Preparing your meals can save you time and money, as well as simplify your days by making clean eating a routine. Life happens, whether you are training for a fitness competition, trying to drop a few pound or maintaining your already fit physique. Preparing meals in advance can help maintain your sanity and is the only surefire way to get on track and stay there.
The Foundation 4 of Food Prep:
Begin by planning your meals for the week. Consider your favorite proteins. I suggest at least 3 options to avoid boredom. Review recipes of interest and determine what foods are necessary to these meals and make your list. Choose an ideal day to spend a good chunk of time cooking and portioning meals. If Sunday is your go-to, aim to hit the store in advance so you can fire up the grill or oven and get down to business. For parents, think about your week. What’s on the schedule? Make sure you have your calendar next to you as you plan out your meals.
Know before you go. If you don’t have a list, you’re more likely to grab unnecessary items…like ice cream. And wine. Try laying your list out in order of the grocery store. Start with your produce, then meats/proteins, and finish with any frozen or pantry items.
Time to get cooking! Sauté, grill, bake, slow-cook, brown, broil or whatever suits your fancy. Cook up all of your protein sources, hard-boiled eggs, sweet potatoes, and any other foods that will need advance preparation. This is a key element to your success and the biggest time saver of all in how to meal prep. This step of cooking in bulk allows you to simply heat up or defrost your meals and eat. For many of us, it’s not uncommon to indulge in cold meals occasionally. This isn’t the best choice, but still often better than the alternative.
Depending on your dietary needs and goals, once your proteins are fully cooked, use a food scale to accurately measure your portions. You can find a great digital scale for under $20 and it will be your new best friend. Portion and pack into airtight containers or Ziploc bags and store in refrigerator if being consumed in 3-4 days or freezer if longer. Portioning your meals accurately is key because just as eating too many calories can delay progress, consuming too few calories can equally hinder your efforts. Knowing exactly what you consume in a day can be the only solid factor in expecting any outcome. In the event you need to reevaluate your meal plan, you have a baseline for what did or didn’t work to your advantage.
What to Prep in Batches and How to Do It
If you think of a Paleo meal, it really has four parts:
• Required: meat or other animal protein (e.g. eggs)
• Required: fat (this might be provided by your protein source, e.g. bacon, but if you’re cooking lean protein you need to add some).
• Required: non-starchy vegetables.
• Optional: starchy vegetables, fruit, and/or nuts.
Typically, when you batch cook, you’ll be cooking one of these three parts. Many people only batch-cook protein – this doesn’t completely eliminate meal prep, but it makes everything a lot faster. Protein is typically the longest part of the meal to cook, so you’ll get the biggest time savings here.
You can eat the batch-cooked protein on its own, or throw it into soups, stir-fries, salads, and all kinds of other meals.
Other people batch prep vegetables as well. This can get tricky because you do have to make sure to use up all the vegetables before they go bad, but it’s definitely possible, especially if you choose wisely.
For a good batch-cooking recipe, you want something that’s easy to make in large quantities, keeps well for several days, and ideally tasty with a variety of different sides so you can mix it up.
If you only prep one thing ahead, make it your protein. Cooking a big batch of meat or eggs at the beginning of the week can save you incredible amounts of meal prep time. Here are some ideas:
• Eggs: scrambled, hard boiled, egg/bacon cups
• Meat: ground turkey and beef for soups, lettuce wraps, chili, chicken breast shredded for salads, meatballs, pot roast, flank steak grilled and sliced thin
Non-starchy vegetables can get a little tricky to prep ahead because they can easily get slimy or gross – especially salads.
One great trick with salads is to keep the dressing separate. Wash your greens, chop them up, and mix all you like; just leave the dressing in a separate container until you’re ready to eat it. It also helps to layer your salads – put wetter things at the bottom so the juices don’t get all over the greens. Another tip is to prep salads for the beginning of the week and prep hardier vegetables for the end – or just have a second mini-prep day in the middle of the week where you make another batch of salads.
• Vegetables that keep for 1-3 days: most steamed or roasted vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, squash, etc.), most leafy salads if you keep the dressing separate.
• Vegetables that keep until the end of the week: roasted root veggies like broccoli, beets, cauliflower, carrots. You may also have luck with coleslaw or other uncooked vegetables, depending on how fresh they were when you bought them.
If you’re batch-cooking breakfast, there’s a good chance that it’s because you need something to eat between the gym and the office – and in that case, you’ll want some starch with that. Here are some ideas for batch-cooking starchier foods:
• Mashed or roasted white potatoes, sweet potatoes
• Sweet potato salads, squash
How to Keep it Interesting:
You’ve cooked up enough pulled pork to feed the army with leftovers to spare. If the apocalypse happened tomorrow, you could subsist on pulled pork until you died of natural causes. But halfway through your week of pulled pork bounty, you realize that you’re so incredibly bored of it you don’t want to take another bite.
Here are some strategies for preventing that in the first place or fixing it if you’re stuck there:
• Batch cook two main proteins and freeze half of each. Basically this puts you on a two-week batch cooking schedule instead of 1 week. So for example, instead of cooking just pulled pork, cook pulled pork and beef chili. Freeze half of each dish for next week. That way you’ll be able to rotate between them and you won’t feel like you’re eating the same thing every day.
• Use the protein as a base, not the final product. Put your batch-cooked protein in salads, stews, curries, or stuffed potatoes. Dress it up with different spices and seasonings. Chop it up and stir-fry it. Put an interesting sauce on it to add a new flavor.
• Rotate different proteins and side dishes together so you can get some variety on your plate even if you’re eating the same meat.
Useful Tools and Equipment
You don’t need a lot of special tools to get started with batch cooking. But it does help to have…
• Containers and a label system for storing the food once you make it. If you’re prepping grab-and-go meals, just put everything into meal-sized containers as soon as it’s done cooking for maximum convenience.
• I buy the Reynolds throw aways at Walmart but I prefer reusable containers which you can find on amazon.
• A slow-cooker for cooking big cuts of meat painlessly while you do other things.
You can absolutely do batch cooking without a slow-cooker, though; you’ll just have to find a time when the oven is free.