8 Time-Saving Meal Prep Ideas Nutritionists Actually Use
If you’re trying to clean up your diet, preparing your own meals is key. But when you come home exhausted after a long day at work, the last thing you want to do is dice onions or wait around for a chicken to roast. The way to avoid giving in and calling Seamless is to do your food prep ahead of time, say on Sunday, so you have all your ingredients ready to hit the microwave—or even better, a stash of pre-made meals ready to put on your plate. To help you organize your prep time, we reached out to five nutritionists for the easy tips they use in their own kitchens.
Chop a bunch of veggies
If you’re prepping meals just for yourself or one other person, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to wash, peel, and chop all the vegetables you’ll need for the entire week ahead. Julie Upton, RD, suggests prepping enough greens for four to five days, so you’ll have them to toss into a stir-fry, throw in a sheet pan, or even munch raw.
Don’t love the idea of breaking out a cutting board and dirtying up your kitchen counter? “Buy pre-chopped veggies to make a quick meal,” suggests Brooke Alpert, RD, author of The Diet Detox. Sure the pre-cut kind are more expensive, but if it helps you eat healthier, it may be worth the extra cash.
Cook one or two protein sources
Pan-fry chicken breasts, grill salmon fillets, or hard-boil a half-dozen eggs at once, and you’ll have versatile, high-quality protein that can last the entire workweek. Upton has a trick for prepping a large serving of chicken: “I will Instant Pot a whole chicken, then I’ll use the cooked chicken during the week for various dishes like soup or casseroles.”
Vegans and vegetarians can steal this hack too by cooking a big pot of lentils, chickpeas, or beans all at once, with an eye toward adding them to veggie-based dishes all week long.
Pack food in storage containers
Pick up food storage containers in varying sizes, so you have places to separate and stash pre-made veggies, sauces, protein, and other items. The containers will help them stay fresh too. “I also like to use rectangular glass meal prep containers, so they can be refrigerated, and then baked, and/or microwaved straight from refrigerator,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN.
For some foods, plastic bags work just as well. Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, suggests storing your prepared veggies in plastic baggies in the proper proportions for the meals you plan to eat. “I put them in an air-tight baggie with a date so I can just grab and use during the week.”
Keep measuring cups nearby
Once you have containers filled with a week’s worth of food, it can be hard to eyeball the proper serving size for one meal. Cynthia Sass, MPH, Health’s contributing nutrition editor, suggests leaving clean measuring cups in the fridge on top of your food containers.
“I can just scoop them out in the right proportions,” Sass says. “I aim for two cups of veggies, a half cup of cooked pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas), or a half cup of wild salmon salad, and a half cup of cooked starch (sweet potato, quinoa, brown rice, purple potato).”
Double up on servings
When whipping up dinner for her family, Upton makes extra servings of vegetables, grains, and chicken to use as ingredients for future meals. It’s a no-brainer way to keep your prep time minimal yet always have ingredients ready for a quick, fresh dish the next night. “For example, extra veggies become fillers for frittatas,” she says.
Buy food in cans
Canned foods have a reputation as not-so-healthy sodium bombs. But staples like canned tuna, crushed tomatoes, and beans provide healthy protein and can be stored safely for months, so they’re worth keeping in your pantry on the ready. The trick is to scan the label of each canned product you’re thinking of buying, to make sure it’s not drowning in added salt, sugar, or other additives.
Invest in time-saving appliances
“I love the idea that I can spend just 15 to 20 minutes in the morning and then have a delicious meal ready by 5 p.m. by using my slow cooker,” says Brooking. Slow cookers are simple to use and make eating healthy so much easier; Brooking stocks up on beans, tomato sauce, and tomato paste to make a slow cooker chili. Other time-saving tools include a microwave and an Instant Pot, the multi-tasking appliance that acts as a pressure cooker, rice cooker, and more.
Rely on a few versatile recipes
“The secret to meal prep is finding a basic recipe that you really enjoy and that works in a few different ways,” says Palmer. She likes to make a large batch of turmeric rice, then top it with different veggies and protein throughout the week. Tweaking the same simple yet delicious recipe keeps your meals fresh and satisfying, but they do away with the stress of making a new dish every night. Palmer suggests stocking up on whole grains, kale, or pasta, which work well as the bases of many hearty, healthy dinners.