I think most trainers and nutritionists, myself included, would agree that when it comes to achieving your health and fitness goals, diet, meaning the food you put in your body, is of the upmost importance. And I think EVERYONE, no matter your profession, would agree that it is one of the most, if not THE most, difficult habit to nail down. It’s tough to avoid junk food. It’s convenient, it’s cheap, it’s delicious… Trust me, I’m not immune to its appeal either. I know what it’s like to let my diet fall by the wayside for a while. For a period of time I got my energy from caffeine and my sustenance from processed food. I would hit up the drive through at 1 am because I just got off work, it was the only thing open and I was too exhausted to cook a meal. I used to get home after a long, stressful day and make a drink (or several) to unwind. I would go days without eating a vegetable, without drinking more than a few ounces of water, and without exercising because I had no real fuel in my body to support a workout. And wouldn’t you know what happened? I gained 20+ pounds, slept poorly, was exhausted and stressed. I could see and feel the damage I was doing to my body. And at some point I was just OVER it! I had to make a change. I look back on this period in my life with a little shame and a lot of regret. Because I know that if I had just implemented a little time, effort and preparation to make healthy meals ahead of time and chose clean fuel over convenience, things would have been COMPLETELY different. But instead of beating myself up about it I try to see it as a learning experience. I know that meal prep was one of the major components missing for me, at that time, and if you’re struggling with your weight or health, it likely is for you too. So now I’m back to meal prep!
My hope for this blog is to provide some helpful, real-life tips based solely on my personal experience meal prepping and how it’s worked for me. If I honestly thought that the everyday, average human being, living in the modern society could live a fit life WITHOUT some degree of meal prep I would not waste my time writing this blog. I don’t believe it to be an “optional” component of a fit life. I believe it to be essential. Because in my experience, even with all of my education in this field, I still failed without it. Like hardcore failed. So please, take my word for it. You don’t have to do it exactly like me or anyone else. But you have to do it! And hopefully a few of the tips in this blog will help you along the way…
Before you ever go shopping, pick up a knife, find a recipe, and start filling your Tupperware I think it’s important to get your mind right. I don’t want to sugar coat it or give you any illusions about what meal prep is and what it entails. It’s work. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. You can find enjoyment doing it, but it’s not the most fun activity in the world. It’s not glamorous. It’s a chore much like doing the laundry or vacuuming. And it can even become overwhelming if your expectations of it don’t meet up with reality. So, there are a few things I want you to come to terms with before you get started…
- Not every meal you make and eat will be the best meal of your life. I absolutely believe meal prep can be totally delicious and satisfying. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s overcooked or a little cold or boring. And when it is, that’s when your commitment to yourself and to the process becomes imperative. Do you toss your hard work and money into the trash just because it wasn’t the most appealing thing at the time? Or do you still choose to give your body what it needs regardless?
- You’re going to have repeat meals. Trust me, it can become way too difficult and expensive to try and make a unique recipe for every meal. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t mix it up. But for the sake of your sanity and pocketbook, sometimes meals will be repeated. So make sure you’re choosing recipes that you’re ok with eating more than once, and mentally prepare yourself for a little monotony. It won’t kill you. But junk food might.
- It takes time and effort. I should also add practice to that statement. You’re likely going to have to take several hours one or two days a week to plan, shop, and prepare your meals. It’s not one of those things you can put on autopilot (although it can become easier over time). But the time and effort you put into your meal prep will be time and effort saved on the back end. You’ll have healthy meals that are ready to go all week and you’ll reap the reward of feeling a looking healthy (although this takes time too so be patient with your results). I don’t want you to think it’s easy, but I do want you to know it’s worth it.
- Have a backup, backup plan. So, you may forget your lunch at home one day while you’re at work. But it’s cool, there’s a Chipotle around the corner and you have your go-to healthy order for these situations. But crap! There’s a line out the door and you only have 30 minutes to get back to your desk. But it’s all good because you keep your desk stocked with healthy snacks just in case. Meal prep is all about being prepared. Hence the word “prep”. So, remember that life happens and it’s not always about making the most ideal choices but better choices than you were before. And having a backup, backup plan can be the difference between staying on track and going off the rails. Don’t leave any room for excuses.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff. So maybe they ran out of organic greens for the salads you planned on making this week so you got conventional lettuce instead. Or maybe you finished off those healthy truffles in 3 days even though you planned on spreading them out over the whole week. Oh. Well. It’s great to strive to be the best you can, but when you can’t, just be better! Living a fit life is about progress, not perfection. And that goes for meal prepping too. Meal prep is just a tool to give you the advantage, not the answer to all of your problems. You’re still going to make choices, and you’re definitely still going to make mistakes. But if you’re beating yourself up about non-organic lettuce you’re going to end up hating the process and hating life. So don’t sweat it. Just keep going.
MY PERSONAL METHOD FOR MEAL PREP
So you’ve got the mindset down and you’re ready to go. Where do you start? Well, honestly, a lot of the choices you’ll make about meal prep will depend on your personality, lifestyle, family, tastes, etc… So, I can’t provide you with an exact template for what it’s going to look like. I work from home, have a hubs and three kiddos, and love to cook, so my meal prep style reflects my lifestyle. If you work a 9-5, live alone and hate to cook you’ll probably prep a lot differently than I will. But some things like the tools I use or recipes I choose may still be helpful to you. So, I will give you my personal experience and what has worked best for me and hopefully some of it resonates with you.
I consider myself a partial prepper. Meaning I don’t make every meal entirely in advance, but I do plan out my meals in advance and prep enough to make my life a little easier.
I love to cook breakfast but I often want to get it on my plate quickly because, well, I’m usually pretty hungry from my early morning workout and I also have stuff to get done after I eat. So, I compromise and will prepare my protein (like bacon or sausage), veggies, fruit or starch ahead of time and reheat them as I cook my eggs to order. So, it feels like I’m making a fresh breakfast but most of it is already prepared ahead of time so it can be done quickly.
I HATE cooking lunch. Half the time I don’t even like eating it either. It’s the worst meal of the day for me. BUT if I skip it I tend to get hangry before dinner so I make sure lunches are always prepped. I typically don’t pick a “recipe” for lunches but instead, cook large batches of a protein, starch and a veggie and then reheat it when I’m ready to eat. For instance, this week I made roasted chicken thighs, roasted cauliflower and roasted organic Yukon gold potatoes. It was so easy; I was able to roast everything at the same time in the oven and even used the same pan for the cauliflower and potatoes. Make prep as simple as possible. Choose foods with similar cooking methods/times and use minimal equipment. The worst part of prep is cleaning, so the less you have the do the happier you’ll be. I also like having foods on-hand that require zero cooking for lunch as well. Things like mixed greens for a quick salad, and canned tuna, deli meat or Aidells precooked sausages that I can just throw together last minute if need be.
I almost never prep dinners ahead of time, BUT I do plan out our meals each week and make sure I have what I need on-hand. Like I said, I love to cook, so I actually look forward to making dinner and it’s my chance to get creative since breakfast and lunch are usually on repeat.
I typically don’t snack much so I don’t prep any snacks. I sometimes have yogurt or cottage cheese on-hand that I will pair with some nuts or gluten free granola. Fruit with nut butter is also an option for me. I also like goat or sheep’s cheese or deli meats and pickles. I keep trail mix and Larabars on-hand for traveling and emergencies. But I do my best to make sure my meals are hearty and nutritious so I don’t feel the need to snack. If you are a snacker, I highly recommend bulking up your meals a little in order to save yourself the time and hassle of prepping snacks. Also, if you can avoid snacking you won’t be tempted to resort to pre-packaged snack options. After all, the point of meal prep is to move away from processed foods right?
So every week I write out what I want to have for breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I typically pick two breakfast options, one or two lunch options and then a different dinner recipe for each night. If I know my dinners will have leftovers then I will use those leftovers as a lunch option. I then write a grocery list of the items I will need. I often separate my lists into categories like vegetables and fruits, dried and canned items, protein and dairy items, etc… This way I’m not darting all over the store and I can just check off each item from each section of the store as I go. If I plan on going to multiple stores (I often do) I will make a list for each store or just mark next to the item which store I plan to get it from.
Then I shop. That’s the easy part right? Spending money always is. Sigh.
Once I’m home from shopping I will put away any items that will be used at a later time and leave what I’m going to prep on the counter. I then wash, chop and cook what can be made in advance, store the prepared product in containers, and put it in the fridge!
It really is that simple with enough practice and planning.
So, that’s kind of an overview of what, why and how I prep, but let’s get a little more specific…
HOW I BUILD MY MEALS AND CHOOSE MY RECIPES
I think the first step of meal prepping, besides having the right mindset, would be to establish what exactly constitutes a meal. For me, part of living a fit life and becoming healthier means that each meal will, at the very minimum, have a protein and a vegetable. So, for each meal I will make sure I have those two components and build around that. Sometimes I include a starch or fruit, and I always make sure I have healthy fats and oils to cook with to round out my meals.
Since I blog my recipes, I am often developing my own to share with you, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find lots of inspiration elsewhere. Pinterest is my absolute favorite tool for finding recipes. There are thousands on there. You can search recipes that suit any dietary need or you can search a particular dish for inspiration and make it your own healthier version as well. I actually do that a lot. I highly recommend Pinterest. There are also a ton of nutritionists that have written detailed books with recipes and meal plans that you can follow exactly or just draw inspiration from as well. Two that I have recently purchased are Fed and Fit by Cassy Joy Garcia, NC and Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo, BS, NC. Love them both. You can also follow recipe bloggers on social media. We are always sharing meal ideas and tricks online. Obviously I hope you follow me, but there are tons more out there as well. So find what and who appeals to you and start cookin!
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
I honestly don’t have a ton of kitchen gadgets but I do have a few tools that are must-haves when it comes to meal prep. First and foremost is a good chef’s knife. If you only invest in one really good tool, this should be it. I personally use Wusthof knives. I’ve used them for well over 10 years. I can’t even recommend another brand because I wouldn’t know, never used them. I bought my first Wusthof when I was 22 and I still have it today, plus a few others I’ve picked up along the way. I highly recommend a basic sharpening steel to go with your knife so the blade stays nice and sharp. In addition to a good knife, I feel you can’t have too many cutting boards or baking sheets. I use plastic and wood cutting boards: plastic more so for meats and the wood for veggies. Also, parchment paper is so helpful for lining baking sheets as it makes for easier cleanup. Plus, your food won’t stick to the pan. It never hurts to have a few mixing bowls, some silicon and wooden spatulas and a good whisk. For pans I either use cast iron or my Calphalon set. Cast iron is better for you but I can’t deny that my Calphalon works really well and is so easy to use and clean.So I have both. But when they poop out on me I plan to get a good ceramic set which, like cast iron, is much healthier. For 87% of my meal prep, these are the tools I use.
I do have a few gadgets that I like but aren’t absolutely necessary. I love my crockpot. It’s a basic Cuisinart. I hope to get an Instant Pot someday, but for now, it does the trick. I also love my Ninja blender. I have a food processor but I feel my ninja basically does the same thing. But I do use both from time to time. I LOVE my spiralizer. It’s an OXO and I got it at Target.
For storing prepped food my favorite containers are my glass Snap Ware that I got at Costco. Glass is a much healthier option as it’s BPA free and does not leech into your food. So, especially if you’re going to reheat in the container you store in, I highly recommend glass. But I do have some plastic containers as well. I love my 6 Pack containers and bags. They have been especially handy for traveling and when I did have to eat meals away from home. Mason jars also work well for storage, especially for sauces, stocks, homemade nut milk, etc…
And that’s pretty much it! You don’t need a ton of equipment to meal prep well. Just the essentials.
STAPELS AND PANTRY ITEMS
Obviously, when meal prepping, you’re going to have to shop, at least, on a weekly basis for veggies and other perishable items. BUT keeping certain staples on-hand will make this process so much easier! There are a ton of things that I personally keep on-hand, either in the pantry or freezer, which make my shopping trips shorter and add a ton of awesome variety to my food. I highly recommend buying these types of items in bulk if you can. Costco is my favorite go-to for most of these items, especially because they have such an amazing selection of organic items (I will put an asterisk by every item I get from Costco). So here are my staples and pantry items…
In my freezer you’ll almost always find the following:
Grass-fed Ground beef and bison*
Chicken (whole, breasts, thighs, legs, wings)*
Vegetables (a lot of green beans and peas because the kiddos love them)
Bone broth (if I’ve made a big batch)
I also keep a lot of dried goods in the pantry such as:
Tapioca and/or arrowroot starch
Gluten Free Oats*
Gluten free organic pasta
Gluten free pancake mix
Seeds (chia and flax)*
Gluten free granola
Tomato Sauce (Mario Batali’s Arrabiata is our fave)
Canned Coconut Milk
Boxed Almond Milk*
Boxed chicken stock*
Food also needs flavor so I keep these flavor enhancers on-hand to season my meals:
Organic BBQ sauce*
Unfiltered Apple Cider Vinegar
Flavor God seasonings
Assorted Organic Spices*
Fresh herbs (from my garden or store bought)
Tessmaes Salad Dressings
Healthy fats are a key component to a well-rounded, nutritious diet, not to mention they make cooking much easier and tastier! Here are the fats/oils I keep on-hand for meal prep:
Grass-fed Butter (Kerrygold)*
Bacon Fat (rendered from cooked bacon)
HOW TO KEEP IT QUALITY BUT AFFORDABLE
I know the previous list can look overwhelming, especially when you consider the cost of all those items. I get it. You DO NOT have to purchase everything on that list and certainly not all at once. Start with a few things from each category, and eventually replace your conventional items with healthier versions. BUT, and I’m realizing I should have added this to the mindset portion of this blog, meal prep is absolutely an investment. It’s going to cost you some time AND money, but it’s worth it! You get out what you put in. Having said that, there is definitely a frivolous and frugal way to meal prep and if you’re concerned about being frugal while maintaining quality, I highly recommend you consider these tips…
- Use the Clean Fifteen/Dirty Dozen list. Purchasing organic produce is a great way to instantly boost the health factor of your meals. You’re reducing your exposure to toxic pesticides, your food will have more micronutrients because it’s been grown in rich soil, it’s better for the environment, etc… But sometimes the cost is, well, ridiculous! So, it can be helpful to know when it’s worth it to go organic and when it’s not really a big deal. One way to consider whether or not you should buy organic is to think about what it is you’re eating. Does it have a thick skin that protects the edible parts from pesticides? Are you going to peel it before you cook and eat it? If so, it’s probably ok to buy conventional. But if it’s grown in the ground or has thin, edible skin, you may want to stick to organic. EWG (Environmental Working Group) has developed a super helpful list of which fruits and veggies are the most and least likely to be exposed to a high amount of chemical pesticides. It’s call the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen list. If a fruit or veggie is on the Clean Fifteen list, go ahead and save your money! If it’s on the Dirty Dozen however, it might be worth the extra cost.
- Shop discount markets. If you follow me on social media you probably know how obsessed I am with Grocery Outlet. I always go there first on my shopping days because they have the BEST deals. Literally half off normal grocery prices, and they have a TON of organic, gluten free, and Paleo products. Since it’s an outlet store it can be hit or miss so you’ll likely end up at another store to finish off your list, but it’s worth the extra trip! Pro tip: check the expiration date on perishables. Often they’ve received items that need to be sold quickly and that’s partly why they’re so cheap. So make sure you’ll be eating what you’re purchasing by the expiration date or it’ll end up being a waste. But this store has been a lifesaver for our budget! I also mentioned how much I love Costco. But another place I scope out pantry items and snacks is Marshalls. I know, not the first place you’d imagine but I’ve found awesome oils, honey, tea, trail mix, bars, organic popcorn, hot sauces, pickled items, and more in their home section! They are SO CHEAP too! Check it out next time you’re there, you’ll be surprised what you find. The last discount store I often visit is Big Lots. Again, can be hit or miss, but totally worth scoping out if you have the time. I have found organic gluten free pasta, plantain chips, La Croix sparkling waters, organic nut butters, Bob’s Redmill products, etc… So CHEAP! Online shopping can save you a ton of money as well! Amazon has incredible deals and I’ve found awesome stuff like cassava flour and collagen when I couldn’t find it anywhere else for a reasonable price. I also have a subscription to Thrive Market. I LOVE it! I have already saved way more than the subscription fee and it has the most amazing, high quality products available. You can shop a specific dietary need such as Paleo, Vegan, Gluten Free, Organic, Kid friendly and it’s all 30-40% off regular price! It also has household items such as cleaning supplies and baby items that are safer and environmentally friendly.
- Shop the perimeter of the store. Not only will this save you money but will also ensure you’re purchasing the freshest and most nutritious food. Most grocery stores keep their fresh and refrigerated items in the perimeter, so this is where you’ll find fruits, veggies, meats, seafood, eggs, dairy, etc… These items also tend to be the most cost effective as well. The center aisles are where you’ll find most of your processed or sugar filled items. Of course, you may have to visit a center aisle from time to time for a canned or jarred item. And sometimes stores will designate a specific center aisle to high quality health foods. This is when it’s good to have a list and stick to it so you can focus on getting your one to two items and ignore the rest. But if most of your items are from the perimeter, you will likely save money and come away with good, clean food.
- Read labels. This is particularly important if you’re shopping a center aisle but may also be necessary in the perimeter as well. If any item has a label, read it! Not just the front but the back too! Often times we see a product that looks healthy from the front but upon closer inspection realize it’s almost as bad as the obvious crap! And when this happens you’re essentially wasting your money and not getting any closer to your goals. So, closely read anything with a label, starting with the ingredients list. A good rule of thumb I have is that if something has more than 5 ingredients total, has sugar as a top ingredient, has canola, corn or soy oil OR has several ingredients I can’t even pronounce, I don’t buy it. I also look out for certain additives I like carageenan, any sort of potentially GMO corn or soy product, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavors and colorings. Once you’ve checked the ingredients, the nutrition facts can be helpful as well. Maybe sugar isn’t one of the first ingredients on that dressing bottle but one serving still has 6 grams, which can quickly add up, especially if you’re using more than one serving at a time! And be sure to check serving sizes. Perhaps the bottle of green juice looks appealing and has seemingly clean ingredients and is “low” in sugar or calories, but don’t realize ‘til you get home that one bottle actually has 2 or 3 servings instead of 1 like you thought. Food companies are very tricky. They spend a lot of money on packaging and manipulating labels so that you’ll buy their product. So be aware of exactly what you’re spending your money on and it might just save you in the long run.
- Invest in high quality products that are WORTH the extra cost. There are certain items that cost more for a reason! And sometimes, they’re worth the investment. I purchase several items that are somewhat of a splurge but the value they bring to my meal prep is equal to or greater than their cost. They either add a ton of nutrition, or flavor or save me a ton of time, all of which help me stay on track! A few examples of things I spend a little extra on are Tessmae’s salad dressing, Flavor God seasonings, Chameleon cold brew coffee, high quality dark chocolate, and collagen just to name a few… These items cannot be replaced by their cheaper counterparts and still provide me with the same amount of nutrition or satisfaction. So I budget for them. I also find that if I’ve invested in something high quality I don’t need to use as much and it actually stretches further than if I had bought the cheap stuff. Plus, eating clean and meal prepping 80-90% of the time means you won’t be spending extra money on daily sugar-filled coffee trips, fast food, eating out, soda, alcohol, etc… So if you’re truly committed to eating clean, meal prepping, and following the rest of my tips, you’ll likely be saving enough to go ahead and splurge on a few high quality items.
I hope this insight into my personal meal prep has been helpful! Please subscribe to this blog and leave a comment or question about this post or any others! I appreciate the feedback! Happy meal prepping!