What You Need to Know About Meal Prep (and 4 Recipes to Get You Started)
by Amy Schlinger
Prepping your own food not only saves money, but it can also set you up for healthier eating and nutrition habits. Here’s what you should know before getting started, plus a couple of recipes to try!
Prepping and planning your own meals can help keep you on track in more ways than one. Not only does it allow you to take control of your portion sizes and make conscious decisions about the ingredients that go into your food—an important part of any fitness journey—but you can potentially save a lot of money by not eating out or ordering in as often, not to mention free up a ton of time usually spent cooking or deliberating takeout orders.
“It’s hard to consistently eat healthfully when you let yourself get overly hungry and don’t have prepped food at your fingertips,” says Anna Brown, R.D., an integrative nutritionist and the founder of Nutrition Squeezed. “If you get overly hungry or exhausted by the end of the day, the thought of cooking can seem overwhelming and you may opt for take-out instead.”
If the thought of planning and prepping your meals in advance conjures images of bland chicken breasts and endless Tupperware containers, don’t fret; you don’t have to eat like an ’80s bodybuilder. “I prefer to think of it as self care,” says Brown. “It’s not about counting the calories or obsessively portioning out the exact ounce of meat into each meal. It’s more about preparing nourishing foods for yourself that you can easily turn to during the week so you’re not stressed about cooking, This way, you can enjoy more home-cooked meals, know exactly what ingredients are going into your food, and ultimately spend more time on the activities you love.”
Below are a few of Brown’s top tips to help you get started with meal prepping
Meal Prep 101
Prioritize “prep” over “plan”
You don’t know exactly what you’re going to be in the mood to eat every day of the upcoming week. So, in order to waste as little food as possible, don’t focus on making dedicated recipes that you’re then tied to and have to eat. “I love to prep simple, whole ingredients that you can combine in multiple ways throughout the week for delicious meals, depending on what you’re in the mood for,” says Brown. “I usually prep one whole grain, two to three veggies, one to two proteins, and a few snacks. Then I make sure I have easy, flavorful toppings and spices on hand, like sunflower seeds and red pepper flakes.”
Here are a few recommendations from Brown to get you started:
● Whole grains: quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, barley
● Vegetables: roasted sweet potatoes, washed and dried lettuce, whole roasted cauliflower, steamed green beans, chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers
● Proteins: baked salmon, chicken legs, ground turkey, tofu, chickpeas, black beans
● Snacks: apple with nut butter, hummus with carrot sticks or bell peppers, nut and dried fruit trail mix
● Toppings: avocado, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, hummus, tzatziki
Build a balanced plate
Clearly there is a lot of freedom for creativity here; just don’t forget the fundamentals: whole grains, vegetables, and protein. “If you aim to make half of your meal vegetables, one fourth starch, and one fourth protein, you should check off all your food groups,” says Brown. “Then just be sure you’re prepping enough of each to make your meals for the week.”
Don’t always make the same thing
Just because you’re eating healthily, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have some fun experimenting with new meals and ingredients. After all, a healthy diet isn’t much good if you can’t stand another day of it. “I like to rotate foods every week, so you’re getting a good variety of nutrients,” says Brown. “So if I made quinoa last week, I’ll make brown rice this week; and if I made sweet potatoes last week, maybe I’ll make butternut squash this week. They’re similar and can be used in similar ways, but they ensure you’re getting variety so you won’t get sick of eating the same thing.”
Use seasonal ingredients
Shop your local farmer’s market, or do your research and keep a list on your fridge of what produce is currently in season. “Not only will this save you money, but it will also ensure that you’re getting a good variety of different foods and nutrients,” says Brown.
In order to waste as little food as possible, it’s best not to prep too far in advance; tastes change and life happens. “I like to plan for three days at a time, so on Sundays I prep food for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday,” explains Brown. “Then I usually do a midweek meal prep again on Wednesday to get me through the rest of the week.” This also ensures that your ingredients stay fresh and you won’t have to worry about freezing anything. “Plus, by only prepping food for three days, if you have a lunch or dinner plan come up, you can eat that food the next day,” says Brown. “Most food stays good for three to five days in the fridge, so there’s a little more wiggle room by only prepping three days worth of food.”
Double the recipe you’re making
“My biggest tip for any client who thinks that meal prep can be overwhelming or doesn’t know where to start, is to just ‘cook once, eat twice,’” says Brown. “So if you’re cooking dinner one night, just double the recipe and now you have lunch for the next day. Or if a recipe calls for brown rice (which takes a long time to cook), double the recipe and now you can add brown rice to your veggie bowl for dinner the next night!” This is a great way to start meal prepping without requiring you to set separate time aside to do it.
Consider your schedule—and the weather
It may sound silly, but it can be helpful to look at the weather forecast for the upcoming week before you get ready to meal prep. “When I’m planning meals out for the week, I look at the weather—am I going to want salads because the days will be hotter, or warm meals like soup because there are chilly temps in the forecast?” explains Brown. “I also look at my schedule, because I may want something different after a late night versus a day when I finish up early.”
4 Dietician-Approved Recipes to Get You Started
Ready to give meal prep a go? Here are a couple of recipes from Anna Brown, author of Nutrition Squeezed.
1. Spring Egg Muffins with Dandelion Greens
Sometimes you just need a quick grab-and-go breakfast that will keep you full until lunch. “Other than overnight oats in a mason jar, I have yet to find another breakfast that checks all the boxes as well as egg muffins,” says Brown. “Not to mention, the combinations of veggies and herbs you can add are endless, so it’s hard to get sick of them!”
Total time: 30 mins
● 8 eggs
● ½ red pepper, diced
● 10 crimini mushrooms, brushed and cut evenly
● 1 cup dandelion greens, washed and chopped roughly
● ¼ cup shredded cheese, optional
● Dill and parsley, washed and roughly chopped, to taste
● Salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Grease a muffin pan or fill muffin wells with liners.
3. Whip eggs together in a large bowl, adding a dash of water.
4. Add diced red pepper, mushrooms, dandelion greens, cheese, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste.
5. Mix together and pour evenly into muffin wells, leaving ½" to allow for eggs to rise.
6. Bake for 15–20 minutes, until eggs become fluffy and just golden.
7. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to cooling rack.
8. Serve warm or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
2. Coconut Blueberry Overnight Oats
These coconut blueberry overnight oats make the perfect breakfast at home or on the go. “Eat them chilled in the summer or warm for a cozy start to the day,” says Brown.
Total time: 2 mins
● ⅓ cup rolled oats
● ½ cup blueberries
● 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds
● 1 tablespoon chia seeds
● 1 tablespoon hemp seeds
● 1 tablespoon ground flax seeds
● Pinch of cinnamon
● 1 cup milk or milk alternative
● Kefir, coconut shavings and bee pollen for toppings
1. Pour all ingredients into a 12 oz mason jar.
2. Close the lid and shake well.
3. Allow it to sit in fridge overnight, up to three days.
4. Serve chilled, or warmed and topped with a drizzle of kefir, coconut shavings, and bee pollen.
3. Whole Roasted Turmeric Cauliflower
Looking for a meatless Monday dish? These juicy, tender cauliflower "steaks" are drenched in turmeric and spices and pair perfectly with your favorite green and whole grain for a tasty plant-based meal.
Total time: 50 mins
● 1 head of cauliflower
● 1 tbsp avocado oil
● Salt and pepper to taste
● 1 tsp turmeric
● ½ tsp tarragon
● ½ tsp thyme
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Rinse and dry cauliflower meat.
3. Cut off bottom stem and any surrounding green leaves.
4. Place bottom into Dutch oven or baking pan.
5. Drizzle with avocado oil, distributing evenly with a brush or fork.
6. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, turmeric, tarragon and thyme.
7. Bake in oven for 35 minutes with lid or aluminum cover.
8. Remove lid and bake for 10 more minutes, until browned.
9. Cut into “steaks” and serve with your favorite side dish.
4. The Easiest Whole Roasted Chicken
Never roasted a whole chicken before? This recipe’s for you! (Don’t worry, trussing is optional.) Break this one out for dinner—and even better leftovers.
Total time: 1 hour 10 mins
● Whole chicken, about 4 lbs
● 3 garlic cloves, chopped
● ½ onion, chopped
● 2 carrots, rinsed and chopped
● 1 lemon, quartered
● 1 tablespoon olive oil
● Salt and pepper to taste
● 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, or 3 fresh sprigs
● 1 teaspoon thyme
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Remove chicken from packaging and pat dry with paper towel.
3. Place chicken, breast side up, in a Dutch oven or roasting pan.
4. Surround chicken with chopped garlic, onion, carrot and lemon, stuffing a few pieces into the cavity.
5. Tie chicken legs together using twine (optional).
6. Drizzle chicken with olive oil, using a brush to evenly distribute oil.
7. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme.
8. Place lid on Dutch oven or cover roasting pan with aluminum foil.
9. Place in center of oven and cook for 45 minutes.
10. After 45 minutes, remove the cover or aluminum foil and cook for additional 15 minutes, until skin is crispy and brown.
11. If you have a meat thermometer, place it into the breast and thigh; 165 degrees means you’re done.
12. Remove from oven and let sit for 10 minutes before carving.