Exercising more, saving money, eating more healthily and losing weight are among the top New Year resolutions for Americans. But unfortunately, almost half only feel somewhat confident that they’ll be able to stick to their resolution, while 20 percent feel not-so-confident.
So we wanted to figure out a way to make sticking to a healthy eating resolution a little bit easier if that’s what you’re aiming for. That’s when we came upon a bit of a secret when it comes to making healthy eating less of a chore and therefore easier to stick with: meal prepping.
What Is It?
Meal prepping can describe several different food preparation methods but think of it as packing up leftovers so they’re easier to grab and eat throughout the week. If you do a bit of set-up work when you have some downtime, it makes grabbing those pre-packaged meals a much easier choice when you’re running low on time or energy later on, instead of choosing takeout or fast food.
There’s no singular way to do it, but some common ways to go about meal prepping include:
- Batch cooking – Making big recipes that provide a lot of leftovers all at once (like on a weekend) then freezing or saving for future use later on.
- Example: You decide to make all of your family’s favorite meals then freeze them so they’re easy to grab, defrost and reheat whenever you’re running low on time, whether that means in two days or two months.
- Individually portioned meals – Making a large meal or series of large meals that will provide leftovers and divvying up those portions into containers ahead of time so you can grab them out of the refrigerator and reheat them easily throughout the week.
- Example: Making a large meal on Sunday that you know will provide quick and easy meals for you to take for lunch during the week or can be dinner during an especially hectic night.
- Pre-prepped ingredients – Taking the time to pre-chop, peel, slice or roast ingredients beforehand so that they’re a timesaver later on in the week when you’re making meals.
- Example: You know the meals you want to make this week share some common ingredients that can be bought, prepared, and stored for easy use throughout the week, such as onions, cooked rice, or garlic.
Learning how to meal prep will not only save you time, but it can also save you money and reduces waste since you’re buying in bulk, which oftentimes can mean getting a bit of a discount, and you’re going in with a plan of exactly what ingredients you need. No more grabbing items you think you might use, only for them to go bad because you didn’t actually need them or have time to use them. And unlike meals you get at a restaurant or even in the freezer section at your grocery store, meal prepping gives you total control over what goes in your food — perfect for anyone who wants to stay on track with their health goals or those with dietary restrictions. It can also make a hectic schedule easier, taking the guesswork out of what’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Long gone are the days of stressing out at work thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner in just a few hours or stopping by the drive-thru to grab a breakfast sandwich because you didn’t have time to make something at home.
Another great perk of meal prepping is it’s also easier to portion control and focus on healthy recipes, avoiding those mid-week slumps where ordering a pizza sounds so much better than cooking something fresh.
How Do I Get Started?
To reap all the benefits of meal prep, you just need a meal plan, some containers to store your food and some dedicated time to cook and portion your meals. Even just setting aside an hour can set you up for success for the week ahead.
Thankfully, there are plenty of resources for creating a meal plan if you’re scratching your head trying to think of what to come up with. Many of these resources will help keep you organized by making a plan, curating recipes and providing grocery lists. Free apps such as Mealime and Yummly provide recipe suggestions based on dietary restrictions and even have the capability to take ingredients you have on hand and provide new recipe ideas. Anything you need gets added to an automatically organized grocery list on your phone that you can reference when you’re ordering curbside or heading to the store.
The most important part of all of this is to be conscientious of the recipes you’re choosing. Frying up a big batch of chicken or making a huge lasagna to eat throughout the week can be considered meal prepping, even if it’s not the healthiest.
Consider these things when building out a meal plan to prep:
- Choose a meal you’d like to prepare – This can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Keep it simple and easy to maintain by starting with the meal you usually skip or order takeout because of time constraints. For example, if you commonly skip breakfast then make unhealthy choices later in the day because of it, start with prepping this first.
- Pick a day to do your meal prepping – The weekend, most commonly Sunday, and mid-week, such as Wednesday, are typically the most popular times, but this will vary depending on your schedule.
- Determine how much you want to prep – Experiment with prepping enough food to last for two or three days before attempting a full week.
If you want to get creative and make your own recipes, or you want to tweak a popular family recipe, make sure veggies or fruit account for at least half of whatever you’re prepping. But here’s another time-saving tip: they don’t necessarily have to come from the actual produce section; frozen or canned varieties will last almost forever and work in nearly every meal.
Also be cognizant of what will keep well over time and what will not, such as cut avocado, homemade salad dressing or leafy greens for salads. If you’d like to include these highly perishable items in your meals, try to keep only enough on hand to prepare a day or two in advance.
The Pros and Cons
Meal prepping can save you time, energy and money down the road, and allows you to have quick access to healthy meals when you may choose something unhealthy otherwise. But it doesn’t come without some downsides as well for some.
Since meal prepping can involve eating the same dish or types of food a few days in a row, it’s not for everyone, especially those who prioritize variety and freshness above all else. If you’re not a leftovers fan in the first place, you may not be a fan of meal prepping either. If you have picky family members or a household with a lot of varying dietary restrictions, getting them on board with eating “leftovers” can also pose a challenge. If you foresee this being an issue, as we noted earlier, try prepping just enough to provide meals for the next two or three days, or make multiple recipes so you have a variety to pick from throughout the week. Also, if you notice something isn’t getting eaten, freeze it so you can eat it next week or a few weeks down the road.
Additionally, if food safety pops into your mind immediately upon trying to figure out the logistics of meal prepping, it’s important to be cognizant of all food safety guidelines and use common sense if you think a meal may have gone off by the time you’re ready to eat it.
Most meals will last between three to five days in the fridge, but if you want to prep meals for the whole week, you’ll want to schedule two days a week to do so (such as Sunday and Wednesday) to keep food as fresh as possible. Use divided containers to avoid cross-contamination (or flavor contamination), and pack wet food separate from dry food. When traveling with your meals, such as in a lunch box to school or work, use ice packs to keep cold dishes cold before you can store them in a refrigerator, and use pre-warmed insulated containers to keep hot foods hot. And of course, clean your hands and produce before you cook.
To get you started on the right foot, here are some of our favorite go-to meal prep recipes that are also healthy, tasty and quick to make.
- Make-Ahead Breakfast Sandwich – Breakfast sandwiches are great for meal prepping because breakfast items are typically quick to cook up, and once you assemble these little sandwiches, they’re easy to wrap up and throw in the freezer. This recipe is chockful of veggies, egg whites and uses whole-wheat English muffins, but you can tailor it to include any healthy ingredients you like. Prefer a breakfast burrito? Swap out the English muffin with a whole wheat tortilla instead.
- Choco-Cherry Supercarb Bars – If you like to work out in the mornings or have a kiddo who has an athletic practice in the morning before school, and you need something that is quick, portable and provides a quick burst of energy to help you power through your activities, this is the recipe for you.
- Make-Ahead Breakfast Scrambles – These scrambles are similar to those pre-packaged refrigerated kits that require just the crack of an egg and some time in the microwave. But unlike those kits, these come with ingredients you can control and no preservatives.
- Make-Ahead Oatmeal Bowls – If you love a good hearty bowl of oatmeal in the morning, but don’t enjoy reading the long list of somewhat unrecognizable ingredients on the back of those prepackaged packets, you’ll love these fully-customizable oatmeal bowls. Similar to the packets, just add water and microwave.
- 30-Minute Vegetarian Curry – Whether you’re a practicing vegetarian or just want to have something a bit lighter for lunch, this quick and healthy curry will keep you full until dinnertime.
- Tuna Salad Lunch Box – Tuna salad may be a classic cold lunch item, but you can’t prep a few days’ worth of sandwiches ahead of time and expect them to hold up. In comes the tuna salad lunch box. This recipe comes with veggies the recipe maker prefers but you can customize it to your tastes. But if you choose to pack the crackers in the same container as the tuna, bag them up first so they don’t absorb the moisture from the tuna, even if they’re not touching.
- Pizza Roll-Up Lunch Box – Especially good for the kiddos, this pizza roll-up box comes with a healthy portion of veggies and dunk-able marinara sauce.
- Vegetable Barley Soup – This is a good recipe that lends itself well to batch cooking that can be made and then frozen for later use. Best of all, you can add any combination of veggies you liked based on preference or what’s in season.
- Slow Cooker Keto Mexican Shredded Beef – This recipe is a good base for multiple meal combinations during the week. Use it for tacos one day, a burrito bowl the next, or add it to some scrambled eggs for breakfast tacos. The possibilities are endless!
- Instant Pot Meal Prep Chicken – While the ingredient list is simple, the flavor profile on this dish is not. Once again, this chicken can act as a good base for multiple meals during the week.