Trying to kickstart some new healthy eating habits? Prepping some of your ingredients in advance can make a huge difference in how easy it is to cook for yourself all week—and research shows that people who cook more tend to take in fewer calories and consume more of the nutrients they need.
Here’s why meal prep is so key: Just like an assembly line, it’s much faster to do the same task than to switch between jobs. Plus, it will save you a ton of time during the week. So put on a podcast or pump the jams, pull out the cutting board, and get ready to prep for a terrific week.
But how do you know what you can prep ahead and what you can’t? That’s where Women’s Health’s Healthy Meals For One (or Two) comes in. Prep the below ingredients, and you’ll be in great shape for eating healthy all week long. For more great prep-ahead ideas and healthy, tasty recipes that won’t leave you with a ton of leftovers, pick up your copy of the upcoming Women’s Health’s Healthy Meals For One (or Two) (available January 23rd).
Grains are one of the best things you can prep in advance. They add lots of cooking time to recipes, but they store very well. Grains are also a healthful base for a very quick meal, but the healthiest grains are whole, and those take a lot longer to cook. So while you work on the meat and chop the veggies, get the grains you need for the week cooking on the stove.
Cooked rice and grains, like farro, will last in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days in resealable plastic bags. You can also freeze them in freezer bags for longer storage. Cooked pasta should be tossed with a tablespoon of oil before storing it in the refrigerator—it will also last for 3 to 4 days.
There are a few different degrees to which you can prep your meat at the beginning of the week. It all depends on how much prep time you have, and how crazy your week is going to be.
At a minimum, it’s really helpful to divide out your meat for each meal. Put each meal’s portion into a resealable freezer bag, along with any marinade you might want for it, and be sure to label what day you packaged it. Raw meat is good for a few days in the refrigerator, and if you can’t get to it before then, you can just throw it directly in the freezer. If the recipe calls for the raw meat to be cut, cut it up now. This will save you from extra meat knives and cutting boards later.
If you have a little bit more time, we recommend cooking meat on Sundays to get a big jump start on the week. Oven-roast a bunch of chicken breasts on a baking sheet to have a step up on salads and stir-fries. Make meatballs, roast a whole chicken and piece it apart for different meals, slow cook some pork or beef for tacos and quick sandwiches.
The only animal protein that we don’t recommend cooking in advance is fish. Fish cooks very quickly, and the trade-off in flavor that reheating causes is definitely not worth the minimal amount of time saved. Saving time is important—but so is taste!
When we think about how annoying cooking a whole meal is, the image that usually pops in our heads is chopping onions, tears included. But prepping veggies is actually really fun and will give you a huge head start on your meals all week long. You have two options for veggie prep: You can chop and store them individually, or you can make what we like to call meal boxes. With a meal box (or bag), you can store all of the prepped vegetables for each meal of the week together. When it’s time to cook, just pull out your meal box, and you’re halfway to a cooked meal! For example, for the Spicy Tempeh Chili (page 174), your meal box would be the chopped onion, red and green bell peppers, and serrano pepper, chopped and ready to cook whenever you want to make your chili. Just make sure that whatever storage container you use is airtight.
These types of produce will slice and dice and store beautifully:
These veggies are better prepared right before cooking:
Without a doubt, smoothies are the prep-ahead champions. We love to create smoothie bags, filled with all of the produce you need for the recipe, to store in the freezer. Then when it’s smoothie time, you just pull out the bag, pop the frozen ingredients in the blender, and add whatever liquid and protein are called for in the recipe. This will save you a ton of cleanup and time, and will allow you to make delicious chilled smoothies without adding a lot of ice! That’s what we like to call a win-win.