Let’s be real for second… 90% of my meals aren’t as cohesive or pretty as the ones I post on my blog. As a master’s student with a full-time job, commuting, singing at church, maintaining friendships and carving out time to work out and spend time with the Lord, can I get a loud “ain’t nobody got time for that” when it comes to cooking most weeknights. But I also know that I cannot sustain my busy lifestyle if I’m not eating well for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so that means trying to make my own meals as much as possible. That’s when meal prep is a lifesaver.
But I think some people have this idea of meal-prepping as only for Cross-Fitters who portion out these tiny meals into all these tupperware containers that look EXACTLY THE SAME for every night of the week… Yeah, I’m gonna take a hard pass on that. When I say meal-prep, I simply mean prepping and pre-cooking a variety of ingredients and foods ahead of time so I can mix and match throughout the week. And often times, this is as simple as buying a bunch of vegetables and some type of protein and throwing it in the oven on a Sunday night while I finish my laundry or watch a lecture. It doesn’t have to be complicated, extravagant, nor does it have to take up your entire afternoon. But anything you can do to get ahead at the beginning of the week will set yourself up for making better choices when you get home a little later than expected or you’re exhausted from a hard day at work. I promise that having home-cooked meals ready to eat will make a huge difference in the way you feel and save you a ton of time and energy throughout the week. So I’m giving you a few tips for how to make meal prep easier than you ever thought it could be.
15 Tips to Master Meal Prep
- When all else fails, throw it on a sheet pan: My favorite way to cook vegetables is oven-roasting. Not only does it only dirty up one dish, but it doesn’t require a lot of hands-on attention, AND it brings out the best flavor of the vegetables (roasting them brings out their natural sugars, giving them nice caramelisation). Cook for about 30 minutes at 400, tossing about 20 minutes in. Word to the wise- be sure to spread in an even layer and don’t overcrowd the pan, or your veggies will end up steaming rather than getting a nice char. BONUS- throw some chicken breasts in the corner of the sheet pan and you’ve got a complete meal!
- Batch-cook your proteins– get a package of chicken, fish, or pork chops and grill, saute, or roast them all at once. I do this each week so I can have them ready to add to my lunches. Protein is KEY to staying full on a healthy diet.
- Ground meat is super versatile– cook some ground chicken, turkey, or beef with basic seasonings, and you can use it in so many different dishes- stuffed peppers, burrito bowls, lettuce wraps, stir frys, lasagna… the list goes on.
- Invest in a large saute pan– Chop up veggies and saute them all together with your flavorings of choice. Start with a base of salt and pepper to taste, and then add from there. There are endless combinations of veggies, but here are a few ideas:
- Onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, cauliflower rice with coconut aminos, sesame oil, and rice wine vinegar or lime juice
- Apples or sweet potatoes, onions, red curry paste, and kale
- Zucchini, squash, red and green bell peppers, and chili powder, garlic, and cumin
- Frozen butternut squash, broccoli, and onions with garlic and white wine (add white wine to deglaze the pan, and then let it reduce to cook out the alcohol flavor)
- Keep it simple with seasonings– If you really want to be quick, cook your veggies and protein with basic spices (my go-to’s are salt, pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder) and add flavor later.
- Have flavor-enhancers on hand– if you just use your basic seasonings when cooking the first time around, have some ingredients in your fridge that can dress it up later. Some of my favorites are goat cheese, feta cheese (any type of cheese, really… in moderation), herbs, hot sauce, enchilada sauce, salsa, dijon mustard, avocado, pickled veggies, coconut aminos, champagne vinegar, or a spread, like hummus, cashew queso, almond dip, or guacamole. These are easy to throw in your dish later when you are ready to eat.
- Cook a batch of grains– it takes about 20 minutes max to cook quinoa, brown rice or farro. Just use chicken broth for the cooking liquid and throw in a smashed garlic clove to infuse flavor, and then throw the grains in veggie bowls, stuffed peppers, a cold, hearty salad, or on their own as a filling side.
- Steam your veggies in a pinch– It may not be the most flavorful way to cook, but steaming your vegetables is a quick and easy way to have healthy staples on hand. Often times I will throw brussels sprouts, broccoli, or green beans in a microwaveable steamer basket (yes I do use the microwave, something’s gonna kill me eventually) or wrap a sweet potato in a damp paper towel and steam for 5-7 minutes until soft. You can always add flavorings later.
- Keep frozen veggies on hand, and freeze leftovers– My freezer is like my emergency stash. I buy frozen vegetables like broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, or medleys and take them to work with me to heat in the work room microwave and add to my lunches throughout the week. I also try to make a few big-batch recipes every now and then like stuffed peppers or a big pork loin and freeze whatever I can’t finish in a few days. That way, you’ve always got meals ready to heat up when you’re completely desperate.
- Prep veggies for smoothies– Adding vegetables to smoothies is a great way to sneak in extra fiber and nutrients when the thought of eating straight zucchini at 7 am doesn’t exactly get you jazzed for the day. I will often steam zucchini and squash whole in the microwave until tender and then chop, or steam/boil cauliflower until tender and then let them cool and throw in the freezer. Cooking them before freezing helps aid in digestion, and won’t be so hard on your blender.
- Cook eggs in batches– Sometimes you don’t have the time to scramble eggs in the morning, or you have to pack your breakfast ahead of time. But eggs can be such a great source of protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals, which is a great alternative to a carby breakfast. This is why one of my favorite ways to prep breakfast is by making a frittata. Whisk a dozen eggs with 1 tsp. salt, ½ tsp pepper, and ½ cup of some kind of dairy- milk, sour cream, crème fraiche, or unsweetened coconut milk if DF. Add veggies if you like (cook them first- they won’t cook enough if you add them raw, and their moisture will mess with the egg texture), or just a little cheese and maybe some herbs for flavor. Bake in the oven at 350 for about 20 minutes or until no longer jiggly (notice my culinary term there)
- Keep breakfast hands-off and on-the-go– I’ve been into Greek yogurt and berries lately, which is a super quick and easy breakfast that you don’t really have to prep. Just be sure to buy unsweetened yogurt and add your own coconut sugar or honey (unless you’re a freak like me who enjoys it plain). Top with fresh berries and maybe some granola (Purely Elizabeth forever and always). OR make a big batch of soft boiled eggs and keep them in the fridge (bring water to a rolling boil, gently drop eggs in, and reduce heat to medium-high to cook for 6-7 minutes before plunging in ice water)
- Chop ingredients in advance- or buy them already chopped!– If you would rather cook your food fresh each night, go ahead and chop up your veggies, season your meat, and do anything you can to shave some time off your prep during the week. And guess what- it’s okay not to cook everything! You can buy pre-blanched frozen veggies to add to your dish in a pinch, pre-cooked rice or quinoa, or pre-chopped ingredients almost anywhere. Sometimes you end up paying the price for convenience, but it can be worth saving the time and hassle here and there. Take shortcuts when you can. You can even already cooked meat from places like Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Central Market, or Whole Foods. Sometimes they add excess oil or salt to help keep it moist and flavorful, so I don’t do this every week, but it is definitely a life saver when I’m really strapped for time
- Invest in glass tupperware– Call me a snob, but one of the WORST things to me is plastic tupperware. Over time, it stains and starts to absorb smells from previous meals. Invest in a few different sizes of glass tupperware to keep your food fresher and more appetizing longer, or else you won’t end up wanting to eat it a few days later
- PLAN PLAN PLAN– Before you go to the store, sit down and think through your week. What nights will you need to prep for? Which nights will you have a little more time to create from your prepped food, versus which nights will you need it to be already ready to eat? For me, this is so important to think through as each week can vary so much. Figure out which recipes or ingredients you want to prep, and create a list before you go grocery shopping. Otherwise, you’ll end up short a few ingredients, or you’ll buy too much and they’ll sit in your fridge until they sprout wings and fly away.
Even if you pick just one of these ideas and implement it into your weekly routine, I guarantee you’ll see a difference. Healthy eating does require some effort (let’s face it, nothing in life that’s worth doing doesn’t), but it doesn’t have to consume your life or take away from your priorities. Let me know which ones you find helpful, and if you have any tricks of your own!