Vitality

Meal Prep Made Easy: 6 Basic Steps To Healthy Eating

Meal Prep
Learning how to meal prep is easier when you take the first step to developing foundation skills in the kitchen. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Pangs of hunger can derail any dieter or portion-control eater, making meal prep an essential step towards a healthier lifestyle. Having already-made meals available to grab quickly from the fridge for on-the-go or to have a meal right after work can mean the difference between sticking with a balanced diet or giving in to impulse cravings, which are often less healthy.

When we’re hungry, the hypothalamus — part of the brain that controls thirst, hunger, body temperature, sleep, and emotional state — sends out signals to the rest of the brain to increase the desire to eat. Just the sight and smell of food triggers the brain to turn that desire into the act of eating. If you didn’t prepare a meal ahead of time, you might give in to fast food, take out, or another quick alternative to cooking a healthy, home-cooked meal.

Aside from the conspicuous weight loss benefits portion-control can provide, meal prep can also help those seeking to achieve fitness goals, and looking for a convenient and budget-friendly way to feed themselves and their family each week. There are companies that can send meal prepped foods and ingredients right to your door, but that can get expensive. Setting aside a couple hours at the start of your week (whether it’s Sunday or Monday) to cook and prep dozens of entire meals can help save you time and money in the long run.

Before organizing one big grocery store trip for meal prep, beginners may want to learn a few practical and foundational tips that help make the most out of the items in their shopping cart. More sophisticated meal preparers might purchase a food scale to measure out the amount of proteins, fat, and carbohydrates for each meal they assemble. For those who want to learn how to develop the basic meal-prep skills, review the guideline below to get you started.

1. Containers and Storage

Meal prepping involves planning, cooking, and divvying up a week’s worth of food in one sitting. Although some meal prep advocates may split their prep into two days throughout the week to keep their food fresh, others choose to freeze food they plan to eat later in the week.  

The use of containers is crucial to successful meal preparation because using it forces portion control and makes it more difficult to steer away from the original plan. Invest in some durable BPA-free containers that are dishwasher, microwave, and freezer safe. You can choose from basic open-styled containers or ones with split or multiple sections.

If you chose to freeze meals for the end of the week, remember to place the meal in the fridge one or two days before you plan on eating it and then select the defrost setting on the microwave before reheating.

2. Spices and Condiments

Eating healthy doesn’t have to be bland. With the right spice cabinet and condiments on hand, any meal can serve up a mouthful of flavor. By using the same basic meal ingredients, but changing up the spices, prepped food can taste vastly different each day and break up the monotony.

Turn to fresh cut lemon, rosemary, garlic cloves, and other herbs to give the food a fresh and flavorful taste and smell. If adding condiments into the mix, invest in small condiment containers and place within the meal container to add later and avoid sogginess.

Red pepper, sea salt, paprika, cumin, and chili powder are just a few spices that can change each meal without you running the risk of overdoing it on calories. The night before cooking, season proteins and vegetables with balsamic vinegar, Italian dressing, hot sauce, pepper, or whatever you like, into plastic bags and place in the fridge to enhance the taste. Or, simply add to the protein before baking, sautéing, stir frying, or grilling the items.

3. Proteins

Protein is an essential building block for muscle and maintaining energy throughout the day. The basic components of each meal will include one protein, carbohydrate, and vegetable portion, but each meal depends on your health goals.

For meat eaters, choosing a protein may be easier. Select from chicken breast, lean ground turkey, lean ground beef, steak, salmon, shrimp, tuna, or other fish. Typically, each day’s portion (6-to 8-ounces) fits into the palm of your hand. Toss them in spices or condiments and when placing on a baking sheet or in a pan, be sure to use cooking spray in order to avoid overusing oil during the process.

For vegetarians or vegans, turn to plant-based proteins such as black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, edamame, tofu, or tempeh. Quinoa is a nutty grain that may be a reliable option for the carbohydrate portion of the meal prep in order to sneak in some extra grams of protein into a meatless diet.

4. Carbohydrates

Although some weight loss diets limit their intake, carbohydrates are key nutrients to help break down and absorb proteins in the body. Generally, a healthy balanced meal contains a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbs to proteins (depending upon your workout, weight loss or maintenance goals).

When choosing carbohydrates, turn to whole grains and complex carbs to fuel and keep you full until the next meal. Quinoa, whole wheat or fiber-fortified pasta, buckwheat, sweet potato, and rice varieties, such as basmati, jasmine, wild grain, or brown, are optimal carb options for meal prep. They can either go unseasoned or mixed together with vegetables to improve the flavor.

5. Vegetables

Leafy greens are some of the healthiest options out there, and include spinach, kale, and romaine. But if you don’t want to build a salad with cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and other fresh veggies, sauté green beans, mushrooms, asparagus, broccoli, sugar snap peas and red, yellow, green, and orange peppers. Preparing spaghetti squash and zucchini to mimic pasta noodles is another creative way to incorporate vegetables into your meal prep. In the end, vegetables should take up half of the space in your container.

6. Snacks and Sides

Snacks are key to staving off hunger in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you didn’t incorporate fruits and dairy into your breakfast, snack time is a perfect place to fit these in.  

Non-roasted and unsalted almonds or other nuts are a great choice because they can be mixed in with Greek yogurt, granola, or a blend of fruits, such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and bananas. Just zip up the mix into a plastic bag or small container and take it with your meal. Grapes, oranges, honeydew, and cantaloupe are also ideal options.

Rice cakes, apples, or celery sticks smeared with peanut butter are also a great protein-packed way to keep up your metabolism, stay alert, and rival hunger until the next meal. Don’t forget about bars either. Many of the options out there may be posing as healthy bars so it’s important to watch out for those laced with too much salt, sugar, or trans-fat.  Check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s bar chart to see what passes the healthy test.

Breakfast Bonus

For those who don’t just quickly grab a Greek yogurt and banana on their way out the door, breakfast is also an opportunity to prepare a meal in advance. Again, each diet can be carefully modified and refined to balance the needs of the meal prep planner. For example, those who run or work out in the morning would want to lean towards a high-protein source right after exercise in order to repair muscles.

Turning to a morning shake with protein powder can deliver the nutrients needed by the get-up-and-goer. Tossing Greek yogurt, fruits, and even vegetables into the mix can turn into an easy and, more importantly, healthy breakfast smoothie to-go.

But for those who are looking for the basics, boiled eggs (between 6 to 12 minutes depending on preference) are an easy item to throw in a container to go. Toss a dash of pepper and salt on it and you have a great protein source. Slices of avocados on whole wheat toast, overnight oats, whole grain cereal with cut up banana or blueberries, and an egg frittata, are also other delicious and nutritious options to start the day off with energy.

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