So you want to be a clean eater, but you don’t know what to do? Good news for you, we here at FitnessHQ have been working diligently to put together the ultimate guide to meal prepping. Just what is meal prep, you may ask?
meal prep; verb
1. A process which is going to make your life of eatinghealthier SO MUCH EASIER.
2. Setting aside a time to cook and prepare food ahead of time
3. Different steps you can take to make cooking and eating as easy as possible, even when you’re running short on time.
See also: Lifesaver, Completely Necessary and You’ll Thank Me Later
Meal prep can be a little intimidating if you’ve never done it before, so we’ve broken it down into simple and easy-to-follow steps to make your life and your eating as easy as possible!
Step 1: Plan, Plan, Plan!
Meal prepping is one of those activities where planning is really important. There’s really nothing that will kill your Paleo-Julia Child vibe like getting three pans going on the stove and then realizing you’re missing a crucial ingredient.
So plan your meals out. There are several things to take into account — how many people will you be feeding? How many servings will each meal make? Do you want to try to cook something different every day or make a large quantity of one thing to serve throughout the week?
These are all factors that will come easily to you once you’ve run through the meal prep process a few times. For my purposes, I generally meal prep for two people — my husband and me. I tend to focus on basic recipes with few ingredients that can be prepared quickly and in large quantities.
I usually stick with roughly the same recipes each week — tried and true recipes that I know work for our family — but I still like to incorporate at least one new recipe each grocery cycle to avoid food boredom. This may be a recipe that I cook on a Saturday when I have somespare time or serve for a special occasion like a birthday or a promotion. With these recipes, I don’t worry about prep-time or a long list of ingredients.
If you want more ideas for easy-to-prep recipes, check out our 45-Day Healthy Meal Plan.
This helps me to keep things fun in my kitchen. At the end of the day, eating healthy is a lot of work, but it should always be fun too!
First of all, create a list of meal ideas for the week. Some people do this on their own and others sign up for awesome meal plans like the one we offer here at FitnessHQ. If you’re using an app like ours, a grocery list will be automatically generated. If not, make sure you have a detailed list to follow.
Maybe you’re a Type A like myself and you divide your list into sections you’ll hit — Meat, Fruits and Veggies and Other. Maybe you’re like my husband and you just scratch something out to follow. Whatever you do, make sure you’re organized in some shape or fashion.
Keep it simple. If your repertoire of vegetables has consisted of peas and taters over the years, now is not the time to try every single new vegetable ever. If you are interested in trying something new, maybe stick with one new vegetable or ingredient that you’re going to incorporate into a couple of different meals each week. For some inspiration, check out our Weird Food Wednesday series.
Make sure you cover your basics as well — things like spices, herbs and seasonings can make a huge difference when you’re cooking healthy.
Your grocery list should lead you mainly around the perimeter of the store and have you ducking into the aisles only occasionally to grab things like chicken stock, spices, coconut milk or quinoa. The rest of your cart should be filled with lots of vegetables, meat and fruit.
Some people like to combine grocery shopping and meal prep into one day for maximum efficiency, so once you’ve completed your grocery run, get home to get started on meal prep!
Step 3: Breaking it Down One Meal at a Time
The real secret to meal prep lies in whatever meals you have planned for the week. Think along the lines of how can I make eating as simple as possible throughout the week?
So first things first, do you have time to cook breakfast everyday? If you answered yes, but not a whole ton of time, then there are several things you can do to expedite your breakfast process.
Go ahead and chop up some veggies to mix with eggs in the morning. Pick one or two sources of protein — say bacon and sausage, if we want to stick with the classic breakfast feel — and go ahead and cook those ahead of time and store them safely so that you can just grab them and warm them up. Look at what you’ve decided you’re going to eat for breakfast for the next seven days and figure out ways to make that process as quick and easy as possible for you and your family.
If you’re like me and you don’t wake up early enough to cook a full breakfast everyday, find one or two simple recipes that you can cook in bulk and store those for breakfast. I like to keepit simple and easy, focusing on getting the protein I need to start my day. Some examples are these delicious tuna cakes from Nom Nom Paleo or a simple hash like this one.
Remember to expand your boundaries when it comes to breakfast food — you can eat more than eggs and bacon. In fact, I often eat salads or dinner leftovers for breakfast. Eat what feels good. If you don’t have a huge appetite in the morning, then something lighter like a boiled egg and a handful of nuts may be a better option. Figure out what works for you!
When planning your lunches, think again — do I have time to cook lunch everyday? Chances are if you work, the answer to that is no. So once again, pick a few tasty recipes you can cook in bulk to take for lunch each day. In this situation, I love to make big salads or big batches of soup — both store easily and are easily served in a workplace environment.
Remember, you’re probably going to be eating this at lunch around a lot of coworkers, so it’s better to avoid strong-smelling foods like fish or broccoli.
Another option for meal prepping for lunch is just cooking large quantities of a few different items that can pair well together and be thrown together quickly to create a lunch. So, cook up a pound of chicken filets, several sweet potatoes, some asparagus and some Brussels sprouts to mix and match throughout the week.
Dinner can either be the easiest or most challenging time of day for you, depending on your lifestyle. For me, dinner is the meal time that I focus on the least when meal prepping because I generally have time to cook a full dinner in the afternoons.
However, if you go to the gym in the afternoon and then come home to three children that need to be fed, dinnertime is when you need your meal prepping the most. So what can you do to make dinner time go faster, short of just cooking the meal ahead of time and storing it to reheat?
Step 4: Meal Prep Ideas and Tips
Chop your vegetables. Before you even put your vegetables in the crisper after you get home from the grocery store, go ahead and wash and chop everything you’re going to need throughout the week. Simple things like having your onions, garlic, peppers and more chopped can save a lot of time when it comes to cooking.
If you’re planning on using zoodles as a pasta substitute, creating a sweet potato hash, or using caulirice, go ahead and prepare those items using your spiralizer or grater.
Prepare your meat. Separate your meat into the portions you’re going to need throughout the week. If you know you’re making burgers, go ahead and portion out your patties. If you want to use one pack of chicken breasts for two different meals, go ahead and divide them up. This way, when you’re ready to cook, you can simply grab what you need and use it or throw it in the microwave to defrost.
If you’re cooking a dinner that requires marinading or special seasoning for your meat, go ahead and knock it out. If you’re making skewers or kabobs throughout the week, go ahead and prepare those as well. Again, anything that makes coming in from work and throwing something on the stove top or in the oven as quick and painless as possible is considered meal prep.
Cook a Few Grab and Go Options. Even with the best of intentions, there will be times where you’re running out the door late for work or the gym and you just need something quick and easy. Sometimes, you just want a no-hassle snack. Make sure you have a few quick and easy options. Some people cook up a batch of chicken breasts each week or boil a dozen eggs.
Combine Meal Ingredients. If you’re relying on a slow-cooker to make a few meals or planning on blending up a quick smoothie for breakfast one morning, go ahead and put those items together in an air-tight bag. That way, when it’s time for action, you can grab, dump, and go!
Not Everything Stores Well. A salad with dressing or certain vegetables don’t tend to stay fresh in the refrigerator very long. That doesn’t mean you should avoid those items — just keep that in mind when planning out your meals. If you want to create a large salad to take for lunch every day, keep the dressing separate. If you really love mushrooms and want to incorporate those into your mix and match lunches, be sure to go ahead and eat the mushrooms first before choosing other veggies.
Step 5: Leftovers are Your Friend
I’m going to go ahead and tell you — invest in some good Tupperware. And if you think you have enough, buy one more pack just in case. You want containers that are airtight, will travel easily and without mess and that you can reheat food in safely. Because believe us when we say that leftovers are your friend! You can read more about how to safely store leftovers here.
You can even buy storage containers that divide your food into proper portion sizes for you like these. Other companies offer insulated bags that make it easy to carry all your storage containers around.
If you go into your first meal prepping session with the intention of preparing 21 different meals, you will learn quickly that a) that just isn’t realistic and b) you’ll have more leftovers than what you expect.
Instead, pick perhaps 10 to 12 really solid meals, a couple of breakfast options and some quick grab-and-go proteins and let the magic of meal-prepping work. You’ll find that leftovers from dinner make great breakfast and lunch options when reheated and that often times, leftover ingredients can be combined with new ingredients to create fun and innovative meals or snacks.
You’ll learn as you go what numbers really work for you. For example, my husband and I plan probably 8 to 10 really good meals a week because chances are, we’ll be either picking up (healthy!) food on the go during the weekend or headed to the store to try some crazy new healthy recipe. Either way, we most likely aren’t eating out of Tupperware on Friday and Saturday nights.