I hate what social media has done to meal prep.
Meal prep used to be the fitness buff’s playground. The pride and joy, show and tell, bread and butter of health enthusiasts everywhere.
Now, people operate under the misconception that meal prep needs to be this days long process that is only worth anything if it’s made from Uber clickable, extremely complex and exotic recipes that require impeccable culinary skills.
Anything less wouldn’t garner quite the engagement right? Come on people likes are money!
Having a solid meal prep routine, however, can be a game changer (and, for some, a life changer) when it comes to reaching fitness, weight loss and wellness goals. BUT! Not all meal prep needs to contain grass-fed beef and all organic produce to be worth the effort.
If you have macro or calorie goals to meet, meal prepping is almost non-negotiable if you want to survive. Furthermore, you can’t put a price tag on knowing exactly what’s in your food ingredient, calorie and macro wise and having complete control over your intake.
However, you can put a price tag on all of that DoorDash (you know who you are!). Luckily, you’re reading the blog of a lazy dietitian.
One who loves to stay prepared with food and loves cooking, but also needs to maximize her time for naps and video games. That said, let me share with you some of my best practices:
1.) Add It To Your Schedule
If there’s one thing I know about busy professionals and myself alike, if it ain’t on the calendar, it ain’t happening. So, schedule a slot to do your meal prep on your calendar just like you would any other meeting or obligation to improve your odds of actually getting it done.
Pick a day that you have the most spare time and carve out some space for recipe picking, grocery shopping and cooking. Give yourself 1-2 hours of padding on your designated time to account for unforeseen circumstances (like mom calling you while you’re sorting through recipes or you totally burning that first pot of rice) to prevent anything from cutting your process short.
2.) Bulk Cook Your Protein
This is one of my favorite methods to teach my clients who want to start meal prepping, but hate the idea of eating the same meal all week long. Cook five servings (or however many servings for however many days you plan to meal prep) of your favorite protein using an oven, air fryer or Instant Pot.
This could look like seasoning up some salmon or tilapia and roasting it or making pulled BBQ chicken (perfectly cooked, of course) in your Instant pot. Then, incorporate these proteins into meals by adding different sides.
Say you go with the pulled BBQ chicken idea. Throughout the week, you can eat the chicken on a bun one day, add it to pasta with some roasted veggies the next day, then maybe in some tacos or stuffed into a sweet potato.
You get where I’m going with this?
For the sake of variety, some may have to do some day-of prepping and cooking for the sides. However, you can cut down on some of this by also roasting some vegetables in bulk or boiling up some rice and pasta, then doing the assembly the day you plan to eat your chosen meal.
Is your mind blown yet? Good. Let’s keep going.
3.) Go to the Grocery Store with a Plan
One big reason people throw in the towel before they’ve barely even gotten started with meal prep is because they get overwhelmed with the choices at the store. Alternatively, they wander around just throwing things into their basket that look good without any cohesive plan.
So, pick the recipes you want and make a grocery list to execute them long before you’ve even slipped those store-going slippers on. Make sure you have enough ingredients to cook for the week and even note some plan b alternatives for any obscure ingredients that the store may not carry.
Not only can this help you get in and out, but you’ll feel much more satisfied walking out of the checkout knowing you have exactly what you need to make some delicious, weeklong goodness.
4.) Stock Up On Canned or Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Listen, I’m going to say it. Yes, as a dietitian, I not only fully endorse canned and frozen produce, but I use them liberally in my own cooking. Why?
For starters, science has shown that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are no more nutritionally inferior than fresh. In fact, they can sometimes be more nutritious. For example, canned tomatoes must be heated to seal the can in the canning process and heated tomatoes contain two times more of the antioxidant lycopene than fresh tomatoes.
Also, frozen vegetables are picked at the peak of their ripeness and then flash frozen, meaning that they contain optimal nutritional potency by the time you’re ready to cook them, almost as if they’re frozen in time as well. Compare this to the produce that has been sitting on the shelves for who knows how long (and this doesn’t even count the time it took to travel across the country to get there) and it’s safe to say which one has more nutrition.
Finally, canned and frozen produce cuts down on food waste as they can be kept on hand for months or even years without going bad. For any of you that have had to shamefully toss out those forgotten onions in the back of your fridge, that’s gotta hit home.
5.) Make Use of Sheet Pan Recipes
Some of my FAVORITE go-to meal prep recipes are sheet pan recipes. So, if you have absolutely no clue where to start on meal ideas and aren’t a cookbook kinda person, Google your favorite protein + sheet pan and witness a gold mine.
What’s great about sheet pan recipes is that everything tends to cook all at once on one piece of equipment which means minimal equipment is needed, but (most importantly) it also means less dishes. Want an even better hack? Line your pan with aluminum foil before adding your ingredients and then toss the foil after cooking; more often than not the sheet pan comes out just as clean when you’re done.
6.) Don’t Get Discouraged By Upfront Costs
If you’re taking up doing meal prepping for the first time, I should caution you about the up front costs. This means how much it costs to buy pantry items like herbs and spices along with staple foods like brown rice and beans.
Even though you’ll likely use these items in many meals for weeks or even months to come, buying everything for the first time can seem very expensive. Just know that this is an investment to stay stocked for future meals. A 5 pound bag of rice might seem pricey at the time, but if it can go towards making dozens of meals in the future, you’ll still end up saving in the long run.
Basically, don’t let your first time buys color your perception of the cost of meal prep. If it helps, I bulk buy my favorite seasonings (garlic powder, onion powder, ground ginger, black pepper) on Amazon and have them all in big tubs. Been using those bad boys for about 3 months running now!
7.) Go Back To Your Childhood
Remember when I said that you don’t need to make super exotic recipes with 15 different components that take 6 hours to prep and cook? Well, I meant it.
For people who are looking for simple meal ideas for meal prep but come up short, I tell them to go back to their childhood and think of the meals they loved as a kid. Spaghetti with meat sauce? Chili? Chicken Noodle Soup? Cook these meals in bulk and portion them out for meal prep!
One reason this is a logical hack is because the same foods your parents gave you as a kid are likely easy to make and simple in composition. This means it likely requires minimal culinary skill or time to replicate them for your adult palate.
Also, if you loved these meals as a kid, you probably still like them as an adult, so it’s a safer bet than prepping a new recipe for the week that you may end up disliking and then stuck with. Finally, if you do choose one of these meals, you can always elevate it to be more adult and balanced. For instance, if you choose spaghetti, use whole wheat noodles and add some fresh tomatoes or roasted zucchini to boost the nutrition.
8.) Make Extra At Dinner
Last, but not least, if the whole cook-on-the-weekend-and-portion-everything-into-designated-tupperware-containers thing is not your vibe, consider just making extra during the meals you cook at home. If you cook dinner yourself…make some extra portions.
You can always use the leftovers as “meal prep” which can become your lunches for the week to bring to work. If you’re not afraid of leftovers, this is arguably the most foolproof way to meal prep. Simple…but effective!
The Bottom Line on Easier Meal Prep?
All joking aside, it’s not just about laziness. No matter how simple, even the easiest meal prep can seem difficult to the busy professional or overwhelmed parent. That’s why cutting some corners (without compromising nutrition) is something to be proud of rather than frowned upon because it likely wouldn’t get you many views.
When considering the ideas above, please remember than your selected meals should always be balanced to include a source of lean protein, a carb and plenty of fruits or vegetables to ensure you’re still getting proper nutrition. Hitting your macros is cool and all, but nourishing yourself with balanced meals should always be the highest priority.