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Meal prep. Do those two words make you think of hours upon hours in the kitchen? Not only time in the kitchen cooking, but also loads of dishes and clean up? Not to mention the time it takes to do the grocery shopping. But before you can even do the grocery shopping, you need to do the meal planning. And if you don’t have a collection of healthy recipes, it can be really overwhelming to think about. By the time you finish everything that needs to be done, you end up ordering takeout because you’re so exhausted. This doesn’t have to be your reality. Meal prep can take all day, or if you do it right, it can be done start to finish in just a few hours. As a clinical nutritionist and personal chef, I’m sharing my top 10 time-saving tips for healthy meal prep to make your life easier.
1. Set Up Your Kitchen with the Right Tools
The first key to making healthy meal prep fast and efficient is having the right kitchen utensils and cookware. For example, using the shredding blade on a food processor to shred carrots instead of shredding them by hand saves a lot of time. And having a slow cooker for a set-it-and-forget-it type of meal can save you hours of cooking time. Here are the best kitchen tools to set up your kitchen for healthy meal prep:
- Working oven
- Blender (Vitamix or Blendtec brands recommended)
- Food processor
- Slow cooker
- Medium-sized pot
- Large skillet
- Large mixing bowl
- Chef’s knife (or another sharp chopping knife)
- Baking sheet
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring cups
- Parchment paper
- Can opener
- Vegetable peeler
- Mason jars (great for storing smoothies and sauces/dressings)
- Food storage containers (glass is best)
2. Have a Collection of Easy, Healthy Recipes
It’s nearly impossible to just “wing it” when making healthy meals. Having a collection of your favorite healthy recipes that are easy to prepare is essential. If you have all your recipes in one place, it makes meal planning for the week much faster. It takes some time upfront to put your collection together, but once you have it all ready to go, your weekly meal planning will be a breeze.
Search food blogs online that align with your way of eating and print out different recipes like smoothies, salads, stews, chicken and fish recipes, healthy desserts … whatever types of meals you like. Find multiple recipes for each category so you have a good variety. You can keep your recipes in a binder or online—whichever way works best with your lifestyle. The variety of recipes will help make choosing meals for weekly meal prep quick and easy.
3. Make Weekly Meal Plans
Now that you have your recipes gathered and organized, weekly meal planning is going to be much easier. The important thing about meal planning is keeping it simple. Choose just a few recipes that you enjoy and can serve again as leftovers. Also, be sure to pick recipes that are cooked and prepared in a variety of ways. For example, don’t choose all recipes that need to be cooked in the oven or you will be spending time waiting for each item to cook before you can move on to the next recipe. Pick three main dishes: one that cooks on the stove, one raw preparation, and one recipe that’s made in the oven. You can multitask that way and decrease your total time in the kitchen. For a week’s worth of meals, follow this guideline:
- Two smoothie recipes: three portions each to eat Monday–Saturday
- Two lunch recipes: three portions each to eat Monday–Saturday
- Two dinner recipes: three portions each to eat Monday–Saturday
It’s good to only plan six days of meals to allow flexibility if you go out to eat one night or order in. Pick what days you will be eating each meal so that it’s effortless.
4. Organize Your Grocery List
Grocery shopping can take forever if you aren’t organized. And you can wind up with way too much food that ends up going to waste later in the week. Organizing your grocery list will solve both of these problems.
Once you have picked which recipes you are making for the week, write down all the ingredients you need for each recipe by categorizing them into the following sections:
- Dry and canned goods
- Meat, poultry, eggs
- Spices and condiments
Organizing your grocery list will have you in and out of the grocery store in much less time. No more going back and forth through the aisles!
5. Use Store-Bought Time Savers
Most grocery stores offer convenience items that save tons of time. For example, you can buy broccoli florets instead of a crown of broccoli, or choose shredded carrots instead of whole carrots that you have to shred yourself. Cut down on food prep is a big time saver. Next time you go grocery shopping, check out what your local store offers to help you save time in the kitchen.
6. Stock Your Spice Cabinet
Eating healthy is all about making healthy food taste good. One of the best and healthiest ways to do that is with spices and herbs. With spices and herbs stocked in your cabinets, you have flavor at your fingertips without having to make time-consuming sauces that often aren’t healthy. Spend a little time purchasing spices and herbs to have a fast and easy way to season your food. Here are the spices and herbs that should always be in your kitchen:
- Himalayan pink salt
- Garlic powder
- Onion powder
- Black pepper
- Red chili flakes
- Dried parsley flakes
- Italian seasoning
- Chili powder
- Dried oregano
- Curry powder
- Ground turmeric
- Dried thyme
- Ground cinnamon
Pick any other spices and herbs that you enjoy and add to this list so that no matter what you make, you always have spices and herbs to flavor your food.
7. Make Healthy Snack Bins
Healthy snack bins are quick to put together and save you time during the week. Put one bin in your pantry and one in your refrigerator. Fill each bin with healthy snacks that you can grab quickly to eat throughout the week when you need some fuel. Healthy store-bought snacks or fresh fruits and veggies are great options for the snack bins. Here are some ideas that are quick and easy to put together:
- Carrots and hummus
- Apples with cinnamon
- Celery sticks with dates
- Brazil nuts with dried mango
- Cashews and dried cranberries
- Banana with almond butter
- Brown rice cakes
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Sweet potato chips
- Almonds and dark chocolate
Pick your favorite snacks and enjoy!
8. Batch Cook
If you want to really save time when meal prepping, batch cook staple foods and use them to compile meals throughout the week. Pick proteins, carbohydrates, and veggies so you have a variety of foods to choose from. Here are some examples:
- Roasted chicken
- Brown rice
- Roasted broccoli and cauliflower
- Roasted carrots
- Diced bell peppers
- Mixed greens
If you have batch-cooked meal components, you can throw them into a bowl and call it a meal in less than five minutes. Think about this: roasted chicken with quinoa and roasted carrots. Sounds good right?
9. Use a Garbage Bowl When You Cook
This is my favorite time-saving tip when meal prepping. It saves time during cooking and when you go to clean up too. When you’re chopping veggies and cooking your meals, it’s easy to make a mess. If you can have a large bowl to throw trash into as you go, it will be much more efficient. Think about it: you’re peeling and slicing carrots. You have a garbage bowl you can peel over so you don’t have to pick up the scraps later. It’s a handy way to save some time on clean up and going back and forth to the trash can. It keeps your cooking area a lot more organized too.
10. Start with the Items that Take Longest to Cook
If you want to make meal prep super quick, it’s all about the order in which you cook. Look at the items you have planned for your meal and start with the item that takes the longest to cook. For example, if you have a recipe component like chicken that takes 30 minutes to cook in the oven, you’d start that first, and then once that goes in to cook, you can prepare other items, such as a green salad.
Meal prepping is all about organization. And healthy meal prep is worth it. Use these 10 tips to get organized, save time, and start enjoying healthy meal prep every week.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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