WHAT’S UP WITH THIS MEAL PREPPING THING?
As a nutrition coach and personal trainer, it makes my heart warm to see hashtags like #mealprep trend on Instagram, to have clients come to me asking about a healthy meal prep approach, and to feel the swell of energy around people’s desire to live a healthier life. It’s amazing. It’s also overwhelming for most people. Talking about meal prepping, pinning recipes on Pinterest and asking friends about their favorite tactics is all good, but there is a difference between talking and actually doing.
The amazing thing about talking about it and thinking about it, is that you are preparing yourself to take action steps. Meal prepping is all about being proactive by looking at your week and determining what you need to do to set yourself up for food success. You are ready. You just need to know what the next steps are for a healthy meal prep. That’s why I’m here!
It is my goal to show you how simple meal prepping can be. It is so easy to overcomplicate things that benefit our health and in turn, make no progress because we throw in the towel. Let’s pick up the metaphorical meal prep towel off the floor, brush it off and discover some straight forward tactics to make. this. thing. happen!
THE FIT FEED BY REED NUTRITION APPROACH
We live in a world full of fad diets and recent trends telling us that a particular way of eating is the solution we’ve been looking for all along. There’s no bulletproof, one-size-fits-all approach, which is why I lead my clients to discover what is best for them… for the long term. This isn’t about saying everyone needs to eliminate an entire food group, or heck… an entire macronutrient group. This is about saying, “what works for you?” and “what feels doable in the long run?”
A key principle that I coach often is finding balance. If we are in this for the long game, we need to realize that trying to be “perfect” 100% of the time is simply not realistic. The few people in this world who achieve diet “perfection” are usually bodybuilders the few weeks before a show or Olympic athletes before competition (and even then, we’ve seen what Michael Phelps eats… if you haven’t, go look it up 😉 ). I highly doubt that if you are reading this healthy meal prep guide, you fall into either of those categories. And btw, even those people can only sustain “perfection” for a short period of time.
When I talk about balance, a common question I receive is, “well how much is too much?” Meaning, where is the threshold of too many cookies or too much late night pizza. This is individual for all of us, depending on activity level, desired physique and performance goals, current body composition, metabolism, etc. BUT here is a simple equation to keep in mind.
Your “good foods” are those that come from the earth, are made with recognizable ingredients and are often home-cooked. We’re talking about things like veggies & fruits, nuts & seeds, meat & dairy and whole grains. The kind of things you find around the perimeter of the grocery store. These are the foods that require no guessing game in figuring out what they are.
Your “fun foods” are not “bad.” Strip that word from your vocabulary, unless you are talking about the smell of rotten food. Food is not “bad”… last time I checked, that piece of chocolate cake didn’t murder anyone. What did it really do to be hated so passionately?? Ok, off my soap box. “Fun foods” are those that are not quite as micronutrient dense… maybe it’s your favorite childhood treat, maybe it’s packed with sugar & fat, maybe it’s your mom’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. Whatever it is, it is meant to be enjoyed. Food is an enjoyable part of life and a big part of culture and socialization. If you want to eliminate some joy from your life, then cut out all the “fun foods.”
The reason I encourage people to make room for “fun foods” is because a 100% good food/0% fun food approach often leads to exactly the opposite after a bit of time. 100/0 —> 0/100. This is when people “fall of the wagon,” binge eat, give up on their goals and then lose confidence that they will every be able to actually make real change for their health.
Ain’t no body got time for that. Eat the fun foods, in moderation.
BE REALISTIC WHEN IT COMES TO A HEALTHY MEAL PREP
Be realistic… this is debatably the most important step in the entire process. Why? Because setting unrealistic expectations for your healthy meal prep, failing to be successful, beating yourself up for failure and then jumping off the bandwagon all together, is a surefire way to NOT make progress with meal prepping.
I like to think of meal prep on a sliding scale - it ranges from pre-made foods to Pinterest perfection. Most of us tend to think of the latter when “meal prepping” comes to mind. We imagine that we need to have 4 overwhelmingly complex recipes pinned, that it will take us a minimum of 60 minutes at the grocery store, an additional 4 hours in the kitchen and everything needs to end up in color-coordinated containers. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Ok, maybe some of you do and if so, that’s amazing. Keep doing you, boo boo! But I am going to venture to guess that the majority of you reading this healthy meal prep guide are seeking simpler answers to setting yourself up for nutrition success! You’re in the right place 😉
I will soon be diving into my favorite way to approach meal prepping, but first I want to talk about embracing pre-made foods at the grocery store. Grocery stores and food marketers have gotten savvy. They know that we are all running short on time and seeking solutions to eat well amidst the chaos of life. Amidst this growth in pre-prepared product offerings, there is a mix of both good and “fun” foods, so let’s navigate the aisles together.
If you take a moment to think about your meal prep for the week ahead and realize you have very little time, go to the grocery store or shop online with the plan to purchase foods you don’t have to cook. Let’s repeat that for the people in the back, BUY FOODS YOU DON’T HAVE TO COOK IF YOU ARE TIGHT ON TIME!
Here is a list of some foods to consider when your schedule is crunched.
This is not an all-encompassing list, but it is a starter for you to begin thinking about foods that are easy and better for you than relying on your hunger of the moment to determine which drive-thru you hit up. Give yourself the grace to recognize that this is a far better choice than saying “screw it!” and skipping the grocery store all together. Step into the grey space of making “better” choices rather than solely “perfect” choices.
Some weeks, this approach will feel necessary. (I am a nutrition coach, writing a healthy meal prep guide, and even I do this some weeks.) Other weeks, you may have a little more time and flexibility to actually embark on a meal prep that involves cooking. For those weeks, let’s talk about a new approach to meal preparation, rather than chasing Pinterest perfection.
THE HEALTHY MIX & MATCH MEAL PREP
Say hello to The Mix & Match Meal Prep… a far easier approach to meal preparation AND it doesn’t leave you eating the same thing all week long. I have coached so many clients with this approach to create a more straightforward approach to making healthy and tasty foods for the week ahead!
One thing to note before I dive into the “meat and potatoes” of this (ha). The order of these food items are in such order for a reason. This is to help you prioritize your healthy meal prep! Once you have the following components purchased and made you will be able to mix and match all sorts of meals throughout the week! (I will share more on this further below)
The order of the protein, veggies and complex carbs are in that order for a reason. If you have a crazy busy weekend and little time for a healthy meal prep, prioritize your protein sources over anything else. Think about it… protein almost always has to be cooked so get that out of the way before the busy week begins! Your next priority is veggies, and finally complex carbohydrates.
This will leave you with a refrigerator full of foods that you can mix and match over the course of the week, so you can dodge food fatigue. Because we all know the feeling of forcing ourselves to eat the last serving of a leftover for the fifth and final time in the same week… not fun. We’re all about fun, so let’s dive into some food preparation tactics for each of the categories above, including my favorite simple recipes that I make on the regular!
LET'S PUSH THE PAUSE BUTTON.
Feeling good so far? Loving the content and excited to continue soaking it up? Amazing.
Feeling a little overwhelmed? Totally cool. Thinking, "There is no way I'm actually going to be consistent with this..."? Totally understandable.
The internet is full of juicy resources, but sometimes the most impactful step to take is to work with a coach rather than read another article. If you are in that spot, I would love to connect. Let's schedule some time to chat about your goals and the steps needed to get you there!
THE MIX & MATCH MEAL PREP PART 1: PROTEIN PREPARATION
Your protein preparation is the most important part of your meal prep. Most protein sources need to be cooked, which involves time and effort, so batching your efforts pays off! It most importantly pays off when it comes to your nutrition, because protein is often under-consumed. I’m not saying you should be slamming protein like a bodybuilder, but I am saying that protein should be showing up in some capacity at each of your major meals. Protein is satiating, muscle-rebuilding and it actually requires more energy (a.k.a. caloric burn) to digest protein than it does carbohydrates or fats. Lots of wins for protein, so let’s look at some ways to prepare it!
Before preparing your meat, you have to buy it… duh. So when you’re in the grocery aisle or butcher shop selecting your protein sources consider this: different protein sources have different amino acid profiles. Just like you are encouraged to “eat the rainbow” with fruits and vegetables, consider enjoying a variety of protein sources to get the range of amino acids in your diet. Now onto preparation…
A few preparation options to consider are: slow cooking, sautéing, boiling, baking/roasting, and purchasing pre-cooked protein, such as a rotisserie chicken.
Since you are using these protein sources for all sorts of meals, consider seasoning them with simple seasonings like salt, pepper and garlic powder. Check out my go-to, simple recipe for shredded slow cooker chicken that I make on the regular. You will only need a few ingredients: chicken, chicken stock, olive oil, garlic powder, salt and pepper. The stellar thing about this shredded slow cooker chicken recipe is that it's so darn simple. All you have to do is add all your ingredients to the slow cooker, set it to high for 4 hours, shred the chicken and voila! This versatile protein source can be used in tacos, on top of salads, in sandwiches and more.
If you are looking for a little flavor switch up, check out one of my oldest and most-loved recipes on the blog, Slow Cooker Buffalo Chicken.
THE MIX & MATCH MEAL PREP PART 2: VEGETABLE PREPARATION
It’s no surprise that vegetables come next on this list. The only reason vegetables do not come before protein is because there are plenty of ways to enjoy vegetables that do not involve cooking. That being said, even doing things like cutting veggies into dippable slices to pair with hummus or chopping up veggies for stir fry can be a great way to prep your veggies!
Most have heard the words “eat the rainbow” and no, not just in the last chapter of this book. I’m hoping that you thought of vegetables and fruits when you read that rather than the tagline of “taste the rainbow,” coined by Skittles brand 😉 When you go to the grocery store for your healthy meal prep, fill your cart with a variety of vegetables to get all sorts of micronutrients into your body throughout the week. When you look down at your cart after passing through the produce section I hope you see at least three different colors in there! Encourage yourself to try just one vegetable each week that is different from what you ate the previous week. Get out of your veggie rut and switch it up with seasonal produce or something you simply haven’t had recently!
Beyond exploring the produce section for new finds, new ways of preparing your veggies can be a fun way to keep your meal prep interesting. Consider roasting, steaming, simply chopping (ahead of time, for things like stir fries and soups) and pre-prepared vegetables (including pre-cut and steamer bags/frozen veggies).
Roasting vegetables is a staple in my meal prep routine. I love roasting vegetables because it really amps up the flavor of the veggies and it is so easy! You can even roast vegetables that are on the verge of going bad, so it is a great way to clean out the fridge. The vegetable I roast most often is broccoli, but sometimes I'll get fancy and make something like these Bacon & Blue Cheese Brussels Sprouts. I adore how much you can do with roasted vegetables, including dipping them cold in hummus, warming them up with a sprinkle of parmesan on top or amping up your salads with roasted veggies. Check out a simple recipe for roasting a variety of veggies below!
THE MIX & MATCH MEAL PREP PART 3: COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATE PREPARATION
Finally, we have complex carbohydrates. This includes whole grains, beans/legumes, starchy vegetables (like potatoes) and fruit. All kinds of vegetables happen to be a complex carbohydrates as well, but they get their own special preparation category because, just like protein, we want to make sure that we are getting veggies at each major meal!
An easy run of thumb to keep in mind as you are shopping for complex carbs is this… if the grain is in whole form, make it a grocery shopping norm! Think of it this way… you can see the whole grains in the bulk bins, but you can’t seek any grains in a loaf of Wonder bread. Hunt down the grains and beans that are in their truest form, just how they came from the earth.
Once you have your groceries home and are ready to start prepping, consider the following ways to prep your carbs. You may cook, bake, chop (fruit) and/or purchase pre-made carbohydrate sources (the more whole, chunky grains, the better).
This is the category where it is easiest to constantly lean on store-bought options, but encourage yourself to whip up a pot of rice, roast some potatoes (maybe even these Baked Garlic Home Fries) or make a loaf of gluten-free goodness like this PB&J Banana Bread. Try to make things that both sound good and you know you'll be able to enjoy with a variety of different meals throughout the week. Let's start with a classic recipe to make the perfect pot of rice!
THE MIX & MATCH MEAL PREP PART 4: PURCHASING SPICES & CONDIMENTS
A key component of a healthy meal prep is making sure you are equipped with the right condiments, seasonings and sauces to make your food taste delightful! As the name describes, The Mix & Match Meal Prep approach allows you to combine different variations of your prepped proteins, veggies and complex carbs with a variety of sauces and condiments to craft a spectacular, tasty meal! But first, we need to make sure we are stocked with the good stuff.
When selecting your condiments, seasonings and sauces get comfortable with flipping the package to see what is in it because there can be a LOT of sneaky ingredients in these products. Sugar is the most common offender. A little sugar isn’t a huge deal, but some condiments are absolutely loaded with it. I don’t know about you, but I know that I personally would rather consume my sugar in the form of chocolate than in my salad dressing 😉
Consider this… the recommendation for women is to stay under 25 grams of added sugar per day and for men it is less than 36 grams per day. Compare that bit of information to the fact that two tablespoons of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce has 16 grams of added sugar AND the first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. Plus, let’s be real… who only uses two tablespoons of barbecue sauce with their chicken or pulled pork? Probably not most of us. So you could basically consume your whole day’s worth of sugar in a single pulled pork sandwich. Yikes.
Things to look for when shopping for spices and condiments:
- Recognizable ingredients
- A fairly short ingredient list
- Check the sugar (aim for less than 4g per serving)
CRAFTING YOUR MEALS THROUGHOUT THE WEEK
Now that you have all your healthy meal prep components prepared, let’s talk about crafting your meals! This is where a little bit of creativity gets to come into play. Start by thinking about this… what are your favorite types of food to enjoy at a restaurant. How can you get those same flavors into your meals at home?
Another way to think about this is what areas of the globe produce your favorite cuisine! Use your condiments and sauces to craft similar taste experiences with the meal prepped ingredients you have. Remember that the general equation for a tasty and prepped meal is protein + veggie + complex carb + condiment = balanced, tasty meal.
Let's start with some inspiration for possible meals and then dive into an example of what your meal prep may look like and what you could craft with it. Here are some ideas specific to a few areas around the globe, using the handy dandy equation above:
- ground beef + roasted peppers & onions + brown rice + guacamole & salsa = Mexican-inspired meal
- turkey burger + roasted zucchini & tomatoes + couscous or other cooked grain + hummus = Mediterranean-inspired meal
- shrimp + sautéed broccoli + rice noodles + coconut aminos, garlic & ginger = Chinese-inspired meal
- sliced chicken breast + lettuce + whole grain bread + mayo & mustard = American-inspired meal
READY, SET, MEAL PREP!
FAQs ABOUT MEAL PREPPING
Meal prep is an important part of mastering a healthy lifestyle. Your meal prep may vary from week to week, but the simple practice of thinking about the week ahead and planning accordingly for food is a powerful practice. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." We live in a busy world with lots of distractions that can often leave us with little time to cook during the week. This frequently leads to making less healthy food choices, so by meal prepping you are preparing for success with your nutrition throughout the week!
It most certainly can! Eating more home-cooked healthy meals is a key component of weight loss success, so meal prepping is a helpful step to eating out less. When we cook at home, we tend to cook more nourishing meals that are lower in fat, sugar and sodium than what we usually pick up at the drive-thru on a busy night. We are all much more likely to make the healthier choice when it is easily accessible!
There are lots of ways to approach meal prepping, from finding specific recipes to prep for the week, or simply making smart choices at the grocery store. Think of meal prepping in 3 phases: plan, purchase & prep. You will start with planning for your grocery shopping trip - thinking through the meals you want to make for the week, or possibly focusing on buying foods that are healthy but pre-made. Then you will venture to the grocery store or have them delivered and finally you will prep your meals! Meal prepping can be as simple as precutting some veggies and fruit for the week, or as elaborate as making individually portioned meals and putting them in containers.
It is common for people to meal prep on Sunday, but there is not a "best" time to meal prep - it is all about finding what works best for you! Encourage yourself to be consistent with when you meal prep so that you can begin to make a routine of it. Habits are most easily built on consistency, so set a reminder in your calendar for the time each week that you plan to meal prep!