These meal prep ideas will make your life easier and healthier
Healthy eating is a lot easier when you plan ahead. We’ve all experienced being hungry when there’s nothing around to eat. When you’re short on time and tired after a day of work or taking care of the kids, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to stop by the drive-thru or pop a frozen pizza in the oven. These types of food choices are okay every once in a while, but they shouldn’t form the foundation of your diet.
Poor quality, highly processed, high-glycemic foods are linked to what are known as diseases of civilization: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. These foods are typically high in calories and low in the important vitamins and nutrients your body needs to be healthy and feel its best.
The key to eating a healthy diet, even when you’re pressed for time, is to plan ahead. Having healthy foods on hand and doing some of your meal prep in advance makes it much easier to provide yourself and your family with nutritious meals that won’t sap your energy or lead to weight gain. Start implementing some of these meal prep ideas so you’re never caught without healthy foods options.
Include protein, fat, and plant foods in every meal
When planning out your meals, keep this simple rule in mind: every meal should contain a source of protein, healthy fats, and plant foods.
Protein is an essential macronutrient that the body needs to build muscle, skin, bones, blood, hormones, enzymes, and other compounds in the body. If you eat meat, you’re probably getting enough protein. However, many Americans tend to load up on protein at dinnertime. There’s a limit to how much protein your body can absorb at one time, so it’s better to space it out over the course of the day.
Fat is another essential macronutrient. Unfortunately, fat has gotten a bad reputation, but it’s actually good for you -- in the right form.
Fat is needed to absorb certain vitamins -- such as vitamins A, D, and K. Fats provide your body with energy and support cell growth. The best fats to focus on are unsaturated fats, such as those found in olives and olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish. If your meal contains meat, you’re already getting some saturated fat. Try to add some unsaturated fat as well. This may be as simple as adding a side salad drizzled with olive oil, or topping off a burger with some avocado. Or go ahead and get the guacamole!
Eat fatty fish, like salmon, once or twice a week. Or, consider taking an omega-3 supplement, which may help lower the risk of heart disease, mood imbalances, and cognitive impairment.
Plant foods are an essential part of a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables provide your body with essential vitamins and minerals, along with antioxidants that can help ward off cellular damage and reduce your risk of disease.
Research shows that whole, unprocessed plant foods are best. If you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, the next best bet is frozen. Most canned foods contain high levels of sodium and other additives.
Try to include at least one plant food in every meal -- ideally, more than one. This is a challenge for many people. Most Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. However, try to approach eating more fruits and vegetables with an open mind. If you typically eat a lot of junk food and fast food, your palate is used to the high levels of fat and sugar in these foods. But your taste buds change over time. When you start cutting back on junk food and eating healthier foods, you’ll very likely grow to love and crave them.
It’s also possible that you need to prepare vegetables differently than you’re used to. Boiled, overcooked broccoli is gross. But broccoli lightly steamed in a vegetable steamer is delicious. Steaming broccoli also retains more nutrients.
Tip: some people are genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to bitter flavors. If this sounds like you, feel free to use salt on bitter foods such as broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts!
Make a list
Never go to the grocery store without a list! Decide how often you can go to the supermarket -- whether that’s once a week or twice a week -- and plan out your meals for that time period. Make sure you have everything you need so that you don’t find yourself lacking an essential ingredient when it comes time to cook.
Tip: most healthy foods are going to be on the periphery of the grocery store. That includes the produce section, the fresh meat, and maybe some dairy products. Don’t spend too much time in the center aisles, where everything is processed!
Get what you need from the center aisles, such as olive oil and herbal tea, but don’t wander down every aisle or you’ll just be tempted to buy more junk food.
When buying produce, choose locally grown fruits and vegetables if possible. Because it hasn’t had as far to travel, it’s often fresher.
Stock up on staples
Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t always last very long, but you can stock up on other staples. For protein, stock up on favorites like ground beef or boneless chicken breasts -- especially when you find them on sale -- and freeze them.
Many of your dietary fats have a long shelf life, such as olive oil, coconut oil, olives, nuts, and seeds. Make sure you always have your favorites on hand.
Keep it simple
Preparing fancy recipes can be fun, but it can also take up a lot of time. Unless you love experimenting in the kitchen, save the complicated recipes for weekends or special occasions. Find a few tried-and-true recipes that you know the family will eat, and rotate them throughout the week.
Prep for the week
Spend some time on Sunday or another day when you can set aside a couple of hours to get everything read: chop vegetables and portion everything out so it’s ready to throw into a pan.
You may even want to use food storage containers labeled for each day of the week so there’s even less thought required.
Don’t cut up too much at one time, as increasing the surface area of fruits and vegetables will increase oxidation and cause them to spoil sooner. See below for more on making produce last longer.
If your meat is frozen, move it to the refrigerator the night before, so it’s ready to go at dinner time.
When it’s time to make dinner, pull out your thawed protein, pre-cut veggies, and salad ingredients.
Including a side salad with every meal is a great way to include more veggies and healthy fats: Choose mixed greens for more nutritional value, add some slivered almonds and cherry tomatoes, and drizzle with olive oil. If your budget allows, you can also buy ready-to-go bagged salads, but watch out for the salad dressings, which are often high in sugar.
Opt for one-pot dishes, like a shrimp stir-fry with vegetables, for nights when you’re especially short on time.
Finally, prepare more food than you need so that you have enough for lunch the next day.
Reduce food spoilage
Spoiled food can completely derail your intentions to eat healthfully. You open the fridge to find that your asparagus is slimy and your berries are moldy -- and then you order a pizza. Fortunately, it’s possible to make produce last longer and keep mold from wrecking your meal plans.
Some produce will last longer in the fridge, so keep that in mind as you plan your meals for the week. Eat berries, bananas, avocados, mushrooms, and asparagus soon after buying to keep them from going bad.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts can stay fresh in the fridge for about a week. Apples, beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, and winter squash will last even longer.
Tips to make produce last longer
- Store spinach, lettuce, and other greens in an air-tight container along with a dry paper towel to absorb moisture that can make them slimy. Swap out the paper towel when it becomes saturated.
- For cut avocados and apples, coat them with lemon or lime juice to avoid browning. Citric acid inactivates the enzymes that speed up oxidation.
- Try freezing fresh herbs in an ice cube tray with olive oil. Once frozen, pop out the cubes and store them in labeled plastic bags. The next time you need an herb for a recipe, simply grab a cube from the bag.
- Store mushrooms in a brown paper bag, which will wick away moisture and keep them from becoming slimy.
- Allow avocados and bananas to ripen at room temperature, then move them to the fridge to make them last a few days longer.
- Throw out anything that starts to mold, so the mold doesn’t spread.
Don’t forget snacks
Snacks are notorious for sabotaging healthy eating plans, especially if your office provides potato chips and candy, as many workplaces do. Make sure you have healthy snacks on hand to help you avoid temptation.
Nuts make a great snack: they’re high in unsaturated fat, which helps you feel full longer. If you have a sweet tooth, opt for some dark chocolate, which is actually a good source of antioxidants! Just look for a brand that has as little sugar as possible.
Hummus with veggie sticks is another great snack option and a good source of protein. Include a few minutes in your weekly routine to make your own hummus. All you need is a can of chickpeas, some tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice. You can buy premade hummus at the store, but making your own just takes a few minutes and usually tastes far better.
Advanced meal planning and prep may sound like a lot of work at first, but it pays off in the long run. Once you’re used to planning healthy meals and snacks, it will become second nature -- and you’ll never have to rely on junk food or fast food again!
Get half your fruits and veggies in one shot
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