Updated: Aug 15, 2018
The term 'Meal Prep' is essentially synonymous with the terms 'healthy lifestyle' or 'wellness' lately, but what, exactly, does it mean - and is it for you? For many, the concept of meal prep seems simple at first, until the reality of grocery lists, shopping, weekly menus, cooking and cleaning ensue. I often hear clients, friends and family say that the thought of spending their little free time cooking and cleaning is not their idea of fun or sustainable. The truth is, even though I love to explore farmer's markets, go to the grocery store and experiment in the kitchen, there are many times I have other plans for my Sunday. Keep reading to learn how to take simple meal prep principles and make them to work with your lifestyle.
1. Consider Partial Prep
The thought of cooking 5 complete meals in one day (and doing the dishes) can seem daunting for some. However, what about doubling a recipe to make extra for leftovers? Or, roasting some chicken while you're in your home, anyways? Taking 10 minutes to make a large salad that will last for the next few days? How about roasting a few veggies and using them throughout the week to round out dinner? Using these simple hacks, you can save some serious time during the week without spending your entire weekend in the kitchen. I like to choose a few time consuming tasks (such as roasting chicken, making farro or quinoa, or spiralizing my veggies and storing in a container), so that the other additions to the meal are simple and quick. Partial prep personally works for me, because I can set aside some time for cooking, enjoy this time, and then enjoy the time off from cooking for the next night or two, or relish the fact that my delicious dinner required minimal clean-up after working all day.
2. Don't Forget Frozen Foods
Frozen foods can be a major time saver, with minimal risk of food waste (and wasted money). Stocking up on staples at the grocery store allows you to take those veggies you prepped and pair them with a quick protein (veggie burgers, turkey/chicken/beef meatballs, frozen fish, etc.) for a simple meal that can come together within minutes - and minimal dishes. Just be sure to watch the sodium, since frozen foods sometimes contain large amounts. Another option? Freeze individual portions of leftovers for your own, homemade frozen dish!
3. Prep Your Produce
I used to purchase a large fruit (pineapple, watermelon) due to the lower price, only to have it sit for days before I would finally cut into it, which would usually be after a full day of work, cooking dinner (and cleaning up from dinner) and at that point, the fruit had a short life left - and my energy to then store the fruit and clean up would be wavering. Instead, opt for one or two larger fruits and take 5-10 minutes to cut, store and clean up shortly after you get home from the grocery store. Similarly, wash and prep some veggies for easy additions to dishes, salads, or snacks. Taking a few minutes when you have the time can make your produce as convenient to grab as a bag of chips. Just make sure not to prep all of your produce for the entire week, or you may risk having your food go bad more quickly. I like to break my week into 2-3 segments, typically cooking or prepping on Sunday and Wednesday, or Monday and Thursday, in order to have easy access to fresh food (and limit my time in the kitchen at once).
4. Make a Rough Plan For the Week
While the thought of planning out your entire menu may be overwhelming, outlining a rough plan for the week can help to shave time off of your grocery trip, keep your spending to a minimum and organize your prep (or partial prep) plan. However, remaining flexible is important, since stores don't always have everything in stock, or plans may vary slightly as the week goes on. For example, maybe you plan to make eggplant parm or baked ziti one night (which is a great prep item, since it easily makes multiple portions, ready for leftovers) and a protein mixed with rice or quinoa and steamed veggies another night - leaving your options open for which fish or meat strikes your eye at the store. You don't need to necessarily plan out every recipe before hitting the supermarket, but having a general idea of what you plan to eat, which nights you plan to cook and what your schedule looks like can be a helpful tool. Also, scheduling in your time to go to the grocery store, prep your produce or cook dinner on the nights you choose (just as you would your happy hour plans, your gym classes and your work deadlines) is a great way to stay on track with your goals.
5. Keep Pantry Items Handy
I often hear people talk negatively about pantry items or the 'middle of the grocery store', but the truth is, the pantry is home to many nutritious staples, including canned fish, canned legumes, grains and nuts to name a few. When I was left with little more than zucchini in my fridge one day, I was happy to have canned garbanzo beans and cashews so I could pull together what is now my go-to, simple weeknight meal: Zoodles with Garbanzo Beans and my Dairy-Free Cashew "Cream" Sauce. Pantry items often have a long shelf life and can help you out when your fridge contents are dwindling, or you don't have time to go to the grocery store.
Meal prep can look different for each person, but the important part is taking some time to plan and prep in order to save you time when you're busier. Instead of feeling stressed that it needs to look a certain way, focus on what would help you the most and come up with strategies that are specific to your needs. Whether you prefer to spend one full day prepping and packing meals for the week, or a few minutes here and there washing/cutting/storing produce, there is no single (or correct) way to meal prep. If you're struggling with how to get started, you may be interested in some resources, such as cookbooks that focus on meal prep (such as Toby Amidor's Smart Meal Prep For Beginners - check out a sneak peak of my favorite recipe here), or meeting with a dietitian who can help you develop strategies to meet your individual goals.