“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
No quote could be of more importance regarding meal planning and dieting. Not only is it challenging for those dieting, but balancing between work, school, and activities as well as preparing food for your family might even be the toughest challenge of all. Meal prepping can make this burden less heavy. Our goal here is to give YOU a bunch of meal prep ideas. Let’s begin.
When you decide to make a major decision such as cleaning up your diet, there are multiple phases that should follow:
- Researching the most suitable diet plan for you
- Setting up the weekly meal plan
- Clearing your pantry and purchasing the new groceries
- Prepping meals ahead (cooking and packing)
This may sound like lots of work and you might already be wondering about the time needed to accomplish it. By following the meal prep tips and hacks provided in this guide, you will become a meal prep champ in no time.
MEAL PREP PLANNING 101
The essential advice here is: Stop following other people’s diets!
What works for someone else may not yield the same results for you. To successfully find the most suitable diet, start by choosing your target.
Whether it is weight gain, weight loss, or maintenance, selecting a goal and finding out the amounts you need to eat should be your priorities.
Next, look for deficiencies in your diet; most of us don’t eat enough vegetables and fiber, but we consume a lot of saturated fats and even more sugar.
To find out your requirements quickly, see the table below for the amount of calories you need:
Then, distribute them into food exchanges or portions. Food exchange means that “each item on a particular list in the portion listed may be interchanged with any other food item on the same list.” Each list is a group of measured foods that contains similar nutritional value (calories, carbohydrate, protein, and fat).
A comprehensive food exchange list can be found in the following downloadable document:
To make things easier, here’s an average exchange for a 2000 calorie diet:
- 8 portions of Starch
- 3 portions of Dairy
- 5 portions of Fruit
- 5 portions of non-starchy vegetables
- 6 portions of Meat
- 6 portions of Fat
Depending on your actual needs, you can modify (adding or removing) the portions to suit your meal plan.
Weekly Meal Planning
So you may have just realized that you need to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, reduce your fat intake and include a couple of dairy products.
That was the purpose of the research phase.
In the Meal planning stage, you have to cater to your eating habits.
For example: if breakfast is the biggest meal of your day, but you hardly eat much at dinner, adjust it so that the bulk of your food is consumed in the early hours of the day. Others might like to snack in-between smaller meals, in such case, allocate room in your meal planner for one or two snacks.
An empty meal planner should look something like this:
Now what you need to do is distribute the food exchanges (portions) you have into your meal planner:
As the sample provided, once you distribute your exchanges, you will then be able to pick from the food groups available.
Now that you have figured out your exchanges and planned out your meal plan, the next meal preparation stage is purchasing your groceries.
Since we are preparing our meals at home, we want to make it quick and varied. I know that many of us don’t mind eating the same meal twice a week, for this reason, our food purchases could cover at least two servings of the same dish.
Before heading to the supermarket, it’s better to make a grocery shopping list, as this will keep us from getting that chocolate bar or frozen pizza, and also save us another trip to the market the next day for forgotten items.
The following grocery list is a good example of how to cover most food groups before your trip to the supermarket:
Once there, make sure to consult the food labels while comparing products. Reading labels will help you identify the best choices.
- Manufacturing dates and expiry dates
- Ingredients list: Low in Saturated fats, Trans Fats, and Sodium
- Check the vitamin column, especially the Daily Value (DV%), if it’s above 20% then it’s a rich product, if it’s below 5% then it’s a poor product.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has provided us with an easy leaflet to better understand food labels, refer to it for the basics that you need to look for in any product. You can view that here.
Meal Prep Ideas
Meal prep can be any small task.
You don’t necessarily need to cook everything in advance or at once. It can simply be chopping up carrots, onions, or other ingredients ahead of time for recipes. Cleaning fruits and vegetables so they are ready to be packed. Cutting up your meats to be recipe ready.
The key point when first starting is not doing everything at once! Start by prepping 50% of your foods and then increase the amount prepared the week after, until you are ready to have almost all of your weekly foods cooked and ready in one sitting.
This helps with eliminating the overwhelming feeling of task overload.
If you are a newbie meal prepper, your first few attempts may take you much longer than you had planned. This might be discouraging to you. If you start by prepping 50% of 25% of your meals, you are able to work out all of the kinks. You’ll quickly become a master and can more efficiently meal prep 100% of your meals!
To prepare and pack all these meals in one or two sessions a week, you will need sufficient amount of meal prep containers. If you prefer the plastic ones, verify they have the BPA-free label on them, with lockable lids.
Personally, I would spend a little extra and get the stainless steel containers, they are easier to clean and will last longer.
In order to keep your meals fresh throughout the day (if you’re on the go or at work), you’ll want to look at getting a meal prep bag. They are extremely convenient!
A quick meal prep tip
To prep, start by cooking one big batch of whole grain or starchy vegetable (such as quinoa, brown rice, whole-wheat spaghetti, etc.).
Next, chop away some colored veggies (such as peppers, marrow, broccoli, carrots, etc.).
Then to keep your fat portions under control, measure out single portions of fats (peanut butter, roasted nuts, etc.), and package them for easy access.
Easy to make proteins are canned tuna or drained canned beans, or even well-portioned cheeses and tofu.
Depending on your meal plan, you could roast up some veggies like mushrooms, cauliflower, carrots or whatever you have planned. This way makes it easier to mix the veggies with your whole grain carbohydrate sources.
Now that we’ve gone over some easy meal prep ideas, let’s talk about the different goals for meal prepping.
MEAL PREP FOR WEIGHT AND MUSCLE GAIN
Anyone can gain weight, but gaining muscle mass with minimal increase of body fat is probably the biggest challenge anyone can face.
Meal prepping for weight and muscle gain can be simple and easy, all you have to do is get the right ingredients. The hack that will allow you to gain weight without packing much food is to stick to healthy yet calorie dense food items.
Your breakfast should revolve around the following items:
- cottage cheese
- whole wheat bread with peanut butter (look for brands with no added trans fats)
Of course, fruits and vegetables should always be present in abundance whatever your goal is.
For lunch, you have a wide variety of foods to choose from:
- lean beef
- sweet potatoes
- whole wheat pasta & breads
- fish (salmon, tuna, snapper, tilapia, swordfish, halibut)
- brown rice
- Legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc…)
Now that you’ve cooked and prepped your meals, make sure to correctly dish out and pack your meals. To better understand how to divide your foods, here’s a size guide of popular foods and their portions:
- 1 oz. meat/chicken/fish fillet: size of a matchbox
- 1 oz. cheese: size of four dice
- 1 medium potato: equivalent of a computer mouse
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: size of a ping pong ball
- 1 cup pasta: size of a tennis ball
- 1 average bagel: size of a hockey puck
- 3 oz. meat/chicken/fish fillet: size of an average bar of soap
- 8 oz. meat/chicken/fish fillet: similar dimensions of a thin paperback book
MEAL PREP ON A BUDGET
When you’re on a tight budget, meal prepping will pose some challenges.
Meal prepping a healthy diet on a budget could even be trickier.
Luckily, with these tips and hacks, you will be able to meal prep without breaking the bank:
- Purchase fresh produce in its season and stock it in your freezer (it could last for up to 9 months)
- Buy less expensive meat cuts and learn how to cook it properly to get some tasty and juicy meats. Buying whole chicken is always cheaper than getting it pre-cut, look for deals on lamb neck fillets, pork belly, and shin of beef.
- Beans, quinoa, and brown rice are an inexpensive source of carbohydrates when bought in bulk; they will even offer a better value for money.
- Organize your fridge and pantry to make sure you apply the First in First out method (FIFO). This method allows the oldest food to be in the front and freshest purchases in the back. This will keep you from grabbing the newest items first and let the older ones expire.
- Compare prices and brands and don’t be afraid of generic. Just keep an eye on that nutrition label to avoid going overboard on certain nutrients.
- Introduce more fibrous vegetables into your dishes. Cauliflower, broccoli, and eggplant can fill you up quickly while providing you with tons of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Well there you go, if you apply these tips to the previously mentioned ideas you will be able to prep some good meals without spending a fortune.
MEAL PREP RECIPES AND GROCERY LIST
You could possibly be making the same food over and over again, and after a while, it could get boring.
Meal prep should offer you the flexibility of switching between dishes without spending a long time on the preparation. I will show you a sample of some of my favorite meals and how recipes and a grocery list could be set-up in a way to let you enjoy your weekly meals without sacrificing time, money, and effort in the meal prep.
Chicken Thai Salad
Ready in 15 minutes
What you need
- ½ Lb. of boneless, skinless chicken breast
- 2 tablespoons of grapefruit juice
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 cup lettuce
- 1 sliced tomato
- 1 sliced cucumber
- 1 sliced carrot
- 1 teaspoon garlic paste
- 1 teaspoon cumin seed
How to prepare
Marinate chicken with grapefruit juice and garlic paste for 15 minutes at least. Grill chicken till tender. Meanwhile, prepare the dressing by crushing cumin seed in a mortar with olive oil, 1 tablespoon of grapefruit juice and mix well. Arrange the vegetables on a plate and top them with chicken, drizzle with dressing and serve.
Note: this salad could easily be paired with some sweet potato, quinoa, or brown rice.
Green Pepper Omelette
What you need
- 4 eggs
- 1 green bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoon coconut oil
How to prepare
Insert whole pepper in a pan. Keep high heat until the skin blackens. Remove from pan and place inside a re-sealable plastic bag with a small amount of water. Seal the bag without letting air escape. After five minutes. Remove the pepper, deseed, remove skin and slice.
In the meantime, beat the eggs in a bowl and season with ground black pepper.
Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil when hot. Finally, fold half of the egg over the filling, and cook an extra minute.
Baked Spicy Fish
Ready in 30 minutes
What you need
- Fish fillets, 1 pound
- Paprika 1/4 teaspoon
- Garlic powder 1/4 teaspoon
- Onion powder 1/4 teaspoon
- Pepper 1/8 teaspoon
- Ground thyme 1/8 teaspoon
- Lemon juice 1 tablespoon
How to prepare
Thaw frozen fish according to package directions. Separate fish into four fillets or pieces. Place fish on an ungreased baking pan. Combine paprika, garlic, and onion powder, pepper, and thyme in small bowl. Sprinkle seasoning mixture and lemon juice evenly over fish. Bake until fish flakes easily with a fork, about 20-25 minute.
Now your weekly grocery should include most of these (remember some you may need to buy once a month):
|Garlic Clove||Lean Ground Turkey||Dried thyme||Broccoli|
|Carrots||Chicken Breast||Salt and black pepper||Berries|
|Oranges||Canned Salmon||Cinnamon||Green beans|
|Raisins||Canned tuna (in water)||Nutmeg||Kale|
|Bag of apples||Eggs||Cumin||Spinach|
|Sweet Potatoes||Lean beef cuts||Turmeric||Mixed veggies|
|Seedless grapes||Baking soda|
|Dairy||Carbs||Legumes and nuts||Oils|
|Low Fat Yogurt||Brown rice||Lentils||Canola oil|
|Low Fat Milk||Whole wheat pasta||Black beans||Olive oil|
|Cottage cheese||Oatmeal||Chickpeas||Peanut butter|
|Whole grain cereal||Walnuts|
|Whole grain bread||Almonds|
Now, it’s time to talk about my favorite part of meal prepping…HEALTHY SNACKS!
MEAL PREP SNACKS
Snacks are probably more important to prep in advance since they are the main reason why people ruin their diets and healthy eating plans.
When you have something planned to reach for at times when you crave a snack, it’s better to be prepared or else the junk food options are endless.
Preheat your oven, tear your kale into kale chip and spray them with olive oil. Some might add some spices like paprika or black pepper, but it’s optional. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in the oven and you will get the perfect kale chips.
Peanut Butter and Celery Boats
Very easy to prepare and can be stored in the chiller for a few days. Simply spread some peanut butter on celery sticks and top them with some raisins. Remember that you could switch it up and change the type of nut or dried fruit used.
My personal favorite snack, very easy to prepare and can store a dozen of small pouches for future use. Your portion is a fistful of a mixture of nuts and dried fruits.
Yogurt and Fresh Fruit
A simple snack that needs no preparation (except chopping fruits depending on your selection), it’s a highly filling and nutritious snack that works at all times of the day.
You could prepare 10 servings in 5 minutes of this tasty snack. Simply get a small hummus container from any shop (check the label for low sodium) and use it as a dip to eat with carrots, cucumbers, celery, etc…
MEAL PREP PORTIONS
To accurately weigh your food and realize your weekly consumption, it is best you invest in a food scale. Measuring cups are also a good tool that will help you divide and measure your portions correctly.
If you’re too busy to measure and calculate your foods, we have another method of portioning your meals by simply using your hand. Check out the infographic below:
Wrapping it up
Meal prepping can be as hard or as easy as you make it. Hopefully, these meal prep ideas have given you an idea some great ideas to get started.
Understand your strengths. Don’t try and conquer everything at once. It doesn’t have to be perfect from day 1! Start meal managing with the understanding that you’ll make mistakes, but that you’ll learn from them.
Before you know it, meal prepping will be the norm around your house and you’ll be the meal preparation guru that your friends turn to for advice!