When you’re loading up the calendar with workouts, family time, friend events and work projects, it’s likely that “make delicious, healthy meals” tumbles too easily down the to-do list. While there are some good grab-and-go options, let’s face it: There are only so many prepared salads and protein bars you can eat before they get boring.
“When you get tired of what you’re eating, that’s when you usually begin to make food choices that you’re not happy about later,” says Melissa Joulwan, author of the popular “Well Fed” cookbook series. “Taking some time every week for meal prep can help keep it interesting.”
By setting aside time for preparing meals and ingredients in advance, you’ll not only zap food boredom, but also have greater control over putting more vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats into your rotation. Best of all, you don’t have to sacrifice a whole day for the effort. Here are some shortcuts Joulwan uses for her own weekly cookup:
1. SCHEDULE THE TIME
Count on about 2–3 hours for the prep, but it doesn’t need to be done all at once. For example, you can do 90 minutes on Sunday morning and 90 more on Wednesday night. The most important aspect is to put it on the schedule and stick to it, so it becomes a habit. For those who have a weekend farmers market nearby, scheduling meal prep for just after shopping can be an easy way to incorporate more veggies into your meals.
2. PREP YOUR EQUIPMENT FIRST
Before she does any chopping or cooking, Joulwan takes out all the utensils and equipment she needs for the effort. For example, she puts several cutting boards on the counter, locates measuring cups, sharpens knives, gets out large mixing bowls and sets up the food processor. Think of it as the “kitchen stadium” approach, where everything you need to use is handy. That 10 minutes of finding everything first saves plenty of time compared to taking out equipment as you need it.
3. THINK INGREDIENTS INSTEAD OF MEALS
There are two main ways to do meal prep — either you create whole meals and put them in containers, or you focus on ingredients that can be thrown together quickly. Joulwan prefers the latter approach, because it allows her to be more creative, and to eat according to her mood. She focuses on “convenience foods” that can be transformed into a variety of meals. These include roasted chicken, hard-boiled eggs, homemade mayo, zucchini noodles, cauliflower rice, chopped lettuce and roasted vegetables. When these components are stored in the fridge, meals usually take only 5–10 minutes to prepare, she says.
4. GET SAUCY
Roasted chicken and cauliflower rice with an Indian vindaloo sauce is a very different meal than the same basic ingredients with a Jamaican jerk sauce. To keep tastes interesting, consider spending some prep time creating sauce blends or simply purchase some to have on hand. As with any prepared food, check the ingredients to make sure the sauces aren’t high in sugar or preservatives.
5. PUT THE TUNES ON
When she does meal prep, Joulwan listens to either ‘80s, new wave or Broadway musical soundtracks, so she’s singing and dancing the entire time. If you’re more the movie type, put on one you’ve already seen (since you’ll be looking down while you work) and will love hearing again, or play some podcasts on interesting topics.
“Your time in the kitchen should be productive, but also fun,” says Joulwan. “The more you can make meal prep time enjoyable, the more you’ll look forward to doing it. Rather than see prep as a chore, think of it as a way to make amazing, healthy food for the week ahead, in a way that feels like a fun break from your busy schedule.”