I have been meal prepping for years. I remember having college roommates who didn’t totally understand why my space in the fridge would be jam-packed with food, and I’m sure there were times that I annoyed them when I took up a few spaces too many. But it was worth it. While I love having a fresh meal, leaving early in the morning and getting home late at night doesn’t always make that possible. It’s been years of trial and error, but I’ve complied the best of my meal prep tips and tricks to have a successful meal prep and stay on track with your health and fitness goals!
Now, these aren’t going to focus much on food choices, but I want to add in my thoughts before I get into it. Following generally healthy eating is going to be crucial to any health and fitness goal. When we build our diet to be made up of 80% whole, nutrient dense, minimally processed foods, we’re able to then add in those more fun foods the other 20% of the time. When I meal prep, it’s nearly ALWAYS within the 80%. I save the 20% for meals out with friends or family, fun new recipes that I may find for the weekends, and baking. (I love baking almost as much as I love cooking and, if I’m baking, there’s not many healthy swaps there!) With that being said, let’s get into the tips.
1. Plan, plan, plan.
When I played soccer in high school, our coach used to tell us “Proper planning prevents poor performance.” It was true in soccer, but also in meal prep. When we take time to plan,
Pick proteins first. For me, protein is the trickiest macronutrient. It’s tough to “grab-and-go” and many of our on the go options are shakes and bars. Personally, I try to keep these to a minimum and get as much of my protein from whole food sources as possible. So, with that, protein gets picked and prepped first. My meals are built based on the protein source. Some of my favorites are: chicken breast or boneless, skinless thigh, lean ground beef, venison, ground turkey and pork tenderloin.
Make a shopping list in the order of the grocery store. This is one of my favorite ways to reduce your time spent in the store, make sure you don’t forget anything, and avoid buying unnecessary items. If you have a go-to store, you likely know the order. If you don’t, this might take some practice. While you’re planning your meals, simply list the items in order of your walk through the store. I suggest lapping the perimeter, where the fruits, veggies, meat, and dairy is located. Then, only go down the aisles of things on your list. This way, it’s so easy to avoid accidentally going down that pesky chips, snacks, and cookies aisle!
2. It’s all about the seasoning.
These days, I usually eat the same thing. Seriously, when it comes to meal prep, don’t over complicate it. My meals consist of three things: a protein, a starchy carb, and veggies. However, they’re rarely seasoned the same. Let’s take a sample week of my two prepped meals: one was Teriyaki Bowls and the other was Buffalo Chicken Bowls. (What can I say? I like things in bowls.) But when I break it down, each is made of three foods from each group.
Teriyaki Bowls: Lean ground beef, quinoa, and peppers, onions, and sugar snap peas
Buffalo Chicken Bowls: Chicken breast, sweet potatoes, and broccoli and carrots
It’s foods from the three same categories and I simply change seasonings. Often, when we meal prep, we get caught up in searching for all new recipes when we really only need a new seasoning or sauce.
My favorite flavor combinations:
BBQ Rub Chicken Thigh: Boneless, skinless chicken thigh sprinkled with BBQ rub seasoning and cooked in a hot pan on the stovetop. Spray the pan so it doesn’t stick and start on med-low to cook through and finish with high heat to form a crust on the outside.
Crockpot Buffalo Chicken: Chicken breast, Frank’s Buffalo Sauce to cover, garlic, and black pepper in the crockpot on high for 4-5 hours (longer time if frozen). Shred and serve.
Teriyaki Ground Turkey: Lean ground turkey can be dry, so cooking it with some kind of liquid is crucial. Add turkey to a pan on the stove with some coconut aminos (or other low sodium soy sauce), a SMALL drizzle of honey, 1-2 of minced garlic, and ground ginger to taste. Cook turkey, breaking it into small pieces.
As you use different sauces and seasonings, make sure you’re watching the calories! With thick sauces, such as BBQ sauce, salad dressings, and other sweetened sauces, they can pack on the calories before you know it! Swap in rubs and dry seasonings when possible, or use lower calorie sauces such as mustard, salsa, and DIY marinades.
3. Changing cooking methods makes a whole new meal.
In addition to changing the seasoning, swapping out cooking methods creates an entirely new meal. Did you know that food manufactures put hundreds of thousands of dollars into research on the texture of their foods? Personally, I hate eating food that’s all the same texture – I need some variety! This is where different cooking methods come into the mix. We’re able to keep the same food while creating an entirely new meal experience. Let’s use a sweet potato as our example.
Bake it. Baked potatoes are great! While it takes some time to cook, we can cut them open and fill them with things. Pick a protein, some beans, sautéed peppers, a small sprinkle of cheese and you have a loaded sweet potato!
Sautee it. Shred it and lightly spray the pan with a cooking spray. Sautee and cook as “hash browns” to add to a breakfast bowl with sautéed veggies and eggs.
Roast it. Perhaps my go-to way of cooking, cutting sweet potatoes into squares and roasting them in the oven is a great way to prep potatoes in bulk for meals throughout the week.
Use a kitchen appliance. Using an air fryer, pressure cooker, crockpot, etc. is another way to prep in bulk and cook while not having to stand over a pan and constantly monitor!
4. Prep in bulk and combine into meals when you eat.
I used to prep all of my meals in meal containers. Single serving, grab and go, type meals. Just heat and eat, simple as that. However, lately, I’ve been keeping my food in bulk. For example, I’ll cook two proteins, two carb sources, and a few vegetable options. When I cook, I’ll keep them fairly plain on the seasoning, and add seasoning as I combine into meals later. This allows me to have different meals throughout the week by only making a variety of combinations.
This can also be used in family style meals! Kids won’t need the same amount of food as the adults and may not enjoy the same seasonings. Or maybe you’re in a challenge at Unity where we encourage dinner to be made of a lean protein and veggies, while your partner would like some more carbohydrate in their evening meal. When we have them prepped separately, they can be combined individually, and we’re not locked in to specific meals every single day or even the same meals for each person!
Here’s an example week of food and different meals.
For the week:
My proteins are ground turkey and chicken breast. My carbohydrates are potatoes and quinoa. My veggies are broccoli, peppers, and carrots.
Meal Idea 1: Ground turkey, quinoa, peppers, black beans, and salsa.
Meal Idea 2: Chicken breast, potatoes, and broccoli with a homemade teriyaki sauce
Meal Idea 3: Ground turkey, potatoes, and carrots with a BBQ sauce
Meal Idea 4: Chicken breast, quinoa, and peppers with taco sauce
5. Multitasking is key.
This goes hand in hand with planning, but multitasking is the true key to meal prep success. When we can get a handle on what we’re cooking and times for each, we’re able to greatly reduce the time we spend in the kitchen each week. This takes time, as well as trial and error.
When you’re planning meals, note the cooking time of each. For example, potatoes need to be roasted for a longer time than broccoli. Dice and season the potatoes first and put them in the oven to start cooking. Then, prep and season the broccoli and put it in after the potatoes have been cooking for some time. When you pull them out, they should be done close to the same time instead of cooking broccoli first and having it finish cooking before the potatoes!
Sometimes, I also split up meal prep into two sessions. I’ll wash and chop veggies right when I get them from the store. Then, when I have time to cook 1-2 days later, I only have to toss in the seasoning and combine. This is great, especially if you enjoy some raw veggies to snack on in the fridge! Before they’re cooked, you can snack on a few or save some to purposely snack on while you cook.
6. Sometimes it pays to pay for convenience.
My final meal prep tip is something that we see in the store, but we don’t often think about incorporating due to cost. The grocery store is filled with pre-prepped or easy to prep foods. They’re often sold at a premium compared to their un-prepped counterparts, so, if you’re like me, you leave them on the shelf and opt to do the prepping, chopping, and cutting yourself.
However, with the holidays approaching, chances are, we’re going to be busier than usual. It’s almost inevitable. These busy times are when pre-prepped foods can come in handy. When we’re short on time, spending a few extra dollars may be worth it to stay on track with your fitness goals. I often use these when I’m gone for the weekend. I’ll pick up just enough food to have for a day or two until I can get back to meal prep normally for the rest of the week. This way, I can stay on track and not be tempted to swing through a drive through on the way home from work.
My favorite products when I pick up pre-prepped food:
Protein first. What is your protein? Just as with regular meal prep, I plan everything around protein. I may plan to incorporate a shake for breakfast because I can keep fruit frozen and add in protein powder. Festival has a deli with pre-cooked chicken breast and salmon filets that I can use for salads or to heat up in a different meal.
Add in your veggies. The best place I’ve bought pre-cut and prepped veggies is Festival. They have rows of pre-cut, ready to cook vegetables that you can take and cook without the prep time! Heck, you can pick up a veggie tray and grab some hummus for a snack. Pre-cut and prepped foods that I’ve seen include potatoes, onions, a variety of veggies, etc. If you don’t even have time to cook, you can toss these into a salad with some lean protein!
Finish with a carbohydrate. One of my favorites, easy things to buy ahead of time and have on hand is microwave rice packets. These can be tricky; they’re packed with sodium. However, I’ve found some great options in the freezer section. They have frozen, partially cooked rice at nearly every grocery store. You can toss it in the microwave and have rice for meals in no time!
There you have it: my six tried and true meal prep tips. I’ve tested and used these over the years to have healthy food to grab and go at a moment’s notice. But at the end of the day, my final tip for your meal prep is to keep it simple. Eat 80% whole, minimally processed foods, focusing on lots of veggies and leaner protein. Cook what you enjoy eating and change your meals with seasonings, sauces, cooking methods, etc. Don’t over think it.
Do you have any meal prep tips? What are some of your favorite go-to meals? Send me an email, I’d love to chat!
Written by Emily O’Connor, NSCA-CPT, Pn1, SFG1 . You can contact Emily through email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Instagram @coachemilymeyer.