by Blake Herzog
Meal prepping, or fixing meals ahead of time so you don’t have to take an hour out of each busy day to cook healthy food for yourself and your family, has been gaining in popularity as Americans’ ever-growing time crunches have clashed with their desire for more home-prepared, wholesome food.
Prepping a bunch of meals at once does require a chunk of time, but the health benefits can be tremendous. Reducing your dependence on fast food, heavily processed ingredients, salt, fat and excessive calories is always a positive.
It can also help you stick to an eating plan, whether it’s a specific diet or you’re just trying to eat more consistently healthy meals. After all, you don’t want all that effort you put in on Sunday prepping to go to waste!
With just a little time and planning you can become very efficient. A lot of people have put much thought into this, so here are some of their best ideas.
Consider the four approaches to meal prep and which combination works for you:
Make-ahead meals — full family meals made ahead of time for extra-fast reheating, usually stored in the refrigerator for up to several days.
Batch-freezing/cooking — making larger quantities of meals or meal staples to eat over a longer period of time, such as bags of rice to go under different stir-fry dishes or individual- or family-sized sections of casserole.
Individually-sized portions — sandwiches, salads and other fresh meals easy to create as individual grab-and-go meals to keep in the refrigerator for a few days.
Ready-to-cook ingredients — chopped-ahead fruit and veggies, sliced proteins and other fresh ingredients for those who would rather cook meals just before serving.
Some helpful tips as you start down your meal prepping journey:
You can start out by picking one meal to prep for a few days or a week out, such as breakfast. Try out one or two healthy recipes you already love and are reasonably sure will keep well for a few days. Later you can start expanding your menu, which will add more complexity but ensures you and your family get all the nutrients you need and you won’t get bored enough to want to quit.
Once you know what you’re going to make, your shopping list will make or break your meal-prepping success. Make sure the pantry is always stocked with the essentials and consider choosing a week of recipes that have overlapping ingredients to save time. Organize your shopping list by department so you don’t have to double back, or order online so you won’t have to walk past all the products you don’t need.
Start with the recipes that will take the longest to cook, and try to avoid preparing a bunch of recipes that require the same appliance. You want to have more things cooking simultaneously, instead of putting them one by one into the oven, for example.
Stay cognizant of how long different foods can realistically be stored in the refrigerator or freezer before they lose their flavor and possibly pose food safety concerns. Most refrigerated meals should be eaten within three to four days, so if you’re emphasizing fresh foods you may need to shop and prep a couple of times a week. Find USDA food safety recommendations at www.fsis.usda.gov/shared/PDF/Keep_Food_Safe_Food_Safety_Basics.pdf
There are a ton of meal-prep websites to choose from; one of the best for beginners is www.sweetpeasandsaffron.com