Meal Prep Like a Pro

By: Jessica Cording

Tired of blowing money on takeout or scrounging together meals that consist of random stuff? Struggling to eat healthy on the fly? If this sounds like you, maybe it’s time to join the #MealPrepSunday party.  Though it doesn’t technically have to be on a Sunday, taking a few hours to prepare foods for the days ahead can save you time and money and make it easy to stick to your healthy living goals no matter what kind of crazy the week throws at you.  

Feeding yourself healthy food is one of the most basic forms of self-care. If you’re building your empire, you need to fuel yourself well. These tips will help you get into a groove with creating an assortment of healthy, tasty foods you can use to assemble nourishing meals and snacks through the week and show off your your meal prep prowess on  social media. Who knew breaking up with Seamless could be so delicious?

Get Clear On Your “Why”

Getting clear on what you want to accomplish through meal prepping will help you know what to prioritize. Whether you’re looking to make breakfast a habit, save money at lunchtime, or step things up at dinner, tuning it to your priorities will give you a starting point when figuring out what you need to prep in the first place.

If writing down your goals or posting about it to your blog or social networks will help you stick to it, share away! Never underestimate the power of accountability.  This is also a great way to link up with others who may have similar goals so you can share ideas and resources with each other.  

Photo courtesy of Priscilla Fong via Unsplash

Photo courtesy of Priscilla Fong via Unsplash

Plan It Out

Take a few minutes to look over your schedule for the coming week. Do you have any meals scheduled out or times you know you’ll need something quick and easy at the ready? Jot down the foods you’ll make and some notes about what to buy or order if you’re out.

Congrats—you just made a meal plan. Just make sure you put it someplace you’ll see it. You could use a meal planning app, your calendar, the notes section of your phone, or even old-fashioned paper and pen or a whiteboard on your fridge.

You know yourself best, so choose what you know will work for you, even if your best friend is pushing some celebrity-endorsed program or if that “but he means well” dude from the office won’t shut up about the app he and his live-in girlfriend love to make good use of their weekly farmers market haul. You do you.

You also want to make sure you have the equipment and storage containers you’ll need. That means pots and pans, baking sheets, maybe a slow cooker or pressure cooker, and at the very least, an 8-inch chef’s knife. Outfitting your operation with plenty of clear storage containers in a variety of sizes will help you quickly find what you need in the fridge and freezer when you’re ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Make A Date

Block out time in your schedule to hit the grocery store (or schedule a delivery) and prepare food. You might want to overestimate at first until you know how long it really takes you. Nothing is worse than budgeting for 2 hours before you have to go out and then realizing those chicken breasts in the oven are still practically raw in the middle and you were supposed to be out the door five minutes ago.  If it’s easier, you can even break it up into smaller chunks of time—say one hour on Saturday and then one hour on Sunday. Or maybe Wednesday is your meal prep day when you know you have three solid hours to commit.

If you’re feeling at all intimidated or dreading it, try reframing meal prep as something you’re doing to take care of yourself and feel well. Turn on your favorite music or a podcast you want to catch up on while you work. If it will make it more fun, join forces with a pal. Cooking together is a great way to bond and catch up while also doing something healthy. Added bonus: you’ll think happy thoughts about your #mealprep party all week long and keep that midweek funk from creeping in.

Cover Your Food Group Bases

You know how some grocery stores and delis have gorgeous salad and hot food bars shoppers can pick and choose from? You can turn your fridge into an at-home version. This will allow you to assemble healthy meals and snacks from those pre-prepped ingredients.

Aim for a variety of foods from the different food groups so you have a balance of the nutrients you need.  Ideally, you want a combination of protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats at meals. Aim to fill half your lunch and dinner plate (or bowl) with non-starchy veggies, one quarter with protein, and one quarter with some kind of carbohydrate, whether it’s a grain, fruit, or starchy vegetable.

Need some inspiration? Make a Pinterest board to keep track of recipes and meal prep tips you want to try.

Here are some basics to get started with.

Photo Courtesy of Katie Smith via Unsplash

Photo Courtesy of Katie Smith via Unsplash

Proteins:

  • Grill, sauté, bake, or slow-cook some chicken. Boneless skinless breasts get all the healthy living love, but boneless, skinless thighs are very similar in nutrient profile but are more flavorful and more forgiving when it comes to cooking. They also tend to be less expensive, meaning your dollar can stretch further when purchasing organic poultry. If you want to make a lot of chicken, you can portion it out into single-serving containers and store in the freezer.
  • Meatballs are super-handy for adding to salads, pasta (or spiralized veggie) dishes, or soups. Baking instead of frying cuts calories and keeps clean-up simpler. Swapping in rolled oats for breadcrumbs is another healthy hack for upping the fiber content and keeping sodium in check. Meatballs also make a great vehicle for veggies—try shredded zucchini, chopped spinach, or finely chopped mushrooms.
  • Hard-boiled eggs make a convenient snack or salad topper. Slicing one up makes a great addition to avocado toast. Here’s my no-fail recipe.   
  • Baked tofu and tempeh are great vegetarian protein sources that suit a variety of dishes. Let it marinate for an hour or two before cooking if you want to add flavor.
  • Stock up on single-serving cans of tuna, sardines, and mackerel for on-the-go fish options you can toss in your lunch bag and add to salads or into a sandwich.

Vegetables:

  • Trim and wash your greens and veggies so you only have to do it once.
  • Throw together a few salads and keep in airtight storage containers or large mason jars in the fridge. To prevent them from wilting, wait to add dressing until  you’re ready to eat.
  • Roasting is one of the easiest meal prep methods because you can pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F, toss your chopped veggies with olive oil, and roast until crispy. Just be sure to shake the pans a few times to prevent sticking. A few to try: broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, sliced zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and summer squash.  
  • A big sauté or stir-fry of greens and veggies can be used in many different ways through the week. Keep seasoning neutral to give you more options later.
  • Experiment with riced cauliflower, spiraled zucchini noodles, or spaghetti squash as pasta and rice substitutes.  
  • Keep frozen vegetables on hand for busy weeks when you need something you can quickly throw in the  microwave.

Carbohydrates:

  • Make a big pot of a whole grain like brown rice, farro, or quinoa to add to salads, stir-fries, or even to enjoy for breakfast either with nut butter and fruit or savory-style with veggies and an egg on top.
  • Beans, peas, and lentils are also great sources of slow-burning complex carbohydrates and can be used in place of grains.
  • Starchy veggies like potatoes, winter squash, and corn are all also carbohydrates that are easy to prep in advance. Roasted sweet potato or butternut squash, for example, are delicious served with salmon and asparagus or another green veggie.
  • Oatmeal fan? Make a large batch of steel cut oats and portion out into single-serving containers. Baked oatmeal is another easy make-ahead option you can cut into individual pieces.

Fats:

  • Use a healthy cooking oil like olive oil or sunflower seed oil, or spring for grass-fed butter.
  • If you’re dairy-free, coconut oil makes a great  butter substitute in cooking and baking. -Other healthy sources of fat include nuts, seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, hemp, flax, etc), and avocado. Including a little bit of fat at each meal allows you to meet your needs without overdoing it.

There’s No Shame in Shortcuts

Running low on time? It’s totally okay to streamline your meal prep by using pre-chopped or frozen veggies, pre-cooked meat, or canned beans. If you don’t have time to slave over the stove or watch the oven, use a slow cooker or pressure cooker to trim on hands-on time. Another awesome time-saver is individually wrapped servings of things like nuts, trail mix, and dry-roasted edamame. Single portions of cheese or handy items like string cheese and mini packs of hummus and guacamole are great too.

Where you place things in the fridge can save time too. Storing food in glass or other clear storage containers will help you quickly see what’s inside. Keep the healthy stuff at eye level and within easy reach. You’re more likely to make good choices when you make it convenient.

If You Want To Breakfast Like A Boss

  • Make overnight oats by combining plain Greek yogurt and/or milk, a tablespoon each of chia seeds and ground flax, plus vanilla extract, cinnamon, and ½ cup berries. Allow to sit, covered, overnight in the fridge. Breakfast is ready when you are. Instagram-y mason jars optional.
  • Make a large frittata, baked omelet, or a batch of egg-and-veggie muffins for an on-the-go savory morning meal. Breakfast sandwiches and burritos can also be prepped ahead of time and stored in the freezer.
  • Portion a large batch of oatmeal and into single-serving containers for reheating or make baked oatmeal and cut into individual squares.
  • If you like smoothies, make Ziploc smoothie packs, with frozen fruit and greens so all you have to do is add ice, liquid, and any other add-ins you like when you’re ready to blend it up.

If You Want To Up Your Lunch Game

  • Top a simple salad base with leftover roasted veggies and your favorite protein. Add a tablespoon of cheese, chopped nuts, or seeds for a fun garnish. A simple dressing of olive oil and vinegar is a great alternative to bottled stuff. To prevent sogginess, wait until you’re ready to eat to dress it. Either store dressing in the fridge at work or bring in a separate portable container.
  • Leftover chili and stew are great for lunch the next day. Sneak in extra veggies by eating over cauliflower rice and adding some greens like baby spinach or kale.
  • Make-ahead grain bowls with roasted veggies are delicious warm or cold. Top with your favorite protein like chicken or tofu or pack a couple boiled eggs to slice and enjoy on top.
Photo courtesy of monstruo-estudio-573 via Unsplash

Photo courtesy of monstruo-estudio-573 via Unsplash

If You Need Delish Dinner Ideas

  • Pulled chicken made in the slow cooker can be repurposed in soups, salads, and pasta dishes. Play with different seasonings and flavors to mix things up.
  • Make a taco-inspired bowl with cauliflower rice, black beans, and cooked peppers. Top your bowl with a spoonful each of plain Greek yogurt and salsa plus avocado slices.
  • Zucchini noodles and baked meatballs are a great lower-carb take on the traditional pasta dish that’s filling and delicious. Enjoy leftover meatballs over salad the next day.
  • Try a savory breakfast-for-dinner twist by cooking leftover veggies into an omelet or frittata. Serve with whole grain or sweet potato toast.
  • Combine cooked beans with veggies and top with a poached or fried egg.
  • Make a large pot of soup, stew or chili and freeze some for the future.
  • Bake a casserole and portion out into single servings. Freeze one or two extra.

Simple Snack Hacks

  • Make your own trail mix. Shake up one cup of mixed nuts, ¼ cup of of dried fruit, and 2 tablespoons chocolate chips. Divide between 5 Ziplock bags or other resealable containers.
  • Hummus takes just minutes to prepare. Place cooked beans or lentils in a blender or food processor with tahini, olive oil, and any spices you like. You can also experiment with adding in cooked veggies like roasted pepper or beets. Puree until smooth, thinning out with a tiny bit of water if needed. You can portion it out into single-serving containers and use as a dip for your favorite sliced veggies.
  • Enjoy half a leftover baked sweet potato warmed up and topped with a teaspoon of peanut butter
  • Ground flax or chia seeds and cinnamon make great mix-ins to plain Greek yogurt.

Jess Cording, MS, RD, CDN

Jess Cording, MS, RD, CDN

Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN is a registered dietitian, nutrition communications consultant, and writer with a passion for helping others experience a happier, calmer life through drama-free healthy eating. Through her writing, consulting, public speaking and counseling, she works with individuals, food companies, healthcare companies, and the media to help make delicious, nourishing food approachable and enjoyable. She blogs at Jessica Cording Nutrition. For regular updates about nutrition and wellness, follow her on Twitter | Instagram | Facebook  | Pinterest