Mastering Meal Prep

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There are quite a few myths about meal prepping: 

1. It takes all day. 
2. So you have to eat the exact same thing all week. 
3. Because it’s impossible to cook a variety of weekly meals and have them taste good.
4. So you have to eat salads everyday. 
5. Plus, healthy foods aren’t filling. 

Thankfully none of this has to be true. Sure, some people do eat the same meals all week and the cooking can take all day. But as someone who use to live that all day cooking life only to eat the same shit over and over again all week, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way. 

You can be better than me, better than this. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty of meal prepping, I have to tell you that your success here will always boil down to how disciplined and dedicated you are to making this a long-standing lifestyle change. 

It will call for you to be more open-minded and flexible. You must be willing to make the sacrifices required for your health goals. It's really hard. It takes a long time. All major lifestyle changes will. (I started trying to make meal prep a consistent habit in 2016 and I didn’t nail it down until late 2017.) 

This, like most health-related things, is a labor of love. You do this because you want to improve your quality of life. 

I hope I don’t sound like a dick. I’m not trying to be condescending, just honest with you about your role while acknowledging how incredibly difficult it is to make a lifestyle change and undo years of bad habits. 

Another thing I want to touch on is how there will be times when, despite your best efforts, the number on the scale or your body’s composition won’t reflect the work you’re putting in. Don’t be discouraged. This doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Your body is changing in ways you cannot see — you’re getting stronger, you’re raising your good cholesterol levels, you’re lowering your blood pressure. You’re able to take deeper breaths, stretch longer, run faster and complete more reps in the gym. You’re swinging your kettle ball higher, you’re doing more burpees. And, most importantly, you’re still showing up. You’re still grinding. Keep working out. Keep eating good foods.

Weight is not the primary indicator of health and it never will be. 

Don’t give up and defeat yourself just because you can’t see your gains. It’s hard af. I give myself this pep talk a couple times a week. We often want quick fixes. It’s the world we live in. But, when it comes to your physical, emotional and mental health, it’s worth putting in the time and discipline required to ensure that you come out on the other side a healthier, happier person. 

Now that my TED Talk is over, let’s get this crackin. 

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One key to successful meal prepping is having a well stocked pantry and kitchen. 

The more stuff you have on hand, the more efficient you will be and the less money you will spend in the long run. For your pantry, stock up on these things as soon as you can: 

  • Seasonings you like and use frequently (sea salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, adobo, etc.)

  • Buy them cheap. They’re just seasonings. When I go down to Georgia to see my folks, I stock up on 0.99 spices and ship them back to DC.

  • At least one good cooking oil (olive, avocado, etc.)

  • At least one vinegar (I’d suggest apple cider, but white, white wine, rice, balsamic, etc. work just as well.)

  • Canned or frozen vegetables you like

    • For canned veggies, make sure the sodium content is low. For frozen, you’ll want to focus on broccoli, spinach, kale, cauliflower, etc.

  • Grains you like (quinoa, rice, farro, etc.)

  • At least one natural sweetener (honey, agave, maple syrup, etc.)

  • Beans you like (lentils, black beans, chickpeas, black eyed peas, green beans, etc.)

  • Sauces you like (tomato, tahini, etc.)

  • Baking items (vanilla extract, baking soda and powder, wheat flour, etc.)

  • Protein powder

  • Rolled oats

  • Nut butter (almond, peanut, etc.)

You may not use these things every time you cook, but you’ll have them on hand for at least six months to a year and they can be found at reasonable prices. 

As you cook more meals, you’ll accumulate the basics and specialty items — like chia seeds, ashwagandha and nutritional yeast. It would be very expensive to stock your pantry with a variety of nuts, seeds, powders, supplements, etc. from jump. This is where one of the first practices of patience comes in. Give yourself time to stockpile the expensive things. While you can find chia seeds and hemp seeds, for example, pretty cheap at Trader Joe’s, other items like goji berries and spirulina tend to cost much more. Make sure to stagger your recipes so that you’re only spending on one or two speciality pantry items a week. 

You’re also going to want a well stocked kitchen. Here’s a list of kitchen supplies worth investing in as soon as you can — if you don’t own them already (with links to products I own and find incredibly useful): 

  • Lunch containers with lids (at least three, but five is preferable.)

    • Make sure that your lunch containers are big enough to hold whatever it is you’re making. An overflowing container is not fun. I’ve also found these containers to be more leak-proof than most others (though not 100% so be careful if you’re making soups or curries.)  

  • Small containers with lids that can be used for snacks

  • A lunchbox

  • Some type of blender. (I use a Nutribullet 900 but before I bought that on sale — key word for me — I made it work with this Ninja food chopper.)

  • A food processor that can handle decent sized batches

  • Mason jars for pantry storage

    • This isn't necessary but it helps keep your pantry organized and it will keep the foods longer.

  • Baking sheets

  • Aluminum foil

  • Durable cooking utensils (I spent $20 on a set and they fell apart within six months. If you can swing getting a durable set that will last years, do it.)

Now, I’m going to explain how to effectively prepare your meals! 

1. Plan your meals AND your snacks. 

You got to figure out what you wanna eat. I usually start mulling over what I want to cook the day before I prep. I’m a fairly adventurous person when it comes to food. I love trying new things and I make diverse meals because if I don’t, I will get bored and order a pizza for dinner. Giving new foods a shot is how I know what I like and what I don’t (I’ll fuck you up if you try to feed me anything with cilantro or anything acai based.) 

But there is a financial risk in not liking foods you buy. It's one most people can't afford to take. In the interest of saving money, I’ve found it’s best to cook simple meals that creatively include things you know you like. Slowly loop in new things. Add one veggie and one fruit to your meal plan each week to help keep the cost down. When you do venture out, remember that veggies are a blank slate and you can prepare them in a variety of ways.

If you’re lacking inspiration, get on Instagram and scroll the food blogs. Or make a list of veggies, grains, beans and protein you like. Then pick two veggies, one grain, one bean and a protein per meal. Season them differently or add them to soups, salads or grain bowls (I curry my quinoa frequently.) It's really as simple as putting things you are excited to eat on a plate and then eating it. It doesn't have to be boring. 

Here’s an example meal plan from my Notes app (where I keep all my plans): 

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I love blueberries. I love curried quinoa. I love chicken. Clearly. But there is a method behind why I chose these meals. 

If I buy two bags of frozen blueberries, I can repurpose them throughout the week in my smoothies. For the blueberry toast, I’ll use fresh berries. The toast takes five minutes in the mornings —  I use my oven — and I can brush my teeth, wash my face and get dressed while the stove warms up. I use greek yogurt in my smoothies. I know from the label that each container yields three servings so I plan to have a smoothie three days out of the week to save money and to eliminate food waste. 

I can make a pot of curried quinoa fairly easily and yield 5 or more servings. I can dress up the chicken while the the cauliflower, broccoli and sweet potato all roast in the oven. I buy precooked lentils. I know I’m going to have a lot left over since I only use 1/4 cup in my lunches so I make sure I can incorporate them into my dinners. I spend 10 minutes making the chia seed pudding for the week. The rest is putting prepped ingredients into containers so that I can easily assemble my dinners throughout the week. 

Be intentional with your plan and choose things you can repurpose throughout the week. Again, it takes time to learn your unique weaknesses and build a method around them. But once you do, you’ll be in and out the kitchen in 3 hours. 

2. Divide and conquer.

When you’re prepping, determine what is going to take the longest to prepare and make that first. 

In my example plan, I know that the quinoa and the roasted veggies have the longest cook time — about 20 minutes — and that it's best to get that out of the way ASAP. While the oven preheats, I season the quinoa, the veggies and line my baking sheets with foil (faster clean up). As those things cook, I sauté kale and then my spinach. I divide the greens up and put it in my lunch containers before taking the quinoa off the burner and removing the veggies from the oven. 

While that cools down, I rinse and season my beans and put ¼ cup into the lunch containers before chopping up my chicken. I went with some flavored, seasoned pre-cooked Trader Joe’s chicken this week. It is absolutely delicious which is shocking. But if I was cooking chicken, it’d be in the oven with the veggies. 

I add ¼ cup quinoa to the containers before dividing the veggies up and throwing them in as well. I add the chicken, I close the containers. 

Lunch for the week is done. It’s been an hour or so. 

I take a “break” and make my smoothie packs for the week by placing 1 cup of blueberries and 1 cup of spinach into three freezer bags. The toast doesn’t require much of anything since it’s a day-of kind of meal. But I make sure to wash the blueberries and place them in an airtight storage container. 

For dinner prep, I simply place most of the ingredients — sweet potato, remaining lentils and chickpea scramble — into storage containers since I’ll be assembling them immediately before eating. Then I spend 10 minutes whipping up the chia seed pudding and dividing it into containers. 

Boom. You’re done! It’s been two to three hours!

Based on conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues, the issue isn’t really how long meal prepping takes. It’s the other stuff that gets in the way — like making meals that are pretty complicated for a weekly meal plan, struggling to find time to prep, etc. 

I don’t want this post to go on forever. If you want to know more about how to find time to prep, bounce over to my series “Questions I Get Asked A Lot" where I address everything my friends wondered about meal prepping! 

julia craven