Meal Prep Explained in Three Easy Steps
So you’re ready to try eating more healthy. Again. For what feels like the billionth time.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
In fact, the average adult seeking weight loss makes four attempts per year without success. With that kind of statistic, one has to wonder, why is eating better so darned hard to do?
All you have to do is take a drive through town, turn on the TV, or walk through the grocery store and the answer is right in front of you.
We live in a world that is go, go, go, so it’s no wonder that fast food, microwave meals, packaged snacks, and boxed dinners have replaced the home cooked meals of yesteryear. With the ongoing demands of the workplace, kids participating in multiple activities outside of school, and weekends designated as a time to catch up on chores/errands/sleep/friendships/Netflix, it’s only natural to turn to foods that can be made and eaten quickly.
So be kind to yourself. Life is hard.
That being said, there is a way to overcome the time-versus-food conundrum.
Make your own “fast food” by preparing meals all at once for the week. This is otherwise known as “meal prep,” and it very well can be a game changer in your quest to healthier eating.
Let’s take a look at how it’s done.
Step One: Look at Your Calendar and Create a Menu
Since time is likely the biggest culprit for unhealthy food choices, the first step towards successful meal prep is to take a look at the week ahead and note what your schedule looks like. Do the kids have an activity? Are you going on vacation? Is there a work meeting that will result in arriving home late? Have you invited friends over for an evening so they can take a look at the faux bear skin rug that you recently bought from Wayfair?
Make a mental note of these events and how they impact your meals. For example, if Sally Sue has a soccer game Wednesday at 6pm, then you already know that you’ve got very limited time for dinner that day. So it makes sense that whatever meal you plan for Wednesday, it has to be something that can be made and eaten quickly. In fact, since you’re so short on time it’s probably best to plan a meal that you make ahead of time so you can just throw it in the microwave that evening. But what exactly should that be?
Keep it simple. When making a menu, try your best to include a fruit and/or veggie, a source of protein, and a healthy fat. This is not saying carbs are bad – they’re not and you need them! – but don’t let them be what takes up the most space on your plate.
With this in mind, you decide dinner that night will be grilled chicken breast (protein) with a side of mashed sweet potatoes (veggie/complex carb) topped with grass-fed butter (healthy fat) and frozen or canned green beans (veggie), because you know chicken breast and mashed potatoes are foods that still taste great reheated, even if you make them days earlier.
Now let’s say that on Thursday you have a lunch meeting at work, and you know they’re bringing in pizza. While you’d love to partake in that greasy goodness, it is not in line with your dietary goals so you realize it’s probably best to pack a lunch for that day. Since you already know you’ll be grilling up some chicken breast in preparation for Wednesday’s meal, why not cook more chicken than you need? That way you can just shred it up, add in a splash of light Italian salad dressing, pour it over some zucchini noodles (get at Trader Joes for example or specialize your own ahead of time) and place it in a storage container to take with you on Thursday.
Done and done.
Getting the idea? Look at your week, determine how much time you have for cooking/eating your food, and write down a meal that fits into that timeframe. If you have time one night to actually cook, great! Write down a meal that you feel comfortable making at that time. Don’t have a lot of time another day? No problem, write down a meal that you can prepare ahead of time.
The point is, you literally want to write a menu down that identifies what you’re going to eat each day of the week. You can do this for every meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks), for lunch and dinner, for dinner only – whatever meal or meals cause you the greatest risk of dietary sabotage.
If you need some ideas, check out Clean Food Crush! The feature image is her super easy shrimp stir fry for meal prep!
Step Two: Making the Grocery List and Going Shopping
Now that you have a menu written down, grab a sheet of paper and get ready to start making a grocery list. Consider what ingredients each meal needs and write it down.
Using the Sally Sue soccer game example, you have grilled chicken breast, mashed sweet potato topped with grass-fed butter, and green beans written down for dinner Wednesday. Assuming you don’t already have any of these items, you’ll want to write them down on your list like this:
- Package of boneless/skinless chicken breast
- Stick of grass-fed butter
- One sweet potato
- One can green beans
Now let’s consider the meal you planned for lunch on Thursday, when everyone else is eating that calorie-filled pizza. You decided on zucchini pasta covered with chicken and light Italian dressing, so you want to add these items to your list. But wait! You already have chicken on the list, and you were planning to use some of that chicken for this meal too. Good, no need to write that down again, though you may want to indicate you want a large package of chicken breast in case you forget while you’re at the store:
- Large package of boneless/skinless chicken breast
- Stick of grass-fed butter
- One sweet potato
- frozen or canned green beans
- Box of frozen zucchini noodles
- Light Italian dressing
And you continue this process as you review the menu you created for the week. Simply write down the type and amount of food you need.
Now that you have your grocery list written, it’s time to go shopping! I’m guessing you already know how to grocery shop, so I won’t go into too much detail on how this is done. However, here are some tips while you’re at the grocery store:
- Stick to buying only the food you have on your list! It’s so easy to make an impulse buy, especially if you go to the store hungry. And that leads me to the next tip…
- Don’t go to the store hungry!
- Try to buy foods that are found on the perimeter of the store. For example, produce, the dairy case, and freezer sections are usually all found against the store walls, while boxed and prepackaged foods are found in the center isles. If you find most of your shopping is taking place in those center isles, you are likely planning meals that are carb-heavy (remember, let fruits, veggies, protein, and healthy fats be the bulk of what’s on your plate). Reconsider your menu choices to include more whole foods.
- Don’t be fooled by package claims. “Made with whole grains!” is a popular marketing tactic, but it’s often over-inflated and draws attention away from the fact that all the other ingredients are highly processed. Always check nutrition labels and ingredients to verify the nutritional value of a product, especially those that come in a box or package.
- If you hate grocery shopping, don’t have time, or simply don’t trust yourself being in any establishment that has endless options of food, consider using a grocery delivery service or curbside pickup. The fees are usually minimal, and it’s gaining popularity in cities all over the nation. Search for “grocery delivery [your town]” to see if it’s available in your area.
Step Three: Prepare Your Meals All At Once
Now that you’ve got your menu in place and your groceries purchased, meal prep is ready to go. Select a day of the week when you have a decent window of time (one to two hours at most). Many people choose Sunday as their meal prep day, but find a day and time that works best for you.
Now I know what you are thinking… every Sunday I have to plan, shop and cook! ugh! …. Well, do you want to maintain health, longevity and look hot in that little black dress? Yes please. Make this a priority. Keep in mind, your health and fitness now will dictate your quality of life in your senior years. This is your health insurance!!!
Let’s get crackin. Now look at your menu for the week and identify all of the meals you plan to make ahead of time. Collect all the ingredients, grab the appropriate kitchen tools and equipment, and throw on your apron because it’s time to begin.
To make this easy to explain, I’m going to stick with my Sally Sue and lunch meeting scenarios mentioned earlier. The process might be a little more complex or lengthy depending on what type and how many meals you’d like to prepare ahead of time. However, the strategy for meal prep is the same no matter how much or how little you have to prepare.
Begin with any meat you’d like to cook. In our case, we know we planned to have some grilled chicken breast prepared. So I’m going to pull out the chicken breast, cut off any noticeable fat, and begin cooking. Now, how you choose to cook is completely up to you. With chicken, we can grill it outside, bake it in the oven, boil it, throw it in a slow cooker, or even cook it in the microwave. To know how long to cook using each of these methods, all you have to do is turn to Google. Search “How long to cook chicken breast in the [name of kitchen equipment]” to get all the information you need.
For this example, I’m going to bake my chicken breast in the oven. After looking up the directions online, I preheat my oven to 400 degrees, brush a little olive oil on each breast, and put the chicken in the oven to cook for about 20-25 minutes.
While that’s baking, I’m going to continue prepping other foods planned for my week.
I know that I have mashed sweet potatoes on my menu for Sally Sue’s soccer day, so I am going to make that next. Like the chicken, this can be done a myriad of ways and it’s up to you to decide which you prefer. For my example, I’m going to cook the sweet potatoes in the crockpot. Simple and easy! Through a bunch of sweet potatoes in the crockpot, put on the cover, set to low or medium and call it good. they will come out and the skin will slide right off!
So now I have my chicken breast baking and my potatoes cooking. Zucchini noodles can be boiled for a few minutes right before eating or microwaved from fresh or frozen with your premade meats and sauces.
While I wait for the chicken to bake, I grab some grapes I picked up from the store, pluck them from their stems, and rinse them in a colander. I throw the washed grapes in a big bowl and place them in the fridge. I also pre-bag nuts in individual baggies for easy portion control. Now I have an easy snack to grab in those moments when I get hungry between meals.
I continue to slice/pluck/peel /wash any fruits or vegetables so they are ready to grab-n-go for the week.
Once the chicken is baked and cooled, I pull out a couple breasts for dinner Thursday and place them in storage containers. The rest of the chicken breast I put in a bowl and shred up using a couple forks. I then take my now-cooked noodles, mix some of the shredded chicken in, pour a little Italian dressing on top, put it all in a storage container, and place it in the fridge for me to take to work on Thursday.
Once the sweet potatoes are done, I scrape out the cooked sweet potato from its skin, place it in a bowl, mash it, and then put that, too, in the fridge for my Sally Sue soccer game meal on Wednesday.
On and on I go through this process of cooking and preparing everything I need. By the end, I should have several containers of pre-cooked meals sitting in my fridge or in the freezer ready to heat up.
Here’s some other tips to ensure a successful meal prep:
- When storing prepared food in the refrigerator, place the fruits and veggies at eye level so they are the first thing you see (and grab) when you’re hungry
- Always start your meal prep with foods that take the longest to cook
- Multi-task by prepping some foods while others are cooking. The more you can do at the same time, the less time you will need to spend doing it.
- Cook and prepare far more than you need and freeze the extra; that way you already have prepared meals for weeks to come
- Roast two different proteins on one pan and season differently
- Buy some no-prep snacks to shorten your prep time – beef jerky, cucumber slices, hard boiled eggs, olives, and celery topped with almond butter are examples of no prep foods
- Use your hand to determine portion sizes while prepping: a serving of protein should cover the palm of your hand, a serving of carbs should be about the size of your fist, and a serving of healthy fats should cover the size of your thumb
- Don’t have a good day to devote to an hour or two of cooking? Buy pre-cooked meat so you can reduce your prep time. Grilled chicken breasts, canned chicken, tuna, or salmon, precooked beef steak strips, and a ready-cooked rotisserie chicken are all great options that are available at most super markets.
The bottom line is to plan ahead, be prepared and keep it simple. Plan in a protein, veggie, carb and a fat. Add sauces and spices to keep it interesting. For simple recipes that taste good, try the blueapron.com cookbook free online!
- Make your meal plan for the week including snacks. Look at your calender of events to make sure meals are quick and easy during busy times!
- Grocery shop and stick with your list! Or, front the $5-7 cost and have grocery delivered.
- Prep foods ahead of time. Cooked meats, sweet potatoes and rice all freeze well. Cooked white potatoes and cooked veggies do not. Opt for frozen veggies as they microwave well or steam quickly!
Interested in meal prep, but don’t know where to begin? Check out my FREE seven day meal plan with grocery lists included! This is a great way to start learning how to create menus, get ideas for healthy meal ideas, and practice how this whole meal prep thing works. Questions? No problem, contact me and I’m happy to help. You can also find quick, easy meal ideas on the GF2 Fitness and Contest Prep forum, a private group on Facebook where you can ask fitness and diet-related questions, find motivation, and get much needed support from me and others just like you.
Featured image from Clean Food Crush! Check her out!