Finding meal prep ideas you love can be life-changing because when executed properly, meal prep is an excellent way to lose weight and get healthier. When you’re busy, it can be difficult to be organized enough to make healthy choices at lunchtime and dinnertime. Many of your days are packed with meetings, errands, commute time, kids and more. Unfortunately, when we’re pressed for time and we’re hungry, what’s readily available is likely something full of sugar or salt. You might get fast food or takeout because there’s nothing in your fridge and you need something quick. This is where meal prep ideas come into play.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of the advantages of meal prep and meal planning; that it will save you time, help you avoid stress and make it much easier to resist unhealthy food. When you’ve already prepared days worth of healthy lunches and dinners, it’s easy to eat healthily. In addition, meal planning forces you to put mealtime on a schedule, which can help reduce the urge to mindlessly snack.
However, a lot of people don’t know where to begin and don’t have any meal prep ideas. You don’t need a particular cooking skill level or a particular set of skills or tools (well, aside from Tupperware) to make delicious, healthy meals at home. Like anything, practice makes perfect, and the more often you meal prep for the week, the better and more efficient you become at it. Let’s go over some simple steps you can take to get started, meal prep advice from nutritionists, and review some meal prep ideas.
First, Decide What You’re Working Towards
Before you begin searching for meal prep ideas, it’s important to know what your goals are.
Do you want to create a calorie deficit by reducing your caloric intake? If you’re often very hungry, your diet could be lacking in fibre, and you need meals that fill you up. Or, maybe you’re trying to build muscle, in which case you need more protein.
If you’re meal prepping for weight loss purposes, you’ll have different goals in mind when searching for meal prep ideas compared to someone who wants to build muscle mass.
Having a clear target in mind when you create your meal prep menu will give you a better chance of sticking to your meal plan. Visit your doctor or see a nutritionist to set some realistic, healthy goals and discuss what kinds of foods you can add to your diet to reach those goals. Write them down on a piece of paper and keep it somewhere where you are bound to see them, maybe even in more than one spot so that you’re constantly reminded; keep one sheet on your fridge, one in your bag and one in the pantry or cupboard, for example.
Calorie Counting Vs. Macro Tracking
Meal prepping is a helpful strategy for weight loss because the menu planning phase gives you a chance to take nutritional information into account.
Is calorie counting the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re creating your menu? Not necessarily. According to a nutritionist named Lisa Richards, creator of the Candida Diet,
“Counting calories can be effective in producing weight loss, but there are some important factors to consider when taking this weight loss approach. Because the body’s metabolism is unique to each individual, there is not an exact amount of calories that can create weight loss for everyone. A major drawback to counting calories for weight loss is sustainability. If calories are significantly restricted it can cause the body’s metabolism to slow down and actually cause weight gain rather than loss. This is especially true for the individual that begins to take in a “normal” amount of calories again. The body will store them more efficiently as fat to avoid entering starvation mode again. Rather than counting calories, the dieter should consider the quality of [the] calories they are consuming.”
That’s where macro tracking comes in. Personal trainer and nutrition specialist Kim Abbage Hart explains, “Macronutrients, or macros for short, are the main nutrients that make up the foods we eat. There are 3 main categories of macros, which are:
- Protein – the building blocks for muscle
- Carbohydrates – the body’s preferred energy source
- Fats – the body’s secondary energy source
Each plays a very specific and important role in your diet. When combined in the right ratio, it ensures you get all the nutrients your body needs.
Tracking macronutrients is simply understanding the ratio of macros you want to consume, and then counting only those macros within the food you consume. There are helpful tools that can help you track macros better, such as MyFitnessPal, if you’re new and learning.”
Using a food scale to portion meals allows for the most accurate consumption of your macros and calories. When using a food scale, you will want to place your container on the food scale first and then “tare” any weight that shows up to ensure you are starting from zero. From there, you will want to weigh your protein in ounces first. From there you can “tare” or zero out that amount and weigh your carbs. Carbs are best weighed in grams as it provides for a more accurate portion count. Lastly, you will weigh your vegetables, however, my general rule is that green cruciferous vegetables are always “free” as they provide very little calories or macro impact and are filled with tons of good fibre and vitamins.”
Set Yourself Up For Success
It’s easy to quit or postpone your diet at the first hurdle, so think ahead and make a plan for what could throw you off.
Unappetizing food is a major setback; who wants to eat a four-day-old meal when ordering Thai food is so easy? Cooking five days’ worth of food on a Sunday might seem like a good idea, but the fact is that if you don’t want to eat the food you have, you probably won’t. Or, you might eat it but won’t feel satisfied and will likely snack or binge eat later.
So, give yourself some options. Make a hearty vegetable soup with lentils for lunch and can or freeze half of it to save for another week. After a few weeks, you’ll find yourself with a stockpile of pre-made options. Some folks prefer to meal prep every three or four days (instead of once per week) for exactly this reason.
Keep in mind that meal prep doesn’t necessarily mean you need to cook. Washing and chopping produce is the most time-consuming part of every meal, so get that out of the way as soon as you come home from the store.
Also, don’t forget to schedule in some treats; any diet that is too restrictive is bound to fail. Scheduling a reward gives you an incentive to stick to your meal plan throughout the week.
Meal Prep Ideas: What Should I Prepare For The Week?
Try making healthier versions of the foods you already enjoy. Some examples might be:
- Turkey lasagna. Swap the noodles for shaved zucchini or eggplant. Bake in a large dish or divide into two smaller ones to save for later.
- Veggie pizza on a crust made from cauliflower or quinoa. If using cauliflower, shred and sprinkle with salt to draw out water before forming the crust.
- A burger made with extra lean ground beef wrapped in a lettuce or collard green leaf instead of a bun. Use extra-lean ground beef or turkey.
- Spaghetti squash with turkey or vegetarian meatballs. Half the squash and bake upside down, then shred with a fork.
These options are low in calories and can be made ahead of time to be stored in the fridge or freezer.
When creating your menu, make sure you’re choosing foods that are high in fibre and protein. Protein feeds your muscles and takes longer to digest, whereas fibre takes up a lot of room in your stomach. Meals that are high in both will keep you feeling fuller longer.
Some options include:
- Rice and bean burritos. Make them in bulk and store them in the freezer wrapped in tinfoil. Be sure to let them cool completely before freezing.
- A buddha bowl made with quinoa, avocado, mixed greens, roasted chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and whatever other veggies you have on hand. Olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice make a light and healthy dressing.
- A homemade, low-sodium version of a ‘cup-o-noodles’. Add cabbage, edamame and tofu for protein and fibre, store in a mason jar and just add boiling water.
Between meals, there are plenty of make-ahead snack options to keep your hunger at bay and you away from the vending machine, including air-popped popcorn, roasted chickpeas, banana or apple chips, hummus with veggies or whole-wheat pita, trail-mix, or overnight oats with mixed in fruit, nuts or seeds.
Should You Roast, Steam, Sautee or Bake Your Food?
The way you prepare your meals will contribute to the overall nutrient density and calorie count in the finished product. Frying food, for example, adds a significant amount of calories. As registered dietician Brenda Peralta explains, “the best options are those that don’t require a lot of added fat and are not [cooked at ] high temperatures. Steaming and sauteeing are some of my favourite ways to prepare my meals. The air fryer or the oven are also good choices to preserve the nutrients in your foods.”
It is worth noting, however, that not all fat is created equal. Healthy fats aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, K and E. Mono and polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish, avocado and olive oil might raise the total number of calories, but the benefits that fat provides outweigh any reason to cut fat completely from your diet.
Your genes also affect how your body stores fat, as well as affecting what your optimal diet might be. A CircleDNA test comes with personalized diet and nutrition reports that can help guide you when choosing what to put on your menu.