MEAL PREP 101 – HOW TO PREPARE FOR CRAZY WEEKS!!!
Meal prep includes the planning, shopping, preparation, cooking, and storage of your weekly meals. Obviously, it will be different for everyone depending on your goals and your lifestyle.
The most common objection I hear to meal prep is “I don’t have time to meal prep! I have a life!” Meal prep isn’t as tedious or time consuming as you’d think. In just a few hours (or less!) each week, you can take charge of your health.
WHY PREP MEALS?
For the best reason: having healthy food prepared and waiting in your fridge makes it easier to stick to your goals.
What happens when you’re hungry at work and didn’t bring any food with you? You’re forced to default to fast food or be tempted by a calorie-laden restaurant dish or succumb to the wonderful vending machine with its vast assortment of colorful empty processed foods. All of a sudden, that lunch break takes much more time (and money) than anticipated and you could save yourself the hassle by prepping a couple days of food. Not to mention that guilt that inevitably sets in when you have “blown it” – making it much easier to “blow off” the rest of your goals for eating healthy that day.
The same thing happens when you’ve had a long day and come home to an empty fridge. You open it, stare into it, listen to your stomach growl, say “Screw it” and order a pizza – or pour a bowl of Frosted Flakes. Imagine coming home to a fridge full of already cooked, ready-to-eat meals that fit your health and fitness goals!
BEFORE YOU START – AWESOME TOOLS
- Good knives
- Storage containers
- Freezer/Storage bags
- Meat thermometer (optional but helpful)
- Insulated lunch box or bag
BEFORE YOU START – check your pantry
Before you jump into planning your first shopping list, you’ll want to check and see if you have some basic stuff on hand. There’s nothing worse in meal prep than starting a recipe and realizing you don’t have a basic ingredient like olive oil or rice.
Having plenty of basics on hand means you should be able to throw something together in a pinch even if you’re running low on other ingredients.
No worries if you don’t have these items on hand yet. They’re not essential, but as you start to acquire the basics, you’ll see that your weekly grocery list gets shorter.
Here are a few items that are part of a well-stocked meal prep pantry. Of course, this list may vary depending on your specific dietary needs, but it’s a good starting point.
- Rice, dried pasta, and quinoa
- Almond butter
- Cooking oils (Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, etc.)
- Spices & Seasoning blends
- Condiments (Mustard, Soy Sauce, Hot Sauces)
- Freezer Staples: Frozen fruit, frozen vegetables
If your thing is “spicy” – don’t overlook the importance of spices, seasonings, and condiments in keeping your meal prep interesting!
STEP 1 – PLANNING & SHOPPING
In the planning stages, you’ll want to make sure you’re covering your need for protein, vegetables, and healthy fats. When prepping this way, your grocery list simply needs to include enough options from each category. There’s no need to pick out recipes and list ingredients here.
For example, for your first meal prep, you could purchase Chicken + Asparagus + Sweet Potatoes and adjust the quantities to fit your calorie goals.
If you’re meal prepping by following recipes, be sure to read through all of your recipes and write down everything you’ll need at the store. This process will get faster once you have a well-stocked pantry.
WHAT FOODS PREP WELL?
To help with your grocery list, here are some sample foods that prep well and are found in most meal prep recipes.
Chicken (breasts or ground), turkey (ground or breast meat), lean beef (ground or sirloin), shrimp, pork tenderloin, chicken sausages, canned tuna & salmon, eggs.
Carbohydrates (Starches & Vegetables)
Rice (brown or white), potatoes (sweet or white), grains (oats, bulgar), quinoa, vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts), dark leafy greens (romaine lettuce, kale, spinach, swiss chard), asparagus, peppers, legumes (all variety of beans and lentils).
Avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, nut butters.
Don’t forget to load up on healthy snacks while you’re shopping. Throwing a few snacks in your lunch box should keep you from raiding the vending machine on your lunch break. I recommend Greek yogurt, string cheese, boiled eggs, your favorite protein bar, rice cakes, nuts, or fresh fruit and vegetables (apple with almond butter is my favorite snack – yummy!)
WHAT FOODS DON’T PREP WELL?
While you can generally be flexible about which foods to prep, there are a few that aren’t as good for meal prepping.
Fresh fish loses a lot of texture once it’s been stored in the refrigerator and it often doesn’t reheat well. You can probably get away with reheating fish in a sauce at home, but do your coworkers and your HR representative (who will field the complaints) the courtesy of not reheating fish in the break room microwave! I usually poach salmon, wrap it in plastic wrap and store it in the fridge. It lasts safely about 3-4 days.
Saucy pasta dishes can also be tricky to store. If you store the components separately, you may end up with dry pasta. If you store the pasta already sauced, the pasta ends up absorbing all of the sauce. I usually separate the two.
MONEY SAVING TIPS
Shopping the bulk bins, even at pricey stores like Whole Paycheck, can also help you save money. Bulk oats are often a huge savings when compared to name brand oats, where you’re typically just paying for the packaging.
Buying small quantities of spices from the bulk section is another great way to save. If you’re interested in trying something new or have a recipe that only calls for a teaspoon, there’s no reason to buy a 2oz jar from the spice aisle. Simply scoop what you need into a small bag and you’re walking out with high quality spices for pocket change!
STEP 2 – PREPARATION & COOKING
How long should meal prep take?
Once it becomes routine, meal prepping for the week shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours. Once you’re in the habit of prepping and know your favorite meals, you’ll find that it likely takes less than an hour of active prep time.
Optimize your time
When it’s time to start prepping, go ahead and grab all of the tools and ingredients you’ll need and group them together. It’s generally easiest to complete one stage of prep before moving on to the next. So, you’ll want to do all of your chopping at once and just set ingredients aside as you finish. Then you can weigh your raw components (as needed) and then begin cooking.
If you have something that bakes for an hour, start that first. While that’s in the oven, you can prepare and assemble salads, cook rice on the stove, and chop your vegetables.
Don’t lose time by waiting for one food to fully cook before tackling the next ingredient. If you optimize your time wisely, you’ll be done with your weekly meal prep in no time!
With multiple pans and oven racks, you can easily cook your protein and vegetables at the same time. Just cross check cooking temperatures and find food combinations that can share the oven. Sometimes I roast and sometimes I steam (depending on how hot it is and if I want to fire up the oven). I’m also a big fan of poaching for chicken and salmon. I’ll boil water in a skillet (or chicken broth), put the chicken or salmon in (about ¾ covered), cover the skillet and cook until no longer pink on the inside (this is kind of hard to judge with salmon – I usually poach it about 10 minutes). Then I wrap each piece tightly in plastic wrap (this locks in the moistness) and store them in the fridge.
Roasting adds a lot of flavor to vegetables, and it’s quick to chop up a wide assortment of vegetables, brush them with a little olive or coconut oil, and roast at 375-425F until they begin to soften and brown.
Stir fry is a great way to have a one pot meal while you mix and match foods. You can quickly stir-fry a protein of your choice and then add lots of veggies. With a non-stick skillet, it’s easy enough to stir-fry 3-4 meals worth of food, give the pan a quick wipe down, toss in a healthy cooking oil, and then cook up another batch of meals with different ingredients and flavors.
When I want a little variety, I’ll bake some eggs in a muffin tin. You can do these either out of the shell (just crack them in the muffin tin and cook @375 for 15-17 min) OR you can leave them in the shell – just place them in the muffin tins and bake @350 for 30 min. Be sure and let them cool completely.
RECOMMENDED MEAL PREP RECIPES
I like simplicity. I will set out 5 containers and layer them with rice or quinoa first, then my protein (chicken, shrimp, beef), then layer my vegetables on top of that.
If you want to take a break from typical meal prep combos, you can always turn to more traditional recipes. Keep an eye out for recipes that make larger portions (6+) or that could be scaled up easily.
I have tried several recipes – I’ll highlight a few here that make plenty of portions and freeze well (the links won’t work – you’ll have to type them into your browser). I adore crust-less quiches – I’ll make one and eat on it for the whole week. Almost all recipes should keep well for a couple of days in the refrigerator, but “freezer meals” are delicious months later. If you keep your freezer stocked with a couple of these options, you’ll always have food ready to go, even if you’ve just come back from vacation or had an extra busy week at work:
STEP 3 – MEAL PREP STORAGE
All that’s left is packing up your food and storing it in the fridge and freezer!
If you’re new to meal prep, you might find that you don’t have enough containers in which to store all your food. I have always used regular Tupperware containers. However, there are a bunch of containers that are all the rage (you can google any of these to find them) and will work for different budgets and lifestyle needs.
- LunchBots Trio Stainless Steel Food Container — These stainless-steel lunch boxes come with 3 compartments and are a good lunch option. They’re not completely leak proof so steer clear of soups and too much dressing. If you’re looking to avoid plastic and the weight of glass, this is a good, easy to clean option.
- Bentgo All-in-One Stackable Lunch/Bento Box — I have a couple of these. The lunch box is stackable and comes with a small plastic cutlery set. A variety of compartments offer good meal prep options.
- Rubbermaid 42-Piece Easy Find Lid Food Storage Set — A great budget set if you’re looking to load up on high-quality plastic storage containers. The lids snap to the bottom of their respective containers which makes storage easy.
- Glasslock 18-Piece Assorted Oven Safe Container Set — This glass set is airtight, leak-proof, oven-safe, and microwave safe.
- Snapware Total Solution 10-Piece Glass Food Storage Set — This 5-piece glass set features oven-safe glass and latch-on lids. This is a good sized kit to supplement a plastic collection.
- Zojirushi Mr. Bento Stainless Steel Lunch Jar — If you need the option to keep cold foods cold or hot foods hot, this Stainless Bento Jar is the way to go. You’ll have the option to keep 2 compartments hot OR cold and then keep another 2 containers room temperature. A good choice for someone who doesn’t have access to a fridge or microwave during the day.
- Core150 Stack Pack — Meal prep on the go? This fitness travel system holds 4 days’ worth of meals, a shaker bottle, and even your laptop.
Most of your meals will go straight into the refrigerator, but it’s important to let food cool down at room temperature first. Most cooked food should be fine in the fridge for 3-4 days, but you might want to consider freezing portions for the end of the week.
How does the food taste after a few days?
I’ve noticed very little loss of flavor in foods that are stored properly. If you get tired of eating the same thing, be sure to prep a few different meals for the week. You can rotate between them and store some in the freezer for a later week if needed.
What if I don’t have a way to reheat lunch?
If you don’t have access to a microwave during the day, you still have good options for meal prep. First, you could purchase a storage container that is meant to keep hot foods hot. Or you can make sure that your lunches are meals that taste good cold. Salads, sandwiches, many pasta dishes, and certain chicken recipes can all be enjoyed cold.
How many days should I prep for?
It’s up to you! It’s good to aim for a typical 5-day work week, but feel free to do less or more. If you’re utilizing freezer-friendly meals, you can make as much as you want and freeze it for later. If you’d rather just eat from the fridge, you could try doing a Sunday and mid-week meal prep.