The Ultimate Guide to Meal Prepping, According to These Healthy Eating Pros

How to go from zero to meal prep hero in no time.

Cauli-oat bake, Perfect Bars, kale salad, and healthy peanut butter cups. Photograph courtesy Alex Coll.

Ahhhh, meal prep. Most folks have a love-hate relationship with this healthy eating tactic. While some perceive it to be a tedious all-day affair of chopping, roasting, and labeling, it can actually be an enjoyable experience that will inevitably save your bank account from daily trips to Sweetgreen.

Because meal prepping seems like such a daunting task, we decided to ask the pros to share some of their tried-and-true secrets for a successful meal prep experience. Four local healthy eating pros have shared their top tips for meal prepping, as well as the equipment they swear by, some grocery shopping tips, and how long it takes them (And PSA: most say just an hour! — that’s totally doable, right?).

The Tips You Need

Meal prepping doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here, our pros share practical, easy-to-use tips to become a meal prepping pro yourself.

1. Consider the big picture. “I’ll admit, planning five meals per day across seven days can seem overwhelming. Take a deep breath, and view the week ahead as a whole to better understand your needs – it will spare you from scrambling over last-minute adjustments and letting meals go to waste. What do your workouts look like? A heavy lifting sesh or SoulCycle double-header might call for some extra pre-workout carbs or recovery protein. Will late-night meetings creep into dinner hours? Add a meal that’s easy to prepare, store, and microwave to the menu. Busy day away from your usual setting? If you’re on the move, pencil in a convenient protein bar. Grey’s Anatomy mid-season finale coming up? Plan for a treat yoself moment, you know you’ll want it!” — Alex Coll, Fitlicity.

2. Categorize your meals based on your favorites. “This keeps things more interesting, and less repetitive. If stir fry is always a hit and you love using your crockpot, you should include stir fry each week and a new crockpot meal. That just took care of two of your seven meals, and probably some leftovers for lunches. All you need to do is switch up the protein or the veggies or the spices you are using if you want to keep things fresh. Here’s a better example of what your week might look like: 1. Salad (you can definitely make this fun with ingredients and dressing), 2. Stir fry, 3. Slow cooker meal, 4. Worldly cuisine meal (like tacos or tikka masala), 5. Seafood meal, 6. Meatless comfort food meal (like baked mac and cheese or hummus pizza), 7. Rice bowl. You can make all of these or you can make 2 of them and double-up. That’s a lot of variety, with meals you know you love, you know how to make, and you know how to shop for, making meal planning simple.” — Jess Baumgardner, @healthcoachphilly.

3. Ready, set, strategize. “Just like anything in health and fitness – waking up early for a [workout] or the first mile of a 5k – the hardest part of Meal Prep is getting started. I like to begin by prepping all of my low maintenance dishes to go into the oven — which happens to be my favorite meal prep appliance. I’ll assemble my egg muffins, whip up my muffin batter, and season my protein, then pop them all in the oven at once. While these dishes do their baking thing, I maximize time by prepping the more needy meals, chopping veggies, and cleaning dishes.” — Alex CollFitlicity.

4. Cook a large batch of whole grains. “Rice, quinoa, blends of grains etc. They store well and can easily be reheated and used for variety of different meals like deconstructed sushi bowls, burrito bowls, Mediterranean bowls, Buddha bowls, stir fries, curries, fried rice etc.” — Caroline Ginolfi, @Plantbasedblonde.

5. Buy or cook an organic rotisserie chicken. “I buy a whole chicken every other week. I can make one organic rotisserie chicken last for four meals — not bad for less than $10! Cooked chicken can last in the fridge for about four days, from my experience. You can make chicken salad out of the breast or chop some meat and add it to any soup, stir fry or salad. Eat the chicken wing as-is with some roasted vegetables. Want to know the best part? You can save the bones and make a chicken stock and freeze for future ramens or soups. My advice: Go for the plain flavored chicken — you can always add your favorite spices later. Oh, and you can also freeze chicken if you don’t utilize the whole bird in four days.”  — Julie Lichtman, @sweatandglow.

6. Chop up a bunch of vegetables. “This is great for easy snacking, faster prep and health benefits. Cutting up veggies beforehand makes them an easy, nutrient dense snack with hummus or dips. Having veggies already chopped can also help save time in the kitchen on busy nights.”— Caroline Ginolfi@Plantbasedblonde.

7. Freeze it. “For me, meal prep isn’t just about using the fresh food I bought on my weekend grocery trip. It’s about reducing food waste and extending the life of the food I paid for that is starting to go bad. At the end of the week if I have leftover fruits like bananas, mango, pineapple, or veggies like cooked squash, avocado, zucchini, I will chop them up, place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and freeze them. Once frozen I put them into a container and store them in the freezer for use in smoothies, soups, etc.”— Caroline Ginolfi@Plantbasedblonde.

8. Pre-made smoothie packets. “For some reason, smoothies sometimes seem intimidating to make or can simply seem too time consuming. One great tip is to pre make your smoothie packets ahead of time, that way, when it’s time to eat — all you need to do is empty the contents into your blender. I take sandwich-sized zip lock bags and fill them with frozen cranberries, pre-cut bananas, spinach, frozen pineapple, and my mega-nut mix (walnuts, chia, flax and pumpkin seeds) and then place the individual baggies into the freezer. When I’m ready for my smoothie, I simply pour the mix into the blender with a little nut milk and yogurt and blend.”  — Julie Lichtman@sweatandglow.

9. Condiments keep things from getting boring. “My burrito bowl isn’t complete without a generous drizzle of creamy chili lime dressing. Making a dip like hummus is also great because it’s not only a great snack or addition to a bowl, but can also be thinned into a dressing. I try to make a couple dips or sauces for salads and bowls to keep flavors exciting throughout the week.”— Caroline Ginolfi@Plantbasedblonde.

10. Choose overlapping ingredients. “I swear by this technique for sparing your wallet and preventing food waste. With a little creativity and seasoning, ingredients can be reinvented multiple times throughout your prep. If you’re craving crisp cucumber and hummus for a snack, try spreading the hummus on a pita for lunch the next day. Use left over egg muffin ingredients as the base for a hearty quinoa stir fry. The options are endless!” — Alex CollFitlicity.

11. Create a mega mix. “Take some chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and mix them all up and store in a mason jar. Now, you have a superfood topping for EVERYTHING.  Add it into your smoothies, yogurt, toast, cereal or on top of your salads. Why? Because these nuts and seeds are packed with fiber, protein, minerals, and healthy fats.  Sprinkling it on meals adds extra nutrients and keeps you satisfied (AKA full) longer! My pantry has four mason jars of all different mixtures.”  — Julie Lichtman@sweatandglow.

12. Find your faves. “Find about 20 solid recipes that you LOVE. Each week, auto-plug five of them in for dinner and then your goal is to make two NEW things to make up the difference.” — Jess Baumgardner@healthcoachphilly.

The Equipment You Need

While a knife, cutting board, and oven will get you a long way in meal prepping, there are some other gadgets that can support your goals. Here, our pros share their fave meal prepping gizmos.

Vitamix: This is Caroline Ginolfi’s most-used kitchen appliance. She uses it for everything from hummus to smoothies and soup.

Instapot: For Jess Baumgardner, this is a life-changing appliance. She’s made side dishes, main dishes, desserts, oats, and more in this lovely appliance. Not to mention, it cooks chicken in 15 minutes!

Glass-lock container set: For Julie Lichtman, organization is the key to her meal prep. She uses these eco-friendly containers to organize everything from her roasted chicken to salad dressings. Plus, they’re oven-safe which makes re-heating a breeze!

Meal journal: This is a must-have for Alex Coll’s meal prepping plan, whether it’s an app like MyFitnessPal or more of a pen and paper sort of deal, she assures that this point of reference will keep your Tupperwares in a row.

The Time You Need

Meal prepping doesn’t have to eat up your entire Saturday. Here, our pros share the amount of time they might spend in a week on meal prepping.

Estimated time spent meal prepping:
About an hour for cooking large batches of grains, chopping veggies, and mixing dressings.
Shopping tip: “Unless I have specific meals I know I want to make, I try to base my shopping off what is in season and on sale. For me this keeps meals different, exciting, and budget-friendly.”

Estimated time spent meal prepping:
About an hour, spent roasting vegetables, hard boiling eggs, making my smoothie packets, cooking grains, and chopping up a rotisserie chicken.
Shopping tip: “I often stick to two main proteins and three vegetables a week, that way my grocery shopping list is light and not too expensive. Though I do make a plan before shopping — I try to think of the proteins and vegetables that will last all week and that I can utilize in different ways. For example, spinach can be used in my smoothie one day, in a salad another or sautéed for another meal!”

Estimated time spent meal prepping:
Three and a half hours, every Sunday, to make 30 meals for the work week.
Shopping tip: “I make my list in the order of how the ingredients appear in the aisles of the grocery store. I always take the same route through the store so that I don’t forget anything, and can tick through my list as I go.”

Estimated time spent meal prepping:
15 minutes to plan out meals and grocery list.
Shopping tip: “My grocery list first goes on paper  — just because this is my first way to remember it. From here, I may or may not add it to an app called Wunderlist. This is a list app that allows you to share the grocery list with other members of your family (if you are like me, two people are shopping through the store, each with a kid) and anyone can check off items purchased.”

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