You know that meme–the one with the slice of pizza and a beer in a Ziploc bag? That about sums up my relationship with meal prepping: flawed.
But I want to be good at it. After all, preparing healthy, balanced meals in advance means spending less money on restaurants and takeout, experiencing fewer instances of hunger-induced rage, and having way more time to spend doing things you want to be doing, like hitting up that yoga or barre class after work.
“I’m confident in saying that most people regain one to two hours a day by prepping just once a week,” says Erin Romeo, a nutrition coach who has about 47,000 followers on her @foodprepprincess Instagram account. Every Sunday, she spends two hours preparing five to six days’ worth of food, including lunches, dinners, and snacks.
What’s her secret? And what’s the secret behind the whopping 7.5 million #mealprep photos currently on Instagram?
No one’s forcing these people–so I set out to find what lights their meal prep fire, what drives them to batch cook like a boss, and what keeps them motivated when all they want to do is veg out on the couch… with anything but veggies.
Here’s what five regular people who meal prep every week, without fail, revealed about how they stick with it. Not everyone’s strategy was the same, but they all had some unique tips for making the process efficient, sustainable, and–gasp–fun!
Become a master multitasker
When you’re trying to whip up a bunch of lunches and dinners at once, you may feel frantic, scattered, and like you’re using every pot and pan in the house. To simplify things, toss a bunch of ingredients in the oven–or even in a slow cooker–so you’re free to tackle the rest of your prep while they cook. Chop veggies for snacks, or cook a large batch of a grain, like quinoa or rice, on the stovetop.
“I love roasting a bunch of veggies, sweet potatoes, and even chicken breasts at once on a couple of sheet pans to save time,” says 26-year-old marketing director and fitness coach Carolyn Walker. “Then I portion it all out into containers and store them in the fridge if I’m going to eat them within two days or the freezer if I’m going to eat them later in the week.” (Pro tip: Glass snap-lid containers can be safely microwaved or stored in the freezer. Check out these genius food storage containers.)
Prep one or two types of meals, max
Too much variety will slow you down and make meal prep feel tedious. Instead, stick to one or two meal combos for the week. “I make the same meal for all my lunches and then another meal for all my dinners,” says Amanda Green, a 30-year-old kindergarten teacher who sets aside an hour and a half every Sunday to meal prep. “A couple of my favorites are ground turkey breast, broccoli, and sweet potato; and then chicken, cauliflower rice, and grilled veggies.”
Keeping the menu simple doesn’t mean meals have to be boring though. Irina Gonzalez, a 32-year-old freelance writer, sticks to pretty standard meals–typically one vegan slow cooker concoction per week featuring a bean or lentil, starchy veggie, tomato sauce, and greens–but she gets creative with her aromatics. “Even though the ingredients stay the same, I'm a sucker for different spices. Sometimes I do Indian-inspired dishes, other times Thai, other times Spanish. So many options that I never get bored.”
Keep a running list of what’s in your pantry
It sounds so obvious, but when was the last time you took an inventory of what was actually in your fridge and pantry? Gonzalez swears by it so she doesn’t overdo it or skimp at the grocery store. “I have a note in my phone that has a list of all the food in our house,” she says. “So I know exactly what we have and therefore exactly what we need to buy in order to make something for the week.”
She typically starts by browsing through her Pinterest boards of recipes she’s saved, then looking over her "pantry list" to see what ingredients she already has on hand. “I recently made Thai chickpea curry because I already had chickpeas, a can of coconut milk, a can of tomatoes, and the spices–so all I had to buy were sweet potatoes and kale!”
Take strategic shortcuts
If you’re someone who’s really short on time, or just trying to get the hang of making a bunch of food in advance, there’s no shame in taking advantage of convenient but still healthy options at the grocery store. “Sometimes I buy pre-cut veggies and fruits, frozen veggies and rice, cooked lentils, or rotisserie chicken,” says Walker.
Jeri Klein, a 36-year-old social media manager and screenwriter, agrees. She and her boyfriend swear by Costco’s flash-frozen chicken breasts that don’t need to be defrosted before cooking. “They cost $24 and last us about a month!” she says.
Feel like you’re cheating or spending more money on these convenient grocery picks? Don’t stress! It’s likely still way cheaper–and healthier–than takeout.
Skip actual recipes altogether
Speaking of shortcuts, skipping recipes completely might be the key to meal prep consistency: “Recipes often have a lot of ingredients and can be super intimidating, but cooking in reality seems to be ‘throw stuff together, season, enjoy,’” says Klein.
Just cook what you know you’ll enjoy–but more of it. Double or triple the amount, depending on how many meals you want to make ahead of time or how many people you need to feed.
Focus on simple foods, like roasted chicken and veggies, hard-boiled eggs, sliced veggies for snacks, and low-maintenance soups.
Make sure everyone’s on board with the menu
Prepping for the whole fam? There’s nothing that discourages future meal prep quite like cooking a whole lot of something and everyone thinking it sucks.
“My top tip for meal prepping or batch cooking is to make sure that the people you’re cooking for actually like the meal,” says JodiLyn Livingston, a working mom of three kids under 6 years old. “I once made a monster batch of something, and it was just terrible. We were stuck–it was the planned and budgeted meal for three days, and I ended up trashing it. Such a waste of time and money!”
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Keep yourself entertained
There’s no reason to meal prep in silence. Take advantage of this time in the kitchen to have a little fun too! “My number one tip for making this a regular thing is to listen to audiobooks,” says Gonzalez. “I like podcasts too, but I find that getting through a big portion of a book makes me feel more accomplished. It makes meal prep so much more fun.”
You could also blast your favorite Spotify playlist and have a little dance party for one while you peel some sweet potatoes.