Meal Prep: A Helpful Healthy Eating Strategy

How to meal prep to save time & money and eat a healthier diet   via @HSPHnutrition

  • Amidst hectic weekday schedules, meal prep or meal planning is a great tool to help keep us on a healthy eating track.
  • Although any type of meal prep requires planning, there is no one correct method, as it can differ based on food preferences, cooking ability, schedules, and personal goals.
  • Refrigeration and freezing are an important step to successful meal planning.
  • However, forgotten food such as produce hiding in a drawer or a stew stored on a back shelf in an opaque container for too long can spoil and lead to food waste.
  • Refrigeration at 40°F or lower

    1-2 days: Cooked ground poultry or ground beef

    3-4 days: Cooked whole meats, fish and poultry; soups and stews

    5 days: Cooked beans; hummus

    1 week: Hard boiled eggs; chopped vegetables if stored in air-tight container

    2 weeks: Soft cheese, opened

    5-6 weeks: Hard cheese, opened

    Freezing at 0°F or lower

    2-3 months: Soups and stews; cooked beans

    3-6 months: Cooked or ground meat and poultry

    6-8 months: Berries and chopped fruit (banana, apples, pears, plums, mango) stored in a freezer bag

    8-12 months: Vegetables, if blanched first for about 3-5 minutes (depending on the vegetable)

    Ready to get started?

Meal prep can be a helpful healthy eating tool amidst hectic weekday schedules. Learn some basic tips on preparation and storage to get started!

@LeslieBeckRD: How to meal prep to save time & money and eat a healthier diet via @HSPHnutrition

Who hasn’t left work late with a growling stomach but little energy to shop and cook? A busy schedule is one of the top reasons why people choose quick takeout meals, which are often calorie-laden and a contributor to expanding waistlines. [1-3]

Now, imagine a different scenario where within a few minutes of walking through the door you have a delicious home-cooked dinner, and perhaps even lunch packed-up for the next day. Amidst hectic weekday schedules, meal prep or meal planning is a great tool to help keep us on a healthy eating track. Although any type of meal prep requires planning, there is no one correct method, as it can differ based on food preferences, cooking ability, schedules, and personal goals. Here are some examples:

Some benefits of meal prep:

Choose a specific day of the week to: 1) plan the menu, whether week by week or for the whole month, and write out your grocery list 2) food shop, 3) do meal prep, or most of your cooking. Some of these days may overlap if you choose, but breaking up these tasks may help keep meal planning manageable.

As you find favorite ‘prep-able’ meals, or your menus become more familiar and consistent, watch for sales and coupons to stock up on frequently used shelf-stable ingredients like pasta, rice, and other whole grains, lentils, beans (canned or dried), jarred sauces, healthy oils, and spices.

On your meal prep day, focus first on foods that take the longest to cook: proteins like chicken and fish; whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and farro; dried beans and legumes; and, roasted vegetables.

Also consider preparing staple foods that everyone in the family enjoys and which you can easily add to a weekday meal or grab for a snack: washed greens for a salad, hardboiled eggs, a bowl of chopped fruit, cooked beans.

If you prefer not to pre-cook proteins, consider marinating poultry, fish, or even tofu on your prep day so that you can quickly pop them into the oven or stir-fry later in the week.

Multi-task! While foods are baking or bubbling on the stovetop, chop vegetables and fresh fruit, or wash and dry salad greens for later in the week.

When you cook a recipe, make extra portions for another day or two of meals, or to freeze for a different week. Be sure to date and label what goes in the freezer so you know what you have on hand.

Meal prep can save time and money if you are preparing just enough for what is needed the following week. Refrigeration and freezing are an important step to successful meal planning. However, forgotten food such as produce hiding in a drawer or a stew stored on a back shelf in an opaque container for too long can spoil and lead to food waste. Label all prepped items with a date so that you can track when to use them by. Rotate stored items so that the oldest foods/meals are kept up front. Store highly perishable items like greens, herbs, and chopped fruits front-and-center at eye-level so you remember to use them.

When it comes to freezing, some foods work better than others. Cooked meals tend to freeze well in airtight containers. Foods with high moisture content, such as salad greens, tomatoes, or watermelon, are not recommended as they tend to become mushy when frozen and thawed. Blanching vegetables for a few minutes before freezing can help. However, if the texture of a frozen food becomes undesirable after thawing, they might still be used in cooked recipes such as soups and stews.

The following are recommended times for various cooked foods that offer the best flavors, maximum nutrients, and food safety.

1-2 days: Cooked ground poultry or ground beef

3-4 days: Cooked whole meats, fish and poultry; soups and stews

5 days: Cooked beans; hummus

1 week: Hard boiled eggs; chopped vegetables if stored in air-tight container

2 weeks: Soft cheese, opened

5-6 weeks: Hard cheese, opened

2-3 months: Soups and stews; cooked beans

3-6 months: Cooked or ground meat and poultry

6-8 months: Berries and chopped fruit (banana, apples, pears, plums, mango) stored in a freezer bag

8-12 months: Vegetables, if blanched first for about 3-5 minutes (depending on the vegetable)

Ready to get started? Below are some recipes that lend well to bigger batches—and don’t forget that the Healthy Eating Plate can serve as a helpful menu planning guide. Happy prepping!

Meal Prep: A Helpful Healthy Eating Strategy