Want to Eat Healthier & Save Time? Try Meal Prepping. How to Start, By an RD
If you are like most people who are trying to eat healthier and more plant-based, you quickly realize that one secret to success is planning ahead, by meal prepping. As a dietician, I tell my clients that meal prepping is the key to eating food that's good for you, rather than what's closest at hand (or fast food that you pass on your way home). All it takes is a little bit of time.
Meal prepping is as easy as it is effective, and if you've ever been inspired by meal prep ideas and recipes that you’ve seen on social media and thought you’d like to learn more about how to start, you’re in the right place. Today I will break down not only how to meal prep, but specifically focus on how to meal prep for a healthy vegan diet, to take the guesswork out of what to eat this week.
Why should you meal prep?
For me, meal prepping is a necessity, as I work 12+ hour days a number of days a week and just simply can't be bothered to cook from scratch every night! The clients I work one-on-one with have also seen a huge benefit after beginning meal prepping. During their weight loss journeys, many of them have discovered new meal prep ideas for weight loss, which have been the keys to their success.
Here are 5 reasons why you should be meal prepping if you aren't already:
- Less time cooking, which means more free time
- Less money spent on food, which means extra cash
- Less waste by using up whole ingredients
- Less stress around food and mealtime
- More brain space for what’s important to you!
Now, let’s talk about the health benefits of meal prepping:
- You will be able to eat more whole foods
- You'll be eating fewer preservatives and additives
- Your diet will be more nutrient-dense
- As you start doing more home cooking, you will develop a better relationship with food
- You will be more likely to achieve your goal weight and reduce your risk for chronic diseases
How to Start Meal Prepping
You’re going to need to stock up on a few things before you get started on your meal prep journey. Those include:
1. Quality meal prep containers
There is one thing that you can't start meal prepping without, and that is quality meal prep containers. You will be using these containers, again and again, sometimes freezing food in them, along with heating food up in them. I highly recommend glassware instead of plastic. Glass holds up better over time, stains less, works well under almost any temperature conditions, and doesn’t pose the risk of leaching undesirable chemicals into your food.
I typically choose Pyrex glass containers, which are microwave safe, dishwasher safe, oven safe, and freezer safe. Lids are BPA-free and microwave safe. You'll want to get a variety of sizes - I like to use the 2 and 3-cup sizes the most often.
2. Mason jars
Mason jars are great for packing snacks in, along with smoothies, chia puddings, overnight oats, dressings, etc. You can also pack salads in them, keeping the dressing on the bottom, and mixing them when ready. Have a variety of sizes in your possession - 2 cup, 1 cup, and 1/2 cup sizes.
3. Mini containers
Grabbing some mini containers for sauces, that can be added to individual meal prep containers, can prove helpful. You can purchase a wide variety of these at your local dollar store. Or go on Amazon and find a set of 20 that you can use over and over again.
4. Cookware & accessories
- Baking sheets pans (small & large)
- Casserole dishes (~2-qt & 3-qt)
- Vegetable spiralizer or julienne peeler
- Muffin tin
- Mixing bowls (small & large)
- Knife set
- Wooden cooking spoons
- Parchment paper
5. Pantry staples
- Avocado oil (high smoke point)
- Extra virgin olive oil (low smoke point)
- Maple syrup
- Nut butter (almond/peanut/tahini)
- Seeds (chia/hemp/pumpkin)
- Nuts (almonds/cashews/walnuts)
- Protein powder
- Vinegar (apple cider/balsamic)
- Spices (cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, paprika, oregano chili powder, nutmeg, basil)
- Liquid smoke
- Nutritional yeast
- Flour (chickpea, almond)
- Vanilla extract
- Soy sauce or tamari
Different Types of Meal Prep
Meal prepping doesn’t have to look the same for everyone – really! Some may choose to do a full-on weekend meal prep (my preference) but some may choose to prep only ingredients instead – whatever suits the person best! Let me explain the meal prep types below.
1. Full weekend meal prep
This is the type that I fall under. Weekend meal prep involves creating meals for the week, ahead of time – two to three days in advance. This works great for someone who doesn’t want to cook during the week and doesn’t mind a bit less variety in their menu. The type won’t work well for someone who likes plenty of variety or someone who doesn’t want to or can’t dedicate ahead of time to eat during the week.
Note that leftovers don't usually keep longer than 3 o 4 days in the fridge, so you will usually have to be freezing food that you will be prepping ahead of time if you plan to eat it after 4 days. I will typically have a stash of meals that I’ve frozen ahead of time, to help me get through the last part of the week.
2. Ingredient prep
I sometimes refer to this type of meal prep as ‘buffet meal prepping’ - since you create parts of a meal rather than a complete meal ahead of time. For example, you may be chopping vegetables, boiling rice, and roasting tofu over the weekend. Then as the week goes on, you can put together new combinations of foods to create a meal, depending on what you are wanting to eat at that time!
The advantages of ingredient or buffet meal prepping are that it allows for you to be flexible with meals but also allows for you to plan ahead. The cons are there is still some assemble required throughout the week, and this may not be best for you if your schedule involves you being away from the home for long periods of time. However, this type may work really well if you have multiple people in your household with different food preferences – it would allow you to mix and match!
3. Hybrid meal prep
You certainly don’t have to stick to exclusively a full meal prep or an ingredient prep style – you can follow a combination of the two! For example, maybe you find that it is helpful to do a full breakfast and lunch prep ahead of time, however, you just want to have some ingredients prepped for dinner, so you can mix and match. Or maybe when you are going into the office, you want to do a full meal prep ahead of time but prep ingredients for the days that you are home. I encourage you to be flexible in your meal prepping!
Important Meal Prep Tips
Below are tips to remember when you are getting started on your meal prep journey – to avoid overwhelming yourself along the way!
1. Separate planning, shopping, and cooking days.
It’s overwhelming to do all three steps in one day. This process will end up being too time-consuming and you will end up resenting the meal prep process! I personally aim to have my grocery list planned out by Thursday night, grocery shop on Friday night, and cook on Sunday night.
2. Start slow.
Make meals that are the most challenging to get to throughout the week.
If you have trouble getting a balanced lunch in - prep that! Never have snacks available - prep those! You don’t necessarily have to aim to start with cooking all of your meals ahead of time.
3. Create menus with different cooking methods.
I always recommend having an oven meal, a stovetop meal, and another type of meal that you’re prepping. This helps create efficiency. The oven meal is always done first, as it usually takes the longest amount of time to cook. Then follow that up by a stovetop meal, which will usually require some time to simmer, then move on to that salad, which takes the least amount of time to make.
4. Prep meals that contain similar ingredients
This helps to minimize food waste and makes for a speedier prep.
5. Don’t spend more than two hours cooking at a time
Don’t overload yourself - again you will start to resent the process!
6. Be flexible in how you prep
Perhaps you may just want to prep ingredients (what I call a buffet meal prep) or partially prep some meals. You don’t have to always create all meals from scratch!
Bottom Line: Meal prepping is an easy way to create a routine of eating healthy
If your goal is to eat delicious meals every week while minimizing the time you spend cooking each day, try meal prepping. With these guidelines, you will be closer to calling yourself a meal prep pro! Let us know what you will cook next from The Beet!