What is Meal Prepping?
What is meal prepping? And why is it so important for good nutrition?
Just do an image search for #mealprep on Google or Instagram, and you will find dozens and dozens of pics of prepared meals dished out into containers. Which in essence is what prepared meals are.
For the most part, #mealprep images largely consist of grilled chicken/white fish, steamed broccoli/green beans and steamed sweet potato/brown rice. This is because pre-preparing meals are common practice among those who are involved in body sculpting (girls) or building (boys). Those who undertake extreme regimes of physical training generally also follow very restrictive eating plans. And by restrictive I mean they have set foods that they can/cannot eat based on the content of macronutrients – i.e. fat, protein and carbohydrates – in order to aide their body to burn subcutaneous adipose (superficial fat) tissue in order to gain that lean, chiselled look. These folks also workout with specific goals in mind, and proper nutrition is fundamental in achieving their physical aims.
Hence the lean grilled white meat (high protein, no carb, low fat) with the steamed green beans/broccoli (micronutrients, fibre and no fat, low protein, low simple carbs) and the steamed sweet potato/brown rice (complex carb, low protein, low fat). Essentially they follow an eating plan called “If It Fits Your Macros.”
#IIFYM is a flexible form of dietary intake – in the sense you can eat up to the required amount of calories based on energy from set amounts of protein, carb and fat specific to your needs per day. These values obviously vary between individuals and is also affected by what you may be trying to do (e.g. lose weight, gain weight, prepping for a body competition where it is all about the #cut highly defined chiselled look).
On a personal note, I actually do adhere to IIFYM principles. But I also adhere to caloric cycling. And also the 8:16 eating window principle (although sometimes I slide to the10:14 window). And also personalize the Australian Dietary Guidelines to suit my intake. But those are topics for another day. Regardless of dietary intake regime, I am an avid fan of #mealprep.
Why Meal Prep?
For two really simple reasons:
- I am time poor. My standard working week is in excess of 50hours – including weekends, week nights (not counting during my sleep). Such is the life of a research scientist.
- I really love good food. No joke. Do not underestimate the power of that statement. While I may not stuff my face when I see food, I really appreciate a flavoursome, balanced meal that is plant based and has protein (animal or plant) added to it. Nutrition is paramount. But so is flavour, texture, taste, colour…and sustainability and supporting local.
Another reason is that I hate throwing out spoilt veggies which I haven’t used up on time – usually because I am too tired to cook when I get home from work.
And so I meal prep.
Where to start with meal prepping?
I buy my veggies once ever fortnight. Fresh is best, and while I’d love to get my veggies every single week, I truthfully do not like crowded places nor do I enjoy shopping. Plus shopping once a fortnight also saves time, so I can do other non-essential, non-work related fun things (like go visit a farm and do fruit picking or go hiking or read a book on the beach!)
While I plan my meals based on macros, I also basis it on what is on sale. I’m not going to pay $8/kg for broccoli. I could easily gain the similar nutrients from cauliflower and green beans that may be on sale. Markets are great with buying fresh produce at a cheaper price – especially if you get in an hour before closing… Bonus!
And from that I prepare my meals. Now obviously my meals are based on nutritional quality – not just total calories and macros, but also vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and polyphenols. I eat carbs and protein with each meal. Plus as I don’t have a microwave/use a microwave, I never full cook my veggies because I will be reheating them (via direct heat on the stove, oven, steamer, heating bowl) later. However I do heat treat them sufficiently to stop enzymatic degradation from occurring and also to destroy any pathological food spoilage bacteria.
Obviously the key fundamental piece of equipment in meal prepping is CONTAINERS! Take away containers are great for freezing individual serves in the freezer/fresh fruit etc. Some folks swear by Tuppaware or Corning Ware. Whatever you use, use what works with your lifestyle, what is in your budget and what will fit your food in well without leaving too much excess air headspace. Corning Ware does not work for me – a glass bowl is not exactly the safest food holding device when you’re on the road a lot. Personally I have a stash of Sistema containers. I like them a lot. They are BPA-free, spill-proof and hardy. Plus the 1L containers fit into my steamer perfectly.
The reason for minimizing head space is because oxygen causes oxidation. If you want to prolong shelf life, removing as much air as possible a viable method. So my containers fit my meals in perfectly without much air in the head space. Less oxygen present = less oxidation that can take place = rate of spoilage is decreased. If there is a bit too much head space, I simply place a doubled up piece of cling wrap on the surface of the food protecting it from oxygen.
I also like using glass jars when I can. Salad in a jar is great. I like breakfast in a jar – I have 350mL jars that are the perfect size for a grain, yoghurt and fruit based breakfast (e.g. Chai spiced quinoa porridge with tahini yoghurt and stewed apples). A clean glass jar filled with warm porridge, cooled, filled with the rest of the meal components and then refrigerated sails through week easily.
After you have got your wholefoods purchased, work out a menu for the week. For me, I usually make 4 meals: 1 soup, 1 rice/pasta/grain based meal and 2 x meat +3 veg variations.
And then I rotate.
For example of a week could be the following:
– Beef saag curry + brown basmati rice + bowl of salad
– Spicy kumara-zucchini parmesan soup + veggie sticks and white bean dip + cheese toastie made with high protein cheese and high protein bread
– Spelt pasta with pesto, smoked code and grilled vegetables
– Ham crusted egg-white quiche filled with sautéed zucchini, kumara and mushrooms + veggie sticks/steamed vegetables + chickpea dip
Example of how I would rotate is as follows:
|Breakfast||Quinoa porridge + tahini yoghurt + stewed apples||Quinoa porridge + tahini yoghurt + stewed apples||Quinoa porridge + tahini yoghurt + stewed apples||Quinoa porridge + tahini yoghurt + stewed apples||Quinoa porridge + tahini yoghurt + stewed apples|
|Lunch||Beef saag and rice
|Spelt pasta + fish
Veggie sticks + dip
|Beef saag and rice
|Spelt pasta + fish
|Dinner||Kumara soup veggie sticks
Steamed veg + dip
|Kumara soup veggie sticks
Steamed veg + dip
|Kumara soup veggie sticks
And using this table I can determine how many containers I need. The good things with purchasing good quality containers is once you have them, you have them. No need to purchase again. The good thing with disposable containers is sometimes I don’t want to have to carry additional things home with me or if I’m travelling (e.g. I have a flight at 7.30pm and don’t want to eat an airport sandwich; or I have a flight and don’t want to eat airplane food…yes I really am that into food!) So eat and discard into a recycle bin works well as well. Like certain horses are for certain courses, so too are containers.
Unless you are into #IIFYM eating, a scale while useful in ensuring even distribution of food into separate containers, is not essential. The easiest way to split your bulk cooked food is to get a plate/bowl that you normally use to eat (chopping board if you’re anything like my sister). Plate out 1 serve and place in a container. Based on this, you can easily “plate out” the other meals into containers. It can be easy to underestimate/overestimate how much food you would normally eat when prepping into containers (because let’s face it, no one usually sets a table with fork, knife and a plastic container). By using your normal plate/bowl/whatever that you eat with, you know you are meeting your normal/desired intake.
I also try to cook double the amount and then freeze foods that are suitable for freezing.
E.g. 100g beef consumed twice in a week = 200g. Hence I will cook 400g = 2 freezer meals to spare. Same deal with the soup, quiches and pasta. Some foods aren’t suitable for freezing (e.g. grilled veggies). So my surplus containers contain everything BUT the veggies and are frozen. I can add the veggies at a later date.
I have small individual serve containers for dips. I pack 2 slices of bread into a ziplock bag and freeze – makes for easy defrosting, maintains freshness and I’m not under pressure to eat bread every day in order to prevent wastage!
In the case of my fresh fruit and salad, removing as much moisture is really important. I actually spin my berries in a salad spinner and then pat dry with a paper towel. In the case of my leafy greens (e.g. baby spinach, lettuce) I do the same thing. I always put a piece of paper towel in the bottom of the container to absorb any moisture. Some fruits brown (e.g. apples and cut banana). Easy solution: vitamin C in the form of citrus fruit. In this situation I will actually layer fruits – a layer of cut apples, grapefruit, banana and then orange. Not only does this prevent browning, layering from heaviest/hardest to the softest will prevent bruising/crushing and hence structural degradation.
The time factor
In order to be successful at saving time via meal prepping, you have to actually invest some time into it though. Initially it may take you a little while (e.g. half a day), but you will get the hang of it. I allocate 4 hours on a Saturday to meal prep every second week. Sometimes it’s shorter, usually it takes the whole 4 hours (including cleaning up as I go).
What saves me time is that I don’t buy meat/fish every week. I buy it when it is on sale in bulk, portion it out and freeze. So when it comes time to meal prep day, I don’t have to think I just do. 400g beef already diced? Already done and defrosted overnight in the fridge. 3 x 100g smoked cod fillets? Already done and defrosted overnight in the fridge. And as I use portions up, I become aware of what I need to top up on. So when I see it on sale, bam! I pounce. And so continues the cycle of time-efficient meal prepping.
Little things like that save time.
And when time is the most precious undervalued commodity available, any extra time is always a bonus.