The importance of planning ahead for your health
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.
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. Meal-prepping also helps you control portions and deliver a balanced mix of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that your body needs to function optimally.
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 empowers you to take control of the ingredients that go into your meals, which can have a significant impact on your health and well-being.
Here are some specific reasons why meal prepping is healthy:
Helps you avoid unhealthy choices: When you're hungry and pressed for time, it can be easy to reach for convenient, unhealthy options. By meal prepping, you can ensure that you always have healthy options on hand, reducing the temptation to make poor choices.
Allows you to control portion sizes: Many restaurant meals and pre-packaged foods contain excessive portions that can contribute to overeating. By preparing your own meals, you can control the portion sizes and ensure that you're consuming the right amount of food for your body.
Helps you make conscious choices: When you prepare your own meals, you have complete control over the ingredients that go into them. This means that you can avoid unhealthy additives like excessive salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats and opt for wholesome ingredients that promote good health.
Saves time and money: Preparing meals in advance can save you time and money in the long run. You can buy ingredients in bulk and prepare meals in advance, reducing the need to eat out or order in, which can be expensive and time-consuming.
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.
Helpful tips for meal-prepping
Here are a few more helpful tips to keep in mind for successful meal-prepping:
Choose recipes that are easily customizable. This will allow you to make larger batches of a single recipe and vary the ingredients slightly for some variety throughout the week. For example, you could make a large pot of chili and add different toppings or vegetables to change it up.
Cook in bulk and freeze for later. This is especially useful for ingredients like grains, beans, and soups that can be frozen and reheated later. You can also freeze individual portions of pre-cooked meals to save time on busy days.
Use the right tools. A good set of knives, a cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, and a slow cooker can make meal prepping much easier and more efficient. Consider investing in these tools if you haven't already.
Don't forget about snacks. Preparing healthy snacks like cut-up fruits and vegetables, trail mix, or hard-boiled eggs can help you avoid unhealthy snacking and keep your energy levels up throughout the day.
Experiment with new recipes and flavors. Meal prepping doesn't have to be boring. Try out new recipes and ingredients to keep things interesting and expand your culinary horizons.
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:
Here are some popular dishes that are easy to prepare and store for those who are new to meal prepping:
Mason jar salads
Baked chicken or salmon
Quinoa or brown rice bowls
Chili or soup
Stir-fry with vegetables and protein
Burrito bowls with beans, rice, and toppings
Egg muffins or frittatas
These dishes can be made in bulk and stored in the refrigerator or freezer for easy grab-and-go meals throughout the week.
They can also be customized to fit different dietary needs or preferences. Remember to use quality food storage containers to keep your meals fresh and safe to eat.
** 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!