Meal prepping is SUCH a time and sanity saver when you have school or work during the week! I have gotten a lot of requests for a post about meal prepping, so here ya go! I hope this is helpful.
I started meal prepping in the middle of my junior year of college (my first year having a kitchen) after realizing that I was spending hours cooking - and cleaning up - dinner every night. It made such a difference! The hardest thing I found is figuring out what amounts of food to make, because at first I would underestimate how much food I would eat in a week, and end up having to make another large batch of food in the middle of the week. After you have been meal prepping for a while, you will get a sense of how much food to make, but it may take some trial and error.
When I meal prep, I prepare a variety of vegetables; some sort of grain, starch, or carbohydrate source; and a protein. When volunteering to teach about healthy eating with my culinary medicine class, we teach the kids to aim for having half of their plates be fruits and vegetables, one fourth whole grains, and one fourth protein. I just learned that this year, but realized that’s pretty much how I have been making my meals for the last two years! It is a really easy rule of thumb to go by. I also try to think about having a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables in my daily diet, because different colors have different vitamins and nutrients.
You can combine your prepared dishes in different ways to make a variety of meals, or add a little bit of everything to each meal - I tend to do the second option. I personally don’t mind eating the same things for my meals during the week since I usually vary the components each week. But if you get bored, you can try making different combinations with what you have prepared, or you can add different seasonings or sauces!
The night before school or work, I combine the foods into a reusable container, along with yogurt (usually plain Greek yogurt or homemade when I have time, with added fruits and nuts and cinnamon). I put the container in the freezer for about 20-30 minutes before I leave for the day for school, because I don’t have the chance to put it in the fridge during the day, so this helps it stay cooler. I used to use ice packs, but they didn’t always fit in my small-ish lunch box, or would leak.
Grocery Shopping for Meal Prepping
To vary my meals, I try to choose vegetables based on what is on sale and/or seasonal. I love to do roasted carrots or cauliflower, and if I am short on time, microwave mixed vegetables are a great option - they are 94 cents at Target and can usually last me for a few meals! I usually throw in some greens like spinach as well. For the grain component, I just randomly choose something that sounds good - sweet potatoes, brown or wild rice, some sort of pasta, quinoa, farro, etc!
For protein, I again vary it by what is on sale and also by how much time I have to cook. My most common choices are chicken breast, salmon, or other fish. Occasionally, if I have more time and want to switch it up, I will get the turkey breast from Target, which is already seasoned and deboned but takes about 2 hours to cook. If I am short on time, I will just get already cooked chicken or turkey slices, chicken sausage - I love chicken apple sausage (Target and Trader Joe’s both have these), or pre cooked chicken or turkey breast or strips from Trader Joe’s. If you are getting deli meat or sausages, be sure to check the nutrition label and ingredients, however, because many can have a lot of sneaky added sugar or salt.
Salt isn’t bad in moderation, but we have learned a lot in medical school how high sodium diets contribute to high blood pressure and other chronic diseases. Many foods in America - especially processed foods - have a lot of extra salt added, so it is important to be aware of how much salt you eat and try to minimize it. If you are interested, here is more information on current dietary guidelines.
FYI for shopping at Target - download the Cartwheel app! You can scan everything by its barcode and every time I go to Target, there is a discount on something if you use the app! It’s really helpful for saving money, and every little discount adds up!
Plant-Based Protein and Eating
I have recently been trying to eat a more plant-based diet. In my culinary medicine class, we have learned so much about the benefits of a plant-based diet on one’s health. I’ve enjoyed vegan baking and been trying more vegan and vegetarian meals over the last year or so, and it’s been interesting to learn more about the medical and health implications of plant-based diets. I have been invited to a vegan market pop up in Chicago this upcoming Saturday, so I decided that this week I would eat a totally vegan diet to see what that would be like. If you're in the area, check out the market - it will be super cool!
I don’t think I will go completely vegan in the near future, but I have been thinking a lot about it and it is a possibility for the future. Eating plant-based is beneficial for the environment as well. I often get very upset about the state of the environment and want to do more to help, so working to eat a more plant-based diet is something I can do.
As part of this new goal, I’ve been eating a lot more plant-based protein! My favorite is crispy tempeh, because it has a denser consistency than tofu and it’s more flavorful. I vary how I season it and it is very versatile - my go to is balsamic vinegar with salt, pepper, and some other seasonings. I honestly just toss in some random combination of savory seasonings in addition to salt and pepper and it always has turned out great! My most recent batch of tempeh had turmeric and some dried basil. I now cook my tempeh by tossing it with this seasoning and air frying it until crispy, usually about 10-15 minutes at 350 F. Before I got my air fryer, I would add some olive oil and sauté it until crispy, then flip the slices to the other side so both sides cook evenly.
This Week's Meal Prep
Here is what I meal prepped for this week - all plant-based!
Crispy tempeh - air fried with balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, turmeric, and a bit of basil
Onions - sliced and sautéed with turmeric, paprika, salt, and pepper
Mushrooms - sautéed with balsamic vinegar, pepper, and paprika
Chopped red and yellow peppers
Carrots - microwaved (I like softer carrots) with some harissa and dried mint (my FAVORITE carrot seasoning)
Zucchini and yellow squash - air fried with balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper
Spaghetti squash - cut in half, scoop out the seeds, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, turmeric, and pepper, and cook at 400 F for 30-40 minutes until the squash is soft and easily shreds into tendrils when scraped with a fork.
And I will add spinach to my meals!
Breakfast Prep - Zoats!
In the last few weeks, I have had a super busy school schedule! I realized that in addition to meal prepping, I could save time in the mornings by breakfast prepping! I love making baked oats, and will often prepare a baked oat serving the night before, then add baking powder and bake it in the morning. I recently started adding grated zucchini to my oats (both overnight and baked), inspired by my fellow Chicago healthy food and fitness friend Allie, who always makes tasty zucchini oats for breakfast! It is a great way to sneak in extra veggies into your diet, and you don’t taste the zucchini!
However preparing baked oats one night in advance still takes extra time to mix everything together. To make this more efficient, I made a big batch of “neutral” zoats in a big container (I used a yogurt container). Zucchini + oats = zoats! I sometimes add chia seeds too for extra protein and fiber. I don’t add any specific flavors or add-ins so that in the morning, I can just fill an oven-safe bowl full of the zoats and add whatever flavor I am feeling that day (and baking powder), and bake it! If I don’t have time to bake it or am bringing breakfast to work or class, I will add fruit, nuts, etc and mix it with the oats and add to a jar (and don’t add baking powder of course). I have many baked oats recipes posted on my website, so check those out for flavor ideas! Basically, any fruits and nuts work, and chocolate is always great!
I also have done this with shredded carrots for a carrot-cake inspired overnight oats! Just add shredded carrots (I also microwaved them first to soften them) in place of the zucchini. The difference is that you will taste the carrots, while the zucchini is more neutral, but I think it pairs great with fruits like oranges, apples, or blueberries, as well as with almond butter or tahini.
Here is the amounts I use to make about four servings of a batch of zoats for the week - feel free to adjust ratios to make more or less! I made four servings because sometimes I have toast or eggs instead of oats to switch things up. These amounts are a bit of an approximation, and it doesn’t have to be exact. You just want the oats and chia seeds to absorb all the liquid overnight, so before refrigerating it should be easy to stir but not too runny. You can always add more oats in the morning if there is excess liquid. You can also add a mashed banana - this is recommended if you plan to bake the oats. Again, if doing the carrot version, just substitute carrots for the zucchini!
2 cups oats
About 3 cups milk (I used oat milk)
⅓ - ½ cup grated zucchini (I microwave it for about 2 minutes first so it is soft)
Splash of vanilla extract
Good shake of cinnamon
Mix all ingredients together.
If eating as overnight oats, fill a jar in the morning and add fruit, nuts, etc.
If baking in the morning, add about 1 cup of this mixture to a lightly oiled oven-safe dish, mix in 1 tsp baking powder and your desired fruits, nuts, etc.
Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes or until the top is cooked and the edges are golden brown.
Let cool and enjoy!
I hope this was helpful and that you learned something about how to save time and money, and be prepared so you can eat healthy, home-cooked meals during the week! Let me know if you have any other ideas, tips, or questions, or if you make any of these dishes!