Meal prep is the term used for cooking and preparing multiple meals for use throughout the week. Employees with busy timetables may consider it easier to buy lunch every day instead of packing a homemade meal in the morning. Similarly, employees who do not have time to cook dinner may find themselves grabbing fast food when finishing work late.
Consistently purchasing ready-made meals or visiting restaurants can be expensive and even unhealthy. Healthy meal prep is a great routine to implement to start replacing those unhealthy habits. Also, preparing your meals in advance saves you time and money.
Key Points to Remember Before You Begin
Unless you work from home, meal prepping can save you time and money. Depending on your schedule, you may want to do food prep for lunches, dinners or both. Typically, a week’s meal prep will cover seven days. However, if you find yourself with more time and energy on the weekend to cook, you may only want to prepare five meals for the days you are at work.
If you have no time to stop during the day or do not have healthy, low-cost options near your office, plan to prepare five lunches. If you work late and have no time or energy to make a healthy dinner, prepare to make five meals that can be cooked quickly or reheated when you get home. Regardless of the number of meals you are preparing, stick to the plan once you have started. Unused meals will end up costing you more, especially if you eat something else in its place and have to throw away your prepared option.
Furthermore, make sure the meals you are preparing reflect your schedule. If you know you are having dinner with friends on Wednesday, do not prepare a meal for that evening. Similarly, if you know you will be working through your lunch-break to advance your career, prepare a meal that is easy to eat at your desk.
Find Out What Method Works for You
There are a few different ways to meal prep. Depending on your schedule and your personal preferences, you may use multiple methods. The three most common types of meal prep are detailed below:
- Cook one large item for the week – Large items, including casseroles, soups, curries and chilis can be made in bulk. Once cooked, these meals are placed in the freezer or fridge and reheated in smaller portions. Cooked meats and leftovers last between three to four days in the fridge. Make sure you remove one portion to reheat instead of reheating the entire dish.
- Cook individual portions in bulk – Unlike a lasagna or casserole, individual portions are multiple versions of the same meal. Storing an entire portion in one small container saves you time assembling the meal when you need it. However, the ingredients must store well together for this method to be beneficial. A fresh salad may wilt if stored in the same container as something moist.
- Prepare a ready-to-cook meal to be made later – Unlike the first two options, preparing a ready-to-cook meal does not include cooking the ingredients. However, pre-cutting the ingredients reduces the time it takes to make the meal when you come to cook it. Some ingredients last longer if stored in your fridge raw, giving your meal a longer shelf life. This method only works if you have the time during the week to complete the process. Always make sure you are aware of freezer and fridge storage times before cooking.
- Enlist the help of meal prep companies – This step is admittedly a bit of a cheat. But if you are extremely short on time during the weekends as well as during the week, you may find it best to outsource your food prep for the week to companies that specialize in delivering fresh readymade meals to your home or office.
Know What You Like to Eat
Knowing what you do and do not like will help you stick to your meal plan. If you know you are someone who cannot eat the same meal every day, make two or three bulk meals that can be broken up and spread out over seven days.
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Regardless of the method you use, preparing meals in bulk creates a more efficient meal prep session and saves you money at the grocery store. If you do not mind eating similar foods each day, cook a larger version of the same meal and divide it into smaller servings. In addition, choose recipes and ingredients you know you will enjoy.
What to Buy at the Grocery Store
It is important to plan your trip to the grocery store before you leave. Compile a comprehensive list of all the ingredients you will need as well as any staple items for your pantry. Pay attention to the sales in your local market and visit wholesale stores for items you know you will use a lot of. Stocking up on staple spices, oils and other commonly used ingredients will mean buying fewer groceries in the future.
Find a cookbook or recipe app that you enjoy and prepare meals from that one source. The less time you spend searching for recipes on multiple platforms, the quicker your meal prep experience will be. Although it is advisable to have a set grocery list, it is also important to know which items are replaceable.
If you notice a vegetable is not available, use a comparable vegetable instead. Similarly, be mindful of the seasons when preparing your shopping list. Choose recipes that reflect the ingredients that are plentiful at your store and cheaper to buy in bulk.
When to Prepare Your Meals
Preparing multiple meals at once may feel overwhelming at first. Start by setting aside a few hours on one day to complete the task. By doing this, you allow yourself to enjoy the rest of your week knowing that you have allocated a specific time for meal prep.
When you begin your meal prep, set a timer. Use the few hours you have set aside to get everything done. This way, you will not have to think about your meals until the following week. As you get more comfortable with the process, try to beat your time each week. It is also important to practice multitasking in the kitchen. Use the time that it takes to cook grains, such as rice, to chop vegetables or box-up finished meals.
What ingredients should I use in my meals?
Aside from your personal preferences, there are some ingredients and formulas worth following. Typically, a meal with a vegetable, starchy carb and protein will set you up for a balanced diet. However, finding the ingredients that match this formula and are easy to cook with, requires research. Below are some top tips on grains, meats and vegetables.
- Vegetables can be chopped or cooked in advance and stored for longer periods. In most cases, vegetables can last several weeks in the fridge if they are uncut. However, cut vegetables last between two or four days. Lettuce and greens can last for a week if properly washed and dried. Therefore, make sure you use long-lasting ingredients for meals later in the week and perishable items early on. The following vegetables are recommended for chopping and storing:
- Meat can be stored raw or cooked and reheated later. If you choose the ready-to-cook method mentioned above, make sure you pre-cut the meat if the recipe calls for it. This will save you time when you come to cook the meal later.
Similarly, place any cut meat into a marinade during your meal prep process to get the most out of the recipe. Keep in mind that raw meat usually lasts a few days in the fridge, while cooked meat lasts three to four days. Roasts and larger cuts of meat last up to five days. Make sure you plan your meals to accommodate these times frames.
- Grains stored in the fridge last for three to four days once cooked. Grains take a while to cook, so make sure you schedule in enough time during your meal prep session if you are making several grain-based meals. Similarly, factor in the cooking time if you plan to make ready-to-cook meals with these ingredients.
How to Store Your Meals
Using the right storage not only prolongs the life of your food but reduces the time spent cooking or reheating meals later on in the week. Use small individual containers that can be placed directly in the microwave and reheated quickly at the office. Investing in good quality storage may be more expensive at first but will save you time and money replacing faulty, low-cost items down the road. Similarly, tightly sealed containers will help your food keep longer.
Some food products are sensitive to ethylene, which is produced by avocados, apples and bananas. Store sensitive items in separate containers and make sure they are sealed to avoid spoiling early.
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