How To Meal Prep

Aug 16, 2022 Healthy Eating

How To Meal Prep

Quick Health Scoop

  • Meal prep empowers you to eat healthfully, save time, and spend less money on food.
  • A healthy meal prep approach can align with your specific wellness goals, lifestyle, schedule, and dietary needs.
  • Meal prep tips include choosing a less busy day to prep, starting with simple meal prep recipes, and stocking up on ingredients.
  • Meal prepping can take as little as a few minutes to several hours depending on what approach you use.

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re working late and starving as you drive home. You’ve got zero energy to cook and the fridge is looking bare anyway. You stop for a quick takeout meal on your way home to ensure you’ve got something to eat for dinner.

Besides being more expensive, takeout meals are often harder on the waistline than if you made a home-cooked meal. In fact, eating out is a risk factor for increased calories and unhealthy fat intake and decreased nutrient intake. [1]

But with such a busy lifestyle, it’s often hard to find time to cook healthy meals. It might feel like a never-ending cycle, you have good intentions of cooking at home but end up grabbing dinner out at the end of the day. However, with a little bit of planning, you can take control of your diet to ensure you eat healthy, balanced meals all week long. How?

Say hello to meal prep—the simple idea of preparing ingredients, dishes, or even entire meals ahead of time. The benefits of meal prep include:

  • eating healthier, balanced meals and snacks
  • saving time
  • saving money
  • helping with weight control
  • reducing stress

If the benefits of meal prepping align with your busy lifestyle and desire to eat healthy, you might want to learn how to do it. Looking for some healthy meal prep ideas as well as tips for meal prepping? Read on!

How To Start Meal Prepping

Begin with the following basic meal prepping tips.

Pick a day to do meal prep. For many people, that means a non-workday, like a Saturday or Sunday. Plus, since kids will be off of school, you can enlist them to pitch in.

Choose budget-friendly recipes. To make meal-prepping more affordable and reduce food waste, stick to recipes with ingredients you already have in your fridge or pantry. If you do need to buy any ingredients, save even more money by planning meals around what’s on sale (such as buy-one-get-one-free chicken breasts).

Create a grocery list based on your meals. You’ll need to regularly buy perishable foods like milk, whole grain bread, and fresh produce. Review what ingredients your meal-prep recipes require, then check your pantry, fridge, and freezer to see what you have and what you’ll need to buy. Bonus: When you make (and stick to) a shopping list, not only will it keep you organized but you’re less likely to cave into impulse buys like ice cream and potato chips.

Stock up on supplies. Beyond buying ingredients, including stocking your pantry, you’ll need a variety of meal prep containers to store prepped food. Go the environmentally friendly route and choose reusable containers such as glass, stainless steel, silicone, or BPA-free plastic.Make sure they’re airtight, dishwasher safe, and leakproof. Some meal prep containers can safely go in the microwave or freezer, too. Tip: Buying similarly shaped containers (such as squares or rectangles) allows you to stack them in your cupboard and refrigerator to maximize space. Also, using see-through containers such as glass has the added time saving benefit of being able to see what is inside the container.

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How To Meal Prep For Beginners

Now that you’ve mastered the meal prep basics, it’s time to dig into some hands-on specifics.

Clean fresh fruits and vegetables. Do this as soon as you come home from the grocery store. You want fresh, healthy foods ready to eat or to cook with. Wash certain foods (like apples and baby carrots) so they’re accessible as grab-and-go snacks. Wash other foods and cut into bite-size pieces (think broccoli and onions) to quickly add to recipes and cut down on meal prep throughout the week. Tip: To keep produce fresher longer, line storage containers with paper towels to absorb excess moisture.

Start with simple dishes. If you’re new to meal prepping, focus on easy-but-healthy meal prep recipes. They’ll be simple to make, full of nutrients, and can be stored in the fridge for several days. For instance, you could make these meal prep ideas that can easily be added to a variety of meals: [2]

  • Healthy carbs: quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta
  • Easy-to-prepare proteins: hard-boiled eggs, chicken breasts, ground beef/turkey
  • Vegan/vegetarian options: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, airfried/baked tofu

Customize meal prep ideas to meet your needs. A healthy meal prep approach can align with your lifestyle, schedule, wellness goals, and dietary needs. Here are just a few examples of how to personalize meal prepping to suit what works for you:

  • Breakfast meal prep: Try smoothies, overnight oats, fresh fruit, and vegetable omelets.
  • Meal prep lunch ideas: Focus on salads and include your easy to prepare proteins and vegan options for variety, sandwiches (made with whole-grain bread or tortilla, lean protein, low-fat cheese, vegetables), and healthy dinner leftovers.
  • Vegan meal prep: Make grain bowls, bean burritos, chia pudding, smoothies with plant-based milk, and pasta salad with veggies.
  • Vegetarian meal prep: Try vegetable soups, bean stews, zucchini noodles with marinara sauce, and tofu stir fry.
  • Keto meal prep: Focus on low-carb, high-fat keto options like yogurt parfaits, hard-boiled egg sandwiches, salmon on a bed of kale, and chicken-and-vegetable lettuce wraps.

How Long Do Meal Preps Last?

Some people spend an entire Sunday afternoon meal prepping for the coming week. Sure, that’s one way to do it. But that’s not the only way. Here are just a few meal prep ideas to consider, starting with the least amount of time involved to the most time-intensive—all dependent upon ingredients, recipe complexity, and quantity. Choose what works for your schedule and lifestyle.

  • Cold-prep ingredients: With this easy meal prep approach, you’ll save time but you don’t need to do any cooking yet. This method involves washing/cutting/portioning specific ingredients you’ll need for the week’s meals and snacks. This might mean dicing two cups of onions you’ll use in two different dinner recipes and storing them in the fridge.Other good vegetables to food prep include broccoli, cauliflower or squash that can be added to a variety of recipes. Or it could mean portioning out baby carrots in grab-n-go containers to include in your kids’ school lunches.
    Time: a few minutes to an hour or more
  • Batch-cook ingredients. The idea is to cook once, use twice. If you’re planning two meals with lean ground beef this week (think tacos and spaghetti Bolognese), cook a double batch of ground beef. Use what you need for the first meal, then store the rest in the fridge for the second meal. Generally, you should eat or freeze cooked food within 3-4 days.
    Time: a few minutes to an hour or more

  • Batch-cook entire meal. Similar to batch cooking, this focuses more on an entire meal. Think of this as “planned leftovers,” where you make twice as much of an entire meal (such as lasagna or veggie casserole). Then freeze leftovers or transform them into something new. For example, plan to use the leftover meat from Sunday’s oven-roasted chicken dinner for Tuesday’s quesadillas.
    Time: 30 minutes to a few hours

  • Once-a-week cooking. This involves cooking an entire week’s worth of meals at once to either eat within a few days or freeze until ready to use.
    Time: several hours

  • Once-a-month cooking. Similar to the above approach, this involves cooking an entire month’s worth of meals at once—some to use in the first week and the rest to freeze until ready to use.
    Time: several hours to a full day or more

How To Meal Prep For Weight Loss

While some people turn to meal prep to save time and money, others do so for health reasons. If you’re interested in meal prep ideas for weight loss, here are a few additional tips that can help you eat healthier and shed pounds.

  • Incorporate healthy, nutrient-dense foods including colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats to fuel your body. In general, your daily intake needs vary depending on age, gender and weight goals, and include fruit (1.5-2.5 cups), vegetables (2-4 cups), grains (5-8 ounces), protein (5-7 ounces), and fat-free or low-fat dairy (3 cups). [3]
  • Based on your daily intake needs, spread out your consumption of these healthy foods throughout the day. Don’t forget to include beans, nuts, and seeds in your meals and snacks!
  • Pay attention to portion control when you’re storing foods. For instance, you can portion out strawberries into one-cup containers to add to your morning smoothies.
  • If you’re prepping entire meals, divvy up your protein, such as 2-3 ounces at lunch and 2-3 ounces at dinner.
  • For make-ahead meals, it helps to use divided containers so half of your “plate” will be fruits, vegetables, with the other two quarters split between whole grains and protein.
  • Make as much of your meals and snacks from scratch, but don’t overlook some healthy, prepackaged foods, such as bagged salad greens, hummus, canned beans, canned tuna and low-fat Greek yogurt.
  • Avoid highly processed foods, junk food, which includes bacon, deep-fried foods, soda, cookies, candy, and donuts.

Bottom Line

Meal prep can help you save time and money as well as eat healthier. There are many ways to meal prep, so you can choose what works for your wellness goals, lifestyle, schedule, and dietary needs. Meal prep tips include planning out your meals and snacks, choosing easy meal prep recipes, and stocking up on ingredients. Meal prepping can take as little as a few minutes to several hours depending on what approach you use.

Continue to check back on the Nature Made blog for the latest science-backed articles to help you take ownership of your health.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to serve as medical advice or a recommendation for any specific product. Consult your health care provider for more information. 

References 

  1. Obesity Review. “Eating out of home and its association with dietary intake: a systematic review of the evidence.” November 23, 2011. Accessed on: July 25, 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22106948/
  2. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Basics of Meal prep” February 2, 2018. Accessed on: July 25, 2022. https://www.eatright.org/food/planning-and-prep/cooking-tips-and-trends/basics-of-meal-prepping
  3. Loyola University. “Meal prepping: How to Save Time and Money While Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle.” May 13, 2022. Accessed on: July 26, 2022. https://www.loyolamedicine.org/about-us/blog/how-to-meal-prep

Authors

Lisa Beach

NatureMade Contributor

Lisa Beach is a seasoned journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Eating Well, Parents, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Optimum Wellness, and dozens more. She also writes for a variety of health/wellness-focused brands. Check out her writer’s website at www.LisaBeachWrites.com.

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Melissa Dorval Pine, RD

Science and Health Educator

Melissa is a registered dietitian (RD) and works in our Medical and Scientific Communications department as a Science and Health Educator. She has worked for Pharmavite for over 20 years educating consumers, healthcare practitioners, retailers and employees about nutrition, dietary supplements and overall wellness. Prior to joining the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Melissa launched and managed Pharmavite’s Consumer Relations department. Melissa received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Science, from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, and completed her dietetic internship at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in East Orange New Jersey.

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