New to Meal Prep? 7 Rules to Memorize for Healthy, Make-Ahead Meals
Get dinner on the table in 30 minutes or less with these pro tips.
Invest in quality food containers
Before you start chopping and peeling and slicing and dicing, you need to have the right equipment to hold the fruits of your labor. If you’re prepping a week’s worth of meals, FoodSaver vacuum-sealed containers are a worthy investment. Not only are they durable and BPA-free (translation: no harmful chemicals to stain them or leach into your food), they also keep food fresh up to two times longer than other storage units because all the air is sucked out, making it harder for bacteria to grow or food to spoil. “For me, meal prep is about doing the work when you have the time, which is usually on the weekend. FoodSaver containers extend the life of my food so I can have fresh food ready all week long,” says celebrity chef Damaris Phillips, Food Network Star and FoodSaver spokesperson. Here's how your food storage containers could make you sick.
Plan a week-long menu
Meal prep doesn’t mean you need to eat the same meal for five days straight. Choose staples from each food group—one grain, one or two proteins, and a variety of veggies, then use the same ingredients all week with different flavor combinations. “I try to think about using those same ingredients as a breakfast dish, in a cold application for lunch, and then dinner,” says Phillips. For example, if you make a big batch of quinoa, you can treat it as you would oatmeal for your morning meal, scoop it on top of a salad for lunch, and pair it with a protein and some roasted veggies for dinner. Explore new flavor combos by trying out different mixed spice blends (Pereg offers everything from curry to BBQ to Cajun), which takes the guesswork out of it. Need more ideas? Check out these delicious quinoa recipes.
Even though the bulk of your meal prep will probably be done when you have the most spare time on the weekend, set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to do a mini lunch prep session as soon as you get home from work using all the food you prepped ahead of time. Build a salad that won’t wilt in your FoodSaver container—pour dressing on the bottom and layer fresh veggies and a protein on top. Or, try Rubbermaid’s new balance Meal Kit; designed by registered dietician nutritionist Marisa Moore, RDN, it has perfectly portioned units to make sure you get the proper amount of each type of food group. “Many of my clients have a hard time maintaining a diet or deciding how much they need to eat. This is a good visual and starting place,” she says. The kit also comes with a booklet of Moore-crafted-and-approved recipes you can use for meal prep inspiration.
Don’t overthink things
If you’re new to home cooking or meal prep, it can seem daunting to visualize a week’s worth of meals all at once. “When anybody is just starting the process of cooking, I always say it takes practice and nobody got to be a great cook on their first try,” says Phillips. Don’t add extra stress to the task by worrying about messing things up, just start out with simple dishes first. “Learn to cook brown rice with a little salt and butter or olive oil. Learn to boil noodles properly or sauté onions right. Once you get those basics down, you’ll be all good and feel more confident.” Focus on choosing your food staples and then look for easy recipes to transform them. Take even more of the pressure off by stocking your pantry and fridge with items you can add to your prepped food in a pinch, like Three Bridges kale or basil pesto, Botticelli or Rao’s pasta sauce, and Just Dressing by Hampton Creek. You can also keep pre-made pizza crust (try Caulipower, made with cauliflower and a good way to sneak extra nutrients into your diet) on hand--just top with your prepped veggies and protein and you can have a quick and fun meal on the table in minutes.
Embrace one-pot meals
One of Phillips’ foolproof pro tips is to fill containers with all the ingredients for a one-pot meal. All you have to do is dump it all in a pot after work and dinner is served! If faro is your grain of the week, scoop a layer into the bottom of a container. Perhaps you seared off a bunch of turkey or chicken sausage for your protein (try Diestel turkey sausage or chorizo)—throw that on top next. Add a layer of raw vegetables that cook quickly, like spinach or shaved fennel, and top it off with your favorite grated cheese. The next night, transfer it to a pot and cook it in a bit of chicken stock until it’s steaming. Then, enjoy!
It’s OK to cut corners when you’re juggling a busy job and a family. If you only had time to prep your grains and veggies between weekend soccer practice and grocery shopping, stock up on proteins you can freeze and cook quickly. Veggie burgers are a healthful option that are rich in protein and fiber and cook fast. Trick your kids into thinking they’re eating beef by trying Beyond Meat, a one-of-a-kind plant-based patty that looks and tastes similar to a regular burger, thanks to a proprietary system that turns plant proteins into the fibrous structure you find in animal protein. For a fun twist, eat it between pretzel buns by Pretzilla. It’s also a good idea to consider pre-cooked chicken, like Johnsonville’s new flame-grilled line. Use it in a salad for lunch, then between slices of bread (for the carb-conscious, try Nature’s Own’s new Life line of low-calorie bread that’s as little as 40 calories per slice!) with stackable veggies for a quick dinner.
Turn it into a party
“Meal prep is helpful but it can get boring. If you’re single or childless, invite friends over and have everyone prepare a recipe. Then each take one portion of each dish,” says Moore. “You’ll have something totally different to eat every day.”