I’ve been doing meal prep for about 5 years now.
This 100% absolutely does NOT mean that I’ve been on a diet for 5 years!
Meal prepping is simply pre-planning out your recipes and grocery list, and then getting all the chopping, cooking, and assembling done in one fell swoop. It just happens to be the primary method most athletes (or fitness enthusiasts) use when keeping track of macros (grams of protein, carbohydrates and fat consumed) because planning ahead, well, keeps things consistent, and consistency is key!
Why meal prep at all in the first place?
Meal prepping makes things efficient and easy! Here are some of the reasons I’ve stuck with it for 5 years, and never looked back:
- Grocery shopping is FAST. I know what I’m making ahead of time, so I just get in, grab what I need, and get out. No moseying around or backtracking down aisles I’ve already visited, trying to come up with a menu.
- I don’t have the luxury of time to spend on cooking! I get home at 7 most nights, and then head straight to Crossfit … if I cooked when I got home, I wouldn’t eat til I was in bed! I get all my cooking done on Sunday (normally), and then I don’t have to think about it til the next weekend rolls around.
- It’s healthier! While I’d love to eat “fun food” at work, packing my own lunch and snacks every day means I know exactly what’s going into my body, and homemade meals avoid tons of preservatives and sodium.
- It’s very cost effective. Cooking at home saves me loads compared to ordering in, eating out, or buying food at work! And, planning out a grocery list means I’m buying ONLY what I need, no extra stuff I never end up eating or using before it goes bad.
Meal prep misconceptions … it’s not just diet food!
I could talk about how much I love meal prepping all day – but first, let’s clear up some things that aren’t true.
Meal prepping is NOT synonymous with dieting! It is simply an efficient process of pre-planning that saves you time and thought down the road. Do a lot of people meal prep for a diet? Of course – because it removes temptation, and gives you control. If you’ve already spent the time and effort chopping, searing, cooking, baking, and portioning, all you’ve got to do is grab your tupperware in the morning and go. There’s no room for excuses! And, you can weigh things out and portion them according to your needs, so you know EXACTLY what’s in that container so there’s no guesswork.
Prepped meals do NOT have to be boring! Even if you ARE on a diet – you aren’t going to want to eat what you made if you don’t even like it. I haven’t eaten a chicken – broccoli – brown rice combo in years, because there’s just no need for it (and it’s not a magic combination anyway). I cook the things I love, in the ways I love them, and I look forward to having those things to eat.
You don’t have to eat the same thing every day. Sure, it’s easier to make a set “lunch” for the week and a set “dinner” (this is what I do), but there’s no rule saying that’s the only way! Cook up a bunch of chicken for your lunch, but then vary the grain, sauce, or side that goes with it – do a bit of mixing and matching to keep things different. Or chop a bunch of veggies and use a different combination of 2 or 3 each day in your salad and dress them differently while using the same protein. Have a protein bar and fruit 2 days out of the week as a snack, and nuts and a yogurt cup the rest. The point is, do things you like and will want to stick to.
It doesn’t take forever. Don’t let it take forever. Pre-plan what you’ll eat for the following week in the days leading up to your grocery shopping day, then set aside an afternoon (I like Sunday) for cooking. Be mindful of what you have to make – I love “one pot” recipes for one meal, so I’m not using every pot and pan in the kitchen cooking both lunch and dinner. Get all your chopping done at once for EVERYTHING, then get all the baking done at once, etcetera. Don’t just make one recipe and then start over and begin the next; figure out ways to streamline everything so you can knock out multiple steps at once. Baking sweet potatoes for lunch, and roasting Brussels sprouts for dinner? Bake them together and as soon as the sprouts are finished, crank the heat up to finish off the potatoes. Plus, think of all the time you’ll save in your weeknights now not having to do anything – just assemble (if it’s a cold meal) or microwave (if it’s hot!)
You can make “real recipes” even if you’re tracking macros. There’s no rule saying your meals have to be comprised of “separates” where you cook and weigh everything individually: the chicken, then the asparagus, then the rice, so forth. If you want to make your mom’s spaghetti, do it! To make this happen smoothly (even if you don’t know the serving size), plug into a meal tracking app or website all the ingredients and amounts. Then, BEFORE YOU START COOKING, weigh the container you are either cooking in, or will be storing the whole meal in (like a giant container). Write down that number – for this example, it will be a 1 pound stock pot. Then, when your spaghetti, for example, is finished, weigh this in your already weighed container (say 3 pounds, stock pot plus spaghetti), and find the difference (2 pounds, just spaghetti). When it comes time to dish out, weigh the amount you are eating (5 ounces, for instance) and then you can easily calculate out your macros from here. Since 5 ounces is 15.6% of 2 pounds, then you are eating 15.6% of the total grams of protein, carbs, and fat from the entire recipe. Middle school math will get you the rest of the way.
Helpful meal prep tools
I use My Fitness Pal to put my meals together. Whether I’m tracking macros or not, it’s helpful to see your whole “day’s menu” together at once – though a pen and paper can do just fine as well! If you are tracking macros, then some kind of meal tracker is a must. I like My Fitness Pal because I’ve found it to have the most complete database of brand items (like pasta sauces, yogurt, and so forth). And, it’s easy to play around with quantities of things til you hit all your macros just right!
You also will want a bunch of containers – I love these. You don’t have to have a huge set, but I find it helpful to pre-portion out everything at once (or at least a day in advance) so I can just grab and go. I’m more likely to eat what I’ve already packed up if it’s taken care of ahead of time, because if I’m running late for work and all my food is in giant containers un-portioned, I’m probably going to skip it and buy lunch!
Lastly, a food scale is an incredibly helpful tool! Again, not an absolute must if you aren’t tracking macros, but if you are, you really can’t get by without it (try measuring out a cup of sweet potatoes, packed in vs. not packed in – they will have VERY different carb contents!) We have this cool bamboo one.
How I meal prep
Meal prep seems really involved, but once you have the steps down, it’s actually very easy – and saves you so much time! Here is exactly what I do each week:
- Start figuring out a menu! I have a Pinterest board of healthy recipes I usually scroll through each week, and select from.
- Once I have a menu picked out, I start plugging things into My Fitness Pal. If I’m using a recipe from online, I can actually add recipes into My Fitness Pal and it will calculate the macros for me based on the recipe serving size! You will want to be sure you then portion out your recipe the way it says, so everything matches up later.
- Make a grocery list. To keep things efficient, I divide my list into sections of the store so I’m not running around all over the place (produce, bulk, meat, dairy, center aisles).
- Go grocery shopping!
- Make a cooking “game plan”. Get out all the equipment you need, and set out EVERY ingredient you will use. Now, you can start cooking and everything is already out! No shuffling through cabinets for paprika while something starts burning on the stove.
- Get chopping before anything heat-related starts, but go ahead and start pre-heating your oven if needed. Chop all the things. For every recipe. And snack. Just get it all done, and set it aside. I have a stainless steel bowl designated just for “chopping scraps” so I’m not constantly running back and forth to the trash can.
- Now begin the actual cooking. The way you do this step really depends on your recipe, but I try to cook one protein at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed and let something over cook. If possible, I use the same pan for the next protein! I do the same thing with boiling grains – boil water, quinoa goes in, drain, boil new water in the same pan, farro goes in, so forth. Most of my veggies I quick steam-sear in a pan or roast, and those can often be done together. The main exception is if I’m making a “one pot” recipe in my large stock pot.
- Once everything is cooked and cooled (and cleaned at some point, ugh), begin portioning things out into individual meal containers according to how you plugged them into your meal tracker. Use your scale to weigh as needed! If you aren’t tracking, just portion exactly how you’d like!
- Grab and go and thank yourself later for making your life so easy. Hope that someone will come over and do all your dishes.
Whether you’re eating for specific goals, or just wanting to save time and make things more efficient for yourself, meal prepping is tremendously helpful. All it takes is a bit of planning and a few hours of dedication each week, but the payoff is so worth it!
What has meal prepping done for you? Any favorite go-to meals, or tricks you’ve learned along the way?