In the nutrition world, there are a variety of fads, trends, and “new” diets that all come and go. This can make staying consistent a challenge, and to be honest, confusing! There is one particular trend that is here to stay - MEAL PREPPING! There are a variety of ways to meal prep and this article will discuss a few simple strategies and approaches. These tools will focus on prioritizing smarter meal options and aid in goal accountability! Remember, nutrition should be simple, easy, delicious, and nutritious!
What is Meal Prepping?
Meal prepping is simply the act of preparing foods and meals ahead of time. This may be a few or all of the foods/meals for the upcoming days. This allows one to be in complete control over their food selections and portions.
Meal prepping puts the individual in complete control over their dietary choices. When making behavior changes, control is key! Ultimately, allowing one the opportunity to prepare healthy food options that are available when it’s time to eat! If eating out has been an issue, meal prepping will start to eliminate the number of times eaten out. It also takes the worry away from the “what will I eat” mindset, and grab anything and everything to eat, because nothing is ready. It provides the structure, the backbone! Being prepared for any situation will help keep one on top of their nutrition goals. These prepared meals are easy to travel with and can be taken anywhere there might be a situation where nutrition goals are challenged. It’s helpful to have a mini cooler or lunch box with ice packs to keep food staying fresh, when on the go. Refer to our Nutrition On The Go article.
Prepping is also a time saver. In a rush? Running late? Meal prepping is a great way to make sure there is food and meals at any time! Having meals prepared ahead of time for will. Yes, it takes some time to “prep” meals, but if consistently following the below approaches and strategies, meal prepping will become a quick and effective way to stay on track. Look at it this way, it takes just as long to cook two chicken breasts in the oven as it does to cook just one. Now there are two meals instead of one. It will save time trying to figure out what to eat, what to make, time in the grocery store, and in turn, save money. Less food will end up in the trash when meal prepping becomes a habit.
Look at the calendar and see what days should be prepared. This will make things much more simple when putting together a plan of action. Get a good grasp of the upcoming week! Note what events are currently scheduled and prioritize which of those days' meals need to be prepped for. Again, this helps to control what meals are consumed, what those meals consist of, and how much to purchase. It is important to plan ahead, especially for those busy days. The idea is to take away one less stressor on those busy days. By staying prepared for the upcoming week, and knowing just when, and what should be prepared, one can eliminate eating unnecessary meals at the event or eating meals that just do not fit the goal. Again, plan for the unexpected!
Develop a simple menu and write up a corresponding grocery list. Once there is an understanding of what days and meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks) need to be prepped, think about what these meals will consist of. At first, stick with familiar meals and only select a few menu options. When trying to prepare a variety of meals at once, it can make the experience overwhelming and not enjoyable. Enjoy the process, don’t make it stressful! Again, the idea of meal prepping is to take the stress away, not create it. After finalizing the menu, move to the grocery list, and write down everything needed at the grocery store to create these meals. This will help create a positive grocery shopping experience. Upon entering the grocery store use the list as the ultimate guide. One will know exactly what is needed, no more questioning or second-guessing!
"Meals should be simple, easy, delicious, and nutritious" Alex Bartz
It is important to grocery shop for high-quality foods! One can easily prep meals with poor quality and overly processed foods, which is likely to alter the number of calories intended to consume. Aim for whole foods options and stick to the list! Check out our Grocery Haul article to read about the best grocery shopping strategies. Refer to the above article to take the stress out of grocery shopping! Make sure to purchase an appropriate quantity of food when shopping as well, this comes back to the planning section. Think about the exact amount that is needed for the upcoming prep. Is prepping for one, two, or three people? Refer back to the upcoming schedule to determine the quantity of each item. Frozen fruits and veggies can be purchased in large quantities, whereas fresh fruits and veggies will need to be purchased in small quantities. This does depend on how soon in advance the foods will be prepped and consumed. Stock up on essential items like spices, seasonings, sauces, and complex carbs (examples: rice, potatoes, quinoa). These items have a long shelf life, are easily stored, and can be used at any given time to pair with meals. These items can be purchased in large quantities as well. Changing up the essentials from time to time can keep meals interesting!
It’s all about time management! Now it is time to schedule when everything will be prepped. Going back to the plan, remember what days you need to prep for, this will help determine when meals should be prepped. At Linked Fit, we recommend two different strategies for meal prepping: Sunday Routine or Daily Routine. The “Sunday” Routine or the Daily Routine are the simplest ways to get ahead of the meal prepping game! Feel free to mix and match these routines. Depending on the meals, it might be a good idea to utilize both routines. The schedule may change from time to time due to a variety of things such as kids, work, family, school, emergencies, and more. Life happens, just make sure to manage time for the upcoming prep! If need be, schedule time on the calendar, that way it’s visible and a priority.
First things first have food storage containers ready to go. Make sure to invest in quality containers that are safe for the microwave, freezer, and dishwasher. Here is our recommendation for containers. This will ensure that the quality of the food stays up to standards. Also, it’s a good idea to have different sizes and styles of containers. Prep meals and foods using one (or more) of the below approaches. Again, mix and match approaches depending on meals and the available schedule. Once everything is cooked, prepped, and ready to go, store the prepared foods in the appropriate containers and grab them as needed. When one puts in the time, work, and effort into preparing something, they are more likely to eat and stick to the planned meals. There is less temptation to eat out or eat foods that are not part of the plan when the meals are on hand and ready to go. In the end, less food is wasted and goals are accomplished when sticking to the plan!
Making one large dish that will be eaten that day or stored for other meals. Examples of this are soups, chilis, mashed potatoes, and meals in the crockpot. These large dishes can be eaten as leftovers for the upcoming days. Roasted veggies, rice, potatoes, and quinoa are also great to make in batches. Use the oven, large sheet pans, and the crockpot to help to cook in batches. This batch approach will also tie into our next approach.
Assembled Full Cooked Meals
Chop and cook all ingredients for the particular meal. Stir fries are great for this. Purchase four to five different veggies and two different types of meat at the grocery store, prep, and cook all veggies and meats (using the batch approach). Mix and match veggies and meats to create the same but different meals throughout the week! It’s basically a two-for-one. Salads, tacos, and pasta bowls are all great for this. The same thing applies to these dishes. Purchase a couple of different veggies and proteins and mix and match. You can also mix and match sauces with these meals. The proteins, veggies, and carbs can all be made in a batch form, then assembled to create daily meals. This mix-and-match method help to take away the idea that you have to have a different individual meal for each day. Here we have the same meal just made a few different ways. Store these pre-assembled meals in the fridge or freezer for later use. When ready to eat, just grab it out of the fridge and warm it up if needed.
Assembled Full Uncooked Meals
Similar concept to the fully-cooked meal, this time the meal stays uncooked until ready to be served. Chop and prepare all ingredients for the particular meal. Place all raw ingredients in a large plastic baggie or storage container. Make sure to label contents and date them, especially if cooking at a later time or storing them in the freezer. This is another great approach for the crockpot, the food is already assembled in a bag or container. Just place an uncooked meal in the crockpot first thing in the morning and it will be ready to go by dinner time! Or if time allows, cook whenever it is approaching serving time.
The Night Before or Day of, Grab and Go
This involves sectioning out smaller portioned meals or “snacks”. Looking for easy grab-and-go options here. Works well with homemade trail mixes, salads, and overnight oats. This approach works best for foods that don’t last as long after being prepared. It’s helpful when rushed in the morning due to unforeseen circumstances. For the salad in a jar, put the dressing at the bottom of a large mason jar, next add the toppings, finally add the lettuce on top, and close the lid. When ready to eat just give it a shake! Other great ideas are to chop a variety of veggies and store them for easy access. Having individual packets of hummus and guacamole for easy access to eat with those pre-chopped veggies or crackers is a great trick too. Other great options for this are yogurts and whole fruits. Always aim for whole food options, but granola/protein bars are also perfect for this type of prepping. If possible prep and make homemade bars!
The “Sunday” Routine
Select a day of the week to prep, it doesn’t have to be a Sunday. Additionally, it can be two days a week if the schedule permits. These days will become the prepping days! Although, Sundays do make for good prepping days, due to the fact that most people are home, relaxed, and are starting to prepare for the upcoming week ahead. Whatever day(s) are picked, set aside about 2 hours of that day to prep the food.
The "Sunday" routine works well for all of the above approaches.
This day could also be the day for grocery shopping too. Refer to our Grocery Haul article for tips and tricks for a successful grocery shopping adventure.
Take a look at the upcoming schedule, and look for potential meal challenges... these are the days to prepare for. This way when the busy times hit, the meals are prepped and ready to go.
Once all the food to make the meals has been obtained, select one of the above approaches to prepare your meals. Dabble between the different approaches. Ultimately, finding a routine that can develop into a habit.
Place the prepared meals in the fridge for easy grab-and-go meals throughout the week. You can also store these meals in the freeze in not planning to eat right away or if too much was made.
The Daily Routine
The daily routine is great to pair up with the “Sunday” routine. Prep all the labor-intensive foods on one day, and prep the smaller and less taxing meals (like fruits and veggies) the day of. This could be in the morning before work, or the night before the kids go to school. Meals that work really well in routine are salads (lettuce gets less soggy when prepared the day of), and mason jar oats (can be made the night before or the morning off). The batch approach also works really well with this routine. Make enough food at dinner, for example, now there are leftovers to be packed and stored, ready to go for tomorrow's lunch or dinner.
What Should be Prepared?
Pretty much anything can be prepared ahead of time. This goes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks! Just want to make sure the food is going to be edible after being stored. Foods that are great for prepping include cooked meats, roasted veggies, soups, nuts, and hard raw veggies. Foods that do not prep as well in the long term are soft veggies and fruit. These foods become even softer and soggy in the fridge after being prepped (this does depend on how soon in advance they are prepped). Those types of foods would work best in the daily routine, to preserve quality. Crunchy foods such as crackers can be prepped ahead of any time, just don’t put them in the fridge.
The Dos and Don’ts in Prepping:
Do keep things simple! Try not to make over-the-top, complicated meals/menus at first. Start out small and gradually change things up!
Don’t make seven completely different meals for each day. Go back to the mix-and-match method. Make one meal a few different ways by mixing and matching veggies and proteins (for example: stir fry).
Do stick with the basics at first. A protein, a veggie (or two), a carb, and a healthy fat per meal (subject to change). Plus, a topping or sauce to pair it all with.
Do find balance! Make sure the prepared meals incorporate all macronutrients if possible: proteins, carbs, veggies, and healthy fats. Now depending on specific dietary needs and goals, the portions of each macronutrient will vary.
Do prepare meals that will be enjoyed. There’s nothing worse than prepping food for a meal that will later be resisted. Stick to a comfort zone at first and prepare meals that are familiar.
Do take into consideration how often prep will take place, this will determine how much food to purchase when grocery shopping.
Do be mindful of when and how soon food is prepped. To eliminate food being wasted, remember to take a look at your schedule. It is helpful to break up prepping, making it more manageable.
Don’t prep meals too far in advance. Most meals will last 3-5 days in the refrigerator. If prepping food for the week it will be wise to prepare meats on two different days (ex: Sundays and Wednesdays).
Do to make small changes to the meals and menus. This is to help meals not become boring and unappetizing to eat. This is where the essentials come into play.
Do multitask! While a few things are in the oven take advantage of preparing other foods, like chopping raw veggies and fruits.
Do Stay organized. It's helpful to label food containers to stay organized with meals. It's also a good idea to have space in the fridge or cabinet just for prepped foods.
Do invest in good storage containers. This is to help keep food as fresh as possible!
Do have an assortment of different styles and sizes of storage containers.
Do develop a routine!
Now, it’s still possible to eat unhealthy when meal prepping, so always resort back to whole food options. Shy away from overly processed foods and stick with as many whole food options as possible! All in all, have fun with meal prepping. Meal prepping is designed to take the worry and stress out of the kitchen. Whether prepping for one or more meals, make the time prepping enjoyable. Put a favorite TV show on, crank up the tunes, and just have fun with the process. The more enjoyable something is, the more likely one will stick with it! Behavior change is challenging at first, but with time and simple adaptation, anything is possible. Slowly start to develop a routine, and build off that routine to make healthy eating an effortless habit!