, after the food is done, a key strategy is that I immediately separate all of the food into separate meal containers. I know it seems like I’m repeating this factoid a lot, but it’s because it’s critical. This is the portion control aspect of meal prep – it takes willpower off the table and makes later eating a proper portion a no-brainer.
Looking for the right glass containers? Check out my Recommended Materials page for what I use.
First Step: Meal Planning
Let’s back up to the beginning now. Now that you know what the end result is supposed to look like, let’s talk about how you plan your meals.
First off, the meals need to make 6-10 servings (depending on the size of your family) to really be practical for meal prep. Therefore, planning meals around high-end cuts of steak or lamb or fish isn’t really a sustainable goal. Those are nice meals to cook fresh when you feel like cooking recreationally (or impressively), but the point of meal prep is not to impress.
Instead, think about two concepts, which I also discuss in my blog post “Pinterest Paralysis“:
- Keep it simple
- Cook the kinds of foods you like to eat out, but with a lighter/healthier twist
Love Mexican food? Then buy tortillas, chicken or ground turkey, salsa, avocado, bell peppers, beans, Greek yogurt (for sour cream), cilantro, and reduced fat cheddar. Make tacos, nachos, wraps, or salads.
Love Italian food? Then buy pasta, ground turkey, tomatoes, tomato paste/sauce, onions, reduced fat mozzarella, oregano, parsley, and vegetable sides. Make pasta with vegetables.
Love Greek food? Then buy brown rice or quinoa, chicken, feta, red onion, red wine vinegar, cucumbers, grape leaves, and oregano. Make a Greek grain bowl.
Choosing what to eat is as easy as thinking of how you already like to eat. Sometimes, meal prep blogs can make “meal prep” seem like an inaccessibly healthful concept. This kind of health snobbery can make it feel like if you’re not putting baked chicken, a sweet potato, and a pile of steamed broccoli in individual containers, you’re not doing it right.
But meal prep doesn’t have an access card for membership. You don’t have to hold particular beliefs about food or follow a special diet or workout plan.
“Meal prep” simply means cooking ahead – which means that you can cook whatever you want. I would, of course, recommend that you go lighter on saturated fats and excess carbohydrates than the version you would eat in a restaurant, but you ultimately have control over how you want to manage your diet.
Finally, there are a few “hacks” for meal prep that I want to throw out there, and hopefully you can learn from my mistakes!
- Choose meats that keep well. In my experience, ground turkey maintains a good flavor for up to 5 days, while chicken breast doesn’t last quite as long. Therefore, you’ll rarely see chicken breast featured in my menu.
- Sauces or vinegars really help. I rarely prep meals that don’t have some kind of sauce or liquid. Something liquid helps tremendously with both flavor and staying power, because dried-out rice can quickly become unappetizing. Tomato sauce, pesto, yogurt, tzatziki, and vinegar and oil all help to hydrate meals and keep them tasting fresher and more delicious in the re-heating process.
- Be careful using fish. While there is a salmon dish in my meal prep cookbook that is a client favorite, fish has to be used in a smart way for it to keep well. I recommend eating it more quickly than your other meals, so that it is gone within 2-3 days instead of 5, or using cold recipes like tuna salad.
- Keep vegetables simple. Try using pre-chopped or frozen vegetables to make the cooking process more efficient if need be.
- Keep certain foods on hand at all times. These are foods that can be thrown together to make emergency or to-go meals when prepped meals run out or aren’t realistic. These items, for me, include:
- feta cheese
- plain Greek yogurt
- protein powder
- frozen berries
- frozen fish
- frozen vegetables
- fresh greens
- fresh fruit
- peanut butter
- olive oil
- various vinegars
- flours and baking goods
If you’re stuck for ideas, join my Facebook group Habits First, where we frequently discuss recipe ideas and strategies for healthy eating and meal prep!