Written by Rachel Lukowski, Dietetic Intern, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The average American age 18 and over spends 37-50 minutes in food preparation and cleanup per day. Although we may be growing smarter about healthy food choices, we do not always have the time to be in the kitchen for so long. It isn’t easy to choose healthy foods when you live a busy life, and let’s face it, we all lead busy lives.
This is where the wonder that is “meal prepping” comes into play to save the day!
Meal prepping is preparing some, or all of your meals ahead of time. It is almost like the TV meals that you used to buy from the store, except that you prepare them yourself with better, healthier, unrefined ingredients. You have full control of what you put into your body.
Meal prepping saves you time and makes it easy to include healthier foods with proper portions. No more reaching for prepackaged snacks or meals that leave you unsatisfied and craving more. When you have healthy options readily available to eat, you are more likely to eat them.
Getting started with Meal Prepping
This might seem overwhelming at first, but there is no “wrong” way to meal prep! Meal prepping does take planning, so stick to the basics and avoid trying to incorporate too many new things at once. Start by prepping recipes that you already know and add more when you feel comfortable. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to meal prepping.
Below are 8 tips to help you ease into the swing of meal prepping so you can gain more free time away from the kitchen and become a meal prep pro.
1. Pick a day to meal prep
A great thing to do early on in your meal prepping endeavor is to designate a day or two to prepare your meals. Choose a day you are off work, or when the kids are home from school and you can enlist the help of the entire family if needed. My goal is to meal prep over the weekend so that I have variety of options to throw together quick delicious and nutritious meals throughout the week.
2. Simplicity is key
Find your meal-prepping-groove by starting with two or three meals rather than preparing meals for the whole week. Chicken is a favorite meal prepping staple because it can be cooked hundreds of ways and is easy to store and freeze. With chicken and a few vegetables, you can easily put together three totally different meals in a matter of minutes!
Meal prepping gives you a great excuse to use leftovers or cook something that is taking up a large space in your fridge. You can make a variety of soups, salads, casseroles, pasta salads and other dishes from what you already have at home. Get creative and your fridge and wallet will thank you!
You can cook lots of different things at the same time. You can use multiple oven trays or create dividers using aluminum foil on one oven tray to maximize your efforts.
When you are going to the grocery store, make sure that you have enough oven trays, aluminum foil, and storage containers for a successful meal prepping experience.
4. Store meals in proper containers
Good storage containers are the foundation of your meal prepping. It is extremely important that you are storing your meals in proper containers. Use containers that are BPA Free because they are safe and microwavable. As you get better at meal prepping it will be important to have containers that are clear (so that you quickly can see what is inside) and stackable (to keep everything organized in your freezer or fridge).
To avoid cross contamination, divide each part of your meal. You can do this with an air tight container that has divided sections that are also air tight. This feature makes for better, fresher, crispier tasting meals.
Try to include foods from all food groups each day using MyPlate as a guide to make sure you get all the nutrients you need.
|Food Group||Nutrients||Easy Meal Prep Examples|
|Milk||Protein, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin (B2), vitamin B12||Cheese, yogurt, milk|
|Meat/Meat Alternatives||Protein, B vitamins, zinc||Chicken, beef, turkey, tuna; eggs, tofu, beans, chickpeas, nuts, seeds|
|Fruit||Vitamin C, fiber, potassium||Oranges, pears, grapes, pineapple, berries (the more colors, the better!)|
|Vegetables||Vitamin A (beta-carotine), vitamin C, potassium, fiber||Carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, green beans, cabbage, kale, potatoes|
|Grains||Carbohydrate, iron, folate, fiber (whole grains)||Brown rice, whole grain bread, whole grain pasta, lentils, quinoa, old-fashioned oats|
6. Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are an easy way to dive into meal prepping. You can cut up different items and store them just like any meals you would prepare. You can make fruit salads or freeze fruit for smoothies to go along with your prepped meals. Seasonal produce tastes the best and is often the least expensive. The Seasonal and Simple App is a guide that helps you find, select, store, prepare and preserve local foods that are available in Nebraska. Check it out here!
7. Crockpots save the day
The crockpot has been a favorite for decades and is a lifesaver for your average “meal prepper.” Use a crockpot to cook simple, great tasting meals and then store them away for later enjoyment. Check out this site for some new crockpot recipes.
8. Children can help too!
Children are more likely to eat meals that they have helped prepare. I loved cooking with my mom growing up. In fact, I think that cooking with my family is one of the early activities that sparked my interest in nutrition and dietetics. Get your kids involved in the kitchen by having them:
- Wash fruits and vegetables
- Tearing lettuce or other ingredients
- Mix ingredients together
- Measure flour, salt, spices and other ingredients
Recipes that make meal prepping easy:
This recipe makes it easy to make half your plate vegetables! Roasted veggies can be stored in the refrigerator and heated up for your next meal.
Credit: Cooking with NEP magazine
- Select one or more of a combination of vegetables.
- Cut vegetables the same size so they cook evenly.
- Toss with 1 tablespoon of olive or canola oil, and 2-3 teaspoons of one or a combination of spices, such as chili powder, coriander, and cumin.
- Place on a nonstick cooking pan (or pan lined with foil for easier clean-up) and roast at 425°F for 25-40 minutes. Give the vegetables a little space between each piece.
- Halfway through the cooking time, stir the vegetables to ensure even cooking.
Take the mystery madness out of baking chicken. A little garlic powder and pepper are the only added flavorings you need.
Credit: Pennsylvania Nutrition Education Program
- 1 pound chicken, boneless, skinless
- 1 ½ tsp. garlic powder
- 1 ½ tsp. pepper
- Salt, to taste (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
- Put the chicken in a baking pan or casserole dish.
- Sprinkle with garlic powder and pepper to taste.
- Bake for 1 hour.
Oven Baked Sweet Potato
A medium sweet potato provides more than a day’s worth of vitamin A and 35% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C! Sweet potatoes can also be used in soups or baked goods such as breads, muffins or sweet potato pie.
Credit: USDA Mixing Bowl, adapted from Food.com
- 4 medium sweet potatoes
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1 T. vegetable oil
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ½ tsp. paprika
- 1/8 tsp. salt
- 3 cloves garlic (chopped) OR ½ tsp. garlic powder
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
- Cut potatoes into wedges or strips. Place in a bowl of cold water for 15 minutes.
- Drain potatoes. Place in a large bowl and coat with vegetable oil. Season with black pepper and salt. If using cayenne and paprika, add that too (any additional spices you want to experiment with are fair game). Place in a single layer on the baking sheet.
- Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, turn the potatoes over with a spatula, and sprinkle with garlic. Bake an additional 15 minutes or until browned and crisp.
Brown Rice Tabbouleh
This refreshing Mediterranean inspired dish is made with tomatoes and cucumbers and seasoned with mint and parsley. It can be stored overnight for a bolder taste to add to your next meals. You can use leftover brown rice from a meal cooked earlier in the week or make a big batch on the weekend to use in this dish and for other weeknight meals with different additions.
Credit: Meeting Your MyPlate Goals on a Budget Toolkit by MyPlate National Strategic Partners
- 3 c. brown rice, cooked
- ¾ c. cucumber, chopped
- ¾ c. tomato, chopped
- 1/2 c. fresh parsley, chopped OR 3 tsp. dried parsley
- ¼ c. fresh mint leaves, chopped OR 2 tsp. dried mint
- ¼ c. green olives, sliced
- ¼ c. olive oil
- ¼ c. lemon juice
- ½ tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- Combine rice, cucumber, tomato, parsley, mint, green onions, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper in large bowl.
- Toss well and chill.
This post was reviewed by Morgan Hartline MS, RD, LMNT. Photos by Rachel Lukowski.