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Meal Prep: How to Make It Work For You

Meal prepping is simply preparing your meals ahead of time so that you know what you are going to be eating over the course of a day or a week. Meal prep sounds like an obvious idea, but too often we forego things like meal prep in favor of eating things like fast food.

Meal prep is not a new idea. But the plans available to assist with meal prep are more thought out than in the past. Taking into account how busy most of us are in this day and age, meal prep can save you time in the long run.

Meal prep also ensures that you are eating healthy. It is far too easy to just grab junk food from a machine or processed food from a fast-food chain. With a careful plan for meal prep, you will have healthy meals ready and waiting for you.

What is more, meal prep can accommodate almost any budget. With the right planning, meal prep can work for you no matter your preferences or budget constraints.

What is meal prepping?

Meal prepping is the process of preparing meals ahead of time so that you have healthy and homemade food at the ready rather than relying on packaged junk food or restaurant fare. Whether you are primarily concerned with maintaining a healthy diet or you are motivated to save money. Meal prepping will work for you.

Meal prepping involves thinking through the week ahead and preparing meals that will fill your needs, including snacks and late-night dinners.

Not only does meal prepping save you money by keeping you out of restaurants or buying premade food at the grocery store, but it is also far healthier to have meals prepped at home from fresh ingredients.

Why meal prep?

There are a number of sound reasons why you should consider meal prepping. Meal prep is not just for those people who like to be hyper-organized. If you consider the advantages, you may see the wisdom of meal prepping. Some good reasons to meal prep include:

  • It saves you time: Even though you will devote part of a Sunday afternoon for prepping meals, in the long run, you will save time through the week by having meals ready to go. You are working with one trip to the grocery store as opposed to 3-5 if you go throughout the week. If you are prepping several meals, you are consolidating time in the kitchen. Overall, you will save time with meal prep.
  • Saves you money: It can feel like a big expense when you layout 75 dollars for the things you need to prep a week of meals. But when you compare this with the cost of picking up takeout food, buying lunches in restaurants or cafeterias, or snacking anywhere and everywhere, you will be looking at over $100 against the $75.
  • Less stress: Let's face it, devoting part of a Sunday for meal prep is a lot less stressful than running home from work every day and making dinner for the evening and lunch for the next day complete with clean-up and dishes. With meal prep, you have one easy afternoon in the kitchen and one bout of dishes. Meal prep is just less stressful.
  • Control over nutrition: If you are prepping your own meals, you can take control over how healthy those meals are. You can buy fresh, healthy ingredients and be certain the things you use are the best quality and not made with processed foods.
  • Portion control. Along with the nutritional value, you have complete control over how much food you have in a meal. Fast food restaurants are designed to over-feed us. The portions are far too big.

The reasons for meal prep are many. Once you start to think about how much better meal prepping is for the quality of your life, you will not want to go back to grabbing takeout or scrambling to make dinners in the middle of the week.

What can I meal prep?

The only real limit to meal prepping is your imagination. Almost anything can be prepped ahead of time and stored properly. You can break meal prepping down into general categories.

  • Full meals: These are entire meals prepped and stored so that you can heat them up when you need them. This is particularly useful for midweek dinners when you do not have the time or the energy to cook.
  • Batch cooking: Make batches of the same recipe. Freeze some of the batches, and store for later in the week. Again, this is another good option for midweek dinners.
  • Individual meals. Make several meals and store portions of them for lunches throughout the week. This keeps variety in your diet.
  • Prepped ingredients: This method will allow you to have all the ingredients for a home-cooked meal ready to go. This will save you time by having the prepping done beforehand.

How to start meal prepping?

Meal prepping is really just a matter of deciding what you think you want to eat for the week. Decide on lunches, pick a couple of dinners, and choose a day to devote to prep. But there are a few considerations to think about.

Pick the right number of meals and the right variety. This involves looking ahead to see what types of meals you are likely to need. Prepping lunches is an easy thing to look out for, but if you do not have a 9-5 schedule you may need to think about prepping breakfasts and dinners.

Anticipate variety. If you prep too much of the same thing you are going to get sick of it. At the same time, you do not want to spend a full day of your weekend doing nothing but cooking. Choose meal elements that can be mixed and re-arranged.

For lunches, try prepping meals that are high in protein. These tend to keep you from getting hungry later in the day and send you looking for junkie snacks.

Meal prep formulas

Obviously, what you prep is a matter of taste. But there are a few things to consider for planning your meal prep. One general formula loosely follows the traditional food pyramid:

  • Choose a healthy starch: Brown rice, roasted root vegetables, and whole grains like bulgur and quinoa all make for a good base for a solid meal pre.
  • Vegetables: Asparagus, zucchini, broccoli, green beans all hold up well when lightly steamed or roasted. These will re-heat without becoming mushy.
  • Choose a protein: Meats, chicken, fish, pork will all work well. You can go with things like beans, chickpeas, tempeh, or seitan if you want to stay away from meat.
  • Flavor according to taste: Healthy condiments, marinades, and herb blends will add flavor to any of the above components.

Once you have chosen the specifics of how you want to combine these elements, simply mix and match to add variety through the course of a workweek.

Once you have decided on some basic formulas for your meal prep, there are a few things to consider as you put things into practice:

  • The meal prep method is a matter of lifestyle choice. Some people will want to prepare single portion meals like stir-fries or sautes. Others will want to go with one-pot meals that can be divided into portions.
  • Stick to a schedule: Set aside a day for cooking and prepping. If you get used to having a Sunday afternoon set aside for meal prep, it can become part of your weekly rituals.
  • Think about the right number of meals. Have your schedule at hand while planning. Make sure you prep properly for workday lunches and midweek dinners.
  • Choose the right recipes: If you are new to meal prepping, you will want to stick with simple recipes. There are plenty of recipes for healthy foods that do not require the skills of a trained chef.
  • Make a complete grocery list. Check your recipes, and list everything you will need.
  • Store prepped meals properly. Meals you plan to eat within 3-4 days can be refrigerated. Otherwise, freeze meals in freezer-safe containers.

Meal prepping mostly comes down to planning. Getting your recipes in order, making a realistic schedule, and doing some well-planned grocery shopping are the keys to making the not only successful but enjoyable.

There are a few things to keep in mind to ensure that your food doesn't spoil.

Some safety tips:

  • Take care with temperatures: Keep refrigerators at around 40 degrees F. Freezers should be set at 0 degrees F.
  • Cool foods quickly. Ideally, foods should be brought down below 70 degrees F within two hours. Proper storage containers will make this easy.
  • Store raw foods properly. Raw meat and fish should be prepped within two days of purchase.
  • Thaw safely. The best way to thaw foods is in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage.
  • Label your foods. Label all containers. You will forget what is in them.
  • Cooking, storing, and thawing foods properly can prevent food poisoning. For your own safety, take the extra time to do these things correctly.

Who is meal prepping for?

There are any number of reasons why you should meal prep. Saving time and money are the top reasons to spend time prepping meals. But meal prepping makes sense for just about everyone. A single person with a busy lifestyle, people on a tight budget, even families who are juggling multiple activities throughout the week, we can all benefit from spending some time and energy on meal prepping. 

For the person with more time: If you have plenty of time, meal prepping can become something of a hobby, if not a passion. For people with more time, allow yourself to experiment. Prep dishes with greater variety.

For the person on a budget: For those on a budget, meal prepping can be a lifesaver. Taking the time to plan, prep and store meals will save you from inefficient grocery trips and costly stops for fast food and takeout. Meal prepping is vastly more economical than eating out, no matter where you eat out.

For the person who preps for the family: For people with families, schedules fill up fast. Meal prepping provides ready-to-go meals for the entire family, for lunches, and for in-between times that do not line up with plans. Meal prepping just allows you to have a store of healthy, home-cooked meals ready for when you need them. 

For the person on the go: If you are on the go most of the time, meal prepping makes it easy and economical for you to have healthy food on the go. Invest in some good storage containers that will hold up to being knocked around, and you will have home cooked meals for you to grab and go.

Wrapping things up

Meal prepping is mostly a matter of common sense. Eating out is expensive, and it is usually not healthy. When we get hungry, it is just far too easy to hit a drive-through. Meal prepping makes sure you have good food with you when you are working or on the go.

With a little planning, meal prepping can be easy. It can even be fun if you take your time. Invest in some good storage containers. Take an honest stock of your weekly schedule. And do a little research on recipes that make sense for you. These are the basics. Beyond this, you are just setting aside some time to cook at home.

Making meal prepping work for you is simply a matter of looking ahead at your workweek and your schedule to see when you will likely need to have a meal with you. By prepping in advance, you get to spend the rest of the week grabbing a container from the refrigerator or the freezer, throwing it in a bag, and heading out the door.

Meal prepping provides you with healthy, home-cooked meals and keeps you away from the drive-through and the snack machine.

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