By Lauryn Gladd
Picture this: you just got home from class and only have a few minutes until you need to leave for a club meeting. You drop your backpack and open the fridge because you’re starving for lunch. Various uncooked vegetables and random ingredients stare back at you, but cooking is the last thing you want to do. Pressed for time, you end up grabbing a bag of barbeque chips and a granola bar. With no more time to spare, you leave the house practically empty-handed, the nutritionless snack doing you no favors. Within an hour of eating, you will have a “sugar crash,” feel fatigued and, yup, still starving (Mantantzis et al., 2019)…
Being crunched for time is one of the biggest barriers to healthy eating. In one large study, 35.7% of young adult women believed eating healthy takes too much time (Escoto et al., 2012). In addition, 54.2% of women said that they “tend to eat on the run” and 49.6% said they were “too rushed in the morning to eat a healthy breakfast” (Escoto et al., 2012).
One way around not having enough time to prepare a nutrient-dense lunch or dinner is effective meal planning. This involves weekly planning, assembling, and storing meals so that they are easily accessible later on that week. As someone who is living in an apartment and cooking for myself for the first time, this systematic approach has been a lifesaver! Let me explain why this trendy practice lives up to the hype.
Meal prep provides ready-to-go home-cooked meals as an alternative to ordering takeout. Cooking at home, rather than eating out, is associated with a better diet quality as the ingredients you buy yourself are substantially more nutritious (Wolfson et al., 2020). Diet quality is measured using the Healthy Eating Index, which uses a scale from 1 to 100. The Healthy Eating Index measures the quality of meals through key recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It has been found that diet quality in households where dinner was cooked seven times a week scored nearly four points higher on the Healthy Eating Index when compared to households where dinner was cooked only once or twice a week (Wolfson et al., 2020). In addition, according to a recent study, the frequent consumption of take out or store-bought, pre-made meals defined by eating two or more meals outside of the house per day, “is significantly associated with increased risk of all-cause mortality”(Du et al., 2021). More specifically, it has been linked to cardiovascular disease and even cancer, but the study emphasized the need for further investigation to validate these findings. Preparing meals at home is an integral component to controlling exactly what ingredients you are consuming and in what portions.
What to Meal Prep
Soups, salads, grain bowls, and casseroles are all great examples of the types of nutrient-dense meals to prepare in advance. Keep in mind that dressings should be prepared on the side since salads will be refrigerated for an extended period of time – you don’t want your flavorful arugula or crunchy romaine lettuce wilting over the course of the week! My personal favorite side dish to prepare ahead of time is sheet vegetables. Simply drizzle your favorite chopped vegetables with olive oil, toss with your seasoning of choice and that’s it! Bake the vegetables at 425 degrees Fahrenheit until they are slightly charred. It typically takes 10-20 minutes for softer vegetables, like green beans, and around 30 minutes for harder vegetables, like potatoes. Afterwards, be sure to pair your veggies with a protein, such as fish, chicken or tofu, as well as a carbohydrate, rice, pasta or quinoa will do. Combining the veggies with a protein and carbohydrate ensures you have yourself a quick, delicious and well-balanced meal. Recently, I’ve been loving roasted chickpeas as a great source of plant-based protein. The meal-prep process for these crunchy, protein-filled legumes is almost identical to how you go about cooking sheet vegetables. Simply toss the chickpeas in a bowl with olive oil, salt & pepper, and your favorite seasoning for good measure – I love adding harissa to give it an extra kick. Then spread them out on your baking sheet and cook them in the oven for 25 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit!
Below, you’ll find numerous delicious meal-prep ideas to choose from!
How to Meal Prep
At the start of the week, draft a list of all the meals you might look forward to preparing, cooking and, the most rewarding part, eating! My roommates and I make it especially fun by taking turns to cook dinner! Pay close attention to which days you’ll have leftovers as well as when you plan to eat out. This will ensure you only buy the ingredients you need, helping you save money and reducing your net food waste (Bernard, 2020). According to a study conducted at the College of William and Mary, the average American consumer “spends roughly $1,300 per year on food that ends up being” thrown away (Berard, 2020). It’s also helpful to plan meals that require a few of the same ingredients (Hill, 2020). For example, one onion could be split between a casserole and a stirfry.
Time for a trip to the grocery store! Stick closely to your list of ingredients to ensure you don’t miss any of the ingredients you need for the week. Fun fact: did you know the freshest foods are always found along the perimeter of the grocery store (Mayo Clinic Health System, 2018)?!
Next, execute your well-thought out meal itinerary by actually assembling your meals. I recommend listening to music or your favorite podcast while you cook to make it simultaneously fun and relaxing! Often, I get in the zone and think of the whole process as a form of self-care. In addition to making complete lunches and dinners in advance, it’s also beneficial to prepare individual ingredients for better snack accessibility too. For example, you’ll thank yourself later if you chop up that big bag of vegetables from Trader Joe’s ahead of time, especially for those days when you come home from class craving some hummus. You’ll be able to grab those celery sticks and carrots for some serious dipping without a second thought. Remember- the time you spend cooking now is time saved later!
Divide your meals into appropriate portions and store them in the fridge. Clear, reusable containers are perfect for keeping your meals fresh, easy to spot, and ready to-go!
Ideas to Kickstart Your Meal Prep: Check out the following Hol3 Recipes…
My personal favorite: Quinoa Salad
Prep time: 20 minutes
- 3 cups cooked quinoa (equal to 1 cup uncooked)
- 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
- 2-3 kirby cucumbers, sliced and halved
- ⅓ cup feta cheese
- ⅓ cup diced red onion
- juice of ½ lemon
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp maple syrup
- pinch of salt
- Cook quinoa according to package instructions.
- While quinoa is cooking, mix together dressing ingredients and chop all vegetables.
- When quinoa is done, fluff it with a fork and pour it into a large mixing bowl.
- Mix together the quinoa, vegetables, feta, and dressing.
- Divide into 4 servings and store in the fridge. Serve on a bed of lettuce or on its own.
Berard, A. (2020, April 20). Study calculates true cost of food waste in America. William & Mary. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from https://www.wm.edu/news/stories/2020/study-calculates-true-cost-of-food-waste-in-america.php.
Du, Y., Rong, S., Sun, Y., Liu, B., Wu, Y., Snetselaar, L. G., Wallace, R. B., & Bao, W. (2021). Association between frequency of eating away-from-home meals and risk of all-cause and cause-specific mortality. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 121(9). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2021.01.012
Escoto, K. H., Laska, M. N., Larson, N., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Hannan, P. J. (2012, November). Work hours and perceived time barriers To healthful eating among young adults. American journal of health behavior. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3464955/.
Hill, M. K. (2020, August 20). 5 hacks This NUTRITIONIST uses to MASTER MEAL PREPPING. Healthline. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/meal-planning-hacks-tips.
Mantantzis, K., Schlaghecken, F., Sünram-Lea, S. I., & Maylor, E. A. (2019, April 3). Sugar rush or sugar crash? A meta-analysis of carbohydrate effects on mood. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30951762/.
Mayo Clinic Health System. (2018, March 23). Shopping the grocery perimeter. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/grocery-store-tour-shopping-the-perimeter.
Wolfson, J. A., Leung, C. W., & Richardson, C. R. (2020, January 10). More frequent cooking at home is associated with higher healthy eating index-2015 score. Public health nutrition. Retrieved September 17, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31918785/.