By Jamie Imperial, 08/03/2021
Eating a healthy diet is an important part of mental health, but it can be hard to stay on track if you have to keep thinking about what you’re going to eat every single day. Sometimes the last thing you want to think about is having to cook a big, healthy meal – which makes it easy to drive to the nearest drive-thru or pull out your phone and order something for delivery.
And that’s okay once in a while! But those delivery fees do add up, and eating healthy isn’t exactly a priority when you’re seeking convenience. Luckily, there’s a way to eat healthy and save yourself time and money at the same time: meal prep.
What is meal prep?
Meal prep is the process of setting aside some time to cook full meals in advance and storing them to eat throughout the week. It’s a simple but effective way to help keep your diet healthy while saving yourself time and money.
All you have to do is choose a time to cook a bunch of meals all at once, which you can then save in the fridge or freezer to re-heat when you’re ready. If you need some quick meal prep ideas, you can check out our 30 best snacks for weight loss.
Why should I meal prep?
By planning out your meals, you’re giving yourself fewer decisions to make. Having snacks and meals on hand will help make it easier for you to make better decisions about your diet. Other reasons include:
- It’s convenient. Eating healthy is a lot more convenient when you have fast and easy meals ready to go in the fridge! You’re less likely to turn to takeout or an unhealthy frozen dinner when it’s easier to simply reheat your make-ahead meals.
- It saves you money. Fast food or frozen meals might not seem like they cost that much, but you’d be surprised at how much you’re really spending! When you meal prep, you can batch cook more meals for a lower price than if you decided to buy each of those meals individually.
- It reduces waste. Planning out your meals makes it easier to reduce food waste since you have control over all of the ingredients going into your meals. Using reusable food containers or old takeout containers to store your food reduces the amount of packaging you use when you eat.
How to meal prep for beginners
Before you start meal prepping, here are some things a beginner should consider:
- How much cooking experience do I have?
- How much time do I have?
- What are my energy levels like?
These questions will help you along your journey as you start to meal prep.
Step 1: Plan out your meal prep strategy
If you’re a complete beginner, consider starting out with an easier meal to prepare, like breakfast or snacks. Don’t try recipes that are too complicated because you’re more likely to give up if you get overwhelmed.
Some different ways to meal prep include:
- Make-ahead meals. When you make your meals ahead of time, you don’t need to worry about cooking every day. You cook complete meals that can be reheated easily before your week starts.
- Batch cooking. When you batch cook, you prepare multiple batches of the same recipe to portion out and freeze and reheat. With this strategy, you can double or triple recipe portions and have meals on hand for the next few weeks or even months.
- Ready-to-cook ingredients. Instead of cooking all of your meals in one day, you can choose ingredients to prep and cook ahead of time to have on hand during the week. When it’s time to cook, you can pull out these ingredients to make fast and easy meals. This is a good option if you want to meal prep, but you also want to have some variety and don’t like the idea of repeating meals.
- Individual portioned meals. If you’re watching macros or have a specific health or diet plan, you can use this strategy to portion out meals into individual servings and eat them throughout the week.
Once you’ve chosen your strategy, pick one or two recipes to make for your weekly meal prep. Write out your menu so you know what you’re going to eat for each meal and you can visualize them while you’re buying ingredients.
Step 2: Grocery shop and pick out your ingredients
Once you’ve chosen your strategy and recipes, the next step is to go grocery shopping.
When you grocery shop, some tips for meal prepping include:
- Make an extensive grocery list. And check it twice! Make sure that you have all the ingredients you need for your meals for the week, and stock up on any pantry staples (such as brown rice or dry beans) if you don’t have any.
- Buy pre-prepped ingredients. Buy ingredients that are already pre-prepped so you don’t need to spend too much time chopping and slicing while you’re cooking. This makes cooking easier and faster, and you only have to pay a little extra in order to save a lot of time.
- Buy frozen fruits and veggies. Frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen at the peak of their ripeness, which helps preserve their nutrients. You can buy in bulk and use them in any number of dishes — and they’re perfect for smoothies.
Step 3: Time to cook
This is the most important part of meal prep! Once you’ve gotten all of your ingredients, it’s time to start cooking. Pick a day and schedule some time out so you can really focus on your meal prep.
Choose recipes that you can cook with ease and that have similar prep and oven times – overly complicated recipes can make meal prepping a nightmare.
Depending on your strategy, you may be prepping for the next 3-4 days or perhaps the next 3-4 weeks. Some tips to organize prep and make bulk cooking as easy and painless as possible:
- Start with the recipe that takes the longest. If you save this one for last, you could be wasting a lot of time. Try to start with the recipe with the longest cook time and focus on the other meals once that’s underway.
- Cut vegetables in similar sizes. If you’re roasting or baking a lot of vegetables, cut them into similar sizes so that they get cooked evenly by the oven.
- Cut your raw produce first. Save time by cutting all your raw produce first and then your cooked produce afterwards. You won’t have to wash your cutting board in between prepping ingredients. If you’re prepping meat or poultry, make sure your cutting board and utensils are both clean before moving forward.
- Use sheet pans. One-pan recipes are incredibly easy to make and clean up, which makes them perfect for meal prepping for the week! Simply prep and throw your ingredients into a pan and slide it into your pre-heated oven.
- Use a slow-cooker or Instant Pot. In a similar vein to sheet pans, most slow-cooker and Instant Pot recipes call for little prep before you throw your ingredients into them.
Step 4: Portion out and store your food
Once you’ve finished making all of your meals, it’s time to portion them out and store them properly. It’s very important that you store your food properly so you avoid food poisoning!
Some important tips on reheating and food storage include:
- Keep your refrigerator temperature at 40°F (5°C) or below and your freezer at 0°F (-18°C) or below to store your food properly.
- Store your refrigerated food for up to 3-4 days; frozen meals can be stored for 3-6 months.
- Invest in good food containers (such as Pyrex bowls or mason jars) that are airtight, freezer-safe, leak-proof, and BPA-free.
- Label and date your containers so you can consume them in an appropriate amount of time.
- Reheat your food to 165°F (75°C) before eating.
- Defrost your frozen food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave and eat within 24 hours.
For more food safety information, visit the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service website.
How does meal prep help weight loss?
Your diet is an important part of your physical and mental health and can help you lose weight when you consistently make healthy meals. Here are some reasons meal prep promotes weight loss:
You’re in control. When you meal prep, you’re in control. That means that you can measure and weigh every portion of food that goes into each batch. You can track the calories that you’re consuming and make sure they’re coming from nutrient-dense foods.
You’ll be less stressed. After a long day at work, the last thing you want to think about is cooking! The convenience of meal prepping makes it easy for you to eat healthy meals without much effort.
You’ll eat healthy meals more often. Instead of reaching for junk food or going out to eat, having make-ahead meals ready to reheat right away will keep your diet healthy and lead to weight loss.
As long as you’re consistent, meal prep will help you improve your mental and lose weight!
Eating well and mental health
Did you know that your physical wellness impacts your mental health? The reverse is also true; your mental health has a direct impact on your physical wellness. Getting both under control is key to living well: body and mind. How is your mental health? Take our free assessment to find out!