Meal prepping: It’s a big thing in the healthy-eating-instagram-pinterest-obsessed world we live in. Everywhere you look you see pictures of 10 perfectly portioned out meals lined up complete with chicken, green vegetables and rice captioned with something like #mealprepmonday. I’ll admit, I have made those posts before. Hell all of the pictures here are ones I took. But let me tell you a secret – learning to meal prep, or even after you have learned to doesn’t have to look that glamorous or perfect. Yes it can be hard. You’re changing your lifestyle after all. It takes a while to get used to the routine and find what works for you. It’s especially hard if you’re also learning how to cook in the process. So here’s everything you need to know to become a master at meal prepping.
First: Take Things One Step At A Time
I’m putting this first because I don’t want this to overwhelm you. It’s a lot of information. So if you’re new to the game, pick a few things you can focus on changing now, and a few things you want to try later on. Don’t try it all at once. You will most likely fail. I say that out of love.
The Meal Prepping Process
1. Stick to a Schedule
This is crucial for maintaining your meal prep habit week to week. I plan on Wednesday, shop Thursday, and then divide my prep between Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’m unlike most people in a sense that I have a food blog so I make a lot of food for that reason. Therefore one day is not enough for all my prep. But starting out, you can use just one day to prep, especially since you’re going to start small and simple. But for you to succeed there has to be a schedule and a routine to it.
2. Plan Ahead
Also crucial. You can’t aimlessly wander the aisles of the store wondering what you need to buy. You can’t always guess how much meat or produce you need for the week (especially newbies). Have a plan, calculate how much you need based on portion size and number of portions. Make your shopping list, and stick to it.
Also #1 is impossible without a planning your schedule ahead of time. As mentioned above it helps to have set days you do everything, whether it’s all in one day, or scattered over the weekend. But sometimes we have things come up – company in town, vacations, all-day-events etc. So plan your week ahead and figure out when the meal prepping will get done in the event that you have something on your schedule that conflicts with your usual routine.
Go shopping! Pick a day for this and stick with it (I can’t reiterate this point enough). For healthy meals you should mostly be shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. Below are a few staple items I get on nearly every trip: (NOTE I recently went vegetarian so I incorporated what I USED to buy along with what my current vegetarian go-to’s are.)
- Chicken Breast
- Ground Turkey
- Eggs (Justin, my boyfriend eats them)
- Nuts and seeds
- Tofu/Tempeh – not every week.
Dairy: (I also had to quit this…)
- Greek Yogurt
- Cottage Cheese
- Almond milk or Silk’s protein-nut milk
- Coconut milk (the full fat kind in the can)
Produce: This part varries a lot from week to week but below are some that are almost always on the list
- Bell peppers
- Fruit – whatever is in season or on sale. Mix it up from week to week.
- Sweet potatoes or white potatoes
Pantry Staples: These are things I don’t buy every week but I tend to just keep a steady supply of on hand, or I’ll stock up when I find them on sale
- Spices – ALL THE SPICES. If your spice cabinet is bare start with some essentials:
- garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder, italian seasoning, paprika, rosemary, basil
- Condiments – hot sauce, sriracha, honey, mustard, soy sauce (low sodium)
- Oils – olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, sesame oil
- Nuts and peanut butter (Harris Teeter has really cheap all-natural peanut butter. The others I make myself)
More ideas can be found on my Clean Eater’s Meal Plan Template and Shopping List:
Prep work comes down to a few different things but basically it’s the preparation of the food before it gets cooked. A lot of times this is most consuming part of any recipe. So let’s look at this in more detail…
Wash Produce – yes almost all your produce should be washed to get rid of unwanted pesticides and germs from other people in the store touching them. I have a veggie scrubber I like to use on most things. Berries I like to soak in water and vinegar for about 20 minutes then pat dry and store in glass containers or their original plastic.
Chop – onions, peppers, broccoli, potatoes…etc. Things that need chopping can be chopped ahead of time (be weary of white or red potatoes though, they brown kind of like apples do). Chop them according to what recipe you’re cooking them with – do they need to be diced or sliced into long strips? Things like that to keep in mind. Here’s a chance to also chop up any veggies or fruit to snack on during that week. That way it’s just grab-and-go and you’re more likely to make that healthy choice. You also only wash your cutting board once if you do it all in one day.
Marinate – Anything you’re making that requires meat to marinate, now is a good time to get it started. Trim the fat off your chicken, pork, or whatever protein you chose. Mix together your marinade ingredients in a gallon Ziploc bag and stick your meat in there and lay it flat in the fridge so it has a few hours or a day to soak in the flavors.
Some easy marinade recipes:
Make sauces/condiments – Part of making meal prep healthy for me is making my own sauces or condiments for things. If it comes in a bottle and it’s more than 5 ingredients it’s usually not on my shopping list. Some examples:
I don’t always prep these ahead of time, but it can be convenient to already have the sauce made when it comes time to pour it in the dish you’re prepping. If you’re just starting out, keep it simple and look for some of the healthier condiment options: dijon mustard, hot sauce, low sodium soy sauce and balsamic vinegar are good starts.
A lot of this can be done before you even put your groceries away. Keep out what you know you can start preparing. This will save time, and save some space in your fridge as well, since prepped food tends to take up less space.
Here’s the fun part! There are different ways to go about cooking meals. Here are some options.
- Crockpot shredded chicken – simply place chicken breasts in the crockpot with a little salt and pepper on high for 2-3 hours or low for 6-8. Remove and shred with a fork, or if you’re fancy a Kitchenaid stand mixer with the paddle attachment works way faster.Ways to use shredded chicken:
Easy Fajita Chicken Quinoa Meal Prep Bowls
Thai Peanut Chicken Salad Bowls
Buffalo Chicken Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Chicken, Pesto, Mushroom, Spinach and Artichoke Pizza
- Baked Chicken – Season, cover, and bake at 375 for 30-45 minutes depending on breast thickness.A few seasoning ideas:
- Mrs. Dash’s salt free chicken seasoning
- Lemon Pepper and Garlic
- Cumin, Paprika, and sea salt
- Italian Seasoning
- Rosemary and Garlic
Then you can pair your chicken with some of your favorite roasted vegetables or a side salad.
- Ground Turkey – large pans are useful here if you just want to brown it and put it in different meals. I also like to batch cook burgers. Here are some great ground turkey recipes.
Cheddar Onion Burgers
Teriyaki Turkey Wraps
- Lentils or Quinoa – boil on stove and simmer until the water has been absorbed. Quinoa takes about 10 minutes while lentils take closer to 30 minutes. I almost always use quinoa in place of rice in dishes because it’s a complete protein, whereas rice needs beans alongside it to make a complete protein.
- Roasting is a favorite and fairly hands off. I’ll do this with most vegetables. Line a baking sheet or two with foil, place your chopped vegetables in single layers, brush with oil and season to your liking. Baking times and temps vary depending on what you cook but I usually set the oven around 400. Fast cooking vegetables are peppers, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes. Slower ones are potatoes, winter squash, broccoli/cauliflower and carrots…to name a few.
- Sauteeing – caramelized onions are a favorite of mine so I’ll make a big batch of them to throw in/on things over the week.
- Steaming/Boiling – Broccoli or cauliflower are good candidates for this (but I’m a bigger fan of how they taste when roasted). It’s really easy to throw some in a large microwave safe bowl with a little water, cover and microwave for about 7 minutes.
- Easiest option: Buy frozen steamable bags and cook according to the microwave directions. OR even less cooking required is to throw together a simple side salad.
- Batch cook quinoa and/or rice. Extras can always be frozen.
- Bake several sweet potatoes to have alongside meals throughout the week – Poke holes in them, wrap in foil, and bake for 30-60 minutes on 400 degrees. Baking time varies by size so just check on them here and there. When my diet is high-carb I use these as snacks during the day, or even dessert.
- Beans – if you buy dry beans soak and cook a ton at once. Freeze what you don’t use. I cut this part of the work out and go with canned. They aren’t as good for you because of the toxins in cans but it’s a risk I take.
Cooking By Recipe
Of course you always have the option to just try out a new recipe. A lot of times it will list the number of servings and exactly how much of every ingredient you need so you can take the guesswork out of quantities. Start with some basic ones with minimal ingredients until you feel more comfortable with cooking techniques and want to try something fancier. Cook when it’s an actual meal time so you can eat one serving fresh. Follow the instructions and after you’ve eaten your serving, pack the rest up in the right number of portions according to the recipe and you’re done!
6. Package and Clean
Packaging meals into individual containers makes it easy to grab one and go in the morning. If desired, you can weigh or measure your portions to make sure your meal is balanced. See this article for a guide to eating for your body type. I usually abide by some simple rules: 1/2 cup of starch, 4-6oz of protein, 2tbsp healthy fat. I’ve learned to eyeball these portion sizes over the years but there’s nothing wrong with measuring it out at first, especially if your goal is weight loss.
If you batch cooked various ingredients, you can get creative by making different combinations. Chose one protein, vegetable and starch for each meal. Spice things up with hot sauce, avocado, hummus, or whatever other sauce you might have made or bought. To make it even more simple, just season it with whatever you like.
If you followed a recipe you found you don’t need this strategy. Simply portion it out equally into the appropriate number of containers. Using the portion suggestions in the above article, and the quantity of food you used you should be able to calculate how many servings it should make if the recipe didn’t say so.
Using your Freezer:
Made too much of something? Freeze it! I use freezer bags. Quart sized are for portioning it out individually so I can pull one meal out as needed. Gallon sized are for meals I’ll plan to just thaw out all at once for another week’s meal prep. Always write on the bag what it is and the month/year (just in case). I find I have to use masking tape and Sharpie though because the marker wears off of the bag after being frozen – even if it has a designated spot for a label.
Then you just have to clean. There’s a method to this madness too. I try to minimize dishes as I cook. This is one of the benefits to meal prepping – wash everything at once, one time and you barely have to touch another dish all week. Use the same cutting board and knife for all my produce. Reuse pans for different things – they may just need a quick wipe. Rinse out mixing bowls in-between uses. Then stack everything up in the sinks and disregard it until everything is cooked and packaged up. Knock out the dish-washing, wipe down the counters, sinks and stove, and sweep the floor. You’re done! Now you can enjoy one of the meals you just made.
What About Breakfast?
Not a morning person? Too busy rushing out the door to eat? No worries you can prep breakfast ahead of time too!
Here are some things I suggest for breakfast:
- Egg Muffins
- Overnight Oats
- Sautee various vegetables to throw in omelettes or scrambled eggs
- Chicken sausage or bacon – cook it all at once and save to eat throughout the week
- Oatmeal Bakes
- Egg Bakes/Fritattas
- Pancakes or Waffles – these typically freeze well or you can refrigerate for the next day (I reheat them in the toaster).
If you don’t have time to prep breakfast ahead of time with the other meal prep you do here are some quick options:
- Protein shakes
- Quick Protein Oatmeal
- Scrambled eggs and spinach with a slice of peanut butter toast
- NOTE: you can scramble 2 servings of eggs and veggies so you have some ready for another busy morning that week.
- Parfait with homemade granola
Start small. Focus on your nutritionally weakest meal and prep just that one for a week or two. Use small changes in the types of meals you make too. Swap out the starches for whole grains, the sugars for fruit, and pile on more vegetables.
Create a Routine. It won’t become habit unless it’s part of your weekly schedule. Allow some flexibility in it for when special occasions pop up.
Keep it simple. You don’t need to start with fancy recipe you found on pinterest. Prep some simple items like crockpot chicken, roasted vegetables, and lots of quinoa or rice and you can throw it in containers with a variety of spices or other healthy condiments.
Build on good habits. Overtime, meal prep should become a part of your lifestyle. As you start mastering the first couple of things you try, build on them by asking yourself “how can I do a little bit better?”. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Aim for “good enough” or “a little better than last week” and you’ll be setting yourself up for long term success.
Don’t get discouraged. Things will take time to learn. I always struggled with timing everything to be done at the same time, or just underestimating how long it would take to make a meal in general. I still to do this day overcook chicken breast on occasion or accidentally leave out an ingredient in something because I’m rushing. We’re not perfect and the most you can do is being consistent with new habits and then continue to improve on them.
To help get you started I made a meal planning template and clean-eaters’ approved shopping list for you! Download it here!