When it comes to eating well, meal planning is one of the best ways to set yourself up for success. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that cooking meals at home is linked to better dietary habits like eating more fruits and vegetables and that spending less than one hour a day preparing food at home is associated with eating more fast food.
Granted, meal prepping isn’t always an easy sell: Maybe you’re short on time, don’t know how to batch cook and store your meals, or maybe you just don’t like leftovers. Whatever your beef, we’ve got a solution. Here are 16 ways to make meal prepping easier, faster and less of a hassle.
1. Evaluate Your Schedule
Your life may change from week to week, depending on work, school activities and family life. Figure out how many meals you think you’ll need for the week before even hitting the grocery store.
2. Start Small
If you’re a newbie to meal prep, don’t go whole-hog and try to make your entire weekly menu ahead of time. This will completely overwhelm you and you probably won’t stick with it. Start slowly. Make one or two recipes your first week, and as you get comfortable with the process, you can prep more.
Choose recipes that will make the biggest difference in your week right away. For instance, if dinnertime brings you the most stress, then put together some meals to make dinner easier. If you’re always grabbing something from the vending machine in the afternoon, focus on putting together some veggie packs or baggies full of almonds to take to work.
4. Create a Master Recipe List
Sometimes a recipe you try is incredible, and other times, meh. Have a list of go-to meals that you have tried before and know you can easily put together. Overlap ingredients whenever possible to save time and money.
5. Write Out an Actual Grocery List
This one may sound obvious, but a lot of people have grocery store ADD — you think you know what you wanted to buy, but when you get there, you are distracted. Decide which recipes you’re going to prepare for the week, write out a grocery list that includes the quantities needed of each ingredient, and then hit the store. Bonus: Making a list — and sticking to it — will help you avoid unhealthy impulse buys.
6. Prep Foods You Will Actually Eat
Again, sounds obvious, but even if you lovingly prepare the healthiest thing on earth and you know it’s good for you, if you don’t like what you’ve prepped, you’re not going to eat it. Be realistic about your tastes in food, but also try to vary your menu enough that you don’t get bored and resort to takeout.
7. Chop Chop
We are all busy, so a good way to save time and guarantee you eat healthy even when time-crunched is to prep your meal ingredients ahead of time. Wash and slice fresh fruits and vegetables so they’re ready for snacks or to put into a stir-fry, cut up and portion out your meats and poultry so they’re ready to cook in a snap, or portion out snacks like nuts or crackers into baggies or containers.
8. Get Roasting
Roast a large batch of veggies so they’re ready to use right away in sandwiches, as sides or in soups. Veggies that roast well are carrots, zucchini, peppers and cauliflower. You also can roast white or sweet potatoes ahead of time. A note on veggie prep: Pair vegetables together that have a comparable roasting time: Fast-cooking vegetables like asparagus, mushrooms and cherry tomatoes can cook in the same pan, while slower-roasting vegetables like carrots, cauliflower, onions and potatoes can cook together.
9. Protein Prep
Cooking your protein ahead of time and storing some in the fridge and some in the freezer is a great way to ensure nutritional success. Cook up at least two sources such as chicken, lean pork, eggs or black beans. Keep some handy in the fridge to use in salads, sandwiches or bowls because they are good for about three to four days, and store the rest in airtight containers in the freezer.
10. Spice It Up
Bland food is uninspiring, so find one or two marinades you love and use them for different foods. For instance, mixing olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper is not only great on salads but also goes well on chicken and veggies.
Food Storage and Reheating
11. Wrap It Right
Now that everything is cooked, it’s time to squirrel some away. Foil, plastic wraps or bags and airtight containers are the best choices for storing most foods in the fridge, according to the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. If your plastic containers gross you out because you can’t get rid of the smell of last week’s fish, replace them with stainless-steel or glass containers. If you stick with plastic, choose BPA-free containers with lockable lids to prevent spilling.
12. Cool It
Store your cooked food quickly — but make sure it’s completely cooled first. Putting away warm foods can bring down the temperature in your freezer, which might partially thaw and then refreeze the food around it, making that food mushy when defrosted. However, don’t let cooked food stand at room temperature for more than one to two hours. Instead, cool it by placing it in a wide, shallow container and refrigerate it, uncovered, until cool. Then freeze it up.
13. Storage Temp
Speaking of temperatures, your refrigerator should read below 40 degrees. At this temperature, the bacteria that hang around and spoil food grow slowly, meaning your food lasts longer. Your freezer should be at least zero degrees or below for optimal storage.
14. Use Food Quickly
At most, keep three days’ worth of food in the fridge and store the rest in the freezer in airtight containers. Otherwise, your food will be susceptible to freezer burn.
15. Label It
Remember that steak you put in the freezer to eat in January? We didn’t think so. Food in the freezer actually does spoil eventually; it just takes longer. Use a Sharpie to write the date of the meal or food on a piece of tape and place it on the container or plastic bag.
Defrost your meals in the fridge overnight where they will be at a safe temperature. The National Center for Home Food Preservation warns that food thawing at room temperature or in warm water puts it in the danger zone — when temperatures are between 40 and 140 degrees — where bacteria rapidly multiply.