Start slow and don’t rush. Here’s what you need to know about being an expert in meal prepping.
There’s no need to stress about drinking matcha daily if you haven’t mastered the technique of eating and cooking simple.
Other than one-pot wonders, the next step to easy eating is meal planning, or batch cooking. You may have heard of the trend “meal-prep Mondays.” Nowadays everyone — no matter what diet they’re trying — seems to be doing it. The question is: To make your diet work, do you really need to meal prep?
The short answer: Maybe.
But if you want to save yourself hours a week from cooking and running to the grocery store to pick up those last-minute items you forgot, dining out, or skipping meals (to eat only snacks on the go), then the answer is yes. Setting up a system for meal planning may be the solution you need to stay on track.
I first used the concept of meal planning before I knew what it was called. In grad school, I had quite the packed schedule, juggling writing a thesis, classes, and work. I found myself skipping breakfast because I just didn’t “have the time.”
Then one day, I decided to make all the oatmeal I’d need for the week in one day (so five one-serving portions). This simple small step was my catalyst to establishing a routine for healthy eating.
Years later, I’ve kept to meal planning and perfected the how-tos. Here are my top five tips to becoming a meal-prep master. I swear by these strategies to keep myself on track — and they’ve also worked for thousands across the world.
These are my top five-ingredient meals that cover breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and even a recipe for on the go. (Side note: Spices like salt, pepper, or olive oil aren’t considered an “ingredient” in these recipes.)
- Breakfast: Matcha Mango Smoothie
- Lunch: Creamy Zucchini Soup
- On the go: Loaded Quinoa Salad
- Dinner: Hearty Vegetable Bowl
- Dessert: Banana Blast Smoothie
Having a set of go-to recipes that you love can make meal planning much easier, especially on the weeks you’re feeling uninspired. The key is to not let the process exhaust you, otherwise it’ll be too easy to fall off the bandwagon!
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important to prioritize your trip to the store or farmers market before you even begin meal prepping. This begins with making a grocery shopping list at home. Take stock of what foods and ingredients you already have at home so you don’t waste time and money finding them at the store.
Then, think about what dishes you’d like to eat and if you can mix, match, and maximize the ingredients. For example, meals with quinoa are a great choice: You can make a big batch of quinoa and create meal spin-offs for breakfast (cold cereal), lunch, and dinner!
Lastly, make sure you have enough food containers to store your meals separately. Use glass bento boxes to organize your lunches and dinners. Mason jars are great for storing salad dressings, hummus, pesto, and other sauces or marinades.
Grab a few more containers for storing:
- large batches of soup
- quinoa or other grains
- salad ingredients
Another important tip is to know when grocery shopping
works for you. Where I live, it’s chaos at the grocery store on Sunday
afternoons, so I like to go earlier in the morning when traffic is low and I
can get in and get out.
I’m all for being efficient with my time, and that carries over into cooking as well. (Saving time is a fundamental component I made sure to include in my “Guide to Master Meal Planning.”) Not every meal has to be done one at a time — use your time wisely!
Cook separate ingredients on the stovetop. While those ingredients are boiling or steaming away, chop, toss, and bake veggies, sweet potatoes, granola, and other goodies in the oven. Get all your ingredients ready on the kitchen counter. As your stove and oven is firing away, blend up a storm of hummus, homemade almond milk, or salad dressings.
With that said, sometimes people start meal prepping by doing too many dishes at once, which can be overwhelming and stressful. Until you know the recipe instructions by heart, start slow with one dish for the week. Be selective about the ingredients you want to prep, too.
You also don’t need to prepare all components of a dish at once. Some base ingredients, like rice, quinoa, and pasta, can be batch-made, while fresher ingredients can be cooked later in the week. Or you can save ingredients separately. Choosing not to cook everything at once (so you can build your meal later) could ultimately save you more time.
As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need to meal prep every single dish for the week ahead — just pick one meal you find the most challenging. For example, if it’s difficult to get up early every morning to prepare breakfast, use your time to put together a week’s worth of overnight oats or bake up a batch of whole-grain muffins. Find it hard to make time for lunch? Toss your greens and veggies into individual containers, and prepare some homemade salad dressing that you can drizzle on top when it’s time to eat.
The key is to start small and then work your way to having a fridge full of meal components already prepped so you can get creative on the spot.
Preparing ingredients to assemble meals during the week takes the most time, so I recommend setting aside a couple hours one day a week that works for you to prep and cook meal components, such as quinoa, hard-boiled eggs, and greens for salads, to assemble later on. There’s no freezing required, since you’ll be eating your meals throughout the week.
These days, I have meal prep down to a science and can grocery shop, prep, and cook in under three hours on (most) Saturdays.
Think of meal planning as a key to saving you time and energy to put elsewhere. I still enjoy cooking, just as you might, but I don’t enjoy devoting so much time to one activity every day.
This additional time for myself is probably really the best benefit of meal planning, especially when there are so many other things in life I’d like to give attention to — exercise, chilling out, reading books, and hanging out with friends and family.
McKel Hill, MS, RD, is the founder of Nutrition Stripped, a healthy living website dedicated to optimizing the well-being of women over the globe through recipes, nutrition advice, fitness, and more. Her cookbook, “Nutrition Stripped,” was a national best-seller, and she’s been featured in Fitness Magazine and Women’s Health Magazine.