Eating well can be challenging in our fast-paced world. Often the most convenient food choice is not the most nutritious.
For those who have busy schedules and little time to prepare fresh meals, planning and preparing meals ahead of time (also known as meal prep) can help make healthy eating easier and more affordable.
With proper planning and implementation, meal prep can be a great tool for improving nutrition and reducing spending on restaurant meals and convenience foods.
Meal prep requires following a few steps. These can be completed in one day or during several days.
Start by figuring out how many meals and what types of meals (i.e., breakfast, lunch, dinner) you would like to prepare. Next, gather the recipes you plan to follow and make a list of ingredients for the grocery store. Having a list can help save time and money. Set aside time each week to prepare your meals. Preparing a few days meals in one sitting is one of the most effective ways to save time and have healthy meals ready to go.
It is important to be realistic when planning meals. Ask yourself: Will this meal be enough to fill me up until my next meal or snack? Is this a meal that leaves me feeling satisfied? Will this food be palatable when reheated?
The time and effort will only be worth it if the meals are enjoyable and satiating. This will likely be a good motivator to meal prep consistently.
Consider food safety when preparing meals. It is best to refrigerate or freeze perishable foods within two hours of preparation. Bacteria grows best when food is in the “Danger Zone” — between 41 and 135 degrees F. Cold temperatures help slow the growth of harmful bacteria that can make you sick. Refrigerators should be kept between 32 and 40 degrees F.
To keep foods safe for a longer period of time, store in a freezer at 0 degrees F or below. Thaw frozen foods in a refrigerator overnight, or in a cold water bath — both ways make it harder for bacteria to grow. If using a cold water bath, make sure to change the water every 30 minutes, and cook the food promptly once thawed. Some examples of foods that freeze well are:
Proteins: Beef, chicken, fish, pork, sausage, shrimp and cheese.
Fruits: Strawberries, pineapple, mangoes, blueberries and blackberries.
Vegetables: Asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, peas and potatoes.
Cooking food at the proper temperature is important for food safety. Keep in mind, color is not a good indicator that meat is cooked thoroughly. Always use a thermometer and follow the chart to ensure food safety.
Using good quality meal prep containers also can save you money in the long run. If you plan to reheat your meals, try using glass or other BPA-free containers that are durable and will last a long time. When reheating, make sure the food reaches 165 degrees F for at least 10 seconds. Reheat food only once for best quality.
Meal prep does requires some time and effort. However, the health benefits and cost savings make the process well worth it for many people. Taking it one step at a time can make it less overwhelming and more likely to stick as a habit.