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Making homemade, healthy meals each day is a constant struggle. But instead of just giving in and going through the local drive-thru or ordering pizza three nights a week, why not give meal planning and meal prepping a try? Meal prepping is a great way to save time and money, and still prepare healthy meals each day for your family.
What is meal prepping?
In the simplest terms, meal prepping is preparing your meals ahead of time. It involves crafting a weekly meal plan, grocery shopping according to that plan, cooking in batches, and storing meals in meal prep containers.
Types of Meal Prepping
There are two basic approaches to meal prepping: preparing the ingredients, such as chopping vegetables and putting ingredients for meals into containers, and actually cooking some (or all) aspects of the meal and freezing them.
You can do one or both of these options depending on how much time you think you will have, and your personal preferences.
Some people simply do the prep work, such as getting all their veggies chopped up, rice measured, and snacks into portion baggies to be used during the week. Others cook the full meals, then freeze them so that dinner just involves popping them in the oven or slow cooker.
What are the benefits of meal prep?
Meal prepping has a host of benefits. It saves time and reduces stress by eliminating the daily need to cook from scratch and make decisions about what to eat. It also encourages healthier eating habits as you have control over what goes into your meals, supporting weight management through easier portion control. Financially, meal prepping is beneficial as it can save money by reducing the reliance on eating out or buying last-minute takeout, and it promotes more efficient use of groceries, thus reducing food waste.
How To Get Started With Meal Prepping
Meal Planning: The Blueprint of Success
The first step in your meal-prepping journey is meal planning. Decide on what meals you’ll prepare for the week ahead. Include breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Look for new recipes that spark excitement or stick to tried-and-true favorites. Incorporate lean proteins like chicken breast, lots of fresh foods, and simple recipes that won’t leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Choosing Containers to Use For Meal Prep
These containers are not just storing the ingredients and cooked food items but are meant to keep them fresh in the refrigerator or freezer for an extended period of time. You need to be careful what you choose to store items in and how they are stored. Here are some recommendations for food storage containers:
Choose containers with airtight lids.
Make sure that your containers keep the food fresh with airtight lids. If you intend to use Tupperware-type containers, try filling them with water, then turn them upside down and make sure no water leaks out. This is a good way to tell how fresh your food will be in the containers.
Try storing items in mason jars.
Mason jars are perfect for storing certain items and meals. For example, if you like to take salad to work, try putting each day’s salad in a separate container. Choose the wide-mouth containers and add the denser items at the bottom. The greens should always be at the top so they don’t get wilted or weighed down. Keep your salad dressing in a separate container.
Be careful with plastic storage items.
Plastic is fine to use, but you should know what type of plastic you are using. Make sure it is refrigerator, freezer, microwave, and dishwasher-safe. Also check that the plastic containers don’t have any BPA, which can be dangerous when adding or heating food in these containers.
Consider casserole dishes that work for baking and storage.
When you are actually cooking bigger meals ahead of time to just be reheated each evening, I recommend using multi-purpose casserole dishes. Use glass dishes that you use for baking, but that can also be used for storing in the freezer. Just make sure you leave them out at room temperature after cooking to cool down before freezing them, or they might crack.
Grocery Shopping: Hunt for Your Ingredients
The next step is to take your weekly meal plan to the grocery store. With your grocery list in hand, shop for all the ingredients you’ll need. Remember, the best way to approach this is by focusing on buying whole, healthy foods.
Batch Cooking: The Real Action
Once you’re back from grocery shopping, it’s time to don your chef hat. Batch cooking is where you’ll cook your meals in bulk. Whether it’s roasting vegetables, grilling chicken breast, or making a big pot of brown rice, try to get as much done as you can.
Portion and Store: The Final Step
After your batch cooking session, divide your meals into meal prep containers. Glass containers are an excellent choice, as they keep food fresh and microwave-safe. This step is crucial for portion control, a key aspect of healthy eating and weight loss.
Useful Tips For Meal Prepping
As you get started with meal prepping, there are some other things you need to keep in mind. Follow these simple tips for prepping your meals after you are done with meal planning:
- Cook all your meat at once.
- Label every container so you know when to use it by.
- Note what prepping is being done for leftovers.
- Use ingredients that can be prepped for multiple meals.
- Get freezer bags together with ingredients that will go in the slow cooker.
- Put your meal plan up on the refrigerator so you can easily see what meals to take out.
- If you’re planning and prepping for more than 3 days, do your planning and shopping on a separate day to your meal prep.
Meal Ideas For Prepping
Here are some different meal ideas that work perfectly with meal planning and meal prepping.
Put together different overnight oatmeal jars.
To get some healthy breakfast grains prepared, add overnight oats to multiple jars, one for each day of the week. In addition to the oats, you can add different toppings for each day. Some toppings to consider include cinnamon, sugar, slivered almonds or other nuts, dried fruit, berries or fresh fruit, raisins, and granola.
Roast your vegetables beforehand.
To get vegetables ready for lunches and dinners throughout the week, spend one day roasting all the vegetables at one time. Choose vegetables with about the same cooking time, roast them together, then place in containers and freeze them.
Use a vegetable spiralizer instead of pasta.
To make healthy, low-carb meals and meal prep at the same time, consider using a vegetable spiralizer. This takes vegetables like zucchini and squash and creates pasta out of them. Spiralize your veggies on a Sunday, then save them for the week’s ‘pasta’ meals.
Bake all of your meat, then freeze portions for each meal.
Decide what meat you want to use for multiple meals, then bake or cook it all at the same time. Do this in the oven or your slow cooker. Meat like chicken breasts, fish filets, beef, and strips of steak work great for this.
Keep salad veggies and toppings in one container.
For your salads, you can make it faster to put them together by having all of the greens and vegetables together in containers. Keep all your greens in one big container, and all the chopped veggies, eggs, cheese, and other toppings in another container.
DIY Salad Dressings
Creating your own salad dressings is healthier and tastier than store-bought ones. Plus, they’re an easy way to jazz up a simple salad! They can be considered pre-made snacks too if you dip your carrots in them!
How do you start meal prepping without it taking over your life?
When starting with meal prepping, you don’t need to prep all your meals for the entire week. You can start by prepping a few meals at a time. Or, you could focus on preparing just breakfasts in advance. Gradually, as you get the hang of it, you can start adding more meals and variety.
Keep Your Meals Simple
Starting with simple recipes is a great way to ease into meal prepping. As you become more comfortable, you can experiment with more complex dishes. Look up some single sheet pan recipes!
Leverage Freezer Meals and Crockpots
Your freezer is an excellent tool for preserving meals, while your slow cooker (Instant Pot or Ninja Foodie) can help you prepare large quantities of food with minimal effort.
Dedicate a Specific Time for Meal Prepping
Designating a specific day or time of the week for meal prepping can prevent it from taking over your life. Any time in the week you typically have some free time on a regular basis.
Don’t Aim for Perfection
Remember, the goal of meal prepping is to make your life easier, not to add stress. Your prepped meals don’t have to look like they’re ready for a photo shoot. What’s important is that they are nutritious, tasty, and ready when you need them.
Is it safe to meal prep for 5 days?
Yes, it is safe to meal prep for 5 days. However, there are a few things you need to keep in mind to ensure that your food stays safe to eat.
- Use fresh ingredients. When you meal prep, use fresh ingredients that are not past their expiration date. This will help to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
- Cook your food properly. Make sure that you cook your food to the proper temperature to kill harmful bacteria. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a chart that can help you determine the proper cooking temperatures for different foods.
- Refrigerate your food promptly. Once you have cooked your food, refrigerate it promptly. This will help to slow the growth of bacteria.
- Have your fridge at the correct temp. The ideal refrigerator temperature is between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature range is as close as you can get to freezing without being so cold that your food will freeze. It’s also as close as the refrigerator temperature should get to the 40-degree Fahrenheit threshold, at which point bacteria begin multiplying rapidly.
- Do not reheat food more than once. Once you have reheated food, do not reheat it again. This can increase the risk of foodborne illness.
- Store your food properly. Store your food in airtight containers in the refrigerator. This will help to keep it fresh and prevent it from absorbing other flavors.
Here are some additional tips for make-ahead meals that need to last longer than 5 days:
- Label your containers. Label your containers with the name of the meal and the date you prepared it. This will help you to keep track of what you have and when it needs to be eaten.
- Freeze your food. If you know you will not be able to eat all of your food within 5 days, you can freeze it. This will extend the shelf life of your food.
Embarking on your meal-prepping journey might seem daunting at first, but the rewards are manifold. With this guide, you’re now ready to take on this new habit. Remember, it’s all about creating a system that suits your lifestyle. Before you know it, you’ll be crafting a week’s worth of healthy, delicious meals in a single day. And no, you don’t have to only eat quinoa, kale, and beans. Make whatever you want!