If your plan to churn out healthy homemade dinners all week tends to come completely unraveled by Thursday, you’re not alone. Healthy eating can easily fall by the wayside when you’re juggling a busy schedule and lots of responsibilities.
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One trick that many healthy eaters swear by to save time and keep them on track? Meal prepping.
If what immediately comes to mind is an image of bland chicken breast, rice and green beans perfectly portioned out into a week’s worth of containers, try not to give up on the idea just yet.
While that’s one way to meal prep, it certainly isn’t the only way. In fact, there’s no one magic formula for meal prep — and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a strategy that can be adapted to your unique schedule and lifestyle to help you become more efficient in the kitchen.
How meal prep helps
Meal prepping simply means preparing or batch-cooking meals, snacks or ingredients ahead of time, to make healthy eating easier during your busier days.
For one person that might mean making a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches that they can reheat at work. For another, it might mean just chopping up some extra veggies and making a homemade salad dressing to use throughout the week.
“You can quickly make multiple days’ worth of food and then not worry about meals the rest of the week,” explains registered dietitian Anna Kippen, MS, RDN, LD.
And, knowing you have something waiting in the fridge might make you less likely to swing through the drive-thru for an emergency lunch or dinner.
It’s also a fantastic way to mix things up and get more variety in your diet, Kippen says, because it forces you to plan ahead and brainstorm your meals in advance, rather than relying on your tried-and-true meals in a pinch.
Whatever your meal prep style or reason, here’s how to get started.
Step 1: Think storage
Before you even start thinking about what you’re going to make, it’s important think about how you’re going to keep everything fresh and organized.
“My best recommendation is to get good-quality, airtight, microwave- and dishwasher-safe containers,” Kippen says. “Good-quality containers will not have to be replaced for a long time, so it’s worth the money to get a good set you will love.”
Make sure that whatever you get includes a variety of sized containers, including some small ones to store sauces and dressing separately (because no one likes a soggy salad).
Step 2: Make a game plan
Next, Kippen suggests picking a day and time that you will dedicate to preparing meals so that it becomes routine.
“Make sure it’s a day where you have a few hours to spend,” she says. “Most of my patients love Sunday for this.”
If you’re grimacing at the thought of giving up a good chunk of your precious weekend to this cause, Kippen recommends choosing a day earlier in the week to plan and do your grocery shopping.
Step 3: Pick your recipes
Now it’s time to choose what you’re going to make and write up a shopping list. Your meals can be specific recipes or just combinations of simple proteins, whole grains and vegetables.
Kippen offers these tips for making good picks:
- Make sure any recipes you pick are well-rounded and include vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.
- If any of your recipes contain excessive amounts of fat, sugar and salt, plan to make substitutions or reduce the amount of salt, sugar or oil in the recipe.
- Start simple. Choose meals that are easy to prepare and don’t contain a ton of ingredients. (Now’s not the time to attempt Boeuf Bourguignon.) “Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with complicated recipes when you’re just getting started,” Kippen says.
- Choose ingredients with a variety of colors and textures. Different textures will keep your palate interested, and different colors will give you a variety of micronutrients that will benefit your body.
- Consider meals where you can reuse ingredients. For example, make a batch of baked chicken, and then serve it one day with steamed broccoli and a sweet potato, and another day over greens with some whole-grain crackers.
- Look for recipes that can be cooked in a slow cooker or pressure cooker to save even more time.
- Avoid making the same meal two weeks in a row. Even your favorite recipe will get old if you eat it too often.
Some healthy meal prep ideas for the week include:
- Peanut butter sandwich on 100% whole grain bread with a small bag of baby carrots.
- Chicken vegetable stir fry over brown rice.
- Burrito bowl with brown rice or cauliflower rice; black beans; tomatoes; sautéed peppers and onions; a few thin slice of avocado and a sprinkle of cheese.
- Lentil vegetable soup.
- Roasted chicken, sweet potato and cauliflower or Brussels sprouts.
Step 4: Ready, set, go!
Ready to get to work? Make your time in the kitchen as enjoyable as possible by cranking up some tunes, or putting on an audiobook or podcast. Or, invite a family member or friend to join you.
Once your food is made, cooled and transferred into airtight containers, it should last about three to four days in the refrigerator.
But if a recipe makes more than you can eat in that time – or if you get sick of eating one of the meals you prepped – just pop the remaining servings into the freezer. “In a week or two, it’ll be a quick option when you don’t feel like cooking,” Kippen says.
Speaking of the freezer, Kippen recommends keeping frozen berries and a variety of frozen vegetables on hand, too. They’re pre-washed, pre-chopped and can be microwave-steamed in a pinch.
Remember, meal prep isn’t all-or-nothing, and there’s no definitive right or wrong way to do it. So find what works for you, and don’t worry about being perfect. A few small steps done in advance can go a long way.