How to Meal Prep Like a Pro: Real Advice from Nutritionists and Dietitians
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If it’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday and you’re about to place a Seamless order, we’re going to say this kindly: you need to learn how to meal prep. Just in case you’re not totally sure what meal prepping is, here’s what you should know: It’s the process of getting a week’s worth of meals ready all at once, so that you no longer have the everyday struggle of figuring out what to eat. Meal prep, however, can feel like a daunting task. Like we said, you’re cooking a whole week’s worth of meals at once. It’s a step more advanced than getting a meal delivery kit, though with a breadth of excellent grocery delivery services, you can get your fridge stocked without ever leaving your home. You don’t even need to have done a stint at Noma to meal prep, especially when you take our advice. And once all that food is cooked, stored, and refrigerated, the only thing that comes between you and a full belly is a quick ride in microwave.
Rather than whipping up like 10 boxes of Kraft Easy Mac on Sunday night and calling that meal prep, we asked for some tips and tricks from four nutritionists and dietitians: Jennifer Maeng, MS, RD, LD, CDN, CNSC (founder of Chelsea Nutrition); Selena Ayala, CNP; Amy Shapiro MS, RD (founder of Real Nutrition); and Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN (founder and CEO of NY Nutrition Group). Take their advice on how to meal prep, and you’ll be so good at it that you can delete your delivery apps for good.
Why should you meal prep?
Meal prepping means you don’t have to worry about cooking dinner every day of the week. “Meal prepping allows you to plan ahead and purchase ingredients in bulk, which can save time and money in the long run,” Maeng says. And not only are you eating out less, but you have the opportunity to feed yourself healthier, more nutritious meals, she adds. When you become an adult, you realize how tedious it is to have to cook for yourself (thanks, mom and dad), but meal prepping leads to “stress-free meals,” she says. “Once you’ve planned your meals and prepped the ingredients, all you have to do is heat.”
Meal prep does, however, have its downsides. “It is time intensive, and from the perspective of monotonous eating, you could get bored eating the exact composition of vegetables, animal proteins, and the same version of pasta,” Ayala says. When it starts to feel like you’re getting sick and tired of eating the same meal, or you suddenly decide hey, maybe I will get takeout tonight, Moskovitz reminds us that you can always freeze whatever’s left over, “as long as it’s within two to three days of making it, so it doesn’t go bad.”
How to meal prep for the first time
“If you’re a first-timer when it comes to meal-prepping, it can be overwhelming,” Moskovitz says. She recommends that you go into your first time with an easy recipe—something with as few ingredients as possible (while staying delicious!) and a meal that doesn’t require any special gadgets or advanced cooking skills.
Build yourself a menu and then that will make it easier once you’re at the grocery store looking for ingredients to buy. If you’re eschewing a recipe, Ayala suggests that you look at ingredients as “building blocks.” First, you start with a foundation, which she says can be anything from animal protein, leafy greens, fonio, jasmine rice, beans, or a vegetable.” Once you have your base, you add on anything that makes the dish interesting, or things that will actually make you happy to eat, which will all be topped off by a finisher—think: fresh herbs, a sauce, or some cheese. As Moskovitz reminds: “A balanced meal includes lean protein, fiber-rich carbs and anti-inflammatory fats.”
The best food storage containers
According to Maeng, there are five things you should consider before getting a food storage container: make sure it’s durable, the right size, leak proof, microwave safe, and easy to clean.
Latched food storage containers help keep things leak proof, and buying different shapes and sizes will accommodate various types of meals.
Looks matter, even when we’re talking about food storage. W&P and Caraway both make attractive food storage containers—just be careful your officemates don’t steal them from the communal refrigerator.
For batch cooking, Ayala recommends these glass containers, which you can stock up on in bulk.
Bento box containers give you compartments to put different types of food, sort of like a lunch tray at the school cafeteria.
For holding individual ingredients, Ayala likes Sistema’s to-go containers. They stack for easy storage, and it’s made of BPA-free plastic.
Maeng likes to use these collapsible containers for salad greens, and when not in use, they store flat to help you save space.
The best cookware for meal prepping
When you’re cooking a large quantity of food, Maeng recommends you reach for a sheet pan. Sheet-pan dinners make it easy to throw a bunch of food together and bake it so that cleanup is easy, too.
If you’re trying to season a boatload of food or tossing a salad, mixing bowls will be a godsend. “Mixing bowls do not need to be microwave safe, but ideally, you want non-toxic, dishwasher-safe materials such as stainless steel, glass, bamboo, or ceramic,” Maeng says.
At a minimum, look for a four-quart air fryer. For one to four people, Maeng recommends an air fryer up to six quarts, but if you have the counter space, go as big as you want.
While totally optional, a food processor can help you save time during meal prep. You’ll spend less time dicing and chopping and more time doing literally anything else.
Just like your elementary school days, you’re going to want a lunch box. These insulated bags will keep your meals cool so they don’t spoil if you’re commuting somewhere, and let’s be honest, they’re pretty nice, too.
The best foods for meal prepping
Lean proteins: Chicken, beef, eggs, tofu, protein powder and Greek yogurt.
Starches: Quinoa, oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, millet, whole wheat pasta
Fresh produce: Arugula, apples, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, sprouts, snow peas, endive, escarole, oranges
Frozen produce: Spinach, carrots, broccoli, corn, cauliflower
Fats: Avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, nut butter
How to stick to meal prepping
OK, so you’ve meal prepped for a week or two. Now you’re getting kind of bored of it. Shapiro says that the best thing you can do is to change up your recipes often to keep things interesting. Plus, you don’t have to totally nix eating out. Solo meal prepping might be boring, but that’s what friends are for. “Consider doing a meal share with a friend or colleague,” Shapiro says. “You can swap recipes or do a group lunch where everyone brings a dish. Don’t make it a chore, keep it exciting and recognize how it is helping you.” Organization also ensures you stay on track, and some of the fun of meal prepping can be as simple as the type of meal containers you use. But once you start meal prepping, you might find there’s no better way to put food on the table every day.
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