What’s the difference between people who eat healthy occasionally and people who eat healthy by default? It’s simple. Those who eat healthy on the regular prep their meals ahead of time.
It’s harder to say no to unhealthy convenience options like frozen mac and cheese dinners when you’re busy and exhausted. So it’s no surprise that crazy work schedules are a top barrier to clean eating among young adults, according to an American Journal of Health Behavior study.
“One of the biggest downfalls I see with clients regarding their compliance to their nutrition program is making poor nutrition decisions in the moment,” says Men’s Health nutrition advisor Mike Roussell, Ph.D. “When you prep meals ahead of time, you don’t need to make any decisions at meal time. All the work has already been done. You just need to eat.”
Of course, prepping a week’s worth of meals might sound complicated. But it’s easy once you get the hang of it, and it’ll save you time in the long run. (Not to mention money, since you’ll no longer be relying on breakfast sandwiches from the coffee shop or takeout after work.)
Here’s how to meal prep in 4 simple steps, plus two weeks’ worth of sample meal plans to help you get started.
Step 1: Check your calendar.
How many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners will you need for the upcoming week? Start by figuring out what meals you’ll need to prep for—factoring in things like dates, meals with clients, and travel. Knowing exactly when you’ll need meals and when you won’t helps you plan more efficiently and avoid wasting food.
Step 2: Make a menu.
Once you know how many meals you’ll need for the week, it’s time to decide what to eat. Here’s what you should keep in mind:
Make your meals nutritionally balanced. Aim for 30 to 40 grams of protein, 15 to 20 grams of fat, and 50 to 60 grams of carbs per meal, says Roussell. For an easy-to-follow meal plan, check out The Body Clock Diet.
The protein should come primarily from lean options like chicken, turkey, fish, lean beef, eggs, or Greek yogurt. For fat, think good sources like olive oil, canola oil, avocado, and nuts. And try to keep your carbs complex instead of refined. Brown rice, quinoa, vegetables, and whole-wheat bread or pasta all work. (For sample meal ideas, just keep scrolling.)
Get creative. Prepping a couple of ingredients in bulk is easier than cooking different ones for every night of the week. But eating the same stuff over and over is boring, so think about how you can utilize core ingredients in different ways. For instance, you can cut beef sirloin into cubes to make beef stew, slice it into thin strips for stir-fries or fajitas, or grill it like steak, Roussell says. Bell pepper and zucchini can be eaten raw with dip, tossed into salads, or added to stir-fries.
Take advantage of leftovers. There’s no rule that says you have to eat something different every day. One easy way to cut down on meal prep is by doubling your dinner recipe and bringing half for lunch the next day. Here’s the best way to reheat each kind of leftover so it’s still delicious the next day.
Keep it simple. You don’t have to cook like you’re on Top Chef. The less complicated your meals are, the easier it’ll be to prep them.
Step 3: Go food shopping.
With your meals lined up, it’s time to make a grocery list and head to the store. Aim to do your big weekly shop on Saturday or early Sunday, so you have time to prep your ingredients before the work week begins. To get in and out as fast as possible, organize your grocery list by section (produce, meat, dairy, etc.). That way, you’re less likely to forget stuff or have to waste time backtracking.
Step 4: Prep and pack your food.
It’s worth blocking out time on the weekend to get your ingredients ready for weekday meal assembly. “Once the week starts, there’s a greater chance that the prep just won’t happen,” Roussell says. Here’s how to do it efficiently.
Prep your ingredients. No matter what’s on the menu, you can always find a way to prep it ahead of time.
Assemble what you can. Toss hearty grain or bean salads, layer a casserole so you can pop it straight in the oven, and put solid ingredients for individual smoothies in zip-top bags so you can quickly throw them in the blender.
Store smart. Pack food in clear glass or plastic containers so you can access them easily and know exactly how much you have. (Refrigerate cooked ingredients you’ll use within 2 to 3 days; freeze the rest and thaw them later in the week.) Divide single servings of finished dishes into individual containers for easy portion control. Oh, and here’s what you need to know about BPAs.
Pack up to-go meals. Things like wraps, sandwiches, and leafy salads can get soggy if they sit in the fridge all week. If you’re having those things for lunch, assemble them the night before.
Meal Prep Template
Let these clean, easy recipes from meal prep master Kevin Curry of Fit Men Cook be your inspiration. They utilize many of the same core ingredients, so you have fewer ingredients to buy and prep. Plus, each meal makes multiple servings (or can easily be doubled or tripled), so you can eat them more than once (or freeze extras for another week). This isn't meant to be all you eat—You'll need to fill our your day with packable snacks like hard-boiled eggs, nuts, chopped vegetables with hummus, or protein bars.
Think of this as a template. You don’t have to reinvent a new menu from scratch each week. Instead, work off of this template, swapping in different ingredients and flavors, to make brand new meals. For instance, have another fruit with your yogurt and granola instead of berries, switch out your proteins (like salmon filets instead of flank steak), and change up your herbs and spices to create new flavor profiles.