Cook Once, Eat All Week:
How Meal Prep Can Help You Stay Healthy and Fit
Let me take a guess at what your days look like: you hit the snooze button once before rolling out of bed, put on workout clothes, and run to the gym for boot camp while your significant other sleeps.
Then you come home, shower and get dressed, wake the kids up, get them dressed, get their teeth brushed, hair styled, etc. You take the time to make them a healthy, hearty breakfast,
but as the clock ticks down, you grab a protein bar and a banana and promise to do better the next day.
The day goes by and you snack on something from the vending machine before realizing you never grabbed lunch. So, you head to the nearest salad bar where you spend way too much on a pile of vegetables, but hey – at least it’s healthy!
That night, it’s your partner’s turn to hit the gym, so you are in charge of dinner. But of course, you forgot to thaw the ingredients you needed from the freezer, so you put together some omelets and potatoes and announce that it’s breakfast-for-dinner night!
The kids eat, you feast on their leftovers, and, after they’re in bed, you collapse on the couch with a glass of wine and vow to not let it happen this way again.
And all of that is actually a best-case scenario. When you’re not prepared to eat healthy, delicious, and enticing meals, it’s all too easy to hit the fast-food restaurant or snack through the day on high-fat, high-sugar items.
Meal Prep: Plan And Cook Once, Eat All Week
Prep can be customized for your individual dietary needs. You can be super-efficient by chopping/cooking/buying once and then just throwing things together whenever you’re ready to eat.
The first thing to do is to build up some staples. These are the items that you’ll use all the time, last a while without going bad, and can be used in multiple recipes.
- Sweet potatoes
- Long-lasting hard cheeses like parmesan and feta
- Almond milk
- Greek yogurt
- Lots of spices, including kosher salt, peppercorns, cumin, paprika, Italian seasonings, cinnamon, and any spice blends that you love
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Cooking oil
- Vinegars (apple cider is great for added health benefits and balsamic and rice vinegars go really well in everything from salad dressings to cold noodle dishes)
- Whole-wheat pastas
- Brown rice
- Grains like quinoa, farro, couscous
- Broth (I prefer low-sodium vegetable)
- Canned beans
- Diced tomatoes
- Old-fashioned or steel-cut oats
- Vegetables (peas, corn, green beans all do very well and retain a lot of nutrition when flash-frozen)
- Lean meats
- Natural nut butters (peanut, almond, sunflower)
- Dried fruit (with no added sugar)
- Mixed nuts
Most of these items will last well beyond a week (some, years!). Even cut vegetables like carrots, onions, and peppers typically last at least a week in the fridge, as long as you seal them in a bag or container.
You can roast vegetables ahead of time as well, and it might surprise you to know that things like roasted broccoli, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms actually make really delicious snacks!
Now, you’re ready to cook, so you have a few options.
The Hard Way:
Sit down once a week and plan out each night’s dinner, collecting recipes from cookbooks, food blogs, Pinterest, or magazines.
Whenever possible, try to find meals that use the same basic ingredients and then put together a shopping list with everything combined. (If two meals each call for half an onion, make sure that one onion is on your list.)
Then, write out your prep list so that one evening – say, a Sunday – you can do as much of the work as possible. It’s almost always possible to chop vegetables ahead of time, or to make spice blends or sauces.
Then, instead of having to cut and measure each evening, you just grab your pre-prepared items and follow the recipe instructions!
The Easier Way:
Use a meal-planning service to build your weekly meal plan, create the shopping list, and give yourself a list of prep work to do. The one that I’ve come to depend on is CookSmarts.com.
Each week, the website picks four meals for you but you can swap one or all out for others in the archives, including recipes you’ve marked as your favorites.
Then, generate your shopping list (you can even remove items that you already have in your pantry, and if you’ve followed the list above, that will be a lot!) and the prep list.
Even better? CookSmarts allows you to pick from the standard recipe or vegetarian, gluten-free and paleo versions. And if you follow Weight Watchers or log your meals through My Fitness Pal, it integrates with both.
There are other brands that offer similar services:
The Easiest (But Most Expensive) Way:
Skip the planning and use a meal delivery service. And it’s totally okay if this is the only way that you can make it work – yes, it can be pricey,
but so many services are now delivering fresh, delicious, and healthy meals already prepared or delivered in ready-to-make portions: no chopping, mixing, or measuring required!
Hello Fresh and Blue Apron are two popular choices and each can be customized for dietary preferences, number of servings, and more.
You sign up for a delivery date and the food arrives on your doorstep, with instructions inside for each meal.
That’s dinner. What about the other meals?
The beauty of meal prep is that you’ll likely have leftovers, and those items can hold for a day or two. So as you’re serving up dinner, put a small portion aside for the next day’s lunch.
Throw in some of your pantry snack staples – a handful of mixed nuts, a couple of hard-boiled eggs – and you have delicious and healthy items to grab throughout the day.
For breakfast, I have a few make-ahead meals that I just need to heat (or not!) and eat:
- Steel-cut oats. Make them in the slow cooker or in a big pot and then heat in the microwave when you’re ready to eat.
Add honey, raisins, some dried coconut flakes, or even a few chocolate chips. They are delicious and portable (you can take the oats to work with you and even if you can’t heat them up, I find that they’re delicious cold).
- Smoothies. Once a week, add to the blender your favorite combination of frozen fruit (especially a banana – it gives great texture), protein powder, nondairy milk (I love almond), and, if you like it, some spinach.
Whiz it all together and then pour into ice trays. Freeze and when you’re ready for a smoothie, take out a few cubes and put them in a to-go cup or bottle. They thaw out in an hour or two and you’ll just need to shake to combine everything once again.
- Hard-boiled eggs. They’re delicious, filling, and a great source of protein. Plus, they travel well in a small plastic bag or container and store really well in the fridge, even peeled.
Notice What’s not on This List? Processed Foods.
You’ll never be perfect when it comes to planning and you’ll likely still have to make the best of some bad food choices each week.
But if you can limit those times by meal planning, you’ll stay healthy, eat well, save money, and enjoy chow time once again.
But What if I Have Dietary Restrictions?
Even better. I try to limit gluten and dairy in my diet, plus I’m vegetarian/plant-based.
When I eat out or grab processed foods, it’s always questionable what ingredients are in there, and how much. If I can create my own meals and foods, I know exactly what’s in them.
So much of our processed foods (even so-called healthy meals) are heavy in salt, fat, and simple carbs and no amount of time at the gym can outdo a bad diet. (They say abs are made in the kitchen, right?)
Simple meal prep and taking the time to evaluate and plan the week to come can make all the difference during a hectic working week.
Use the tips this article has equipped you with and you’ll find yourself much more in control of your meal prep and health in no time.