The meal prep secret is out. Everywhere you look, chefs, dietitians, food bloggers and the Insta-famous have all embraced the #mealpreplife. After all, this ultimate healthy eating habit can save time and money, and with healthy food ready and accessible, you’re less likely to make a poor meal choice. “If we don’t plan or prep, it’s much easier to fall into the rut of eating the same few things over and over or to become less mindful of our choices and how we enjoy food,” says Cara Harbstreet, RD of Smart Street Nutrition.
Your weekly meal prep routine is also a great opportunity to rev up the nutritional profile of your meals, making it easier to stick to your health goals — whether that’s cutting back on sugar, calories or processed ingredients. “If you’re making it at home, it’s already healthier than what you can buy out at a restaurant,” says Talia Koren of Workweek Lunch. “You control each ingredient and can tailor your food to your preferences and restrictions.”
Ready to step up your meal prep to slim down your plate? Here are 10 pro tips on how to meal prep for better health — and flavor — in every bite.
Create Healthier Dishes with These Meal Prep Tips
1. Mix and Match
Meal prep doesn’t have to mean prepping the same meal for the entire week. Instead, Harbstreet recommends focusing your meal prep efforts on prepping the main elements of a meal — grains, protein, veggies, sauces — so you can mix and match ingredients and create well-balanced, nourishing dishes you’ll enjoy. “This erases the boredom and burnout that many meal preppers report experiencing,” she says.
“I like to cook a big pot of beans and grains to throw into salads, wraps, and grain bowls all week,” says Andrea Nordby, Head Chef of Purple Carrot. “Stick to basics like brown rice and chickpeas, or cook a big batch of faro, wheatberries or barley.” When you have these ready, you just might skip that store-bought mac and cheese or pre-made pizza.
2. Create Your Own Secret Sauce
Nordby recommends prepping a stash of versatile sauces too so you can create a completely different meal from the same stash of ingredients. You can drizzle sauce over pasta, salads and stir-fries. One of her favorites? “Pesto for drizzling on everything,” she says. Making a sauce at home also eliminates the extra ingredients in packaged sauces that often skyrocket the sugar and calorie count in a dish.
3. Swap Wheat for Veggies
Try replacing half of your white or brown rice with cauliflower or broccoli rice, suggests Lindsay Cotter, author of Nourishing Superfood Bowls: 75 Healthy and Delicious Gluten-Free Meals to Fuel Your Day (out March 2018). Not only will you get more fiber and vitamins and minerals, you’ll also save a few calories.
Pasta, whether pasta salad or your favorite noodles with sauce, is a go-to meal prep option. But next time you make it, opt for zucchini or sweet potato noodles, says Cotter. The veggie noodles will add more color and texture to keep your palette entertained, not to mention extra fiber and vitamins — and fewer calories too!
A general rule: Focus less on limiting food groups and more on swapping out low nutrient-dense foods with those loaded with vitamins and minerals, Cotter says. You’ll eat healthier, still feel satisfied and most likely cut back on calories in the meantime.
4. Go Spice Crazy
Spices are every cook’s secret weapon. You can create an endless variety of good-for-you meals featuring a mix of different flavors. “Look to international flavors for inspiration,” says Koren. “If you take chicken, asparagus and sweet potato, you can make that an Indian-inspired dish by turning it into a curry or a Mexican-inspired dish by adding in cilantro, some jalapeños, and lime.” The best part: Herbs and spices are very low in calories. So while you up the flavor, you don’t up the energy count.
5. Overload on Veggies
We all need to eat our veggies, right? So why not sneak in some extra into your prepped meals? “You can typically eat a lot of it and not have to worry about packing in a lot of unwanted calories,” says Alex Torres aka @mealprepmondays. Opt for sweet potatoes or cauliflower, which are both filling and nutrient-dense. Or swap cabbage into a hearty stew instead of noodles, says Cotter.
6. Pack for Portion Control
Not only do good food containers keep your refrigerator neat and organized, they can also keep you honest about portion sizes to help you avoid overeating. Torres prefers glass Bentgo containers, which are divided into sections — one for your main meal and one for a side of veggies or fruit.
7. Make Your Appliances Work for You
Instant Pot, slow cooker, multi-cooker — chances are you have one (or all) of them in your cabinets. Instead of letting them collect dust, put them to use! Cotter suggests making a big batch up oatmeal in an Instant Pot spiked with fruit, spices, nuts and seeds and you’ll have nourishing breakfast for the entire week. It’s a healthier choice than the pre-packaged, processed breakfast options out there.
8. Organize and Declutter
“Decluttering can set up your environment for meal prepping and make for a more efficient process,” and make mealtimes less stressful, says Harbstreet. “We can then enter a meal with a more positive or relaxed mindset,” and be more aware of hunger signals, making it less likely you’ll eat past the point of fullness, says Harbstreet. “This is one of the things that supports a healthy, balanced relationship with food.” So throw out or repurpose containers that don’t have matching lids. Invest in stackable containers and other commonly used items like a good chef’s knife and cutting board. And then get to prepping — your daily sugar and calorie counts just might drop by your next meal time.