Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD
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If you have ever worked with a dietitian, nutritionist, or health coach, you have probably heard about the importance of meal preparation. Preparing healthy meals in advance for the week ahead can save you time, money, and stress. According to a 2018 national dining trends survey compiled by Zagat, the average American eats out on average 6 times a week. The average cost of dining out in the U.S. is $36.40. That’s a lot of money, especially when you add up all the members in your family! Meal prep may seem overwhelming at first, especially if you are not used to spending much time in the kitchen. But, have no fear, there are simple, practical ways to become a meal prep wizard. In this blog, we will go over easy ways to batch cook and meal prep for you and your family’s busy week.
How to get started
- Pick a day and time to meal prep. The key to successful healthy meal prep is to devote a few hours over the weekend to go grocery shopping and batch cook. A popular time to choose is Sunday afternoons, but pick whatever day or time works best for you and stick to it! There are endless healthy recipes online nowadays for meal prep, but I suggest you keep it simple – at least at first. Limit yourself to 2-3 recipes a week so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t worry, we have even included some healthy, simple recipes in this blog! Check to see what condiments, spices, canned foods, leftovers, etc. you have in your fridge and pantry before making your shopping list. When writing up your shopping list, organize it based on where the items are located in the grocery store. For example, make a produce section, canned foods section, grains section, frozen foods section, and so on. This way you aren’t going back and forth throughout the store trying to gather what you need!
- Rinse, cut, and cook. As soon as you get home from grocery shopping, separate any fruits and vegetables that need to be rinsed and dried before cooking. Lettuce and other greens can go in a salad spinner and put in Zip-loc bags with a paper towel for quick salads throughout the week. Crunchy vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, potatoes, and cabbage, can be rinsed, dried, and roasted or baked. Common ingredients, such as garlic and onion, can be minced or finely chopped and put in glass storage containers to saute throughout the week. Does the recipe call for something sliced, shredded, or crushed? Food processors can come in handy here, as most of them have different blade settings. I highly recommend investing in a food processor to save a lot of time in the kitchen.
Grains and legumes, such as beans, rice, quinoa, or millet, can be cooked ahead of time as well. Make note of what starches you want to cook with that week. For example, if you are wanting to do a stir fry dish and a chicken and rice soup, cook the rice for both dishes. Save time and energy by trying to follow a theme on starches for the week.
- Make any sauces or spice blends you might need for the week. For instance, if you plan on making a chicken caesar salad one night for dinner, prepare the dressing for that ahead of time on Sunday, or on your desired meal prep day. Using different spices and sauces in meals can revamp boring leftovers into exciting new dishes. Nutritionist and bestselling author Diane Sanfillippo has several helpful cookbooks that not only are great for practical meal prep inspiration, but they also include delicious spice blends you can make ahead of time, like this one.
- Cook any meat up to 4 days ahead of time. According to the USDA, cooked leftovers can be stored in the fridge for 3-4 days, or frozen for 3-4 months. If you are going to be using chicken or ground beef in multiple meals throughout the week, batch cook the meat, and then season or dress accordingly when you are ready to finish preparing the meal.
How to properly store your prepared meals and food:
- Purchase a wide variety of tupperware sizes to store your food. Separate unseasoned cooked poultry, meat, pork, and seafood into separate containers and either put them in the freezer or fridge, depending on how soon you will be eating them. Allow your food to cool completely before storing in the fridge or freezer. I recommend using glass, porcelain, or stainless steel storage containers instead of plastic containers. Most plastics contain bisphenol A (BPA) that can seep into foods and beverages when exposed to heat, such as from the microwave or dishwasher. BPA is a concern because of the possible health effects it can have on the brain of fetuses, infants and children. Even BPA-free plastics can contain a chemical called bisphenol S (BPS), which some scientists warn still aren’t safe for people to use. Researchers at the University of Missouri conducted a study using mice to evaluate fetal health and development when exposed to BPS; the researchers found that BPS disrupts the mouse placenta and can have potential harmful effects on the placenta-brain axis.
- Put sauces, dressings, marinades, and spice blends into mason jars for easy shaking to mix all the ingredients again when you are ready to use them. I like to use masking tape or label stickers to write what each jar contains on the top or side.
- Rinsed and dried produce can also go in separate food containers. Make sure If you are washing delicate leafy greens to put them in a storage bag or container lined with paper towels so that any excess moisture gets absorbed to prevent the leaves from wilting or molding. If you are cutting up apples, peaches, pears, bananas, lettuce, mushrooms, potatoes, eggplant, cauliflower, or avocados ahead of time, be aware of enzymatic browning. Browning of these fruits and vegetables occurs when their enzymes are exposed to oxygen (air) after being cut open. Lemon juice can slow down this browning reaction. However, keep in mind that once oxidization (browning) occurs, the nutrient content of that fruit or vegetable starts to decline. If you can, wait to chop up some of your produce until you are ready to cook or eat it.
What kind of healthy meals should I be cooking?
When planning your meals for the week ahead, think about the three macronutrients:
- Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates can either be simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates, such as those from white sugar, white flour, and white rice, are digested quickly and raise blood sugars rapidly. Because of this, they don’t give you sustained energy. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, contain nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals that slow down digestion and steadily release glucose into the bloodstream. Foods such as fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are considered complex carbohydrates, and these are the types of carbohydrates you want to include in your meal prep. According to MyPlate, you should limit grains to no more than ¼ of your plate.
- Protein: Out of the three macronutrients, protein deserves the most attention when it comes to satiation and fullness after a meal. This can help aid in weight loss and prevent late-night snacking. We all know how important protein is for building healthy muscles, but did you know it also important for building healthy bones? To calculate how much protein you need, you can multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. Keep in mind that this is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein, which is the minimum amount you need to avoid protein deficiency. Pregnant and lactating women, children, and athletes need more protein. Here is a list of high-protein foods to include in your meal prep ideas:
|Chicken (cooked)||3 oz||28 g|
|Steak (cooked)||3 oz||26 g|
|Turkey (cooked)||3 oz||25 g|
|Salmon (cooked)||3 oz||22 g|
|Ahi tuna (cooked)||3 oz||25 g|
|Pork (cooked)||3 oz||22 g|
|Egg, large (cooked)||1 egg||6 g|
|Pinto beans (cooked)||½ cup||11 g|
|Lentils (cooked)||½ cup||9 g|
|Full fat greek yogurt||7 oz||18 g|
|Full fat cottage cheese||1 cup||25 g|
- Fats: Fats have suffered from a bad reputation over the years, but choosing anti-inflammatory, omega-3 rich fats not only provides your body with essential fat-soluble vitamins which are responsible for producing hormones, it also enhances the flavors of your food. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults limit their saturated fat intake to less than 10% of total calories. For a 2,000 calorie diet, your ideal consumption of oils (from food sources such as olive oil, avocado oil, and sunflower oil) is 29 grams a day. Choose pasture-raised, grass fed meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy to enhance your omega-3 fatty acid consumption. Other sources of healthy fats include cold-water fish, avocados, coconut oil, nuts and seeds.
Putting meal prep into action
Nutritionist and author Cassy Joy Garcia explains in her helpful cookbook, Cook Once, Eat All Week, that focusing on the three “bases” in recipes: a protein, a starch, and a vegetable is the key to simple batch cooking. By preparing a protein, vegetable, and starch in bulk, you can then turn it into three totally different dinners throughout the week. Sounds doable, right? We think so too! A few of our favorite recipes from her include:
A lot of people get hung up on breakfast foods needing to be separate from dinner foods. Why is it okay for us to bring leftovers into work for lunch but not okay to repurpose leftovers for breakfast? Here are some of my favorite recipes that could be made using leftovers from breakfast or dinner:
- Making breakfast salads is a fun and easy way to get your greens in! Try this Eggs and Greens Bowl.
- Frittata is essentially a crustless version of quiche. They’re easy to make and store as leftovers in the fridge. You can make all sorts of delicious frittatas using this versatile frittata recipe.
- Casseroles make for great meal prep ideas. Try this Healthy Breakfast Casserole.
Here are some healthy meal prep options for lunches that can made in 30 minutes or less:
If the idea of doing tons of dishes after cooking makes you want to pull your hair out, here are several sheep pan recipes that require minimal clean-up:
- Sheet Pan Teriyaki Chicken with Pineapple
- Sheet Pan Chicken Fajitas
- One Pan Orange Salmon with Sweet Potatoes
- Baked Fish and Vegetables
- Sheet Pan Maple-Mustard Pork Chops and Carrots
- Sheet Pan Steak and Potatoes
The Bottom Line
The more practice you have with meal prep, the easier and more intuitive it becomes. Don’t stress about making complex recipes that require tons of ingredients. Instead, choose simple recipes that you know the whole family will enjoy. Let Google and Pintrest be your friend, and focus on a maximum of 3 different recipes using similar ingredients for the week ahead. If you are running really short on time, but still want to whip up something healthy, be sure to check out our blog on easy dishes to cook in the microwave. Happy cooking!
Have questions? Comments? I would love to hear what you think below!