Meal Prep Made Easy
Between a 40 hour work week, commuting, working out, chores and sleep where can we find the time to also prepare and eat healthy home cooked meals? It is not surprising that fast food gained so much popularity due to its convenience and affordability.
Although these foods can be quick and easy, meal prepping fresh foods is ideal. A study found that those who ate home cooked meals more frequently had greater fruit and vegetable intakes and normal percentage of body fat. Meal prepping or even prepping ingredients beforehand can save time, money and ensure you are having well balanced meals. The association of a healthy diet and home cooked meals was shown even in those who consumed home cooked meals less than three times per week. If meal prepping for five days feels overwhelming, take it slow and try for one to two days.
Besides health benefits, meal prepping can also improve time management! How often have you found yourself scrambling after work or in the mornings to have a healthy meal? You want to eat healthy meals but by the time you are able to prepare them you are so hungry you choose the fastest option and maybe even skip the veggies. Meal prep removes that hectic time in your day. I am going to walk you through the best way to start meal planning and prepping!
Your first step is to grab a paper and pen. Make a chart and separate columns into protein, carb, vegetable and sauce/seasoning. Write in three options for each column. For example:
|Protein||Carbs||Vegetables||Sauce / Seasoning|
This is a great way to create a complete meal and a tasty one! Be sure to choose sauce/seasoning that you love. A healthy fat is also always encouraged, you can use some olive oil to cook your protein or sauté your vegetables in. The next step after choosing your meal components is creating meals! A new chart can look like this:
|Meal 1||Meal 2||Meal 3|
|Sweet Chili||Marinara Sauce||Marinara Sauce|
You can make each meal different or you can use the same component three times to prep. Choosing the same components would limit the amount of ingredients you need to buy. These types of simple meals are the easiest to batch cook. You can even prepare for just three days if you prefer. Remember on the tone and sculpt app if you choose a meal you can increase the quantity to cook for more than one portion. Once you do this, you can portion out to individual meals for the week. For example, the sweet chili salmon bowl consists of salmon, broccoli, basmati rice and sweet chili sauce. This meal fits perfectly in the technique shown above.
A great aim for each meal is for it to have wholesome ingredients such as a good protein source and whole grain, vegetables and for it to be satisfying! If you are not enjoying your meal it could lead to binging later on.
Besides cooking separate components for each day you can cook casseroles, muffins, lasagnas, or even soups! This allows for a one pan meal and decreases, prep, ingredients and amount of shopping needed. Some great one pan meals from the app include breakfast egg muffins, tuna pasta bake, broccoli cannellini soup, lentil soup, chili or the sheet pan sausage & peppers. You can also dedicate a day to prepare homemade burgers from the app such as the salmon burger, turkey burger or kidney bean burger. With burgers you can prepare many and place them in zip lock bags in the freezer to be warmed for later.
If you do not have the time to cook all components of a meal, another suggestion could be to pre- cook the one that takes you the longest. Try preparing your protein for the week or making extra grains to keep on hand for your meals. Another tip would be to marinate your proteins and have them ready to cook once you get home. Blanching vegetables can help them last longer by stopping enzyme action which typically causes vegetables to lose flavor, color and texture. To do this you boil water and put vegetables in to cook. Once they are cooked you take the vegetables and submerge them in an ice bath. This stops the enzyme activity. While this may be out of the ordinary, this is a technique to use to keep the quality of your vegetables for the week. Pick one or two meal components to prep for the week if prepping a whole meal takes too much time.
The last suggestion for if you just do not feel that you can prepare very far in advance, stick to very easy, simple recipes. For breakfasts try smoothies, overnight oats or hard boiled eggs. Some great healthy easy to prepare lunches include sandwiches and wraps! These hold well and can be prepared the night before. These all require minimal prep and can be done in less than 20 minutes!
Now that you have planned your meals out, gone grocery shopping and cooked your meals the next step is storage. Use air tight containers to keep food fresh. If refrigerating meals do not leave in fridge for greater than 5 days. Use labels to date your containers. This will help you keep track of when you put your meal in if you are meal prepping for many days. An article written by Harvard The Nutrition Source suggests the following for food storage times:
Refrigeration at 40°F or lower
1-2 days: Cooked ground poultry or ground beef
3-4 days: Cooked whole meats, fish and poultry; soups and stews
5 days: Cooked beans; hummus
1 week: Hard boiled eggs; chopped vegetables if stored in air-tight container
2 weeks: Soft cheese, opened
5-6 weeks: Hard cheese, opened
Freezing at 0°F or lower
2-3 months: Soups and stews; cooked beans
3-6 months: Cooked or ground meat and poultry
6-8 months: Berries and chopped fruit (banana, apples, pears, plums, mango) stored in a freezer bag
8-12 months: Vegetables, if blanched first for about 3-5 minutes (depending on the vegetable)
Meal prep can also be cost effective. On your next meal prep day, look through your pantries and be aware of what you already have. Make a list of your food items before going to the store and try to create meals with food you already have. Try to buy in bulk. Bulk items are typically less expensive for more food! Use canned and frozen food. When using canned food try to find them with little to no sodium. Your can should read <10% of sodium in a portion size. Healthy eating can seem expensive to begin with but staples such as chicken, rice, frozen veggies can be very affordable and provide a filling and healthy meal.
Try to make meal prep a habit. Choose one day or time that you can set aside to cook and prepare. Good habits bring you closer to your goals. Just like consistent exercise is important, so is nutrition. Making meal prep a habit can help in your overall life by decreasing the time spent on meals. If you already have a meal prepared, you are less likely to choose a more processed, higher sodium and sugar meal.
Make sure to create a schedule that works for you. A very popular day to meal prep is on a Sunday. This is great as it is the beginning of the week for most but if a Tuesday or Wednesday is more convenient to you make sure to schedule that time in. It is important to emphasize that we all live a different lifestyle. Some may work four long shifts, others work five days a week, some have children to care for and others are traveling all the time. If you cannot shop and meal prep on the same day try separating them. Have one time for shopping and the other for meal prep. The best plan is one that is flexible enough to work for you.
Meal prepping at home allows you to have more control on what you eat. If you solely rely on food from restaurants or fast food chains, your health could be at risk. You may be thinking well I only choose the lowest calorie options. While calories are helpful in monitoring when trying to lose or gain weight, they are not the only factor when talking about health. Packaged food typically contains a high amount of sodium, fat and/or sugar. These foods when eaten in abundance have shown poor health effects.
Taking the time to create your own meals creates great habits and helps you live a healthy lifestyle. Evaluate your lifestyle and use these tips to help work for you. If five days of meal prep is not possible, try one day at a time or one meal at a time. Preparing breakfast and lunch the night before could be very helpful for you the next day. Even by preparing only two meals for one day, you will save time and effort as well as providing your body with the nutrients it needs to perform efficiently. If you are feeding your body nutrient poor foods, it will struggle throughout the day. You may feel tired and drowsy. Feeding your body nutrient dense foods will allow you to feel energized and ready to go!
Planning Meals. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/healthy_eating/meals.html Published March 28, 2019.
Staff A, Meal Prep: A Helpful Healthy Eating Strategy. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2017/03/20/meal-prep-planning/ Published November 20, 2017.
Tiwari A, Aggarwal A, Tang W, Drewnowski A. Cooking at Home: A Strategy to Comply With U.S. Dietary Guidelines at No Extra Cost. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2017;52(5):616-624. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.017.
Mills1 S, Brown1 H, Wrieden2 W, White1 M, Adams3 J. Frequency of eating home cooked meals and potential benefits for diet and health: cross-sectional analysis of a population-based cohort study. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity. https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12966-017-0567-y Published August 17, 2017. Accessed November 20, 2019.