Today I am sharing my Beginners Guide to Meal Prep. Meal prep is one of the things I get asked about most on my Instagram account. So my plan here is to share with you a little background with how I got started with it as well as some general information about my weekly meal prep routine. Of course throwing in some tips and tricks along the way. You will learn how to make meal prep quicker and easier and fine the best method that fits into your lifestyle!
For starters, let me just say meal prep is NOT my idea of a jolly good time. I am not giddily excited to spend time on my weekend hanging out up in the kitchen. But I put up with it because I know how handy it comes in during the week. Whenever I skimp on meal prep I feel great on Sunday with all the extra time and then during the week I'm kicking myself for not getting it together. Also, meal prep is not for everyone. Don't feel like a failure just because you just can't get into it or the thought of eating leftovers makes you wanna gag. But if you've never tried it or you have but you can't quite figure out how to make it work, this post is for you. Hopefully there are some tips in here that you can use to figure out a system that will work for you!
How I Started
Many moons ago (around 2013), I was scrolling through good old social media and kept seeing all these fitness accounts posting pictures of their amazing weekly meal preps. I thought it looked awesome but I also thought it looked like a ton of work. I was in the early stages of my weight loss and I was down about 40 pounds and looking for something to kick it up a notch. My friend and I were trying to be healthy together so we thought, why not try it out? We planned out some meals we wanted to make and picked a day to make it happen. She bought half of the grocery list and I bought the other. That next Sunday she came over, Tupperware in tow, and we got to work. That very first meal prep took us about 6 hours from start to finish. WAY more time than I had anticipated spending on this venture. A few months later we were prepping in just under 3 hours. Progress! She later moved away but I continued to prep at home and the rest is pretty much history.
Now my husband helps me out with prep. He usually grills the chicken or makes the meat while I get other things together. Having a partner to prep with does make things easier and quicker, especially since we are cooking for the both os us. He also usually does the cleaning while I am finishing up and A-FREAKING-MEN for that because that's the part I hate the most. I know. He's a keeper.
At this point, I've gotten most of my prep down to a science. Like I mentioned above, it wasn't always this way. When I first started prepping it took almost my entire Sunday from start to finish. In addition to the actual prep time, the planning prior to also took forever. There's so much involved when you're trying to figure out what to make, how much you need and then get a grocery list together. Inevitably, no matter how organized I was or meticulously I planned, I always forgot something at the store. Always. I'm still really good at doing that but at least now it happens a little less often. So prepare to spend some time in the beginning just kind of figuring things out. If it takes you forever in the beginning just know it won't always be that way. You will find your groove as you do it more often. I'm finally at the point where I can get a really decent prep done in about 2-3 hours depending on how many meals I am making.
Mistakes I Made
Trying To Prep EVERYTHING
I used to do all of my breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. All of them. For all seven days of the week. That got old really fast. There is a time and a place for that but I have learned to simplify things in the interest of time (and my sanity). Now I typically make sure I have lunches and snacks ready to go, a few breakfast choices to pick from and then I prep some things for dinners without prepping the entire meal. For example, I'll cut and roast some veggies or sweet potatoes in advance and then I will just find a protein (chicken, fish, pork) to cook the day of. Having some pieces done, even if it's not the whole meal, still cuts down on a lot of time during the week.
Making too many new recipes
I used to do this a lot. I would try out 5 new recipes in one week only to discover I actually only liked maybe 2 of them. Which left me regretfully eating a meal I wasn't happy with or tossing it and wasting the food (and money) to grab something else. And usually my "something else" wasn't the healthiest choice. Basically I was defeating the point of prep in the first place. Now I stick to what I like and try maybe one recipe a week. This also helps cut down on the time I spend prepping because when you're trying recipes you're not familiar with, that can definitely slow you down. So imagine me with my 5 new recipes. What was I thinking? *Insert eye roll here* Now I know better.
Not checking the fridge before I shop
This seems like common sense but I have committed this error SO many times. Every time I made a plan for meal prep and started developing a shopping list, I would start from scratch instead of basing my meal choices on what was currently in the fridge. It saves me so much more time and money when I take 10 minutes to scope out the content of my kitchen and pantry and THEN decide what meals to make before heading out the door.
Current Meal Prep Routine & 2 Hour Sample Prep
My basic meal prep routine now is to do a protein source and a vegetable. Those are the main targets I try to hit. Sometimes I will add a carb depending on the meal and what my macros are looking like. I usually use brown rice, potatoes or sweet potatoes as my carb choice. Or sometimes I will use a protein pasta. This basic formula helps me to quickly and easily decide what to make for the week. Polenta bakes, burrito bowls and easy skillets (like chicken bacon ranch or taco skillet) are staples that I make over and over because they're quick and I don't get tired of them.
I get asked often how I manage to prep so much in such a short amount of time. In order to better understand how I prioritize a meal prep in terms of the steps I take, here is a little sample of a simple 2 hour prep completed with 2 people. So let's say I have burrito bowls and cauliflower fried rice on the menu for lunches and I want to also get together some snacks, a breakfast choice and roast some veggies for dinner. Here is what I would do to multitask and get everything going.
I start by preheating the oven. While I'm waiting for that, I will usually start to wash and chop the veggies for roasting while my meal prep partner (MPP for future reference) starts cooking the ground beef for the burrito bowls. This process usually takes about 15-20 minutes.
Once the veggies are in the oven and the ground beef is done, I start to prepare the burrito bowls (see pic below) while my MPP prepares the chicken for the chicken kale story fry. Burrito bowls and chicken stir fry are done and plated in about 20 minutes. So far we are about 40 minutes in and already lunches are done.
These are the meal prep bowls used in the picture above!
I usually check the vegetables at this point and maybe roast for another 10-15 minutes and while this is finishing up, I prepare some snacks. My snacks are usually a mixture of grab and go items like protein bars (I love RxBars), tuna packets, and CHOMPS meat sticks. I looooove the meat sticks cause theyre so convenient. You can use code "Jenlopez" for 15% off on their website! Turkey pepperoni and jalapeno beef are my faves!
Then sometimes there are things I actually have to do a little more with to prepare. So for example, I might make some tuna salad and add grain-free crackers to containers, wash some fruit to portion off or put things like veggies and hummus in individual portions. While I am doing this, my MPP is removing the vegetables from the oven and then whipping up some eggs and chicken sausage for a few breakfasts. This part takes about another 30 minutes or so.
Other Great Meal Prep Breakfast Options
By the middle of the second hour I am usually finishing things up and beginning to clean the kitchen. This usually takes about 30 minutes depending on how much damage we've done.
So that's a simplified idea of how I prioritize and carry out a quicker and easier prep. Things usually take me a little longer if I add more options for breakfast or if I am trying out some new recipes.
Tips & Tricks
Prep the ingredients vs making the whole meal
- You can still save yourself a lot of time during the week simply by arming yourself with freshly washed and cut fruits and vegetables. If you don't feel like spending a ton of time cooking on a Sunday but you'd like some quick options to throw together in a pinch, this is a good tactic. Grill some chicken, cut some potatoes, have some things ready and then just throw them together during the week.
Wait for your food to cool before storing
- This helps keep the vegetables from getting soggy when it's stored for a few days. I leave the lids off and let the meals cool down and then I will cover and store them. I don't store things in the freezer but you could totally do that too. For me, the food stays good to go in the fridge for the week without tasting old or weird. I usually eat anything with roasted chicken or veggies the first couple days since that tastes better (IMO) when I eat it sooner and then I save the other meals for the days later in the week. It's a matter of preference but that's what works for me. I use Snapware glass containers for most of my meals (pics above) and I use Sistema salad kit container for my burrito bowls. I love the individual compartments to separate my wet and dry ingredients. They sell Snapware containers at Costco and the Sistema ones at HomeGoods but I've also gotten them from Amazon.
Experiment with slow cooker and one pot/sheet pan meals
- Throwing something in the crockpot is a super simple way to get another meal in for prep without having to do much extra work. Toss it in and leave it and you have one meal cooking while you're prepping some others. Same deal with sheet pan and one pan recipes. They are so quick and easy! Here are a couple ideas to try:
Double the recipes you know you enjoy
- When I know I love something, (like my buffalo casserole or taco polenta bake) I will sometimes make 6 servings of it and have it three times a week instead of one or two. I usually do this with burrito bowls or larger casserole type dishes because I know I like the meal and I can cook it once and get more bang for my buck when it comes to time spent prepping.
Make one meal on saturday night
- This tip is for those of you who are Sunday preparers like myself. I just started doing this recently and I'm a huge fan already. Most of my Saturdays are spent on the couch watching Netflix and a glass of wine in hand. I figured I can also get a little head start on Sunday prep at the same time. So I have started making one meal on Saturday nights. Something that I can throw in the oven that requires minimal effort. Then I will usually make sure to eat this meal on Monday and Tuesday since I made it a day earlier than normal. Bonus points if I make enough servings to have it for dinner on Sunday too.
Keep it simple
- Meal prep DOES NOT have to be fancy. It only needs to be functional and work with your lifestyle. You can make things go by much quicker if you aren't super picky like me and don't mind eating the same meal every day. If you really wanted to, you could just prep only 2 different recipes and have the same thing for lunch and dinner every day of the week. My husband would be totally fine with that but I prefer to spice things up just a bit. What I do is eat the exact same thing on Monday and Tuesday. Same breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes even snacks. Then I will eat the same thing on Wednesday and Thursday with Fridays being a little more flexible. This keeps me in a routine but also breaks me out of a monotonous schedule of eating the same thing every single day of the week. Right when I'm about to get bored with the food, it's time to switch to the new stuff.
Plan your week in advance
- I like to write things down so I have found that using a meal planner where i can jot down prep ideas as they come to me is helpful. One planner I have used is from Kahootie Co. and I purchased it from amazon. The other thing I have done is make my own. Below is a filled out sample of one I have made that plans my meals for the week along my workouts. Feel free to download a copy for yourself if you think it will be helpful for you. One link is for the Weekly Fitness Planner which is meals plus workouts and the other is for Weekly Meal Planning only.
When all else fails, try a good meal prep service!
- Sometimes despite the best of intentions, you just can't get it done. Some weeks are busier or you just may not have the mental bandwidth for planning. Right now, I am in the process of moving and I have been using a meal prep service for work lunches because I just don't have the time and energy for my usual planning. I've tried a few before but I feel like I finally found one I truly love and doesn't brea the bank. I started trying out Eat to Evolve and I highly recommend them! Their meals are great tasting and the shipping and ordering process is super easy. I'm now working with them but scouts honor even if I wasn't I would STILL recommend them! Our faves are their chicken based meals and we love their smoked chorizo for breakfast and the carnivore scramble. So good!
And there you have it friends. I feel like this post took me forever to write because I just have so much to say on the topic of meal prep. I've tried many different techniques and some worked and some didn't. So I adjust and adapt to what my preferences are and how likely I am to be consistent with it. Hopefully this is helpful for those of you that are interested in starting your own routine and are looking for a little guidance. If there is anything I didn't touch on or any questions you have or if you have your own suggestions, leave them in the comments below! I'm all ears!
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Thank you for your continued support!