In this article we introduce you to the practice of Meal Prepping. We believe that Meal Prep is one of the foundational elements for every health or fitness goal. It makes pre-portioned healthy eating much simpler. And it is perfect for busy professionals who have very little time during the work week to cook.
This article is actually Part 1 of a 3-part series. You can also check out Part 2 on Meal Prep Steps & Schedule, or Part 3 on Building Block Inspiration. (And if you don’t know what that means, you will by the end of this article!)
Let’s dive right in!
What Is Meal Prep?
Meal Prepping healthy food is one of the most important lifestyle choices you can make for long-term health management and fitness. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Meal Prepping is the practice of cooking, chopping or mixing up foods in advance, when you have time (usually weekends). It gets its name from a shortened version of Meal Preparation.
Why Meal Prep?
Having a bunch of food on hand allows you to eat well and keep your nutrition balanced when you’re busy or exhausted (usually during the work week). Not only will you have control over portions and ingredients by cooking more at home, you also avoid impulse eating at night when you find yourself starving with nothing in the fridge. When that happens to me, I usually end up with a large Domino’s pizza or an entire bag of Kettle Jalapeño chips. Not good.
Approaches to Meal Prepping
There are really two approaches to meal prepping, and I use a hybrid of them both.
Approach One – Cooking Meals
With this approach you primarily cook full meals in advance, and portion them into single serve containers. This approach is awesome for when you have to take something with you and eat outside the home. Corporate/work day lunches are what come to mind here. Examples of Full Meals that are Meal Prep-friendly would be my Triple Meat Chili, Coconut Curry Lentil Stew, Provencal Chicken & Linguine, etc. When you invest an hour on Sunday to cook a 6-portion chili, for example, the per-meal cook time averages 10 minutes, and that’s awesome.
Approach Two – Building Blocks
With this approach, you’ll prepare (chop raw veggies, cook grains) bulk amounts of what I call “Building Blocks” and keep them in larger containers in the fridge. Approach Two is better for when you’re fixing something at home, or when you’re fixing school lunches for your kiddos. Examples of “Building Block” Meal Prep would be making up a whole box of pasta in advance, a big batch or rice or farro, or washing and chopping an entire head of kale. Other popular items are salad fixings, sauces and dressings, granola, homemade jam, ice cream, etc. You don’t eat any of these one things by themselves but when they’re ready-to-grab in the fridge, a healthy at-home meal at any time of day is literally 3-5 minutes away, and that’s awesome too.
I’ve found that doing a little of each approach allows for the most flexible eating throughout the week.
Do I Have To Prep Every Meal? Do I Have To Give Up Half My Weekend?
Absolutely not. If you’re not already doing it, don’t let the idea of cooking 7 days of meals in 1 day intimidate you. You can’t be expected to graduate from barely boiling water once a week to slaving in the kitchen for half your weekend.
Keep in mind that meal prepping, like anything, is not a black and white, all or nothing practice. Its just a movement in the direction of healthy eating. Meal prepping is not like an On or Off switch. It’s like a staircase upward, and being on any stair is higher than being on the ground.
I know of some people who really go crazy with their meal prepping. They plan and portion out breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for all 7 days. And if that’s your style, hey – knock yourself out! I’ll be the first to high-five you for doing what I just couldn’t when working a busy, stressful corporate job.
In general, I feel that your level of meal rigidity should correspond to your goal rigidity. A lot of people who are planning every morsel that enters their mouths are fitness professionals, physique competitors or models. And while we may be seeing the illusion of fitness and health all over Instagram these days, that just isn’t real life for most of us.
For me personally, I found that due to my busy and constantly shifting schedule, the “portion out every meal and snack” method was just not flexible enough for real life. It wasn’t only my schedule that shifted, but my mood preferences as well. It also used up a ton of Tupperware dishes (which I admit, looked pretty awesome in the fridge all stacked neatly – until they were used and I had to wash them).
For this reason, I really just focus on my dinners, and make enough for leftovers for lunches. Then I buy a variety of healthy/healthyish snacks and breakfast stuff, and eat what I feel like for those meals on a daily basis.
But you know what? Even if you start making ONE meal on Sunday that serves 6 to 8 portions, you’re more ahead of the game than you were yesterday – and that’s a win. Start small and work your way up – something is better than nothing.
Tip: Don’t Plan Dinners For A Full Week
Personally, I’ve also found it doesn’t pay to try to schedule out dinners more than about 5 days out. If I plan my next week’s meals on Saturday morning, by the time we get around to the next Friday evening, a lot of times our schedules or moods will have changed. I used to plan the next weekend’s meals on the prior weekend, AND buy the food for it. But then friends would invite us over one night, or we’d have more leftovers than expected, or so on. Then food (either cooked or uncooked) ended up going to waste.
Instead, I end up planning next week’s meals on a Friday night or Saturday, and really only plan through the next Wednesday night. You may want to plan through Thursday night, but for us, a date night out is pretty much baked into our schedule every Thursday night. Then Friday if we decide to cook at home I just do a small 15-minute grocery run if necessary.
In Summary, here are the specific strategies I’ve developed to make meal planning and prepping as cost-effective and time-efficient as humanly possible.
* I create a rough framework of dinner themes each night of the week. I base this on our regular schedule cadence. Weekly meal planning is so much faster when you create (flexible) themes for each night of the week.
* I made sure to plan at least 2 meals eating out per week, because we love to go out. This satisfies the urge without resulting in going out for every meal. We only go out to local sustainable restaurants here in Portland and that lets us eat healthy even in someone else’s kitchen. We never go to big chains.
* I really focus on dinners first and lunches second, making sure everybody’s covered. Breakfasts and snacks we just kind of have a smorgasbord of items on hand.
* I only prep 5 nights worth of dinners because there is usually 2 dinners per week that end up changing. Because, well, our schedule is crazy and our weeks often go sideways. (I’m guessing you can relate.)
* You may want to consider doubling recipes that freeze well, and start building up a collection of things in the freezer. Then when you have busy/traveling weekend and can’t meal prep, you aren’t starting the week with nothing.
* Meal Prep works equally well if you live alone, live with non-participating family members, or participating family members. Just adjust your recipes as needed – for a big family you may need to double recipes.
* Meal Prepping works GREAT for kids too – especially Building Blocks for school lunches!
Now that you have a better idea of what Meal Prepping is, and some different ways to approach it, let’s learn more about the most Efficient Meal Prep Schedule that I have found to minimize your time around preparing food, and maximize the enjoyment of eating it!