Take the guesswork out of batch cooking with convenient meal prep ideas that make eating healthy Monday through Friday easier than ever
Whether you’re busy with work, friends, or family, healthy eating is often the first thing to go when you’re crunched for time—after all, how much easier is ordering takeout food than digging through your fridge and firing up your stove? But a growing community of people online are sharing how they avoid giving in to convenience foods—and it’s called meal prep. Just look up #MealPrepMondays (celebrating one of the most popular cooking days besides Sundays) if you don’t believe us. But, we get it—the idea of making a week’s worth of food in one day can be intimidating, even if you know it’s good for you. We talked to the prepping pros to find out their solutions for making the weekly task more manageable.
You’ll speed through grocery shopping and simplify your prepping if you have staples to work with. Amanda Meixner, who posts her meals for the week on her Instagram account, swears by her foolproof shopping list: baked chicken, salmon, and white fish, boiled sweet potato, sautéed shrimp, tempeh, steamed veggies, greens, grains, hard boiled eggs, nuts, apples, bananas, oatmeal, and nutritional shakes and protein powder. With staples on hand, she can easily create meals like her current fav: the Chicken Power Bowl. Just toss baked chicken, broccoli, bell peppers, mushrooms, and red onions sautéed with liquid aminos and olive oil with cooked red quinoa.
Having the proper meal prep containers is essential to prepping success, says Meixner. “I’m more motivated when I’m looking at empty containers to put my food into!” Find containers that are easy to stack in your fridge and are microwave, freezer, and dishwasher safe, and BPA-free. You’ll save space in your fridge and time on clean up. Meixner stocks up on ChefLand’s durable picks, but find ones that best fit what you like to prep. Love salads for lunch? Rubbermaid’s Lunchblox collection has a genius salad container that easily stacks with other containers in the collection.
Don’t go overboard with crazy-complicated meals bound to be Pinterest fails. Instead, find easy, healthy recipes you’ll want to repeat. “Depending on the season, I will batch cook turmeric curry roasted cauliflower, chili lime broccoli, or maple balsamic Brussels sprouts,” says Miranda Hammer, R.D., founder of The Crunchy Radish. “Overnight oats are also great to make in the evening and grab and go in the am when you don't have the time to prepare,” she recommends. (We love making this recipe for Overnight Oatmeal on a Sunday night.)
Keeping flavors simple lets you “doctor them up” and repurpose them throughout the week, explains Hammer. Plain chili one night turns into tacos the next, or it can be thrown on top of spaghetti or millet. You can also make pesto, green goddess dressing, or various vinaigrettes and sauces during your meal prep time to add a new flavor to leftovers and prevent boredom, she suggests. (Try this Healthy 3-Bean and Quinoa Chili.)
Hate leftovers? So does Lindsay Livingston, R.D., creator of The Lean Green Bean. “Typically I don't prep whole meals. I like to prep basic components and then put them together to make new meals during the week,” she says. Prepping veggies for snacking, hard-boiled eggs, lettuce for salads, grains, beans, and the occasional roasted chicken or pulled pork makes weekday cooking easier while keeping everything fresh. “If you're making a stir-fry, chop all the veggies and store them in one container and slice the meat and store it in another container. Then, on the night you want to cook it, all you have to do is take out the containers and dump everything into a skillet!”
Meal prep takes practice and it can be overwhelming if you try to do too much, admits Livingston. “Try starting by just prepping some veggies, eggs and trail mix to snack on throughout the week,” she recommends. Once you’ve got the hang of that, throw some chicken in the crockpot or on the grill and cook a batch of rice or quinoa to use throughout the week. “As you start to figure out how much you can get done in a certain amount of time, you can add more things if you have time or cut out certain things if you're busy,” she says.
“Meal planning and prepping can be daunting when you think about spending time uneventfully dicing and chopping vegetables, but spiralizing enables you to prep vegetables in seconds, and it's fun!” says Ali Maffucci, founder of Inspiralized. There are several types of spiralizers on the market, but we’re obsessed with the special Inspiralizer she created to be even faster and easier to use. “When you spiralize your vegetables as part of your meal planning, you're opening up the healthy options for that week—instead of a piece of grilled chicken with a side of cubed zucchini, for example, you can prepare a large bowl of pesto grilled chicken zucchini pasta.” Sold!
Not every vegetable is ideal for spiralizing—and not every vegetable keeps in the fridge all week after you cut it. The rule? If it has a high water content, it won’t keep as long. Zucchini and cucumber noodles won’t last until Friday if you prep on a Sunday, but if you want to make it and eat it the next day, just be sure to keep the sauce separate so it doesn’t get watered down. Most other veggies work great for prepped meals, raw or cooked. For raw dishes, try veggies like jicama and carrots. For cooked dishes, try broccoli stem, parsnips, and potatoes. You can also use any type of veggie noodle plus your favorite sandwich ingredients to create collard green wraps that can be packed in tinfoil and stored in the fridge all week, suggests Maffucci.
"We put together a grocery list, plan our breakfasts, snacks, lunches, and some dinners," say Katrina Scott and Karena Dawn, founders of Tone It Up. "If we know we're dining out or we have an event, we'll account for that and plan accordingly." Even though Scott and Dawn are diligent about their meal planning, they know that sometimes hunger can strike when you're not prepared. To avoid giving in to unhealthy temptations, they never leave the house without water, a snack, and some protein. These girls are serious about planning: They're prepping for bikini season now with their 8-week plan that includes meal prep, grocery lists and workouts for every day. "Meal prep is one of the best ways to not only set up your week for success. It's almost like making a promise to yourself for the week," says Scott.
Meal prep is a time commitment, yes. But it doesn't have to be a waste of time! "Multitask and make it fun!" recommend Scott and Dawn. "Set up your kitchen and while you're waiting for meals to cook or to flip your pancakes, do a fun kitchen workout." Try this: Place a paper towel under one foot and do sliding lunges, then switch to deep squats holding onto the counter. "Listen to music and make it your Sunday Funday workout," they suggest. And of course, it always helps when you have your BFF there to motivate you and dance around the kitchen!