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When it comes to fear-inducing words, “meal prep” seems to rank right up there with “Heeere’s Johnny!” from The Shining. But is preparing meals in advance really so scary? Perhaps the terror arises as you picture your entire Sunday being ruined slaving away in the kitchen. Or maybe you’re afraid your meals will be tedious and bland if you have to eat from the same large batch of turkey chili all week. No? Well, could you simply have a fear of failure, knowing that planning ahead isn’t your strong suit?
Well, none of these concerns will come to fruition if you’re meal prepping properly. Plus, there are seven very real benefits of meal prep, ranging from time and money savings to reaching your goals faster because unplanned temptations are limited. But as the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. If you are serious about losing weight, packing on muscle or simply adding more veggies to your life, then meal prep is the holy grail.
Wondering how to get started? Gabrielle Fundaro, Ph.D., exercise science professor, certified sports nutritionist and Renaissance Periodization coach, has compiled tried-and-true tips and tricks to set you up for success. They include the following:
Identify and tackle your weak spots first — the meals or snacks that need the most attention. For example, if you’re eating out every night, then start with dinner.
Keep it simple, stupid.
Variety is the spice of life, but build that in over time. Initially, it’s more important to keep meal prep manageable so you’re more likely to stick with it. Pick just a few proteins, veggies and starches to cook. Go ahead and pack some items raw if you don’t want to cook everything. Buy pre-chopped veggies, bagged salads, and frozen and canned produce to minimize prep time. Take baby steps so you don’t feel overwhelmed. That being said, if you are a proficient cook, adding culinary flair to your meal prep will stave off potential boredom. In that case, don’t be afraid to add some more advanced recipes to your meal-prep rotation.
Make a list, check it twice.
Make a grocery list ahead of time, and remember to include items like spices, marinades and any prep tools you might need, like tinfoil or a big baking sheet. The initial trip may be a big investment, but once you’ve gotten into a routine, you’ll be able to beeline to the exact ingredients you need for your staple recipes. You may need to grab some fresh fruits and veggies midweek, but you’ll still save plenty of time by stocking up in advance.
Make cleanup a breeze.
Simplify the prep and cleanup processes with big freezer bags, tinfoil and cooking spray. You can toss ingredients in a bag with seasoning or marinade to quickly and evenly coat them. After roasting or baking, you can toss the tinfoil and your pan will immediately be ready for another round. Also, wash dishes as you go so you aren’t overwhelmed by a big pile in the sink.
Practice those knife skills.
Chop ingredients in advance and in similarly sized pieces so they all cook evenly. Keep in mind that they may need to cook separately, though: Compared to sturdy veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, softer veggies like zucchini or yellow squash will cook much faster at the same temperature. If you put them all together on the same pan, you may end up with a mixture of burned and undercooked veggies.
Save even more time by multitasking. Start your baking or roasting first, then move to stove-top cooking and microwaving. You can roast your sturdy, starchy veggies while you sauté some chicken breast. Potatoes bake quickly in the microwave, and you can find bags of steamable veggies at most grocers.
Frozen is fine.
Frozen fruits and vegetables are at least as nutritious as the fresh versions. Because they’re frozen immediately after being taken off the vine, they may have even better nutrient integrity than the fresh alternative, which have spent days or weeks in transit before arriving at the grocery store. Plus, they last a lot longer. Fruits and vegetables with a low water content freeze well, so you can always chop and create your own blends that are identical to the store brand. Simply toss a mixture of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots into a freezer bag, press all the air out and throw it in the freezer. You’re ready for the next meal prep!
If you are using a buffet-style meal prep, weigh your bulk items before and after cooking to determine your yield. You’ll then know exactly how much you need to buy on your next shopping trip. This prevents both food waste and an inconvenient midweek emergency shopping trip.
Freezing and Reheating.
You can freeze and reheat meals that you’ve already cooked, and in most cases, this doesn’t affect the taste or texture. However, there are some exceptions: Fully cooked potatoes, zucchini and leafy greens do not rejuvenate after a freeze-thaw cycle. Experiment with just a small batch first if you want to test your recipe.
In general, cooked food is safe for three to four days in the fridge. If you won’t eat all of it within that time frame, you can freeze it for a couple of months. Use an erasable marker on your prepped containers and a permanent marker on anything that goes into the freezer in order to document the date it was prepared or frozen. Also, when you’re done prepping, food should be refrigerated within two hours of preparation but ideally immediately.
At the end of the day, the best way to meal prep is to find what works best for you and have fun as you try new methods and recipes. “I will be the first to say that I have limited culinary skills, and I’m more likely to end up on Pinterest Fails than Food Network,” Fundaro says. “Successful meal prep doesn’t require professional plating, intricate recipes or the fanciest bento boxes. Laugh at and take pictures of your hilarious ‘recipe fails’ because we’ve all had them.”