Cooking at home is healthier and less expensive.
Experts have been saying for years that cooking meals at home is usually healthier than going out to eat. When you eat at home, you have more control over the ingredients and portion sizes. Plus, it’s often cheaper than dining out frequently or getting takeout.
But cooking for yourself everyday can be a time-consuming task. And that’s a major barrier for busy folks who are being pulled in a dozen different directions at once.
One tool that can help alleviate some of the stress of cooking healthier at home is meal planning and advance prep. “With some planning, most of us can learn to prepare better, healthier meals for ourselves and our families,” says Clara Porcella, a registered dietitian with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California. “It’s true that cooking your own meals can be time-consuming, but with planning and practice, meal preparation can become a new habit that has long-term health benefits.”
The following 15 tips can help you become a meal prep expert who can whip together healthy, tasty meals in no time flat.
1. Go shopping at the beginning of the week.
Cesar Sauza, a registered dietitian and nutrition manager with AltaMed Health Services in Los Angeles, says “it’s always best to do your shopping at the beginning or end of the week (Sunday or Monday) for the coming week and to have a rough menu of your meals for the week before you go shopping.”
This can help you avoid over-buying and reduce waste. “We typically over-purchase foods because we have no idea what we’re going to cook and end up with a lot of food waste. You’ll save yourself money and headaches during the week if you plan a menu heading into the week.”
And if it sounds too daunting to plan for a whole week, try it once or twice a week until you get the hang of it.
2. Shop with purpose.
Meal prep and planning means making a list and checking it twice. When you hit the store, stick to your plan, says Kathryn Parker, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist with Aviv Clinics in The Villages, Florida. You can help yourself stick to the list by making “sure to go shopping on a full stomach in order to avoid impulse purchasing unhealthy snacks.”
Once you’re in the store, she recommends focusing on shopping “the perimeter of the grocery store where the fresh foods are located. Stay out of the inner aisles as much as possible,” Parker says.
Sauza says that these outside aisles typically “contain produce, ready-made salads, fresh meats and low-fat dairy products. The middle aisles usually contain all the sugary beverages, processed desserts and pastries, frozen meals, processed food ingredients and most other nutrient poor foods.”
While limiting the aisles dedicated to salty snacks, soft drinks and more, don’t forget about some of the inner aisles containing healthier foods essential for meal prep, like canned beans and tomatoes, spices and herbs, olive oil, canned tuna and whole grains.
3. Get organized.
Before you get started with shopping or cooking, “make sure you have enough storage containers to meal prep for you and your family for the week,” says Antonette Hardie, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Tidying up the cupboards and taking a few minutes to match lids to their containers can help you save time and headaches once you get going on prep and cooking.
4. Shop and eat seasonally.
Sauza recommends selecting “whichever fruits and vegetables are cheaper, as this is based on supply and the season. This strategy usually leads to a good variety of fruits and vegetables providing a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.”
Mia Syn, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina, agrees that eating in tune with the seasons can be a great way to make prepping easier, more interesting and more nutritious. “Incorporating a variety of ingredients will help ensure you get a range of nutrients to meet your needs. One way to do this is to eat with the seasons. In-season produce typically tastes the best, is most readily available and affordable, and at its nutritional peak.”
The USDA offers an online seasonal produce guide. Just a few examples of seasonal fruits and veggies include:
— Spring: asparagus, broccoli, pineapples and strawberries.
— Summer: eggplant, cherries, cantaloupe and tomatoes.
— Fall: apples, spinach, squash and cranberries.
— Winter: Brussels sprouts, cabbage, oranges and lemons.
5. Stock up on veggies.
Janine Souffront, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes care and education specialist with L.A. Care Health Plan, recommends boosting the health quotient of your meals with lots of veggies. This can mean adding a side salad to each meal or tossing an extra handful of frozen veggies into a stir-fry. “If you have the budget, buy pre-cut veggies; it will make it easier to use them. Alternatively, you can cut up veggies that lend themselves to it, such as carrots and celery, when you get home from the market, before putting them away.”
And while bagged salads may be a bit more expensive, the speed with which they can be deployed to make lunch or dinner makes them a worthwhile investment.
6. Use canned and frozen foods to save time.
While opting for whole, unprocessed fresh foods is generally best, you can save yourself a lot of time by buying frozen or canned varieties of many foods, including vegetables and beans, Hardie says. “Purchasing canned and frozen items can be pretty budget friendly when trying to meal prep healthier options. These items have a long shelf life, reheat really well and can add variety to your meals.”
However, “be sure to compare labels and choose foods with lower sodium or no added salt, options that are low in saturated fats and those with little to no added sugar.” She also recommends draining and rinsing any canned foods to help remove excess sodium.
Shamrock Wong, a clinical dietitian with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California, adds that frozen veggies in particular are “nutritionally comparable to their fresh counterparts; they’re also cheaper and keep longer. No more wilted greens or moldy berries.” And the best part is you won’t have to cut them up or clean up afterwards. “Dump some frozen vegetables in broth, add some cooked chicken and noodles, and you have a comforting chicken noodle soup in minutes.”
All that said, Wong notes that “freezing draws water from produce,” and for that reason, frozen produce works better in soups, stews and sauces.
You can also use the freezer to store batch-cooked meals until you’re ready to use them as well as the ingredients that may otherwise go bad, such as chopped onions and scallions, Wong says. “Home cooks often can’t use up a large bunch of fresh herbs purchased in store,” but you can chop them and put them into ice cube trays with some water and freeze. “You can also freeze chopped herbs in oil in an ice-cube tray to make infused oil.”
7. Start simple, then improvise.
Registered dietitian Toby Amidor recommends opting for simple meals over variety. “Start with simple, healthy meals you can easily cook and enjoy. Aim for recipes with seven to 10 ingredients.”
She recommends starting with staple recipes such as hamburgers, quinoa and basic chicken dishes. “Once you get the hang of it, you can start making more dishes and also changing them up. For example, you can add chopped mango or strawberries to your quinoa.”
8. Prep and make as much as you can ahead of time.
Save time on a busy weeknight by having most of the prep work for dinner done ahead of time, Sauza says. For example, “vegetables can be chopped ahead of time and separated in containers by the day of the week. This ensures your family will eat their vegetables daily, which is more likely than if those vegetables were left whole sitting in the drawer.”
Souffront notes that many side dishes can also be prepared ahead in batches. For example, “roasted veggies are easy to make and they keep well for a second meal. Use a cooking sheet, cut up harder veggies smaller than the rest. Drizzle with olive oil and add some salt and pepper — don’t be shy on the pepper — and roast at 425 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes.”
9. Set aside time each week to cook in bulk.
Amidor recommends batch cooking, or “cooking double or triple the quantity of the recipe so you can enjoy half during the week and freeze the other half for later. Although you may spend a nice chunk of time in the kitchen on a Sunday, you will free up about 45 minutes each weeknight to spend with your loved ones.”
This approach shouldn’t be reserved just for dinner, either. You can batch cook breakfast, snacks, lunch — virtually anything that will freeze well is a good candidate for batch or bulk cooking.
In addition to batch cooking and making dinners, such as soups and casseroles, you can also “freeze things like overnight oats or chia pudding and keep them as quick breakfast options.”
10. Get creative.
“Eating the same dish with the same sides every day of the week can get boring,” Amidor says. “That’s why it’s important to plan to eat them in different ways. For example, my apricot chicken drumsticks recipe below can be shredded and eaten over a salad or stuffed in a whole-wheat pita with quinoa.”
“One of my main time savers is making more of my main dish foods like grilled chicken, baked fish or pasta sauce on nights where I have more time so I can repurpose these items on nights when there’s a time crunch,” Porcella says. “For example, if I have extra grilled chicken, it can be sliced and added to freshly sautéed onions and peppers placed in a tortilla for a taco dinner later in the week.”
Another example she offers is making a batch of pasta sauce, which is lower in sodium than jarred varieties and is easy to make “with diced tomatoes, onions, garlic and red pepper flakes.” She’ll then use that with extra grilled or baked vegetables for a pizza at the end of the week or use it to enhance a meat, fish or chicken dish.
“Extra grilled or baked seasonal vegetables can also be used to make a wonderful omelet, which with a salad is another quick dinner.”
Here’s one make-ahead recipe from “The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook: Easy and Wholesome Meals to Cook, Prep, Grab, and Go” that you can try this week:
Toby Amidor’s Apricot Chicken Drumsticks
Start to finish: 55 minutes Servings: 4
— Cooking spray.
— 8 skinless chicken drumsticks.
— 2 tablespoons canola or safflower oil.
— 1/4 teaspoon salt.
— 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.
— 2 tablespoons sesame seeds.
— 1/4 cup apricot jam.
— 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Coat a shallow 9-by-9-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
Brush chicken with oil and sprinkle it with salt and black pepper. Put the chicken in the baking dish, and bake until a thermometer inserted in the center of a drumstick reads 165 degrees F, for about 35 to 40 minutes.
Just before the chicken is ready, in a small skillet over medium-low heat, toast the sesame seeds until slightly browned, stirring them frequently so they don’t burn, for about five minutes.
In a small saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the apricot jam and soy sauce. Cook, stirring frequently, until it boils, for about five minutes. Remove the pan from the stove. Let the chicken cool for five minutes, then drizzle the apricot sauce over it and sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds.
To refrigerate, store the cooled chicken with the sauce and seeds in a resealable container for up to one week. To reheat, microwave for 90 seconds. It can also be reheated in a saucepan over medium heat.
To freeze, store the cooled chicken with the sauce and seeds in a freezer-safe container for up to two months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight and reheat in the microwave for one minute. It can also be reheated in a saucepan over medium heat.
Nutrition information per serving: 541 calories; 32 grams fat (7 grams saturated fat); 46 grams protein; 14 grams total carbs; 1 gram fiber; 766 milligrams sodium.
11. Rely on pantry staples.
Flipping through a fancy cookbook full of pretty photos featuring exotic ingredients can be inspiring, but when you’re just home from work and the kids are hungry, you probably don’t have time to fuss with complicated meals. Instead, simple concoctions that rely on ingredients you always have on hand will help you save time, Amidor says.
Syn recommends keeping some basics on hand at all times. “Nutritious staples like frozen vegetables and fish, canned beans, oats and clean deli meats are good to have on hand to make it easy to throw together quick and balanced meals like sandwiches, salads and sheet pan meals.”
12. Put the kids to work.
“If you have children I recommend involving them in the meal planning by giving them a couple of choices to choose from,” Sauza says.
And their involvement can extend beyond the planning stage to meal prep itself, Porcella says. “Most children seven years old and up can learn to wash vegetables and if carefully instructed, cut softer vegetables for sautéing, baking or grilling.”
In addition to providing some assistance with the work, the kids will also be learning important life and healthy eating skills as you spend time together. “Select a night that’s less busy to start out, turn off the screens and put on a podcast, audio book, radio or better yet have a conversation with your family as you all pitch in to prepare dinner.”
Plus, Sauza notes, kids are more likely to eat food that they’ve had a hand in preparing, which can be very helpful if you have a picky eater.
13. Use time-saving appliances.
Souffront recommends thinking outside the box with cooking appliances. For example, she notes “a rice cooker is really a grain cooker, you can use it to make barley, quinoa and farro. Just place the grain, recommended water and push the button. No need to keep an eye on it. Prepare extra for another day or two.”
She also notes that for a small family, “a good toaster oven with roast and broiling settings works better than using the larger oven. You can broil a few pieces of salmon in about 12 minutes and chicken breasts in just about the same time. Just flip them halfway through.” Similarly, pressure cookers, such as an Instant Pot, can cut time significantly.
Plus, you can have several appliances going at once, Parker says. “Ovens, stoves, microwaves, crockpot, Instant Pot, Air Fryer, etc., can be used simultaneously, and that reduces the amount of time you’ll spend in the kitchen.”
And for prep work, don’t be afraid to pull out the food processor, Wong says. “Food processors, mandolin slicers and vegetable choppers will help you chop a large amount of vegetables in a fraction of the time. In the time it takes to dice one onion for one recipe, you can chop a whole week’s worth. Plus, when batch-prepping, you only have to clean the machine once.”
14. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Sauza notes that most anything you can order out, you can cook at home more healthfully. It just takes a little diligence and a willingness to experiment. “Try making your own sauces with tomatoes and other ingredients instead of purchasing the processed stuff with added sugar.”
And, he adds, “avoid restricting yourself because of imaginary cooking rules. There’s no such thing, and we tend to get better at cooking with experimenting and learning from our mistakes. Play around with different flavors, vegetables and seasonings to find out what works best for you.”
15. Reframe how you think about cooking.
Getting better with cooking healthier may take a bit of an adjustment to your frame of mind. “Reconsider how you think about cooking,” Souffront urges. “Some people have the impression that cooking is a lot of work or time-consuming, but it just takes a bit of learning and practice to get good and fast. Also, cooking can be seen as an act of love and self-care and even fun, not a chore.”
Wong agrees that “healthy eating is a journey and meal prep is one of the many vehicles you can use.” She recommends not thinking too much about what you see on social media, but rather starting small. “Begin with familiar recipes. You don’t have to be perfect. Get started, find your own style and be flexible.”
Lastly, as busy as you may be, ultimately, your health comes down to taking care of yourself. And part of that means spending the time to eat right. “Your health is the most valuable asset you have. Investing in your health begins at the grocery store and ends in the kitchen. Use your time wisely, prepare your meals with fresh foods/ingredients and you will spend less time at the doctor’s office, pharmacy line and hospitals,” Parker says.
15 tips for better meal prep
— Go shopping at the beginning of the week.
— Shop with purpose.
— Get organized.
— Shop and eat seasonally.
— Stock up on veggies.
— Use canned and frozen foods to save time.
— Start simple, then improvise.
— Prep and make as much as you can ahead of time.
— Set aside time each week to cook in bulk.
— Get creative.
— Rely on pantry staples.
— Put the kids to work.
— Use time-saving appliances.
— Don’t be afraid to experiment.
— Reframe how you think about cooking.
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Update 03/23/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.