Have you noticed all those meal delivery services lately? They know a secret we want to share with you: if you prep your meals in advance, you will eat better, healthier, and happier!
Who has the time these days to cook dinner every night? Or make lunches every morning? By doing the work when you have the time, instead of when it’s time to eat, you will quickly realize how easy it is to eat healthy. You don’t have to prepare every meal in advance, but planning ahead for those busy days and nights makes all the difference.
If you are ready for some serious weight loss, our guide to meal prep for beginners will get you started in no time.
What is meal prep?
When you hear people talk about “meal prep,” don’t panic. You don’t have to be a chef. This is not a fancy approach to cooking or a complicated diet. “Meal prep” is simply a strategy for successful, healthy eating.
Like the rest of your healthy lifestyle, it is easier to stick to your goals and be successful when you plan it out. You don’t wait until the night before to sign up for your training session, so why wait until the afternoon to decide what’s for dinner?
By preparing a big meal that will last 3-4 days (or even longer in the freezer), you are setting yourself up for success. You will always have a fresh, ready-to-go, healthy meal waiting, so you have no excuses when you are tired or had a long day at work. Meal prepping is a guaranteed method for sticking to a healthy diet.
Why should I prepare meals ahead of time?
We think there are millions of good reasons to prep your meals ahead of time, but we’ve narrowed it down here to a few great reasons.
Whether you are eating a ketogenic diet, trying another healthy diet choice, or working with your diet and nutrition coach on overall healthy food choices, meal prepping will make your life easier, your choices less stressful, and your weight-loss success much more likely.
Saves you time
Life is unpredictable. Who knows when you will get caught late at work, or miss your alarm in the morning. Sometimes you have plans and want to grab a meal in between. Meal prepping means that you don’t sacrifice healthy food choices because you are out of time.
Commit a small block of time each week to prepare your meals in advance. This simple choice saves you time every single day for the rest of the week. You don’t need to find time each day to shop for groceries, chop vegetables, or even clean up the kitchen. It’s already done!
Promotes weight loss
One of the biggest hurdles to weight loss is staying on track, especially if you are starting a new wellness plan and trying to set up a new, healthy lifestyle. It is easy to “fall off the wagon” or to underestimate how careful you should be with your calories or portions.
If you take time each week to plan out your meals and make them at the same time, you will not have any trouble sticking to your meal plan. Set your fitness and weight loss targets and be confident that all week long, your meals will match your goals.
You’ll have more energy
Meal prep allows you to plan not only what you will eat, but also when. Studies have shown that eating at certain times has a clear impact on our health and energy levels. Our bodies need fuel in consistent cycles, which is why some diets focus very specifically on timing your meals. Even if you aren’t adhering to a strictly timed diet, keeping your meals consistent will boost your energy levels, helping you avoid midday slumps or late-night binges. If your food is planned out and ready-to-go when you need it, you will always stay balanced and full of energy.
Saves you money
Finally, preparing your meals in advance will save you money. How often have you gone to the grocery store for one or two items, only to leave with a cart-ful? Do you get tempted to try new items, or buy something on sale that you don’t need? Do you buy vegetables that go bad in your refrigerator before you can use them? You are not alone.
When you meal prep, you go to the grocery store with a plan each week, and you won’t need to go back sporadically for missing ingredients as days pass. There’s no need for extra items that will go bad or unexpected snacks that derail your healthy choices. Your refrigerator and freezer are full of complete meals, not lonely ingredients.
Shopping best practices
Speaking of the grocery store, never go in without a plan.
Your weekly (or bi-weekly) shopping trip should always have a clear agenda. Know the foods you need, like fruits and vegetables, lean meats, dairy or dairy-substitutes, whole grains, and healthy nuts and legumes. You’re cooking now, so you have even better reason to buy fresh items.
Also, know which foods to avoid. If you love cookies, for example, just skip that aisle! Stay away from fatty, sugary foods. Read labels of new items, so you are an informed, healthy shopper.
That old rule still applies: buy most of your food from the outside of the store; limit your purchases from the aisles.
What kind of foods should I include?
Meal prepping is an excellent strategy for any diet. Make a plan, choose a well-balanced selection of items that work for you, and start cooking! If you have a strict meal plan, consult with your nutrition coach on the best ways to balance out your healthy fats, proteins, and carbs. Otherwise, consult resources like the USDA Choose My Plate website for the latest science and advice on healthy meals. To keep track of your calories, use our handy daily calorie intake calculator.
Eating healthy is all about variety and balance.
- Every good diet needs protein for strength and recovery. It builds muscle and tissue, fortifies bones, and fuels just about every cell in your body. Ensure that you eat low-fat proteins, like chicken, fish, eggs, and lean meats.
- Carbohydrates are what gives your body energy. Converted in your body into energy-boosting glucose, carbs help you smash your fitness and health goals. Keep them in moderation, however, and try to get your daily carb intake from whole grains, legumes, and cruciferous vegetables.
- Choose fruit and vegetables to go with every meal, and especially your snacks. Stick to whole fruits, too. All juices suffer either from nutrient loss or added sugar.
How To Meal Prep
You know why you should prepare your meals in advance. It puts you on the path to successful weight loss and healthy living.
But how do you meal prep like a champ?
1. Choose a day/time and stick to a routine
The first step of Meal Prep is choosing when to do it. Sunday is the most popular day, but you should pick a time that works best for your schedule. Make it something you can stick to each week. Meal prepping is all about consistency and building a habit.
Plan on an hour or more, depending on how advanced you would like your prep to be. If you are just starting, try planning one meal, like dinners for the next few days. Make it easy, like a casserole (check out a good one below). In the time it takes you to chop a few vegetables, you’ll have a healthy dinner in the oven that will last you all week. Sit down with a good book and enjoy the rest of your Sunday while it cooks.
2. Decide on meals / ingredients ahead of time
Choose your prep meals wisely. This is not the time to experiment with new foods you’ve never tried before. You want to put time into making something you will enjoy for the next several days.
A quick search on the internet will lead you to countless meal prep recipes. Choose ingredients you like and skills you can handle. You can also ask your fitness and nutrition coach for some of their favorites. While any meal can be made in advance, some are better than others at still tasting great on Day 3. If you have a favorite recipe that makes great leftovers, chances are it will be a good choice for your weekly meal prep as well.
3. Cook everything all at once
The point of meal prep is to make your life easier. Committing time each week for this process can feel intense at first, but this is the time to make simple dishes that last.
You might decide to save time on meal prep day by gathering, chopping, and measuring your ingredients in advance. Chefs call this “mise en place” and it’s a trick used in restaurants to make cooking more efficient and clean up faster. It will work for you, too.
Another great prep-day tip is to make recipes that minimize the tools you need. The satisfaction of preparing your lunches for the next five days will be significantly diminished if you have three pots, six bowls, and two strange appliances to clean.
4. Store the food properly
The final, crucial step of meal prep is storage. Your usual leftover containers will not work.
Find small, portion-sized containers that will store your meal safely and securely for three to five days. The plastic containers at your local grocery store work well, but committed meal-preppers tend to choose safer, non-toxic glass containers that seal tightly and don’t leach chemicals or flavors into your meals. If you do choose plastic, make sure it is BPA-free.
Look for containers that stack well in your refrigerator, freezer, and lunch bag. You don’t want four delicious dinners ruined when you bump them putting away the milk. Choose jars that seal tightly for liquids.
It is also a good idea to pick containers that microwave safely. Meal prepping should never limit you to food that only tastes good cold. Finally, we recommend dishwasher-safe containers for quick cleaning. The easier it is to eat healthy, the more likely you are to do it!
How long do the meals last?
As with all fresh food, remember that you need to eat your meals within a few days of preparing them. The FDA has a handy chart for how long different foods will last in your refrigerator or your freezer.
One easy way to keep things under control is to keep your planning and prepping to 3- or 4-day intervals. If you have a larger recipe, plan to freeze portions for next later in the month. This is also a good idea if you like variety. Prepping and freezing means you can mix-and-match later.
Meal and recipe ideas
While just about any meal can be prepped and sorted in advance, some recipes are extra-special when you are planning ahead. Check out some of our favorites below for some great ideas to kick-start your meal prep today.
Breakfast Classic: Overnight Oats
This is a classic because it works! It’s an ever-changing, always-exciting breakfast adventure (and great for lunch, too!).
Start with your favorite milk (dairy, soy, almond, cashew, coconut, etc.), add ½ cup of rolled oats, maybe some chia seeds or yogurt, and refrigerate for a few hours. When you are ready to eat, the adventure begins! Add some fresh or dried fruit, spices (sweet or savory), nuts, granola, or whatever your taste buds are craving. It all works with Overnight Oats.
Lunch: Mushroom Beef Burger Sliders
This easy recipe has two, multipurpose components: savory, veggie-ful sliders and a fantastic dressing that’s as good on salad as it is on your burger. Make the slider patties in advance, freeze between wax paper, and cook as you need them. Or make them all at once and use them throughout the week for sliders, tacos, or crumbled on salads.
Secret ingredients that make this dish extra special: 8oz of cremini mushrooms and a chipotle chili.
Dinner: Cashew Chicken Quinoa Bake
Any time your meal prep is baking while you work on something else, you’re already winning for the week. Toss this casserole together and give yourself time to prep lunches or finish homework.
- quinoa (uncooked!)
- chicken (uncooked)
- an onion, a pepper, garlic, and ginger
- hoisin sauce
All cooking is in the casserole dish, so your kitchen stays neat and your clean-up is a breeze.
Snacks: Beet Hummus & Veggies
We like to keep snacks simple. This is the moment to pick your favorite vegetable and portion out your favorite hummus recipe.
There are lots of great store-bought options of hummus, but it is also so easy to make hummus at home with a small food processor. Keep a can of chickpeas and a jar of tahini on hand for whenever you are craving this savory snack.
Homemade hummus also lets you try some variety. Replacing the tahini with beets makes for a bright, flavorful hummus variation that looks as good as it tastes!