If you’re looking to eat healthier this year, investing a little time and energy into meal planning can be a good place to start. That doesn’t mean you have to spend hours and hours cooking every meal in advance.
Instead, think of meal prepping as an easy way to stay healthy and save you both time and money.
These healthy meal prep ideas are designed to maximize both nutrition and time spent cooking.
Here’s everything you need to know about healthy meal prep, from what it looks like to which foods you should focus on.
What Does Healthy Meal Prep Look Like?
Meal prepping doesn’t have to look the same for each person. As a Registered Dietitian, I work with clients to determine the most sustainable strategies and tips. Ask yourself. ‘What is going to work for me week after week?’
Healthy lifestyle changes only work if they are doable. Be realistic about your schedule.
The Basic Types of Meal Prep:
- Batch cooking involves making large batches of items to be portioned into individual meals or used in serval recipes—for example, cooking black beans to be used in black bean soup, black bean burgers, or black bean tacos. Appliances like the Instant Pot can make batch cooking even more feasible.
- Ingredient prepping includes washing, peeling, roasting, or preparing a few ingredients ahead of time to use in recipes. Ingredient prepping can also include mixing condiments and sauces throughout many meals during the week.
- Make-ahead meals are cooking full meals and then portioning them out into individual containers to quickly grab and go for busy days. This technique primarily works well for planning weekday lunches and quick breakfast ideas. Soups and stews are also great make-ahead meal options. For example, make a batch of lentil soup over the weekend, then enjoy it as leftovers or portion into freezer meals for later.
Meal prep doesn’t have to be only the main dishes. Keeping a few healthy snacks on hand is another great healthy meal prep tip. It could be as simple as purchasing ready-to-eat fruit, like bananas, apples, and oranges. Or you can make your own mix by combining nuts, seeds, and dried fruits into reusable bags or small containers.
Muffins and homemade granola bars also work for snack meal prep. Make a batch, portion out what you’ll need for the week, then freeze the rest to pull out later.
I recommend starting with one meal prep snack recipe and then purchasing the rest for overall ease.
Benefits of Meal Prep:
There’s a reason you see meal prep all over your favorite blogs and Instagram influencer posts – it saves money and promotes healthy eating.
As Whitney English, a Registered Dietitian at Plant-Based Juniors’ notes, “Meal prep helps identify what types of foods you want to focus on getting more of in your diet.”
When you focus on what meals you want to make ahead of time, you are more likely to choose nutrient-dense items, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins. These foods are consistently associated with better health outcomes and reduced risk of chronic disease.
English goes on to say, “Planning also helps you more efficiently grocery shop, which helps cut down on the ‘what am I going to eat?’ questions.”
Having a well-stocked fridge means you’re less likely to turn to take-out and more likely to enjoy the nutritious foods that you’ve spent time preparing.
6 Healthy Meal Prep Ideas
1. Keep It Simple
Simplicity is the key to healthy meal prep. Focus on one or two recipes if you are new to meal prep and slowly go from there. Once you feel comfortable with what items you prefer to have ready-to-go, you can add to your meal prep list and add more recipe ideas, including snacks.
Instead of preparing every meal ahead of time, focus on what items would make cooking easiest for you this week. Ideas include cooking a pot of farro for soup or grain salads or making a batch of sofritas to use in taco salads and Chipotle-inspired burrito bowls.
I usually ask clients to think of what meals they enjoy most. For example, if you typically like Buddha bowls with rice, peanut tofu, chickpeas, and fresh veggies, then you’ll want to focus on meal prepping at least one of those ingredients ahead of time. That could be a batch of brown rice, the marinade for the tofu (or any protein), or cooking chickpeas the night before.
2. Start With What You Have
Before you head to the grocery store, ‘shop’ from your fridge and pantry. Using what you already have reduces food waste and saves money.
Are any vegetables starting to go bad? Turn them into a soup or stir-fry! Old brown bananas? Add banana muffins or oats to your meal prep list.
After you’ve taken stock of what you already have, use those items to generate a few days to an entire week’s worth of meal ideas. Then, you can use that list to create a detailed shopping list.
If you are new to this process, trust that it gets easier and more intuitive over time. Having a rough guideline of what meals you will need to cook at home that week can help you be more organized in your meal prep and shopping. This system prevents you from overspending at the grocery store and only grabbing items that you need.
3. Batch Cook Grains and Legumes
Whole grains, like quinoa, oats, brown rice, farro, and bulgur wheat, can all be made ahead of time. Once cooked, they can be the foundation for a simple grain bowl, salad, soup, or stir-fry. As whole grains typically take longer to cook than refined grains, cooking them ahead of time makes it easy to grab and work into that evening’s meal.
Legumes work the same way. For example, a big pot of chickpeas can be transformed into homemade hummus, chickpea noodle soup, Mediterranean-inspired quinoa, and chickpea salad or roasted for easy snacking.
Likewise, white beans, black beans, and kidney beans can work the same way. Rich in fiber and protein, bean consumption is associated with lower body weight, lower blood pressure, and improved diet quality.
4. Make an All-purpose Sauce
A great sauce can elevate even the most basic of leftovers. Try a simple cherry tomato salsa of halved cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and chopped parsley. Fresh salsas go well with scrambled eggs, grain bowls, or drizzled onto prepared hummus with pita and fresh-cut vegetables for a snack.
If you are a fan of spicy food, consider making a batch of this homemade enchilada sauce at the beginning of the week. Spoon it over burritos, in your favorite enchilada recipe, with tacos, grilled fish, or mixed with greek yogurt for a salad dressing with a kick.
Unfortunately, most purchased salad dressings include artificial flavorings and low-quality ingredients. Making a batch of homemade dressing can boost nutrition and flavor if you enjoy salads frequently.
One go-to recipe involves whisking together three tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, one fresh grated garlic clove, one tablespoon of tahini paste, and ½ teaspoon of dijon mustard. Then, slowly drizzle in ⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. This homemade vinaigrette will keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
5. Chop Vegetables and Fruit
This healthy meal prep tip allows you to have nutrient-dense ingredients for raw snacking and cooking. For example, a bowl of fruit salad in the fridge comprised of strawberries, blueberries, and chopped peaches makes for a quick snack and an easy breakfast meal combined with Greek yogurt and chopped almonds.
Most vegetables will stay fresher in the fridge once cut and stored in water. For example, carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and celery sticks can be washed, cut, and stored in the fridge in containers covered with fresh water. Remove, pat dry, and then enjoy with hummus or another high-protein dip for a snack or chopped and used in soups, salads, and main meals.
6. Double Recipes
Doubling your work is self-explanatory. For example, if you go to make a meal, you could cook more for an additional dinner. Then enjoy the leftovers for lunch or freeze them. Doubling recipes work for freezer-friendly items like casseroles, soups, burger patties, and stews.
Most leftovers are safe to store in the freezer for 3-6 months. However, investing in freezer-safe containers is a good idea if you often freeze meals.
These healthy meal prep tips will help you navigate how meal prepping works best for you. Overall, I like to remind my clients to stay flexible. It can be challenging and boring to follow a strict outline of every meal for the week. Sometimes you’ll have something prepared that doesn’t sound good in the moment, or days when you’re craving something lighter (or heavier) than what you planned. Allowing yourself the flexibility to adjust and change throughout the week can help reduce food boredom, food cravings, and overeating.
After meal prepping for a few weeks, you’ll likely have a good idea of what kinds of things you prefer to have ready to go and what types of foods you like to cook at the moment.
Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock /Julia Mikhaylova