I made a string of particularly bad (read: wonderful) choices in November. I ordered way too much takeout, bought one too many handles of Tito’s, and paid a boozy brunch bill that crept up to $100. After painstakingly combing through my credit card statements and admitting to myself that I was living beyond my means, I decided it was time to give meal prepping a go.
I had good intentions: Research shows that people who plan their meals have healthier diets, eat more fruits and veggies, and are less likely to be obese. (In a country where people just keep getting fatter, we could all benefit from a little health kick.) Studies have also found that meal preppers spend less on eating out.
It was easy to get going, but sticking with it was the hard part. Two weeks into my new lifestyle—more like a brief stint—the holidays came around, I went on vacation for a few weeks, and I slunk back into my old habits. My first meal of 2018 came courtesy of Seamless.
Kevin Curry, founder of Fit Men Cook, says meal prep doesn’t have to be a huge pain in the ass. “You want to make this fun and applicable and sustainable for you so you don’t get tired of it,” he says. Here's his advice for getting there.
Start With Just One Meal
Don’t go all in all at once. If you want to make meal prep a habit that sticks, think about your main goal. Do you want to eat better? Spend less? Once you figure that out, focus on your trigger meal, the one that’s holding you back from reaching that goal, Curry says. When he first started meal prepping, he was dropping $100 a week dipping out for lunch with his co-workers. (Now he’s figured out how to make a week’s worth of meals for $75—here, you can, too.) The Texas barbecue he usually got wasn’t doing his physique any good, either, so he tackled that meal first.
“I think people approach meal prep like they have to do everything at once,” he says. “But you just have to build it up as you need it.” For three to four weeks, he prepped only his lunches. Then he added in his post-workout meal (avocado chicken salad ftw), since he was always tempted to swing by Chipotle or grab a burger after hitting the gym.
It’s okay if your flounder at first. Curry describes the first meal he ever prepped as “pretty tragic”: chicken, brown rice, and green beans. “I really hated it,” he says. He made some small tweaks to the dish until he found something that satisfied him: He nixed the brown rice, swapped it for quinoa, and roasted a bunch of vegetables instead of just green beans. Here's a similar example you can try:
Meal prep takes some planning and dedication, but it shouldn’t kill all your joy. When Curry started blowing off his co-workers for his home-cooked lunches, he missed that social interaction. So he prepped his lunch for the first four days of the week, and on Fridays, he went out with the crew.
“With that meal, though, it wasn’t a free-for-all where I could eat anything I wanted,” he says. He’d go for the grilled chicken over fried, or lean fish over fatty steak. “That made me happy because I could stay on track with my wellness goals and still save money in the grand scheme of things,” he says.
Let the Tools Do the Work
Do not let meal prep consume your Sundays—it shouldn’t be a 9 to 5 job. Even if you live by yourself or your roommate eats exclusively out of plastic containers, you don’t have to go it alone. A few essential kitchen appliances will save you hours of cutting, cooking, and cleaning.
First up: the slow cooker—it can sear, sauté, slow cook, and steam all in one pot. (Or if you have the budget to splurge, the Instant Pot is an excellent upgrade.) A slow cooker—or Instant Pot—is great for making everything from soups and stuffed peppers to breakfast casseroles and oatmeal. Just fill it up, turn it on, and walk away. You can get a decent one for under $100. You’ll also want a cast-iron skillet. “They allow you to cook using little to no oil, which is great if you’re trying to cut calories,” Curry says. Plus, they’re a breeze to clean. Just scrub off any bits of food and wipe it dry.
Finally, get a blender, even if you’re not into smoothies. It doubles as a food processor for things like pesto and nut butters, and you can use it to smooth tomato soup or mix nuts and dates for raw energy bars. Or hummus, banana bread batter, quiche filling—the list goes on. (Bonus: you can add sauces and dressings to any of your meals to keep them interesting.)
Plan Your Prep Day Based on Cooking Time
You can start your slow cooker recipes pretty much whenever, since they take hours and don’t need supervision. But if you’re cooking anything in the oven, put the ingredients that take the longest in first. For Curry, that’s normally starchy vegetables like potatoes and squash, which can take up to 45 minutes to roast.
Don’t do one ingredient at once—you can roast veggies, chicken, and bake a casserole in the oven all at the same time. Cooking time trumps cooking temp, Curry says. If your oven is cramped, buy some half-size baking sheets so you can cook several ingredients at once without overcrowding.
And don’t use that cooking time for a Netflix break. “If something is baking in the oven, then you should be cleaning up or chopping the next ingredients at the same time,” he says. “If you take a totally linear approach you’ll be in the kitchen all day long.” In other words: multitask.
While everything is cooking, you can start prepping your next ingredients, clean the kitchen, or organize whatever containers you’re using to store the food. That way, when everything’s cooked, you’re ready to pop it in the fridge or freezer and call it a day.
Be Smart About Storage
You can store your food one of two ways: If you’re always on the go and want your meals to be ready straight out of the fridge, assemble each individual meal into its own container ahead of time. If you love the benefits of meal prepping but you miss the actual ritual of making your meals every day, store each ingredient together in bulk (i.e. chicken in one container, veggies in another) and assemble your meals on the day of.
If you prep on Sunday, store anything that you’ll eat by Wednesday in the fridge. “Anything you’re not going to eat within three days should go into the freezer to maximize freshness,” Curry says. Always defrost frozen foods overnight rather than zapping them in the microwave when they’re still frozen. “That way, whenever you heat it back up, it’ll cook evenly rather than burn or dry out,” he says.
If you’ve ever dug a bag of limp lettuce out of the produce drawer or unearthed a box of berries covered in furry mold, this one’s for you: Put your fruits and veggies into the freezer if you don’t expect to eat it before it turns rancid. “We all have the tendency to eat with our eyes, so we tend to buy a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Curry says. “I call this aspirational produce. We buy it because we hope we’ll eat it, but we don’t. We keep pushing it to the back of the fridge and we forget about it.” If you know you won’t get to it before it goes bad, put it in the freezer before it gets to that point. You can bake frozen veggies and greens into a frittata and use frozen fruits in smoothies.
Once you start prepping more meals, the flurry of containers might cause chaos in your fridge and freezer. To keep track of what’s in there, Curry uses a dry erase marker on his BPA-free plastic containers to label what’s what. (The ink will wash off.) You can simply write what’s in the container (rice, vegetables, salmon) or label them by meal—like B for breakfast, L for lunch, and D for dinner.
Make Small Tweaks to Each Meal
Yes, prepping your meals inherently means that you have to make big batches of the same ingredients. But that doesn’t mean they have to taste the same at every meal. Curry likes to eat two of his go-to proteins—chicken and salmon—hot and cold. Take his first successful meal, that lunch of quinoa, chicken, and roasted veggies. He’s used the same ingredients to make different meals.
On Monday, he’ll eat all the ingredients together, hot, with some barbecue sauce. The next day, he’ll throw in some onions, olives, and cucumbers, and eat it as a cold grain bowl. Later in the week, he eats it with sliced avocado and black beans for some Tex Mex flavor. (He’s a Texan, after all.) “Making small tweaks can actually trick your taste buds into thinking that you’re eating something completely different,” Curry says.
You can also nurture these different flavors while you’re cooking. Curry has a trick: He lines a baking tray with foil, then crafts little walls out of the foil to divide the baking sheet into sections. (Foil is a secret weapon for every lazy cook.) Instead of baking a huge batch of chicken with the same flavors, he’ll season a third of it with salt and pepper, a third with curry powder, and a third with Chinese five spice. That way, you cook one ingredient but end up with three flavor profiles.
Even if you start small, you’ll notice the benefits if you just stick with it. “I began seeing the results in my wallet and in my physique,” Curry says. “Whenever you see the impact that your decisions are having on your well-being and your finances, it energizes you to keep going.”
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