What’s the easiest, most efficient way to make sure that you always have clean, delicious food at the ready? Assuming that hiring a personal chef is out of the question, the answer is meal prepping.
(Next time you prep, try one of these recipes from The Very Best of the Recipes for Health, available at the Women’s Health Boutique.)
There are certain dishes that are pretty much guaranteed to do great when they hang out in the fridge for a while. Soups, stews, and casseroles tend to taste even better on day two or three. And whole grains, steamed or roasted veggies, and beans will stay fresh for days. “You can toss them into bowls or salads, and they’ll last all week without getting soggy,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness.
And others? Let’s just say they have the potential to get a little…gross. Softer veggies and leafy greens can potentially turn soggy and unappetizing. If you use them as part of your meal prep, keep them away from any moisture when you store them in the fridge, Rumsey says. Dry them well after washing, and don’t dress them until the last minute.
There’s nothing wrong with just cooking a batch of whole grains, or washing and chopping all of your veggies for the week. But prepping just one or two ingredients won’t give you the makings for an entire meal, which sort of defeats the purpose of making your meals ahead of time. For instance, if there’s still serious prep work standing between you and your dinner—like having to grill those chicken breasts—you might decide that you’d rather not bother and just order takeout.
Instead, aim to prep multiple components that add up to an entire meal (or several meals). That means a source of protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fat, and produce, Rumsey says.
Prepping random amounts of ingredients means you never know how many meals you’ll actually have for the week. Which means that you could end up running out of salad by Wednesday. Or just as bad, find yourself with three extra servings of oatmeal on Friday that are on the verge of going bad.
A better move? Take a few minutes to think about exactly how much food you’ll need for the week before you buy groceries or start cooking. “You’ll want to have at least 3 to 4 ounces of protein, 1 cup of veggies, and ½ to 1 cup of whole grains or starchy carb per meal,” Rumsey says. “Then multiply the ingredients for one meal by the number of meals you’ll need for the week.” Sure, it takes a little bit of extra planning. But the end result is worth it.
It’s great to be ambitious, folks. But you might not always be able to prep every single meal 100% in advance. Salads, for instance, will start to wilt if you dress them ahead of time. And nobody wants a smoothie or an omelet that’s been sitting in the fridge for three days.
So if you want to meal prep that kind of stuff, think about what you can prep in advance and what you’ll need to save for right before it’s time to eat. For instance, pour the salad dressing in the bottom of your container, underneath the greens, instead of tossing everything together ahead of time, Rumsey says. Make freezer packs with all of your smoothie ingredients that you can grab and toss in the blender the next morning. Prep the filling for your omelets, but cook the eggs the morning of.
When stored in covered containers, things like whole grains or chopped veggies will usually be fine in the fridge for at least five days. But the freezer is key for keeping highly perishable items like cooked meat or poultry fresh for more than a few days. “Those items can last in the fridge for three to four days,” Rumsey says. “If you plan to use them beyond that, freeze what you prep right away.”
Your icebox makes it possible to prep further into the future, too. Making a lasagna or casserole for this week’s dinner? Double your recipe and make a second one so you have it on hand when a week comes up down the road where you don’t have time to prep.
Giant containers that can hold multiple servings of food are fine in a pinch. But investing in a few sets of individual-sized containers will make your life infinitely more convenient. Smaller containers make for easy grab-and-go meals or snacks, and they serve as automatic portion control, Rumsey says. Plus, if you’re storing stuff in the freezer, smaller portions are faster and easier to defrost.