A steady exercise routine is essential to feeling your best. However, your commitment to eating nutritious meals is just as important to your progress—if not more so. You’ve probably heard the meal prep is the easiest and most effective way to stay on track with your diet. Well, it’s true. But, for some, the idea of cooking and organizing all that food into colorful, perfectly-packed containers every week is daunting. But don’t worry. Even if you’re less inclined in the kitchen or would rather relax than cook most weekends, you can still reap the meal prep rewards. We asked experts to share their best meal prep strategies and advice. Ready, set, prep!
Get on the mason jar trend.
They used to line your grandma’s cellar in prep for doomsday. Now they’re used for everything from holding buttons to drinking water. Mason jars—also known as canning jars—have grown in popularity as a to-go container for lunches recently. Health Psychologist Dr. Gretchen Kubacky says that the uptick is warranted. They are wide-mouthed, air-tight when sealed and available in a myriad of sizes. Not only do they photograph well, but they also transport better than typical Tupperware, too. “They’re leakproof, inexpensive, durable, and environmentally correct. You can batch cook healthy soups, load up canning jar salads, or store leftovers in them. Just grab a couple of jars from the fridge or freezer as you need them,” she suggests.
Set up breakfast before bed.
The official verdict is still out on which meal is the most essential for health. But Professor and Registered Dietitian Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND stresses the importance of eating a protein-rich breakfast in the a.m. to jumpstart your metabolism. But, if you’re often rushing before work, chopping, mixing, and sauteeing likely makes you yawn.
If you don’t have it in you to meal prep all three meals of the day, you can still set yourself up for an easier morning. Ayoob suggests taking the added pressure off breakfast by setting up shop the night before. Get out all flatware, coffee cups, ingredients, spices—you name it—before heading to bed so that you don’t have to do anything but put ‘em together when your alarm clock goes off. “Get out the omelet pan and the ingredients [that] you’ll use. Keep the perishables—like eggs—in the fridge but gather them into a bowl so [that] there’s less chance of dropped eggs when you’re in a rush. [The] next morning, you’ll have the breakfast you like—and need—and you’ll have it faster than you imagined,” he adds.
Don’t forget soups.
If you’re not a fan of overly-complicated recipes, Dr. Kubacky says that soups can be a smart year-round go-to. They are self-sufficient and simmer all on their own. It’s the type of meal designed for overbooked enthusiasts. As a bonus, you instantly add more vegetables to your diet, attracting the fiber, vitamins, and minerals that your body needs. “Bring a carton of organic chicken or vegetable broth, a bag of pre-washed and chopped vegetables—broccoli, kale, or baby carrots—and a few spices to a boil and simmer until tender,” she instructs. “For variety and healthy fat, add a little coconut milk. Or whirl it in a high-speed blender with half an avocado. The easier you make it, the more likely you are to eat healthily.”
Be strategic with ingredients.
One of the most difficult parts of meal prep is knowing exactly what you’ll need—and when you’ll actually have time to eat it. Since food waste can sometimes be a concern for those learning how to meal prep effectively, Registered Dietitian Kaleigh McMordie, MCN, RDN says to scour the grocery store for items that you know you can incorporate into many meals. Vegetables, for example, can be turned into vegetable egg muffins or roasted. Freezing meat also extends its shelf life. Prepackaged nuts prevent you from grabbing for sweets, and you can also add them to dishes for crunch and taste.
Enlist a pal.
Whether it’s your romantic partner, roommate, or co-worker who also wants to clean up their diet and save money on takeout, Dr. Kubacky says that meal prep buddies help keep you accountable. And, as a bonus, it might bring you closer together as you weed through the archives of quick, easy lunches to prepare together. “It’s a great way to exercise creativity, build your cooperation skills, and develop a new respect for your partner or friend’s skills. Anything where you face a slight challenge together—like figuring out a vague new recipe—builds trust,” she says.
Take an afternoon.
Ever tune-in to a Food Network showdown and find yourself mesmerized by how quickly they can just whip up a super-complicated dish? Don’t compare yourself. Your kitchen likely doesn’t come with a sous chef and a team of producers to clean up after you and julienne your carrots for you.
When you’re pinched for time, the majority of everyday cooking can’t be quite as over-the-top. That’s why Ayoob suggests giving yourself a full Saturday or Sunday afternoon to do the majority of your meal prep. It will save you stress all the way through Friday. When you have vegetables washed and cut, meat seasoned and ready to be grilled, potatoes that only need to roast in the oven for a while, coming home to make dinner won’t seem so cumbersome. “When it’s time to cook, you’ll feel like a pro. You’ll really enjoy cooking because, for the first time, the frustration is gone. Everything you need is there and in the right amounts, all ready to go. It really shaves off time, too,” he says.
Pay more when it’s worth it.
Pre-cut vegetables cost more than ones straight out of the ground. And sure, chicken that’s already been cooked and flavored by the deli at your local grocery store costs more than the same protein in the frozen aisle. Before you cut pennies and corners, Ayoob challenges healthy eaters to consider what’s worth it. In the scheme of your spending habits, that extra dollar might end up saving you money. “Especially if you’re also in the habit of getting takeout for dinner, which is far more expensive. Get the trimmed and washed green beans. You’ll discover what a breeze it is when all the green beans are trimmed and facing in the same direction and all about the same size. It’s like having an in-house sous-chef,” he says.