“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success” – Alexander Graham Bell. Most people don’t have time to cook a healthy meal every day of the week. Most people don’t have the money to pay someone to cook for them every day. Eating out is not as healthy and/or budget-friendly as making your own meals. This is why you should know how to meal prep the right way.
What is meal prep
Meal preparation is basically cooking in bulk, i.e. cooking or putting together a number of meals in advance. The best time is whenever you have a few free hours. For most people, this is during the weekend.
Benefits of meal prep
- Save time. You can prepare several meals in as little as a couple of hours instead of dedicating time each day for this task.
- Save electricity/gas. Cooking large batches of food at once means you don’t need the stove/oven/slow cooker on in multiple occasions.
- Save money. Cooking a meal for one or two people usually generates a lot of food waste. Also, small versions of many ingredients are more expensive than larger ones.
- Eliminate excuses. If you prepare healthy meals for the week ahead, you are less likely to grab something less ideal to eat.
- Control what goes into your food. Restaurant food often contains rancid oils, too much sugar and/or salt. You will also rest assured that your meals don’t contain ingredients you might be intolerant to, or simply don’t like.
- If you choose to track your intake (energy and/or macros), making your own meals makes this a lot easier.
- Gain skills. Knowing how to cook is one of the basic life skills that have been lost with time.
- Be prepared for emergencies. Frozen meals are a life saver when you are sick and unable to shop, let alone cook.
- If you enjoy coming up with recipes and/or cooking, you will look forward to meal prep day.
- Nutrient loss. Yes, nutrients are lost when you cook a food and continue to diminish as time passes by. Having said that, knowing how to buy and cook produce the right way will help preserve nutrients.
- Lack of variety. This can be an argument against, but doesn’t have to be. See the recommendations below.
- Histamines. This is only relevant if you have an intolerance to histamine and eat meat. Cooked meats produce more histamine as they sit in the fridge. See the recommendations below.
- Spoilage. If you refrigerate cooked meals as soon as they have cooled down, they should last for at least 5 days in the fridge. However, if the meals sat on the counter for too long, your containers are not totally sealed, your fridge is faulty, it’s too hot out there, etc., your meals can spoil quicker. This also depends on the type of food, e.g. foods with high moisture, fish and dairy products tend to spoil quicker.
- If you don’t have many cookbooks, search for recipes online. Stick to the blogs or websites that had good success rate for you (i.e. you liked the final result). Have a look at my recipes.
- Select recipes that are easy to make, keep well and reheat well if applicable. Examples of dishes that won’t work are soufflés, medium-rare steak and tuna tartare. If you want to freeze some meals, make casseroles, stews, curries, etc.
- If you have very limited time and have to choose between shopping and cooking, set time aside for meal prep and do your shopping online. While buying from a farmers market guarantees freshness, supermarket produce is good enough.
- Stack your cooking. Katy Bowman always talks about stacking your life, i.e. multitasking with the purpose of fulfilling different kind of needs in a limited period of time. In the case of meal prep, this can look like doing phone calls, listening to podcasts/audiobooks and/or doing the laundry while cooking.
- If you feel you can’t meal prep for the whole week or that you can’t cook on some weeks, don’t give up. Making some of your meals is better than eating out all week.
- Choose a frequency that works for you. For most people is more practical to do it once a week, some prefer twice a week. It mainly depends on how much time and fridge space you have available.
- Invest in good quality containers. I recommend using leak-proof glass containers if you are planning to microwave them. Plastic containers are ok for salads or other foods that won’t be reheated.
- Plan your meals according to the weather. For example, make salads and stir-fries in summer, soups and stews in winter.
- Plan next week’s menu based on the ingredients you already have, don’t be wasteful.
- Meats can be bought when on sale and frozen for months.
- Use fruits and vegetables in season to maximise nutrition and reduce cost.
- If you don’t like eating the same thing every day, cook 2-3 different dishes. You can cook dishes that taste different with the same basic ingredients. It takes some skill and creativity, but it is possible. If you have a housemate, as I do, you can do #mealswap: we both cook one dish and then swap a couple of meals.
- Don’t use the same ingredients all the time to vary your nutrient intake and avoid palate fatigue. This applies to everything: protein sources, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, grains and dairy.
- Keep things interesting: cook dishes from different cuisines, try new herbs and spices.
- Salads can be put together at the last minute. You can wash the vegetables and cooking what needs to be cooked in advance.
- For salads, keep dressings and add-ons such as cheese, nuts and seeds in separate containers.
- If you have histamine intolerance and eat meat, prepare the meat component of your meals one or two days in advance. You can still prepare the rest ahead of time.
- Add canned fish and/or beans to salads. This is not only economical and nutritious, but also quicker than cooking a piece of meat or other protein source. As a bonus, there is less risk of spoilage and histamine production.
- You can also boil eggs in advance for breakfasts, salads, etc. They will keep in the fridge for at least 5 days.