I’m sure you’ve seen it: perfectly portioned tupperware containers with a fist-sized amount of chicken, steamed broccoli, and brown rice. It’s the lifestyle that all the gurus are advocating for. The lifestyle that will help you lose those last 5 pounds, cure your chronic fatigue, allow the time during the week to earn that promotion, and help you save the planet. All done in 15 minutes on Sunday.
I’m not knocking this approach by any means. It is awesome for those that have the skills, knowledge, and drive to do it.
But for most people? This is super overwhelming.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to spend my Sunday’s going running, visiting local breweries, and spending time with family and friends (and blogging, apparently.)
But is there another way to “meal prep”? One that’s less overwhelming?
Keep reading for a dietitian’s take on some quick meal prep ideas and some useful shortcuts.
What is Meal Prep?
“Meal prep” refers to preparing your meals in advance. Meal prep and planning can be as simple as deciding you want tacos on Tuesday or as complex as bulk preparing all of your meals once a month. There’s no right way to do it, and no one way that will work for all.
Benefits of Meal Prep
There is no doubt that meal prepping provides ample benefits. For example, it allows you to:
Generally, buying in bulk saves money, so if you are eating the same thing every day, you could save cash by that logic. In addition, you are not buying many different ingredients for different meals that will inevitably go bad if you don’t have another plan for them. Lastly, having meals ready to go may prevent you from falling back on fast food or takeout when you forget your lunch.
Reduce decision fatigue.
Decision fatigue is burnout that results from making decisions. It is the dread and anxiety that you feel when you hear the obligatory question “what’s for dinner?” Meal prepping eliminates this decision.
It is hard to make healthy food choices when you are starving. Meal prep reduces this risk because you already have your meal ready to go when you realize you are hungry! You will be less tempted to stop at the drive through or get takeout with coworkers.
By having a well laid-out plan for the week, waste is reduced. If you are eating the same thing daily, you are less likely to have a half-eaten head of cabbage in your fridge waiting to be used for something “later this week”.
Save time during the week.
By having everything prepared ahead of time, you will save time by not having to prepare your meals every day of the week.
Clearly, there are some major benefits to meal prep! It may truly help you achieve your weight management goals and help streamline your week. However, there are some drawbacks to this typical approach.
Drawbacks of Meal Prep
It takes time on already busy weekends.
If you’re still reading, you probably know that Pinterest-worthy meal prep does not actually happen in 15 minutes on Sunday. For many people it can take hours. As a dietitian, I feel strongly that we should care about what we put into our bodies, but for many it is just not the first priority.
So.many.ingredients. And the recipe wants you to cook rice and simultaneously prevent the chicken from overcooking. Also, did you remember to take the chicken out this morning to marinate? This overwhelm can make it difficult to even research recipes to make.
For a lot of people, these drawbacks can be deterrents to even trying to meal prep. And if this describes you, keep reading for some “good enough” tips for designing your weekly meals and shortcuts to fit principles of meal prep into your lifestyle.
What Should be in Your Meal Prep?
To make a balanced meal that is filling and satisfying, you should aim to include every macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) along with a fruit or a vegetable. Carbohydrates provide energy, protein fills you up, and fat keeps you full. Fruits and vegetables provide fiber, vitamins, and minerals to prevent disease.
Beyond those principles, there is no perfect diet. Experiment with different foods, recipes, and eating patterns to see what works for you.
Tips to Get Started with Meal Prep
If you are overwhelmed with the idea of meal prep, it can be hard to take the first step! Focus on the following tips to get started.
- Start small. Pick one meal to start with.
- Build on what you already know and can prepare. Currently doing sandwiches? Build on that! For instance, add a side salad or veggies with a fun dip to go along.
- Narrow your recipe search. Google and Pinterest are wonderful resources, however they can take you down a rabbit hole of unlimited recipe options. Try narrowing your search by using one cookbook or focusing on one ingredient in your search
- Space out the recipe experiments and keep it simple. You can always build on later.
- Don’t be afraid to substitute ingredients. Use what you like and have on hand, including vegetables, starches, and proteins. If you are not sure if it will work, google it!
- Document what you did and how it came out. Did you like it? Would you do anything different next time? Don’t assume you will remember these details.
Meal Prep Shortcuts
In a perfect world, we would eat foods that were grown and raised in our backyard with all fresh ingredients.
That is not the reality for most people. And it is also not necessary for a healthy diet! Don’t be afraid to turn to some convenient, dare I say “processed” foods to make your life easier.
- Rotisserie chicken in place of grilling/baking chicken breast
- Instant brown rice (either boil in bag or 90-second microwaveable varieties)
- Frozen vegetables instead of fresh vegetables. Some manufacturers are even adding frozen grilled and roasted vegetables to their product lines.
- Pre-cut vegetables to save time chopping, or make use of your grocery store’s salad bar for small amounts of prepared vegetables.
- Bags of microwave potatoes in place of baking potatoes
- Precooked proteins including grilled chicken pieces, chicken sausage, and deli meats. Look for low-sodium or no-salt-added versions if you are trying to limit sodium.
- Use canned beans/lentils or frozen veggie burgers for easy protein options.
Planning meals and prepping for your week has benefits. That being said, recognize that meal prep can mean a variety of different things. Remove the blinders that tell you it needs to look a certain way to count or be healthy. Something is better than nothing. That picture of pizza in the tupperware containers up there? Still better than nothing!
- Do you meal prep?
- Any favorite recipes to make?