Whether you want to lose weight, build muscle, or just avoid your urge to binge on fast food, prepping your meals ahead of time is one of the best ways to ensure you’re eating healthy meals all day long—and save some serious cash while you’re doing it.
MEAL PREP MISTAKE: YOU DON’T BUILD A BALANCED MEAL
Eating too much of one food and not enough of another can really screw with your day, says certified exercise physiologist Jim White, R.D.N., owner of Jim White Fitness Studios.
For example, if you’re not consuming enough carbohydrates because you’re weighing too heavy on protein, you may feel tired because carbs typically serve as your primary source of energy. Have too many carbs and not enough protein? Then you may find yourself starving well before dinner time.
“Leaning heavy towards one macro can lead to deficiencies in other macros and other vital nutrients,” White says. “For example, if you consume 60 percent protein, 20 percent fat and 20 percent carbs you could be robbing yourself of B vitamins, fiber, and extra energy that you would normally get through a moderate carbohydrate diet.”
That’s where your macronutrient balance—the proportion of carbs to fat to protein—comes in. For the average guy looking to stay full and eat healthy, shoot for 50 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent fat, says White.
If you have specific goals, however—say, you’re looking to build muscle or burn fat—then you may want to tweak your macronutrient breakdown a bit differently. Guys focused on building muscle or losing weight may want to include more protein, but 35 percent is the highest White recommends. (Figure out the ratio that works best for you here.)
Pay attention to the nutritional breakdown of those macros too, explains Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet. Especially important? Don’t forget the fiber: Research shows that eating a diet high in fiber—a type of carb—can help lower your cholesterol and heart disease risk. Plus, eliminating any one major macronutrient from your diet completely is usually hard to stick with for the long haul, she says.
Have you ever tasted grilled chicken that’s been sitting in the fridge for seven days? If you’ve taken the risk, chances are you never made that mistake again. Cooked food generally goes bad after three to five days, says White, so prepping a couple of times throughout the week can help ensure that your meals taste a bit more fresh. (Check out this handy food safety guide to find out how long your prepped foods actually last in the fridge.)
If you want your food to last for longer, you can always prepare it and freeze it to cut your risk for foodborne illnesses if you prioritize convenience over taste—but keep that in mind, it’s just not going to taste great toward the end of the week. (Check out this food safety guide on how to correctly reheat your leftovers.)
That’s why White recommends prepping twice a week: “The key to meal prepping efficiently is to slot out a certain amount of time two days a week to efficiently meal prep. It could be every Sunday and Wednesday evening or any other two days that are convenient for your schedule,” says White. “It will save you more time than preparing food each night.”
If you only prep on Sundays, you’ll only be set until Wednesday or Thursday, but if you prep half your meals on Sunday and the other half on Wednesday or Thursday, you’ll dedicate less time to cooking each day and your food will taste a heck of a lot better.
If you are focused on convenience, another option is finding frozen meals you like that are made with whole ingredients and supplementing them with frozen vegetables, says White.
Eating the same thing day in and day out gets boring—fast. You can only eat chicken and broccoli so many days in a row before the sight of the stuff makes you lose your appetite. That doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead, though. You just need to be smarter about how you put your meals together, says Gans.
“There needs to be wiggle room. With the food you’ve made, you want to make sure the final product isn’t always identical,” she says. Sticking to the same food every day can feel restrictive. And when your Tupperware makes you want to throw up, that’s when you’re more likely to give in to the more palatable temptations.
Good news is, you can work around the boredom trap: After you prep your food, seal and store everything individually, suggests Gans. So if you make three chicken breasts, place them in separate containers. Do the same for your vegetables and grains. Making a variety of food will make this way easier—so don’t just cook chicken. Prepare another protein, like steak or salmon, to have on hand as well. Try roasting your three favorite vegetables and two different types of carbs, too, like sweet potatoes and quinoa.
That way, when it comes time to packing up your food, you can customize it on the day you’re going to eat it. So on Monday, you can pair your prepped steak with asparagus and brown rice. When Tuesday rolls around, you can throw broccoli, salmon, and sweet potatoes over a pile of greens for a quick salad.
You can’t cook healthy meals without planning ahead a little bit. If you’re set on using a certain recipe, and then realize you don’t have a key ingredient, it’s easy to sub it out with something less nutritious or just give up on prepping completely. For instance, if you run out of brown rice and turn to white pasta instead, that’s ultimately going to cost you more calories.
“It is helpful to plan ahead and always know what you need to restock on so you don’t have any issues with not having a key ingredient,” says White. So here’s you reminder. If you’re going to take the time to write up a meal plan, then you should write out a grocery list, too. Count how many meals you’d like to make and plan accordingly, says White.
You should also have go-to ingredients on hand, so you always have last-minute healthy options to choose from if a recipe falls through. His go-to picks include oatmeal, brown rice, frozen fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices for flavor, and frozen protein sources, like chicken, fish, and steak.
Related: 6 Power Foods You Should Be Eating
Meal prep should be easy, says White. You don’t really need to fuss with complicated cooking techniques to make healthy, flavorful meals.
Try to cook in bulk, so you’re making the most of your time, suggests White. “You can roast your protein, your vegetable, and even your starch if you use sweet potatoes all together on the same tray,” he says. “Experimenting with the cooking styles is a good way to find the best way like your food to enjoy your healthy meals the most.”
And if you’re a newbie in the kitchen, simplify things with a crockpot (like this one). You literally dump everything into it, forget about it for half the day, and your food comes out tasting like you tried way harder than you did. Don’t believe us? Try White’s recipe for healthy crockpot chicken fajitas below. (For more meal ideas, check out the Metashred Diet from Men’s Health—it’s full of recipes that will help you burn fat while maintaining hard muscle.)
What You’ll Need:
- 1.5 lbs chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
- 1/2 medium – large white onion, sliced vertically
- 1.5 cans (10 oz) Rotel diced tomatoes, undrained
- 1 green pepper and 1 red pepper, sliced into strips
- 2 cloves garlic, diced
- 2 tsp chili powder
- 2 tsp cumin
How to Make It:
Divide chicken breasts between two large freezer bags. Distribute the sliced peppers, onion, and garlic, and diced tomatoes, dividing the amounts between the two bags. Add your seasonings. Freeze.
The night before cooking, move the frozen bag to your refrigerator to thaw. The morning of cooking, pour contents of freezer bag into your crockpot and cook on “low” setting for 6 hours or until chicken is tender. Shred chicken and serve with cooked onions and peppers.
The containers you store your meals in can seriously affect how much food you actually make and eat, says Gans. If your containers are huge, chances are your portion sizes will be, too. That can easily set you up for weight gain if you’re overeating every day, she says.
If you want to avoid that problem without measuring everything you eat, opt for portion-controlled containers or find ones that divides into three spaces, so you can easily eyeball where your grains, protein, and vegetables should go, she says. (These containers from Freshware should do the trick.)
Make sure your containers seal tight, too. Otherwise, you’re just going to end up with soggy, rubbery, and stale meals. That’s why you should find ones that work best for your lifestyle and schedule, says White, so you’re not tempted to toss your prepped lunch for something a bit more fresh and appetizing.
For instance, if you have a longer commute, invest in a mini cooler that will keep your meals chilled when you’re on the go, so nothing spoils before lunchtime hits.
“There are many options out there that could fit your personal preference,” says White. “It is great to find [containers] that are microwave safe and dishwasher safe to make it easier on yourself to heat up the food and clean when you’re finished.” He recommends Gladware Entrée containers for a great all-purpose choice.