Two simple words that both intimidate and inspire those beginning on their new journey towards optimal health. Most of our experience with meal prep comes from what we have seen countless fitness and nutrition influencers post photos of on various social media. What we see in those pictures are carefully weighed portions of everything a complete meal needs, cooked to perfection, and packaged to look like something out of a 5-star restaurant. While these meals are fun to look at and may even help inspire us to want to do the same, it also greatly misrepresents what a sustainable practice of meal prepping looks like. So, if you’ve been considering meal prepping but have never known quite where to start, this article is meant just for you!
As I stated earlier, meal prepping is often overcomplicated. Ultimately no matter how pretty those meals look in the package, in practice, meal prepping should be as simple and straightforward as possible to make it both efficient and healthful. Meals should be simple to make. Begin by keeping our menu as easy to assemble as possible. Perhaps the easiest way to set this menu up is by following what we call “The Rule of 3’s”. The Rule of 3’s suggests that a meal prep should include 1: a lean protein, 2: a non-starchy vegetable, and 3: a high-quality starch. For those of us following a nutrition plan with an exchange list, the food groups are already set up perfectly for this. Basically, selecting a food from any combination of those three groups will generally produce a complete meal, without having to use complicated recipes.
Now that we have an idea of selecting foods for a meal prep, we must determine what the portions will look like. Now, don’t get worried because we don’t have to have a fancy scale or a whole cabinet of measuring cups to make this work. In fact, we can even purchase containers that will make this process so easy, we’ll feel like we’re doing something wrong (hint: we aren’t). The style of containers I am referring to are the three compartment ones that you can find in most superstores and online. These containers all follow a basic layout of two sections that hold approximately 1 cup, and one section holding approximately 2 cups. Depending on your health goals the sections can be used to hold different food groups but in general: the non-starchy vegetable should take up the larger section, with our lean protein and starch filling the smaller two. Not only will this make portioning quick and easy, but it also helps us focus our meals on healthful veggies (for more vegetable tips click here).
With portioning and menu planning out of the way, now it’s time to cook everything up! There are plenty of healthful cooking methods such as steaming in a microwave, sauteing, pressure cooking, roasting, grilling, and air frying. While all these methods can produce great results, in the interest of time, we need to be mindful that we can only do one item at a time in each (the oven may be able to hold up to two). Here’s an example: let’s say we plan to make wild rice, salmon, and asparagus. The rice we can do on the stove, rice cooker, or pressure cooker.
At the same time, we can cook the salmon on the grill, in the oven, or in an air fryer (click here for a great air fryer salmon recipe). We can also finish up the meal with buying frozen, steam bags of asparagus we can do in the microwave, or we can take fresh asparagus and roast or sauté it. While there are endless combinations of healthful ways we can make foods, it is best to plan out doing each menu item in a different appliance so that multiple things can all cook at the same time.
After cooking, simply portion using the container itself! It is important to store the meals in a refrigerator or freezer immediately after finishing to make sure the food will be safe to eat later. In the fridge the meals will last up to 6 days and in the freezer, they can last for up to 3 months. Depending on the foods, reheating times will vary but be sure to always reheat it to at least 165 degrees F.
I hope this guide has been helpful in making meal prepping a bit more straightforward. With a little bit of practice, meal prepping can become an enjoyable activity that will save you hours of time during the week. While this article is a great start, the dietitians and health educators at Total Nutrition Technology can assist you in providing more specific recommendations that center around your individual needs!