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A Beginner’s Complete Guide to Meal Prep

By: Caroline Daniel

If you search “meal prep” on Instagram, Pinterest, or the world wide web, you will likely be bombarded with hundreds of photos of beautifully packaged, colorful meals in pristine Tupperware containers. The lighting will likely be perfect, the vegetables will be pristinely sliced, and every slice of meat and cheese will look freshly cut from the finest delis.

In summary, it’ll probably be intimidating. You’ll probably be left wondering–why would I ever meal prep if I can’t get my meals to look Instagram-ready?

For most of us non-social media influencers, the reality is that our meals probably won’t look perfect. And even if they do–what’s the point? The beauty will be tainted the second we plunge our forks in. At the end of the day, the importance does not lie in a meal’s “aesthetic”–it lies in a meal’s ability to fuel our bodies to tackle our busy work schedules and our workout regimens. And I am a firm believer that meal prepping, even the mundane, un-photogenic kind, can be very helpful in helping you achieve your nutrition goals.

What is Meal Prepping?

Meal prepping, as a whole, is the process of pre-preparing and/or pre-portioning part or all of your meals a few days (typically 3-7) in advance. Meal prepping can take many different forms for many different people, however. In total, its main goal is to make cooking and eating nutritious meals easier and more fun.

While most photos you find on the internet will show fully-cooked and prepared meals set aside for the week, “meal prepping” does not necessarily mean you finish and portion every meal for the week. It could be as simple as chopping your newly bought bell peppers a few nights before you use them or mixing up a marinade that you use on a couple of meats throughout the week. Or, if you really do want to get all your cooking over with on Sundays before the week begins, then you can knock out a week’s worth of meals before you wake up to Monday’s loss of motivation.

Meal Prepping Tips & Tricks

  1. Determine Your Goals

Maybe you’re tired of scarfing down a mediocre protein bar every morning on the way to work and want to start eating healthier breakfasts. Maybe you’re tired of buying lunch during your break every day at work and want to save some money. Or perhaps you’re tired of coming home exhausted from work and eating a lazy dinner because you don’t want to cook. It doesn’t matter what you want to improve with meal prepping–it just matters that you get it done!

Establishing your goals for meal prepping will help give you a baseline before the week starts that will save you time both in the grocery and in the kitchen. It will also help you decide how “all-in” you desire to go with meal prepping–do you just want to prepare some overnight oats for the week or do you want three meals ready-to-go every day?

2. Choose which parts of your desired meals you want to “prep” in advance.

This part boils down to personal preference. If you know for a fact that you always get home from work and simply cannot cook a thing for dinner, then try preparing the whole meal in advance. If, however, cooking is relatively relaxing for you and you just want to shorten the process, just prepare some sauces or chop some fruits and/or vegetables a couple of days before. Once again – how much you prep is up to you and your schedule’s needs.

3. Write it out!

First off, make a list of exactly what you want to accomplish with your meal prepping that week. A cooking “to-do” list of sorts. It’ll help you feel accomplished once you finish prepping and ensure that you don’t forget key elements of meals that you want to make in advance.

Once you’ve completed the to-do list, proceed to lay out a grocery list for the week. What I’ll usually do is make my shopping list and complete the shopping on Saturday so that I am ready to roll with my meal prep on Sunday.

Accomplishing two to-do lists before the week begins will not only start you off on the right foot nutrition-wise, but will also motivate you to accomplish as much as you can throughout the week!

4. Get to Preppin’!

This step’s pretty self explanatory. Get the ingredients ready and get it done.

Sounds Easy Enough…but What Should I Make?

Fantastic question. I often find that, personally, cooking is the easy part–it’s deciding what I want to eat that’s much more difficult.

As you start looking for recipes and making your weekly grocery lists, ask yourself how much you crave variety. I, for one, am the type of person who can eat leftovers from the same meal four times and not tire of the food. I’m also a busy college student who is willing to eat foods that are far from fresh in order to save time and money. If, on the other hand, you prefer your meals fresh and clean and can’t stand eating the same type of pasta three nights in one week, you’ll have a much different weekly meal prep than myself.

Whatever amount of variety you crave, here are some great ideas for meals to prep for each meal of the day.

Breakfast

  1. Overnight Oats (https://wholefully.com/8-classic-overnight-oats-recipes-you-should-try/)
  2. Yogurt Parfait (https://therecipecritic.com/yogurt-granola-parfait/)
  3. Breakfast Sandwich (https://pinchofyum.com/15-minute-meal-prep-breakfast-sandwiches)
  4. Quinoa Breakfast Bowl (https://www.cookinglight.com/recipes/quinoa-breakfast-bowl-6-minute-egg)
  5. Smoothie Packs (https://www.howsweeteats.com/2016/04/how-to-prep-make-ahead-smoothie-packs/)

Lunch

  1. Buddha Bowl (https://sweetpeasandsaffron.com/buddha-bowl-recipe/)
  2. Korean Turkey (https://sweetpeasandsaffron.com/korean-turkey-meal-prep/)
  3. Spicy Chicken & Sweet Potato (https://pinchofyum.com/spicy-chicken-sweet-potato-meal-prep-magic)
  4. Steak Cobb Salad (https://damndelicious.net/2017/02/01/steak-cobb-salad-meal-prep/)
  5. Chicken Burrito Bowls (https://gimmedelicious.com/meal-prep-chicken-burrito-bowls/)

Dinner

  1. Chicken & Broccoli Pasta (https://lovegrowswild.com/2015/05/chicken-and-broccoli-shells-and-cheese/)
  2. One-Pan Sausage & Veggies (https://www.chelseasmessyapron.com/one-pan-healthy-italian-sausage-veggies/)
  3. Shrimp Fajitas (https://www.number-2-pencil.com/one-sheet-pan-shrimp-fajitas/)
  4. Greek Chicken Bowls (https://www.eazypeazymealz.com/greek-chicken-bowls-meal-prep-easy/)
  5. Chicken and Zucchini Low-Carb Enchiladas (https://www.ambitiouskitchen.com/low-carb-chicken-zucchini-enchilada-bake/)

Beyond these recipes, there are hundreds on the internet available for just about any food you’re craving.

As a whole, meal prep has really helped me the past couple of years in college. Making food in advance keeps me from eating questionable meals in the dining halls or spending unnecessary money when I’m too hungry to cook. I would really recommend you start meal prepping today! If it still seems intimidating, then start small and slowly expand your prep as you become familiar with the process. Happy cooking!

Caroline Daniel is a Student-Athlete running Cross Country and Track at Belmont University while Majoring in Exercise Physiology. She is currently completing her internship at Personal Best Fitness.