Preparing meals in advance and having them ready to eat means you’ll be less likely to make impulse, unhealthy food choices.
“Eating better is the behavior we want, but you can’t just want it to happen and expect that it will,” says Gold’s Gym Wellness Director Connie Cheng. “The reason we meal prep is to trigger our behavior to eat healthier food. It makes our ability to do that easier because we have what we need in front of us. We don’t depend on motivation to do it.”
Here are five ways to make meal prep part of your healthy eating strategy.
Meal prep for beginners
Lesson 1: Start small
Instead of thinking about planning for all seven days, start by planning for two or three days of the week. Make a list of the foods and meals that everyone in the household likes to eat and build a recipe book from that list. Bookmark your favorite recipe websites. Each week, select two or three of those recipes and study them when making your grocery shopping list.
“For some people, consistency is key,” Cheng says. “Try choosing themes for days of the week, like ‘Meatless Monday’ [consider this fajita chickpea taco, a set of salmon sliders, or a kale Caesar with chickpea croutons], ‘Slow Cooker Night’ [how about a turkey sausage and white bean stew], or ‘Stir-fry Night.’ Knowing what to expect can help keep the behavior consistent.”
Lesson 2: Focus
Get ready for the week with “Meal Prep Sunday.” During the weekend, buy the ingredients you need for the recipes you’re making. It will seem like a lot, but don’t let the amount of work intimidate you.
“Start with what takes the longest to cook,” Cheng says. “On prep day, you have the most motivation to do it. You’re not going to want to cook meat from scratch if you’ve come home after a long day of work.”
Proteins (meat), whole grains, dried beans/legumes and roasted vegetables are where you should start. If you don’t like reheating cooked meat, at least start marinating it so you can quickly throw it in a pan to cook when you want.
Lesson 3: To meal prep vegetables, freeze for flavor
Food — especially vegetables — lasts three to four days in the refrigerator before it begins to lose its flavor. Freeze the meals you prepare for days five through seven. They can be defrosted and reheated later and will taste just as good as when they were first made.
“Any storage bag or box will do, as long it’s airtight to prevent freezer burn,” Cheng says. “I prefer to use boxes, since stacked freezer bags tend to get stuck.”
Lesson 4: Keep it fresh
Vegetables are only at their peak for about three days, but freezing and blanching are two ways to help them last longer. (See the food storage guide below.)
Leafy greens will wilt if frozen, even for a short while, so keep them separate from the vegetables you plan to freeze.
Hardier vegetables such as broccoli, green beans and asparagus can be preserved through blanching — a process where you plunge the fresh vegetable in a pot of boiling water for a minute or two, and then immediately transfer it into a bowl of ice water for a minute or two.
“The cold water shocks and freezes the enzymes that would normally break down the veggies and cause them to spoil,” Cheng says. “This way, they stay fresh and crisp and can be easily reheated. Plus, it makes the green vegetables look even greener, so it’s pretty.”
You can also freeze whole grains. If you make a big batch of brown rice on meal prep day and freeze some to reheat later, add a tablespoon or two of water to the rice before microwaving to keep it from drying out.
Lesson 5: Stock “just in case” foods
In addition to the meals you prep, keep some of these staples handy. They can be easily added to a recipe for more variety or combined as a new standalone meal.
- Washed chopped greens (“A good base for any meal,” Cheng says)
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Chopped fruit (“Avoid ones that brown quickly, like apples and bananas.”)
- Cooked or canned beans (“Pick a low-sodium canned bean and rinse under cold water for 30 to 60 seconds to help get rid of even more sodium.”)
- Cooked meat (“Pre-portion three to four ounces in sandwich bags so you’re not tempted to grab more. This works for any meat, but keep in mind that red meat has more saturated fat and the recommendation is to only eat it once a week.”)
Food storage cheat sheet
Follow this chart for best practices on how long to refrigerate or freeze foods.
Here’s more advice for eating healthfully: