Even if meal prep sounds like something only fitness freaks do, it is a very convenient and time efficient way to assure that you get something proper to eat for the whole week. It may also be a great strategy to save money since often it is cheaper to buy certain foods in bulk. Meal prep is more than just cooking something in batch and then putting the leftovers in tupper boxes, although this is already a big step in the right direction for most people who are not used to cooking. Here we delve a little deeper: distribution of protein, balancing calories and eating well while doing so.
Proper meal prepping is a little more complicated than “normal cooking”, but still no rocket science. You have to know your target macros first. If you don’t have a coach, read my article on how to calculate them by yourself here.
Consider how you want to distribute those macros over the day. This means you need to know how many meals you are going to have. Personally I am not a big fan of high meal frequencies as I like to have fewer, but bigger meals that leave me happy. This also means that you have to spend less time in the kitchen weighing things, washing up and tracking your meals. Three to four meals a day work very well for most people.
In most cases you want to spread your protein relatively even throughout the day. Many people find it difficult to eat a larger meal in the morning, so it is okay to have a slightly smaller breakfast if you prefer. How you distribute the rest of your macros over the day isn’t of huge importance and can be individualized based on personal preference. Say you have 150g protein to spend and eat three meals a day, each meal should contain about 50g of protein.
How to hit the macros of a meal? I like to pick a recipe, calculate the macros of it and see how much I can/need to eat of it. First I try to hit my protein target. Let’s say you have cooked my Chinese Sweet And Sour Chicken which has about 10g of protein per 100g and you need to hit your 50g per meal, this gives you a nice, abundant 500g portion size of the chicken.
Next step is to hit your overall macros for a meal. Most of the time you don’t really have to hit certain macros like 34g carbs and 17g fat, but you need to keep overall calories in mind. Think about when you want to consume the largest meal of the day and make room for it. Sticking to the example above, 500g of the sweet and sour chicken has about 350kcal. If you have room for, let’s say 600kcal, you still have 250kcal to spend.
Spend The Rest
Now we have to spend those 250kcal. Time for cookies! No, probably not. Of course, you could do that, but if you are dieting to lose fat, you likely want to use those calories on more satiating foods to keep hunger at bay. It makes a huge difference eating 250kcal as two enormous apples or three tiny cookies. So choose wisely!
I would urge to cover your fats first. I know, people love their carbs, but contrary to fats, there are no essential carbs, so make sure to get them in first. Reasonable sources of fat that you can just add to just about any meal are full fat dairy products, nuts, seeds and (good quality) high percentage chocolate and oils. Avocados are also great, but they are difficult to “time” correctly as they tend to go from “so hard I could use it as a weapon” to “brown and mouldy” in the blink of an eye. You could also make sure to always have some hard boiled eggs or smoked makarel (omega-3-fatty acids!) in your fridge if you are on the savoury side.
Carbs are next. As already mentioned above, you can use this slot to accomodate for your favourite “junk foods” or traditional carb sources like bread, rice, corn and pasta and as long as this leaves you satiated, go for it. But for most people those foods are simply too energy dense and too little filling. Hunger pangs and cravings for “more” are bound to happen. It is advisable to stick to “clean” carb sources like fruits, (sweet) potatoes, parsnips or legumes (no, legumes are not a good protein source, they consist mainly of carbs). This also makes sure you get enough fibre and micronutrients to keep you healthy. And trust me, if you are dieting for long enough, a banana will be a feast for you ;-)!
Putting It All Together
So far you know that you have to make sure to get enought protein, to hit your fats and cover carbs with mainly veggies. But how to actually prepare a meal with those numbers in mind?
Essentially there are two main ways to cook: prepare different components separately or to throw everything together into a stew or stir fry.
Most of the time you adjust the fat content of a meal by choosing a fatter or leaner protein source, or by adding or leaving out cooking fats. This makes fat relatively easy to cover for both styles of cooking. Choose a protein source that fits your macros and combine it with some kind of veggies that you like to hit your carbs. Choose some spices to go with them and you are ready to rock and roll. Cooking doesn’t have to be difficult or competitive, sometimes you just have to get things done!
When you are preparing different components separetely, start with the component that needs the most cooking time. Some veggies, mostly root vegetables like potato, need quite some time to cook, so get them started first. With this style of cooking, you most likely choose a protein source that needs very little cooking time, like steak. If all the components have a short cooking time, you can spare yourself some washing up by cooking them in the same pan or by first preparing the meat, letting it rest (covered to keep it warm) and then using the same pan for your veggies (like asparagus). Quick and easy, this is a popular style of cooking. If you are batch cooking on a big scale, make sure not to overcrowd your pan(s), as this usually results in leaking juices that prevent roasting (what you usually want) and starts boiling (not particularly great for most meats).
A great example for this style of cooking are roasted vegetables. While they are roasting in the oven, you have plenty of time to prepare the main act, like a nice salmon steak. Or you could use the resting time of a big roast like lamb or duck to roast your veggies in the preheated oven.
Making a stew is very, very simple and can be scaled up until you have reached the limit of your dutch oven. Usually you want to fry your meat first, giving it a nice brown crust and lots of flavour, but if pressured for time, don’t bother with it, most stews are great even without this step. Yes, you can literally throw your (diced) meat, veggies, spices and some kind of liquid (often tomato pulp) together, put it in the oven and have a great meal a few hours later. It’s really that easy! The same technique can also be used to cook stews in a crockpot.
You can find many “stewy” examples on my blog, but just to give you an idea, take a look at my Bolognese Beef, a comforting, Italian-inspired stew.
Stir fries need a little more work before you start cooking as you have to cut your ingredients into relatively small pieces to keep cooking times low. Invest in a proper, sharp, big knife if you love this style of cooking! After this step, everything does really fast. Get a big pan over very high heat, give it some time to get it searing hot, add the cooking fat and then the finely cut ingredients. Stir frequently, keep everything moving to prevent sticking and burning, season, plate and eat.
My Sweet and Sour Chicken isn’t exactly a stir fry, but it is close enough, easy to prepare, low on your calorie budget and incredibly tasty.
How Much To Cook
Usually I prepare as much food as possible in one go. I like to be time efficient, and although I enjoy cooking, I also like to spend my time on other things. Or even better, on nothing! Therefore my recipes are working on quite a large scale. Maybe you need to scale them down, or if you are freestyling, you might start with smaller batches to get a better feeling.
If you are tracking calories, you can use the sofware (usually) to create “lists” of ingredients. Those lists give you an idea of how much volume your cooking implements need to handle. For example, I own a beautiful dutch oven with about 6 liter volume, so most of my stews are designed to make best use of it.
Make use of your tracking app and track the ingredients before you start cooking, or maybe even before you start shopping. This way you can also estimate how many meals you get out of one batch. Let’s say you are planning a stew and you see that, based on protein and calorie demands, a portion for you will be typically around 500g and the list in your tracking app tells you that you will produce 5500g of total volume, it is easy to conclude that this stew will yield 11 portions. Of course this is in reality only an estimation, maybe you are hungrier on some days, but still this gives you an idea of when you have to cook again or if this is too much food for you to handle.
Food is precious and you have put work in it to prepare it and make sure it tastes great, so now it is our duty to waste nothing of it. As long as you stick to common sense, your food will be quite save from going to waste.
- Store leftovers in air tight containers.
- Store them in the fridge or if you are unsure if you use them up within a week, freeze them in the freezer (best done in small batches which you use up quickly after thawing).
- Make sure the temperature in your fridge stays very low (adjust the settings and prevent people from opening the fridge too often).
- Always use clean utensils and wash your hands when handling food.
Sticking to these basic rules, I have never had problems with any foods going bad. Stews and roasted meats/veggies keep for up to a week. Everything that hasn’t been cooked completely through is more susceptible to spoiling and should be used up much earlier!
Finishing The Day
Most of the time there will be some macros left at the end of the day that can be used up. Often this will be some protein that needs to be covered and this is a great case for protein powder as you just can accurately measure the amount of protein you need to supplement. I like my protein powder with just a tiny bit of water to create a sort of custard. Depending on what other macros are missing, you can choose your toppings: fruits for carbs or dark chocolate chips for fat are usually what I like to use. Nut butter is also always welcome, but I am rarely that lucky …
Learning For Tomorrow
Meal prepping is a skill and you should not expect to be perfect the first time you are prepping. Just make sure to learn from your mistakes. With the guidelines above, it should be easy for you to adjust any recipe to your needs. Remember that you can always scale down or up any recipe to better meet your cooking infrastructure.
And remember: do not obsess too much about it! At the end it’s just cooking with a little more structure and your meal prepping should make your life better not worse.
If you have any questions or ideas about meal prepping, make sure to post them down below in the comments section. I am eager to answer any questions and I will update this article to ensure it is useful for everybody, so please help me with this by giving me feedback.