If you’ve been on social media, like, at all lately, you’ve probably seen lots of meal prep posts—#MealPrepSunday anyone?—where people share photos of the meals and snacks they’ve prepared for the week ahead. This healthy living trend can be a total game-changer. Taking an hour or two to meal prep can help you successfully enjoy easy, healthy meals—even on busy days. Try these tips for creating an assortment of foods you can pick and choose from to assemble nourishing meals and snacks—no more stressed-out cooking or resorting (again) to Seamless.
Identify Your Goals:
Want to up your breakfast game? Trying to pack healthy lunches and resist the siren call of snacks? Or maybe you’re looking to save money by minimizing takeout and expanding your home cooking repertoire. Whatever it may be, getting clear on what you’re out to accomplish will help you know what to prioritize, especially if you’re in the beginning phases of making lifestyle changes.
Make a List:
Take a few minutes to consider your schedule for the coming week. Do you have any meals scheduled out or times you know you’ll need something quick and easy? Write it down on a piece of paper, a meal planning app, or even just the notes section or calendar on your phone. Now you know which meals and snacks you need to prep for. If it helps, make a Pinterest board to keep track of recipes you want to try.
Block Out Time:
Set aside time in your schedule to go shopping and meal prep. Whether that’s two hours, four hours—or whatever feels realistic for you. Heck, you can even break it down into one hour on Saturday and one hour on Sunday. If it will make it more enjoyable, enlist a friend to help. Turn on your favorite music or a podcast you want to catch up on while you work.
Think in Food Groups:
Treat your fridge like a salad or stir-fry bar so you can assemble healthy meals and snacks from the pre-prepped ingredients available. Aim for a balance of foods from the different food groups so your meals are balanced.
Proteins: Hard-boiled eggs make a super-easy snack or salad topper (here’s my go-to recipe. You can also grill, pan-sear, bake, or slow-cook a bunch of chicken (boneless, skinless thighs are incredibly versatile). Meatballs are also super-handy. For vegetarian protein, try baked tofu or tempeh—use a yummy marinade you like to add some flavor.
Veggies: Throw together a few salads, roast some brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli—have fun experimenting with different vegetables as the seasons and your preferences change. Roasting is one of the easiest ways because you can pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F, toss your veggies with olive oil, and roast until crispy. Just be sure to shake the pans a few times to prevent sticking. You can also do a big saute of greens and veggies. How about a cauliflower rice stir-fry?
Carbohydrates: Whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, beans, peas, and lentils, and starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, winter squash, and corn are all great sources of slow-burning complex carbohydrates.
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.
Remember: Shortcuts are Totally Okay
Running low on time? Don’t feel guilty about buying pre-chopped or frozen veggies or canned beans. If you don’t have time to slave over the stove or watch the oven, dust off your slow cooker or pressure cooker to cut down on hands-on time.
How you place things in the fridge saves you time too. Put the healthiest stuff at eye-level or within easy reach. You’re more likely to grab for the good stuff if it’s front and center. Storing food in glass or other clear storage containers will help you quickly see what’s inside.
- Make a large batch of oatmeal and portion it into single-serving containers for reheating later or make baked oatmeal and cut into individual squares. Top it with nut butter.
- Make overnight oats by combining plain Greek yogurt, a tablespoon each of chia seeds and ground flax, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and ½ cup berries. Allow it to sit, covered, overnight in the fridge. Breakfast is ready when you are.
- If you like smoothies in the morning, 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.
- Start with a simple salad base and top it with leftover roasted veggies and your favorite protein. Garnish it with a tablespoon of cheese, chopped nuts, or seeds. Make a simple dressing of olive oil and vinegar.
- Leftover chili is delish for lunch the next day. Sneak in extra veggies by eating it over cauliflower rice and adding some greens like baby spinach or kale.
- Make-ahead grain bowls with roasted veggies are the perfect lunch to enjoy warm or cold. Top it with your favorite cooked protein like chicken or tofu or pack a couple boiled eggs to slice and enjoy on top.
- 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 and avocado slices.
- Pulled chicken made in the slow cooker can be repurposed in soups, salads, and pasta dishes.
- Zucchini noodles and baked meatballs (swap oatmeal or ground flax for breadcrumbs) filling and delicious. Leftover meatballs are great over salad the next day.
- Homemade trail mix is super-simple to throw together: Shake up one cup of mixed nuts, ¼ cup of dried fruit, and 2 tablespoons of chocolate chips. Divide between 5 Ziplock bags or other resealable containers to make single servings.
- Hummus is another no-brainer that takes just minutes to prepare. Place cooked beans, peas, 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 it until smooth, thinning out with a tiny bit of water if need as you go. 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
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. She blogs at Keeping It Real Food.