The Connection Between Meal Prep and Health
Updated: Feb 14
Have you ever made it to 12pm during a busy day at work and thought how nice it would be to have your lunch already prepared? Or maybe you're trying to save money and eat more healthy. Or, maybe you’re just sick and tired of figuring out what you want to eat every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Meal preparation can help you find the balance you are looking for.
What is meal preparation and where do I begin?
Meal prepping is the act of portioning out a meal with the intention of designing your own personal grab-and-go experience. Whether it’s for two days or an entire week, meal preparation is meant to ultimately save you time, money, and stress while keeping focus on what matters most: your health.
Have you ever put your leftovers in a container and brought them to school or work the next day? Well, it looks like you’re already halfway there! I recommend starting small by figuring out which types of foods you prefer to eat as a leftover and creating meals that you enjoy eating more than once a week.
Why bother meal prepping?
Read the following words and notice how they resonate with you: organization, cost-effective, convenient, nutritious, fun, and healthy!
Organization: Meal prepping allows you to assemble your food in an orderly fashion without even trying that hard! With the help of some awesome simple glass containers or compartment glass containers, you’ll be organized in no time.
Cost-Effective: If you’re trying to stay away from fast food or aiming to eat in more, meal prepping will reduce your temptation to eat out. Your wallet and your gut with thank you later!
Convenient: Time is some of our worst enemies, right? Meal prepping’s greatest quality is time saving. Enjoy those extra minutes in the morning with your dog or your hot cup of coffee knowing your lunch is all ready to go.
Nutritious: The best part about meal prepping is that you have full control of what ingredients you use! With proper planning, you can pick out some of your favorite whole food meals that are both delicious and nutritious!
Fun: Eating healthy doesn’t mean that you have to make it boring! Spice it up! Try new foods, experiment with new ingredients, or invite your partner to meal prep with you.
Healthy: Is meal prepping healthy? Yes! Meal prepping creates a regular healthy eating pattern. Have you ever grazed around the kitchen when you start to feel hungry and then regret eating all those little snacks? Meal prepping ensures that you no longer have to look around to find something to eat—it’s all ready when you need it! Also, you not only have full control of the ingredients, but also the portion. Portion control restricts your plate in the healthiest way possible.
Yes, but does meal prepping actually work?
There is a lot of research on meal prepping, most of which points to the essential benefit of making healthy choices easier, and preempting unhealthy choices. In other words, you’re less likely to rush out to get an unhealthy fast-food meal if there’s a ready-made, homemade meal right in front of you already.
Studies on meal prepping have shown that it leads to more food variety and better diet quality; saves time and money; reduces food waste; reduces stress; and yes, may help you live longer.
Why? It comes down to the fact that meals prepared at home tend to be more healthful, overall, than meals prepared away from the home.
A major 2021 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tracked the eating habits of more than 35,000 adults over a 15-year time span. They were asked to report on their dietary habits, including the frequency of eating meals prepared away from the home.
The results? “Frequent consumption of meals prepared away from home is significantly associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality,” including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
So yes, if your goal is better health, then meal prepping does actually work.
Why meal prepping is healthy
Essentially, meal prepping is healthy because it reduces the added salt, added sugar, and large portions associated with eating out.
By preparing your own food ahead of time, you can make conscious choices about what goes into it, rather than making those choices when you are hungry, time-pressured, or stressed. You’ve heard about how you should never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry? The same applies to deciding what to eat when the middle of a busy work day comes.
Meal prepping can be a key pillar in improving your overall nutrition. But, there are some common pitfalls to avoid.
Is meal prepping hard? Common mistakes to avoid
Meal prepping is only hard if you try to bite off more than you can chew — pun intended? ;)
As I wrote in the beginning, the best strategy, if you are new to meal prepping, is to start small: instead of cooking enough for the meal you are about to eat now, consider making enough to have leftovers the next day as well.
Don’t get caught up in the Instagram-worthy pics of die-hard meal-preppers with very photogenic and carefully lined up containers representing a week’s worth of food. It’s hard to cook a week’s worth of lunches all at once!
Instead, start small and grow from there. Once you are used to cooking extra and storing leftovers, you can start developing the other habits which ensure meal prepping remains an easy, time-saving, money-saving, health-improving activity.
Keep your kitchen stocked with staples. These are non-perishable, healthy foods that can be used in meals you enjoy. Think rice, oats, frozen fruit, frozen protein (fish, chicken, etc.), and canned legumes like beans and chickpeas. Eventually, you will also learn to meal-plan first, then go to the grocery store to ensure your shopping incorporates what you need.
Establish a meal-prepping schedule. At some point, you will want to establish a sustainable schedule for meal prepping. Many like to meal prep on Sunday afternoons or evenings, thinking ahead to the lunches they will want during the week. Don’t try to meal-prep too often—this is another common pitful because it can start to feel overwhelming. Just keep things simple, and make it consistent.
Invest in good food storage. Most people have some plastic tupperware in the house, but eventually, you will want to invest in some quality glass food containers (see Dr. Falcone’s post on avoiding environmental toxins). Don’t be afraid to buy 6 to 7 of the same kind, as opposed to those variety packs! After all, the idea is to plan to make multiple, similar meals all at once and store them together.
What meals can I meal prep?
The trick in meal prepping is to look for meals that you love to eat but which will also keep well when stored for a couple of days in your fridge. The following foods are able to stay fresher, longer:
Fresh vegetables (i.e. celery, cucumber, bell pepper, carrot, cabbage, etc.)
** Avoid prepping pre-dressed salads, avocados, shrimp, breaded meats/fish, yogurt parfait with granola, broccoli, and crispy tofu, to name a few!
Don’t Forget—keep it simple, prep balanced meals, cook recipes you’ll actually eat, and make enough food!