Meal Planning In A Flash: How To Quickly AND Effectively Prep Healthy, Fat-Burning, Muscle-Building Meals
Image: Fitness and Feta
Think fast food is the plague of all evils? Think again. Meal prepping is the NEW fast food for health-conscious clean eaters. Tackle the basics with our simple, easy to understand guide to meal prepping like a pro.
For me, this all started with Instagram, which has basically become one giant #fitspiration app. Every time I open it up, another crazy fitness personality has taken a photo of his/her insanely fit physique or meal prep for the week. Besides being slightly jealous of their shiny plastic containers filled with yummy, lean food, I was inspired by these photos to start my own meal prep.
I wanted an easy way to maintain my clean diet that didn’t require a ton of time, but still yielded results. The problem was, I had no idea where to start. What kind of foods should I prepare? And how should I store it? After many attempts and several weeks of totally failed meal prep, I’ve finally figured out a fool-proof strategy, including what foods to eat, lean cooking techniques, and the right equipment to simplify the process. Use this guide to quickly AND easily prep for an entire week of clean eats.
What Foods to Eat When Meal Prepping
There are all sorts of theories out there about what kinds of foods you should include in your prep. Here’s a simple framework to follow. Feel free to make substitutions as needed if you follow a diet that’s raw, vegan, gluten-free, pescatarian, etc.
- Protein — EVERY meal you eat should have an adequate amount of protein. Compared to carbs and fat, gram for gram protein is the most satiating macronutrient out there. Protein also helps build lean muscle, burn fat (through thermogenesis), and replenish your muscles after an intense weight-bearing workout. How much you’ll need depends on your caloric requirements and performance goals, but for most people, aim for at least 15 grams per meal. Great sources of animal protein include chicken, beef, pork, seafood, low fat cottage cheese, and whey protein powders. Use our guide for a complete list of protein foods, including the top options for vegetarians and vegans.
- Veggies — Vegetables (and fruits) are some of best foods you can put in your body. Hydrating, vitamin-rich, and loaded with antioxidants, they’re packed with nutrients that heal the body after a hard workout and boost immunity to prevent disease. Leafy greens like spinach, kale, bok choy, fresh parsley, cilantro, collard greens, and tons of other veggies are fantastic choices. Also don’t be afraid of non-green veggies like bell peppers, carrots, mushrooms, cabbage, etc.
- Whole-Grain Carbs — What would a meal be without starchy carbs? Whole-grain, fiber rich starches are absolutely essential to your meal prep and maintaining energy levels throughout the day. They’re also satisfying and taste pretty darn good. Go organic when you can, and look for starches like brown rice, whole-grain pasta/bread, quinoa, bulgur, barley, oats, and other fibrous carbs.
Of course, there are other foods that you can include in your meals. Nuts, seeds, avocado, and other healthy fats all play a role in your meals. The difference is they’re calorically dense and play a much smaller role. Usually you’ll use oil to cook your food and that will be more than enough fat for a meal. Don’t treat fat as a frenemy — just realize that you only need it in moderation.
How to Cook Foods for Meal Prep
Now that you’ve got all these great ingredients, how are you going to cook them? Deep frying zucchini is by no means a clean eating recipe. Try these effective tips and techniques to make your meals healthy and tasty.
- Bake or broil meats instead of frying.
- Bake sweet potatoes instead of frying or roasting them in tons of oil.
- Steam vegetables to maintain their nutrient content as opposed to boiling.
- Use dried or fresh herbs and spices to lower fat and salt content of dishes.
- Sautee vegetables lightly in coconut oil instead of frying to blast fat and up your metabolism.
- When all else fails, eat your veggies raw!
- Braise tough cuts of meat in broth for a few hours for tender protein. Use a crockpot or slow cooker to facilitate this process.
- Use low sodium broth when cooking rice, pasta, quinoa or other grains for added flavor.
- Steam squash and pull it apart gently with a fork to replace traditional pasta for a gluten-free or paleo alternative.
- Marinate meats (and even veggies) before grilling for extra flavor.
- Mix fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, garlic, and even grated carrots and zucchini into ground meat dishes for succulent and moist proteins.
- Get in the habit of including spinach, arugula, kale, or any other green as a base.
Your Clean Eating Meal Prep Equipment Essentials
Image: Runaway Apricot
Not sure what items you’ll need for preparing and storing your food? Before you start any meal prep session, consider these essentials:
- LOTS of Plastic Containers — Plastic containers (e.g. Tupperware) are probably the easiest way to store and transport your meals. With plastic containers, you can easily take food from fridge to microwave to meal time in a few minutes. The convenience of plastic containers is honestly why meal prepping for the week has become such a practical strategy for eating right and staying on track.
- Cooler — Some health and fitness enthusiasts advocate keeping your meals in a cooler so that they stay fresh until you’re ready to eat. This is obviously an optional piece of equipment. If you work at an office, chances are you have access to a fridge where you can store your food. But if you’re on the road a lot, a cooler might be a great option for you. Know your lifestyle and what works for you.
- Crock Pot or Slow Cooker — If you work long hours or have a busy schedule, a Crock Pot is definitely a must-have for your kitchen. In the mornings before work, you can easily put chicken, beef, or your favorite protein in it with a low-calorie liquid (think low sodium chicken broth) for an awesome braise that will be ready by the time you come home. Scavenge the internet and you’ll find thousands of recipes for really innovative meals that are clean and lean.
- Rice Cooker — Who wants to stand in front of a pot of water as you wait for it to boil? Rice cookers are another fairly inexpensive tool to cook rice that requires minimal effort to operate. Like the Crock Pot, you can easily put brown rice or quinoa in a rice cooker with water, salt, and other spices/herbs. When you come home from work, simply turn your rice cooker on and within 30-60 minutes you should have fluffy and perfectly cooked rice. Bonus points if you cook your protein in the crock pot and your starch in the rice cooker!
- Oven Safe Pans and Dishes — When I first started eating clean, I ate A LOT of baked chicken breast. For us clean eaters, boneless skinless chicken breasts are a dietary staple. Baking is one of the easiest (and tastiest) ways to enjoy it. Remember that oven-safe pans are also great foods other than chicken. You can bake other proteins, veggies, or even whole-grain casseroles and fibrous starches.
Some Final Tips and Wrap Up
For those of you who still seem somewhat overwhelmed about planning meals for the week, ease your worries with these no-nonsense tips and tricks:
- Start Small — You don’t need to plan every single meal for every single day of the entire week. If cooking and storing that much food seems crazy, start on a smaller scale. Start with lunches for the work week. That’s only five meals. Compared to the 21+ you could be preparing, you can handle five, right?
- Plan Ahead — Know what you’re going to eat and make before you even start cooking. There’s (almost) nothing worse than when you’re in the middle of a meal prep session only to find that you’re missing an important ingredient. Bottom line, figure out what you’re going to eat that week and what basic meals you’re going to rotate around. Write down the ingredients and the amounts if you need to before going grocery shopping.
- Cook In Bulk — If you’re making chicken for four lunches and three dinners that week, cook them in the same pan. You can easily season them after they’re cooked for two totally different flavor profiles. The same goes for starches. If you know that you’re going to be consuming eight meals that each include ½ a cup of rice, cook all four cups at once. Make a HUGE batch of chili or stew in the Crock Pot for the entire week. You’ll save time, energy, and money!
- Get Creative — Sick of chicken and broccoli every night? Try substituting beef! Instead of always eating pork and quinoa, try adding cilantro, beans sprouts, and snow peas for an Asian inspired stir fry. With all the different proteins, carbs, and veggies you’re preparing, there are a ton of different combinations you can make to keep you from getting bored (and maintain a variety of nutrients in your diet). Challenge yourself to see how many different meals you can make with only a handful of ingredients.
Don’t let the thought of a messy and chaotic kitchen keep you from prepping your meals all at once. It might take some getting used to at first, but once you’ve developed a consistent system that works for you, you’ll definitely enjoy the convenience of this meal planning strategy.
is the founder of We're Talking About Food
. Devoted to democratizing health, Taji believes that anyone CAN live a healthy lifestyle regardless of medical condition, career, budget or other secondary factors.
Besides contributing to Lean it UP, Taji has been published for her health and fitness advice in journals like Thought Catalog. Taji has been supported by numerous health and fitness companies such as Navitas Naturals
, and Holystic Hut
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