Meal prep is the primary activity I would credit with my ability to consistently eat well.
Now, I know some of you probably read that and thought, “that’s for bodybuilders and models and people who don’t mind eating the same thing every day. Not for people like me,” and I totally get that.
I feel like meal prepping has kinda a bad image, maybe thanks to infinite social media posts of identical meals in identical containers with the quote “fail to plan, plan to fail.”
That being said, I truly think that everyone who’s trying to lose weight, maintain their weight, or prioritize their health should be meal prepping in some capacity. It just makes sense. It’s efficient and it helps you set yourself up for success.
WHAT IT IS & WHAT IT ISN’T
It doesn’t have to mean spending your entire Sunday chopping endless amounts of vegetables. Or recurring Amazon orders of meal prep containers (for when you inevitably melt yours onto your still-hot stove). It doesn’t have to mean eating flavorless, boring meals day after day.
What it does, however, is require a few hours of your time each week and some forethought into how many meals you need for the week (and for how many people), what foods you want, and maybe some experimenting if you’re not already a good cook.
But those few hours will be more than worth it when you don’t need to stress over what to eat the rest of the week. You’ll save time & money every morning when you don’t have to make breakfast after hitting the snooze button 3 times, making you more inclined to hit up Starbucks for food instead of just a coffee. And you’ll save time and money every evening when you don’t swing through the drive-thru on the way home from a long day at work because you have food ready to go when you get there. And you’ll save money at lunch when you don’t have to run to the nearest restaurant to grab something to eat. Not to mention the fact that you’ll be saving yourself a whole bunch of willpower when you don’t have to constantly wage battle against food temptations while hungry because you’ve already got yourself covered with tasty meals that are aligned with your goals.
What follows are my tips for mastering meal prepping without spending your life in the kitchen.
FIGURE OUT HOW MUCH FOOD YOU NEED
I know that sounds obvious but I bet when you go to the grocery store, you just toss stuff into the cart; little bit o’ this, little bit o’ that, maybe some chips that I definitely won’t eat all at once. Doing this just means you’re likely to end up running out of food before the week is over.
Taking a little bit of time before you go to do some maths will really help you out. Some things to consider are:
- How many people you’re cooking for
- How many meals you need to cook for each person
- Portion-sizes for each person
For example, on weeks when my husband is away, I need significantly less food than when I’m cooking for the both of us. I’d be wasting both time and money if I ignored this factor when I went grocery shopping.
Once you get in the habit of meal prepping, the pre-work takes less and less and you’ll be able to pretty accurately estimate your grocery needs.
BUY EVERYTHING YOU NEED FOR BALANCED MEALS
This could get lumped in with the portion above but I wanted to separate it to highlight the fact that you can’t cook things that you don’t have so make sure that, at least the first few weeks, you make a list so that you don’t forget anything.
Once you’ve done the food math above, write down your everything you need. Have a separate category for lean proteins, veggies & fruit, smart carbs, and healthy fats. (There’s a grocery shopping template in the Body Transformation Guide that makes this really simple for you). Again, with a little practice, you’ll probably be able to do away with the list if you’re consistently buying the same foods each week but when you’re just starting out, it’s better to be over-prepared.
You’re trying to get this food cooked & then go enjoy your life so you have to be efficient when it comes to the actual cooking. It doesn’t make sense to put one tray in the oven at a time or to not utilize all the appliances you have access to.
If you have no idea where to start, check out this post about my kitchen essentials. At any given time, I will have 4 pans in the oven, 2 burners on on the stove, something in the microwave, and chicken in the crockpot. I’m limited only by oven space because I have a good system. I don’t overcomplicate things. As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a great cook, nor do I care about becoming one. I cook literally everything at 400 degrees or medium-high heat. It gets the job done and the food tastes good. That’s all I’m concerned with.
MY EXACT PROCESS
This is exactly what I do each week when I get home from the grocery store:
Turn on oven to 400 degrees.
Line all my pans with tin foil and spray with non-stick cooking spray. (Cutting down on dishes that need washing = cutting down on total prep time).
Stick any winter squashes (spaghetti squash included) in the oven while it preheats to soften them for easier cutting.
Remove the asparagus ends, spread out on a pan, sprinkle with Mrs. Dash & lemon juice, stick in the oven.
Slice bell peppers, spread out on pan, stick in oven.
Chop zucchini & yellow squash, spread out on pan, sprinkle with Mrs. Dash, stick in oven.
Steam kale on stovetop.
When kale is done, remove & use same pot/water to steam broccoli.
Cook some 90 second rice medleys in the microwave.
Take out winter squashes & set aside to cool before cutting.
Cube potatoes, toss in a little oil, season, stick in oven.
Chop mushrooms & onions, saute on stovetop.
Use same mushroom/onion pan to cook ground beef & ground turkey.
Cut winter squashes, remove seeds, place open-side down, return to oven.
As space opens up in oven, continue rotating in chopped veggies until everything is cooked.
I don’t set any timers, I just chop veggies & check the oven periodically to see how things are looking. When the veggies get soft and start to brown a little bit, that’s my cue to take them out.
Transfer the whole pan’s worth of tin foil onto the counter to cool before transferring to a container for the fridge.
For the most part, this covers my lean proteins, veggies, and smart carbs. (Though I also keep fruit on hand to supplement meals). I use some cooking oil and I always have avocados, guacamole cups, mixed nuts, and nut butters on hand for healthy fats.
Everything gets transferred into appropriately sized containers (one of my not-so-hidden talents is being able to eye ball which container I need), let things cool, cover them, and put them in the fridge. Proteins go on one shelf, cooked carbs on another, and veggies on another. (Note: I am aware this step is unnecessary and borderline obsessive).
MIX & MATCH
Now that you have everything cooked and put into containers, all you have to do is pick one food from each category (protein, veggie, carb/fruit, fat) and BOOM, it’s a balanced meal!. If you prep are few different foods in each category, you have a lot of variety in the number of ways you can put them together.
For example, you could put some of your cooked kale & asparagus inside an omelet topped with avocado with a side of already cooked potatoes. You could use the broccoli to make a stir-fry with the ground beef & cashews. You could dump some rice, ground turkey, mushrooms, and onions in a wrap and make a burrito with gauc and salsa. The options are (nearly) endless.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
You’ll notice that I haven’t made any mention of recipes. This is because I rarely use any. There have been times that I have taken my meal prep a step further and followed actual recipes to make lunches or dinners in bulk but if you’re just starting out, I don’t recommend doing that. It can get overwhelming & time consuming very quickly. Instead, get a month or so of basic prep like outlined above before you decide to get involved with anything more complicated.
You have tons of combinations of meals that you can make with the pick & choose method so it’s not likely you’ll get bored of your food.
MIX IT UP, MINIMALLY
Some people hate eating the same foods a few days in a row. I am not one of those people. I literally ate the same meal for dinner probably 90% of one of my husband’s deployments. But I know that’s not normal. People like variety, that’s cool.
But it doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel each week. Figure out the minimum you need to change in order to keep yourself interested in your meals.
For me, that means having the entire line of Mrs. Dash spice blends to help make the same foods taste different. (I don’t get paid to promote those, btw, I’m just a fan. But, if anybody knows her & wants to reach out on behalf of her biggest fan, that’d be cool).
This sounds kinda funny but just cutting a food differently can make it seem new and exciting again. I normally cube my zucchini but the last couple weeks I’ve cut them into spears, instead, and I’m pretty into it.
Just don’t create more work for yourself by feeling like you need to do brand new & exciting things each week. If you’re feeling bored with your meals and the above tips don’t don’t do the trick, try introducing 1 new recipe per week to keep things interesting but also manageable.
A HELPFUL RESOURCE
A lot of what I discussed here is covered in the Body Transformation guide.
Portion guide will help you figure out how much food to buy.
Food lists & grocery shopping template will help you figuring out what foods to buy.
Sample meal plan & DIY meal planning template will help you put together balanced meals once you’ve done your prep. There’s even an offer for a ridiculously inexpensive recipe book!