I am an enormous aficionado of The Container Store. Just entering one of their retail shops diminishes my stress level by multiple degrees. I adore that feeling of being in control when my house is organized (which rarely lasts long with three children and a canine) and flawlessly tidied up.
So here’s my scorching observation: Meal prepping is the nutritional equivalent of decluttering your home like Marie Kondo. When done correctly, meal prepping can transform you into an organized machine that is primed for accomplishment and contentment with your meals—all week long.
Observing those piles of filled jars and food containers on Instagram, meal prep appears so simple. In reality, it does require a considerable amount of time, space, organization, and originality to execute. However, once you have mastered it, the advantages are substantial. We consulted a dietitian to share her finest meal planning advice so that you can conquer these weekly tasks, once and for all.
Understanding the Advantages of Meal Planning and Prep
You already know that meal prep helps you consume healthier meals, but you may not fully comprehend why that is the case. According to Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN and author of The Superfood Swap, individuals who meal prep enhance their eating habits because, “When you plan ahead, you tend to make better choices than when you’re running around last minute.” And those wise choices can help fill in the nutritional gaps with foods that we should consume more of. Planning meals will result in more well-balanced meals, says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, plant-forward nutrition and wellness expert, and co-author of Sugar Shock. “Approximately 90 percent of adults fail to meet fruit and vegetable consumption targets, and planning can assist you in getting closer to—or reaching—your goals,” she explains.
Moreover, meal planning can significantly reduce both food waste and your ever-growing grocery bill. When your dinner is already prepared and waiting for you in the refrigerator, the temptation to order sushi through DoorDash is greatly diminished. And since you have planned how to utilize the ingredients you purchased, “less food will go to waste, which is a positive outcome for the environment,” points out Cassetty.
Let’s not overlook the potentially greatest savings that result from preparing your meals: stress. That’s right, you will experience less of the thing that keeps you awake at night and contributes to those fine lines on your forehead. Blatner believes that eliminating decision fatigue regarding food is key to reducing stress, stating, “Your world flows better when you have pre-planned your food life!” Amen, sister.
If you’re attempting to accomplish a specific nourishment or health-related aim, it’s time to hop on the preparation train. Let’s assume you desire to meet that evasive everyday fiber aim of 25 to 30 grams. That implies that every meal and snack must contribute between 5 to 6 grams of fiber. Unless you have a strategy in place with particular foods ready, the likelihood of achieving that fiber aim is minimal to none. The same can be said if you’re trying to include more protein in your diet, decrease sugar, or follow a Mediterranean-style pattern of eating. The framework of a plan can assist you in understanding those aims.
Setting Practical Aims and Identifying Requirements
Talking about goals, is it feasible to prepare meals without feeling like it’s a second job? Nutrition clients frequently ask me if they really need to prepare every single meal and snack each week. Thankfully, the answer is absolutely not. While social media may persuade you that everyone is prepping every morsel they consume, in reality, that’s simply not attainable.
Blatner instructs something known as “2-4-2 meal planning.” In this system, she recommends preparing 2 breakfasts, 4 dinners, and 2 snacks, with lunch being leftovers from dinner that can be served over greens or in a wrap or bowl. Her clients discover that they have enough variety to be satisfied, but it’s not so much work that they’re overwhelmed. Cassetty does something similar with her “mix and match” approach, which involves preparing a total of 6 meals and then supplementing with items that are simple to put together, like yogurt and berries.
Planning the Menu
At this point, you may want to simply head to Trader Joe’s and begin loading up your cart with ingredients. But hold on a second—you need a menu first. Whether you write down your menu in a journal or use the Notes app on your phone, it’s prudent to keep track of the date and which recipes you intend to make. That way, you can quickly locate them if you’d like to make them again. In terms of the mix of recipes you’ll be making, it requires some advanced planning.
It’s clever to think about the week ahead and the types of food that will support your lifestyle. Are you searching for a breakfast you can eat before your morning Peloton session or something you’ll be snacking on alongside your toddler? Will some lunches be consumed at your desk in the office and others at home? You’ll also want to consider any work dinners or lunches you plan to have at restaurants and include those meals so that you don’t waste food.
If you’re considering that 2-4-2 formula, that could translate to a menu that looks like this:
Creating a Grocery List
Once you’ve decided on your recipes for the week, it’s time to shop! It’s wise to create a digital list that includes all the ingredients you’ll need.
This method enables you to evade purchasing multiple instances of the identical constituent and can indicate anything that you already possess available. You can retain this inventory on your cellular phone, employ an application, or choose the traditional approach and print it out, then cross out items as you place them into your carriage.
If you purchase groceries through an online shopping service, such as Fresh Direct or Amazon Fresh, they will likely have a compilation of your preferred items, making it convenient to reorder items that you use frequently.
Preparing and Cooking in Large Batches
Efficiency is crucial when it comes to the time spent in the kitchen. And cooking in large batches or preparing multiple servings at once is a clever way to streamline the foundation of several meals. For instance, if you cook quinoa, you can use it as the base for a grain bowl for two nights, and then repurpose it by serving it with sheet-pan veggies and tofu to create another meal. Instant Pots, slow cookers, and rice cookers can be immensely helpful in cooking grains because they require minimal monitoring.
Apart from being a nutrient-rich food, eggs are also fantastic for meal preparation. You can hard-boil a bunch of eggs to last throughout the week or create egg cups for quick breakfasts on the go. Furthermore, once you have your cutting board out, put it to good use. Cassetty suggests prepping multiple vegetables in one go, which saves a significant amount of time throughout the week.
Storage and Food Safety
Once your food is cooked, it is important to divide it into portions for easy access when heading to work or school, or simply for enjoying in your kitchen. Proper food storage ensures that it remains safe until you are ready to savor it. Cooked food should be stored in airtight containers and refrigerated within two hours of cooking.
Just like with any food handling, the most important step to ensure food safety is to wash your hands before touching any ingredients. If you are working with raw meat, poultry, or shellfish, it is necessary to wash your hands before preparing raw foods like vegetables and fruits to avoid cross-contamination.
According to the USDA, hot food should be transferred to shallow storage containers and placed in the refrigerator or freezer to cool down. Prepared food should be reheated to a temperature of 165°F and consumed within three to four days. If you do not expect to consume your meals within that timeframe, freezing them is an option.
Meal Preparation for Specific Dietary Requirements
If you are meal prepping for yourself and others, it is important to ensure that the main ingredient, such as pasta, oats, or any other grain, aligns with everyone’s dietary needs, including those who follow a gluten-free diet. I have a daughter who has multiple food allergies and is also a pescatarian, so I am aware that there are certain meals I need to prepare separately for her. When making pasta, for example, I always keep the pasta separate from the sauce to ensure that she can still enjoy it later in the week.
If you enjoy adding cheese or chopped nuts to your dishes, you can do so right before serving. If one of your family members or housemates follows a low-carb diet, you can still include grains in your meals, but it’s best to keep them separate from the protein you are cooking. Using containers with different colored lids can help identify the food that is intended for individuals with specific dietary needs.
Maximizing Adaptability and Variety
Changing up Your Meal Prep Game and Avoiding Boredom
I’ve received feedback from friends and clients who start off strong with their meal prepping but become incredibly bored by the end of the week. If you can relate to that, it’s time to enhance your condiment selection. Instead of spending additional time creating sauces and marinades from scratch, Blatner suggests purchasing products that have lower sodium content and/or minimal to no added sugar. Opt for high-quality oils like olive and avocado, such as the ones from Primal Kitchen and Sir Kensington’s. Cassetty combats boredom by using spices like sumac, chili lime, curry powder, and taco seasoning.
Once you have these flavorful options readily available, you’ll be able to incorporate Mexican flavors one night and switch to Greek or West African the next. It might take some time, but you’ll discover which ingredients are the most versatile for your personal preferences and eating habits.
Overcoming Common Obstacles and Staying motivated
Staying committed is half the battle when it comes to adopting any new habit. Occasionally, you may require some extra motivation to stay on track. Just as a fresh workout outfit can help you remain dedicated to your morning HIIT routine, acquiring a new cooking utensil (hello pizza oven!), recipe, or cookbook could be the key to overcoming meal prep fatigue.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the amount of time involved, enlist the help of others! Ask your partner, roommate, or child to assist with the preparation process. This could involve chopping vegetables or exploring fantastic recipes online. If you need further inspiration, check out meal planning apps like Mealime and MealBoard.
Developing Long-Term Meal Planning Habits and Flexibility
If it’s the end of the week and you often find yourself disposing of uneaten meals, consider scaling back. Instead of cooking four dinners, prepare only two. You can also quickly whip up something like an omelet to fill in any gaps. Allowing yourself a bit of flexibility can greatly contribute to achieving your goals. Meal prep shouldn’t feel like an all-or-nothing endeavor. As Blatner emphasizes, “You don’t have to be a top-performing student every single week.”
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