I never thought I’d be one of those people who spends their weekend dishing bits of cubed chicken and veggies into little tupperware containers. I used to oscillate between kind of hating those people for having their shit together and also thinking they must be really boring if they have enough time to spend every week carefully cooking and proportioning their meals.
Today such thinking would make me a hypocrite. I am now a weekly meal prep convert, and I am here to lure you to the dark side. Don’t worry, we have more than just kale and quinoa.
I started experimenting with meal prep about 14 months ago as part of my 2016 New Year’s resolution to eat healthier. An unoriginal resolution, I know, but I was determined to keep it this time. Since moving out of my parent’s house about six months prior to this resolution and moving into my first “adult” apartment, I had been existing on a diet mainly of frozen pizza, grilled cheese, and the occasional can of soup. Sometimes I might pick up a pre-made salad for my lunch at work, but anything I ate for dinner started in a cardboard box or could be fried and covered in cheese in fewer than 10 minutes. I had plenty of room for improvement.
Contrary to my expectations, meal prep has saved me a ton of time. I no longer have to spend even 15 minutes on a weeknight waiting for my pizza to bake, since I have a home-cooked meal waiting to heat in two minutes. And instead of spending my mornings throwing together some sloppy looking sandwich to drag to work or wasting my lunch hour standing in line to buy a disappointing salad, I have my little individual containers ready to grab and go.
The changes I made really were lifestyle commitments. It can be hard to know where to start if your current diet consists mainly of take-out and your most impressive cooking skill is knowing how to cut the crust off of your PB&J (I would know). So, with that in mind, here are a few tips from someone who started with a cupboard full of boxed mac and cheese and now has a fridge full of freshly baked salmon.
1. Eat Food You Like
This might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be amazed at what a difference this makes. Before I started doing meal prep, my fruit and veggie intake mainly consisted of wilted lettuce and under-ripe tomatoes from cafeteria salads. I didn’t have much experience cooking with fresh veggies, so I had a lot to discover about my likes and dislikes.
In the early stages, this lead to a lot of meals that were either cooked improperly or not to my taste, which lead to a lot of cheating on the meal prep and late-night chocolate binges. Now, I have a general rule that if I try to cook something at least two different ways and I don’t like it, I move on and never make it again. I’m still waiting for someone to persuade me to like kale, eggplant, and egg white omelets. I’m open to trying these things if someone offers them, but I’m not going to waste my time prepping something I dread eating. Instead, I try to make healthy versions of dishes I know I like, such as a Chipotle-style burrito bowl with brown rice and lots of fajita veggies or homemade chicken tenders with baked sweet potato fries (see recipes below).
2. Eat Food that Looks Pretty
You know all those nutrition articles that constantly tell you to eat colorful foods? Well, it’s pretty solid advice. Not only is eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies healthy, it also makes your food look prettier. And when your food looks prettier, it also looks more appetizing. Feel free to take this information one step further and buy yourself lots of cute and colorful storage containers as well, because that also helps. If you are next-level awesome and garnish the top of your food with some fresh herbs or a sprinkle of shredded cheese, your coworkers will be lining up to ask for your recipes.
3. Ease Into It
Sugar is addictive. Also, depending on who you ask, cheese is similar to hard drugs. Trying to go from a diet that is mainly pizza and breakfast pastries to low-carb, high protein, and mostly plant-based meals is difficult. And if you attempt to switch from one extreme to the other instantly, you’ll be bound to fail. It’s important to cook with healthy ingredients, but to also offer yourself rewards. I never officially cut anything out of my diet, I just don’t keep anything too tempting in the house in large quantities.
In the beginning, I often bought myself a bar of dark chocolate or a movie theater-size box of candy. I would indulge in these treats after making it through just a day or two of sugar-free eating. I still sometimes do this. But I actually find myself thinking about it less often. After a while the healthy eating really does become habit. Although I’ll still order ice cream if I’m out with friends and everyone else is getting some, I’m okay with going six out of seven days a week without dessert.
If you find yourself cheating a lot in the beginning, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just do the best you can, and if you are making yourself miserable, feel free to indulge in your cravings in moderation. That doesn’t mean that your streak is ruined, it just means you are ready for different recipes to try the next week.
4. Routine is Key
It’s important to clear a time in your schedule to both grocery shop and prep your meals, but be realistic about it. If you really can’t see yourself making time over the weekend, pick a weeknight when you consistently don’t have much to do. My time is usually Sunday night. While I would never turn down a social event just to meal prep, this does sometimes mean that I miss a TV show that I would otherwise watch, or I need to set aside a writing project that I’m working on.
It might seem silly to clear a regular time for cooking, but it’s easier to do when you make it fun. I like to blast some Frank Sinatra, Adele, or any music that makes me feel classy AF. You might also find it a good time to indulge in a glass of wine or create mood lighting with your favorite candles. Maybe you can make it a group activity with a partner or your roommates. Do whatever works for you to make the cooking seem more like an event and less like a chore.
5. Don’t Worry about Rules/Fads
I will probably never like kale. I still don’t understand the whole avocado on toast craze. And while I like smoothies, they typically don’t keep for very long. I can’t be bothered to chop fresh fruits/veggies on a daily basis. Do what works for you. I’ve had people tell me to avoid bananas because they contain too much sugar. I’ve heard people say that sweet potatoes and butternut squash are bad because they are starchy vegetables. However, they are still vegetables. Seriously, if it can be found in the produce section and you think it’s yummy, go for it. You can find a pro or con list for every food in existence. As long as the ingredients you’re using are fresh, natural, and don’t contain preservatives, you are doing pretty well.
Have I made you a meal prep convert, too??? Here are some of my favorite recipes to get you started. These all keep really well when stored in the fridge for a week, and they taste excellent reheated. Enjoy!
Beef and Cabbage Stir-Fry:
Lemon Chicken Skillet:
Baked Paprika-Parmesan Chicken:
Broccoli Quinoa Casserole:
Black Bean and Quinoa Enchilada Bake:
Chicken and Zucchini Noodle Caprese:
Baked Sweet Potato Fries:
Chipotle-Inspired Burrito Bowl: