How To Meal Prep Like A Champ
A guide for busy fitness enthusiasts
Meal prep is my beloved (and sometimes not so beloved) Sunday ritual. However, the mere idea of meal prep can be overwhelming. It definitely had me a little freaked out when I first thought about it.
Now, I have been meal prepping for 4 years and I have learned how to make meal prep simple and work with my busy lifestyle.
For starters, let me just say meal prep is not always my idea of a jolly good time. I am not giddily excited to spend time on my weekend holed up in the kitchen.
But I put up with it because I know how handy it comes in during the week. Whenever I skimp on meal prep I feel great on Sunday with all the extra time and then during the week I’m kicking myself for not getting it together. If you’ve never tried meal prepping or you have but you can’t quite figure out how to make it work, this post is for you.
I’ll be sharing my routine and some tips in here that you can use to figure out how to get a good system going.
How I Started
Many moons ago (around 2013), I was scrolling through good old social media and kept seeing all these fitness accounts posting pictures of their amazing weekly meal preps. I thought it looked awesome but I also thought it looked like a ton of work. I was in the early stages of my weight loss and I was down about 40 pounds and looking for something to kick it up a notch. I enlisted a friend and we planned out some meals we wanted to make, then picked a day to make it happen. She bought half of the grocery list and I bought the other. That next Sunday she came over, Tupperware in tow, and we got to work. That very first meal prep took us about 6–7 hours from start to finish. WAY more time than I had anticipated spending on this venture. A few months later we were prepping in just under 3 hours.
Now my husband helps me out with prep. He usually grills the chicken or makes the protein source while I get other things together. Having a partner to prep with does make things easier and quicker, especially since we are cooking for the both of us.
At this point, I’ve gotten most of my prep down to a science. Like I mentioned above, it wasn’t always this way. When I first started prepping it took almost my entire Sunday from start to finish. In addition to the actual prep time, the planning prior to also took forever. There’s so much involved when you’re trying to figure out what to make, how much you need and then get a grocery list together. Inevitably, no matter how organized I was or meticulously I planned, I always forgot something at the store. Always. I’m still really good at doing that but at least now it happens a little less often. Prepare to spend some time in the beginning just kind of figuring things out. If it takes you forever initially just know it won’t always be that way. You will find your groove as you do it more often. I’m finally at the point where I can get a really decent prep done in about 2–3 hours depending on how many meals I am making.
Below are some of the mistakes I made.
Mistake #1: Trying To Prep EVERYTHING
I used to do all of my breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks. All of them. For all seven days of the week. That got old really fast. There is a time and a place for that but I have learned to simplify things in the interest of time (and my sanity). Now I typically make sure I have lunches and snacks ready to go, a few breakfast choices to pick from and then I prep some things for dinners without prepping the entire meal. For example, I’ll cut and roast some veggies or sweet potatoes in advance and then I will just find a protein (chicken, fish, pork) to cook the day of. Having some pieces done, even if it’s not the whole meal, still cuts down on a lot of time during the week.
Mistake #2: Making too many new recipes
I used to do this a lot. I would try out 5 new recipes in one week only to discover I actually only liked maybe 2 of them. Which left me regretfully eating a meal I wasn’t happy with or tossing it and wasting the food (and money) to grab something else. And usually my “something else” wasn’t the healthiest choice. Basically I was defeating the whole point of prep. Now I stick to what I like and try maybe one recipe a week. This also helps cut down on the time I spend in the kitchen because when you’re trying recipes you’re not familiar with, that can definitely slow you down.
Mistake #3: Not checking the fridge before I shopped
This seems like common sense but I have committed this error SO many times. Every time I made a plan for meal prep and started developing a shopping list, I would start from scratch instead of basing my meal choices on what was currently in the fridge. It saves me so much more time and money when I take 10 minutes to scope out the content of my kitchen and pantry and THEN decide what meals to make before heading out the door.
Current Meal Prep Routine & 2 Hour Sample Prep
My basic meal prep routine now is to do a protein source and a vegetable. Those are the main targets I try to hit. Sometimes I will add a another side. I usually use brown rice, potatoes or sweet potatoes as my carb choice. Or sometimes I will use a protein pasta or polenta bake. This basic formula helps me to quickly and easily decide what to make for the week. Polenta bakes, burrito bowls and cauliflower chicken fried rice are staples that I make over and over because they’re quick and I don’t get tired of them.
In order to better understand how I prioritize a meal prep in terms of the steps I take, here is a little sample of a simple 2 hour prep completed with 2 people. So let’s say I have burrito bowls and cauliflower fried rice on the menu for lunches and I want to also get together some snacks, a breakfast choice and roast some veggies for dinner. Here is what I would do to multitask and get everything going.
I start by preheating the oven. While I’m waiting for that, I will usually start to wash and chop the veggies for roasting while my meal prep partner (MPP for future reference) starts cooking the ground beef for the burrito bowls. This process usually takes about 15–20 minutes.
Once the veggies are in the oven and the ground beef is done, I start to prepare the burrito bowls (see pic below) while my MPP prepares the chicken for the cauliflower fried rice. Burrito bowls and fried cauliflower rice are done and plated in about 20 minutes. So far we are about 40 minutes in and already lunches are done.
I usually check the vegetables at this point and maybe roast for another 10–15 minutes and while this is finishing up, I prepare some snacks. My snacks are usually a mixture of grab and go items like protein bars, tuna packets, or popcorn. Then sometimes there are things I actually have to do a little more with to prepare. So for example, I might make some tuna salad and add crackers to containers, wash some fruit to portion off or put things like veggies and hummus in individual portions. While I am doing this, MPP is removing the vegetables from the oven and then whipping up some eggs and chicken sausage for a few breakfasts. This part takes about another 30 minutes or so.
So by the middle of the second hour I am usually finishing things up and beginning to clean the kitchen. This usually takes about 30 minutes depending on how much damage we’ve done.
So that’s a simplified look at how I prioritize and carry out a quicker and easier prep.
Tips & Tricks
Prep the ingredients vs making the whole meal
You can still save yourself a lot of time during the week simply by arming yourself with freshly washed and cut fruits and vegetables. If you don’t feel like spending a ton of time cooking on a Sunday but you’d like some quick options to throw together in a pinch, this is a good tactic. Grill some chicken, cut some potatoes, have some things ready and then just throw them together during the week.
Wait for your food to cool before storing
This helps keep the vegetables from getting soggy when they’re stored for a few days. I leave the lids off and let the meals cool down. Then I will cover and store them. I don’t store things in the freezer but you could totally do that too. For me, the food stays good to go in the fridge for the week without tasting old or weird (a common meal prep concern). I usually eat anything with roasted chicken or veggies the first couple days since that tastes the most fresh when I eat it sooner. I save the other meals for the days later in the week. It’s a matter of preference but that’s what works for me. I use Snapware glass containers for most of my meals (pics above) and I use Sistema salad kit container for my burrito bowls. I love the individual compartments to separate my wet and dry ingredients.
Experiment with slow cooker and one pot/sheet pan meals
Throwing something in the crockpot is a super simple way to get another meal in for prep without having to do much extra work. Toss it in and leave it and you have one meal cooking while you’re prepping some others. Same deal with sheet pan and one pan recipes. I just recently made a sheet pan breakfast recipe and it was so quick and easy! I definitely plan on adding them in as part of my usual routine.
Double the recipes you know you enjoy
When I know I love something, I will sometimes make 6 servings of it and have it three times a week instead of one or two. I usually do this with burrito bowls or larger casserole type dishes because I know I like the meal and I can cook it once and get more bang for my buck when it comes to time spent prepping.
Make one meal on saturday night
This tip is for those of you who are Sunday preppers like myself. I just started doing this recently and I’m a huge fan already. Most of my Saturdays are spent on the couch watching Netflix and a glass of wine in hand. I figured I can also get a little head start on Sunday prep at the same time. So I have started making one meal on Saturday nights. Something that I can throw in the oven that requires minimal effort. Then I will usually make sure to eat this meal on Monday and Tuesday since I made it a day earlier than normal. Bonus points if I make enough servings to have it for dinner on Sunday too.
Keep it simple
Meal prep DOES NOT have to be fancy. It only needs to be functional and work with your lifestyle. You can make things go by much quicker if you aren’t super picky (like me) and don’t mind eating the same meal every day. If you really wanted to, you could just prep only 2 different recipes and have the same thing for lunch and dinner every day of the week. My MPP would be totally fine with that but I prefer to spice things up just a bit. What I do is eat the exact same thing on Monday and Tuesday. Same breakfast, lunch, dinner and sometimes even snacks. Then I will eat the same thing on Wednesday and Thursday with Fridays being a little more flexible. This keeps me in a routine but also breaks me out of a monotonous schedule of eating the same thing every single day of the week. Right when I’m about to get bored with the food, it’s time to switch to the new stuff.
Plan your week in advance
I like to write things down so I have found that using a meal planner where I can jot down prep ideas as they come to me is helpful. Below is a filled out sample of one I have made that plans my meals for the week along my workouts. Feel free to download a copy for yourself if you think it will be helpful for you. One link is for the Weekly Fitness Planner which is meals plus workouts and the other is for Weekly Meal Planning only.
Hopefully this is helpful for those of you that are interested in starting your own routine and are looking for a little guidance. Happy prepping!