It’s Sunday morning and you make a brave decision – get on that scale. It’s been a while since you last weighed in. You take a deep breath and step on it. Your weight is a bit higher than last time.
You’re concerned. This wouldn’t be a problem if it was an one-time thing. The problem is your weight is on an upward trend not even for the last few months, but for the last few years.
You’d love to get back to what you used to weigh 3 or 5 years ago. You know you need to put more attention into what you’re eating but don’t really know where to start and just thinking about meal prep makes you feel overwhelmed! The Chinese at the ground floor of your office is definitely easier than meal prepping.
Sounds familiar? Today I’m gonna introduce you to Meal Prep Sunday. We’ll talk about how to put in the least amount of effort, with the lowest level of cooking skill, yet get the maximum amount of nutritious meals for you to consume during the week.
Gaining weight year after year? Meal Prep Sunday can help stop that.
A 2012 systematic review by Lachat et. al. found that eating out more often can be a risk factor for overall higher energy intake and lower micronutrient intake (1). Similarly, a 2014 systematic review by Nago et. al. found that eating out more often was positively associated with risk of becoming overweight or obese (2).
Now if you were to make every Sunday a meal prep Sunday, then you’d eat a preplanned meal, instead of picking whatever from the Chinese takeout at the ground level of your office.
The benefits of a pre-planned lunch include:
- No decisions about food to be made during your work day (meaning more brain space for important things like the presentation you’re giving at 3 pm!)
- Increased energy from the nutritious lunch you prepared, instead of feeling lethargic or just unsatisfied
- Getting more work done (thanks to all that extra brain space and the increased energy!)
- Better weight management since everything will be planned in advance and you won’t leave decisions to be made when you’re hungry!
So, already decided to at least consider give this meal prep thing a go? Awesome, let’s get started with what do prep on your Meal Prep Sunday!
Which foods work best for meal prep?
First, determine portion sizes.
When most people think about Meal Prep Sunday they think about food – like what food to prepare. We’ll cover that just below after you first get a sense of how much from each food group to use in your meal and/or how to put a meal together.
I’ve found this “healthy diet template” from Dr. Spencer Nadolsky to be a fantastic visual guide. Take a look:
Keep in mind:
- You don’t have to add all four components in every meal (protein, veggies, carbs, fat.) This depends on personal preference.
- Actual portion sizes will vary depending on each person’s needs. So a 200-pound guy will need bigger portions in general than an 160-pound woman.
- The way to use these serving guides is as building blocks. E.g., 1 serving of fat is a thumb of olive oil for instance. You want to add more? Then you have 2 servings. Or for veggies, 1 cup is 1 serving, double or triple that if you want more.
- Remember the 200-pound guy and the 160-pound woman? The guy may choose to include say 2 servings of protein while the woman 1. The guy may opt for 2 servings of fat while the woman one.
- Want to save calories? Increase the veggie servings while cutting down on the carbs one. Skip the rice and add more broccoli to your plate.
Now let’s get into some specific food groups:
Proteins: start with about 25 gr and increase as needed.
Start with a single serving, which is about the size of your palm or 4 ounces of lean meat or fish (like a deck of cards.) This is about 25 gr of protein or 100 cal from protein alone.
Foods with protein include:
- Chicken or turkey
- Lamb or beef
- Beans or lentils (note that legumes also count under the vegetable group!)
- Greek yoghurt
- make sure these are properly cooked
- only keep them in the fridge for a few days at most before consuming
- If you are preparing any meats for more than a few days in advance, make sure you freeze these to keep them fresh.
Don’t want to cook? Canned fish is a great option for on the go if you don’t have a microwave or a proper way to store the meat during the day. Simply toss on top of a salad and you’re good to go!
For snacks, greek yoghurt is a perfect addition to your meal prep. It can be combined with fruit for a filling and tasty snack that is both quick to prepare and quick to eat!
Veggies: Your vitamin and fiber powerhouse.
Veggies are the backbone of any prepped meal! Not only do they add a good dose of fiber and nutrients to your day, but they also bulk up the meal to keep you feeling full (fiber is really good at that.) Try to include at least a single fist sized portion in your meal, as shown in the above template.
Veggies can be added in a variety of ways:
- Cook them as a stir-fry style dish, or add them in the same pan you’re putting in the oven, so they are mixed in with the meat
- Prepare them as a salad
- Chop them separately and simply microwave when ready to eat
- Chop them into sticks and enjoy with some hummus dip!
Pretty much all types of vegetables are useful to add into your meal prep, so it just comes down to your personal preference:
- Pre-packaged or chopped-for-you veggie packs are a quick and easy way to add veggies without extra prep time! I’m looking at you baby carrots!
- Legumes count under the vegetable group! So this cup of beans counts as both protein and veggies. I hate the term “superfood” but it’s really hard not to use it for legumes 🙂
Carbs (grains & starches) in particular.
For a meal that boosts your energy and keeps you full, make sure to add some carbs! As shown in the health meal template above, a single serving of carbohydrates is the size of your fist.
A few different types of carbs include:
- Rolled oats
- Bread or wraps
Grains are very easy to prepare and a welcome addition to a plain meat and veggie dish. They’ll usually last for the week if you prepare them in one batch, so prepare in advance and keep them in the fridge to make it easy and quick to eat during the week!
Rolled oats are a fantastic breakfast option – you can prepare batches of overnight oats or even a number of dry meals that can be quickly microwaved and eaten on the go! Add fruit and even yoghurt to keep things interesting and tasty!
Fats – pour some olive oil!
Fat is the most calorie-dense macro. My favorite one is olive oil. Just make sure you’re aware of the serving size – liquid fats in particular are almost impossible to eyeball. A single serving of, e.g., olive oil is worth 119 calories, and if you think you can tell whether your salad has one or two tablespoons of oil then you’re so mistaken.
Nuts also belong to this group. They’re great for snacks but can also be served as part of your main meal.
Meal Prep Sunday: How do you put 5 lunches together?
An easy way to achieve both variety and less time in the kitchen is to batch cook (hence the Meal Prep Sunday)! Now there are different ways to do this:
- Cook different foods (lentils, beans, chicken, etc.) and freeze some portions so that in future weeks all you have to do is take a container out of the freezer and into your lunch bag.
- Cook one main food and use that as part of your main dish for multiple days of the week to come: just “style” in multiple different ways.
If you go with the first option, you’ll have to put in quite a bit of time, once, but you’ll be benefiting for multiple weeks and most likely you won’t have to make every Sunday a meal prep Sunday.
However, today we’re covering how to get the higher quantify of meals from the least amount of time, so it’s the second option I’ll be discussing.
So say you wanted all 5 lunches to come from the main food you cooked on your meal prep Sunday. Here is an example week using roasted chicken as your main food:
- Monday: Roasted chicken chopped up and mixed with rice and cooked veggies, with teriyaki sauce.
- Tuesday: Roasted chicken with a side of pasta and cooked veggies.
- Wednesday: Roasted chicken with sweet potato and a side of greens.
- Thursday: Roasted chicken in a salad wrap.
- Friday: Roasted chicken chopped up and served in taco format with a serving of sour cream and cooked veggies.
The above plan only requires only one type of chicken to be prepared – then a number of different and tasty meals can be created from there.
Rice, veggies, and pasta don’t really take much time to cook; they can be prepped in the weekend or you could get them done during the week for added freshness.
So while eating chicken for the full week may sound boring at first, it gets less boring when you prep and style in different ways, esp. if you add different spices to different pieces of chicken when you get them done on Meal Pre Sunday.
Again this was an extreme example. I do not necessarily recommend eating meat every day of the week. But it’s a great way to show how putting an hour on Meal Prep Sunday to roast the chicken can be paying off throughout the whole week.
Ideally, using the above example, you will be cooking enough chicken to consume 2 or 3 days a week, some more to put in the freezer in different containers, and the rest of the lunches you’ll get from the freezer – using the food you’ve cooked in previous weeks.
This way you still put in little time every Meal Prep Sunday without sacrificing variety.
3 extra tips for meal prep creativity:
- Use sauces and spices liberally! It’s a good idea to keep a variety of spices on hand to change the flavor of each meal. This is the key to making your meals edible and exciting, as opposed to always preparing plain and boring foods that are a chore to eat.
- Take sauces on the side. Take sauces and salad dressings in a separate container so your prepared meal doesn’t get soggy and ruin your lunch. This also means you can choose how much to add to your meal on the day. Just remember portion sizes can add up quickly, so take only as much as you think you need.
- How to prevent meats from drying out (I’m looking at you, chicken breast). It’s a good idea to cook with oils and even add oils or sauces after cooking. Again, just make sure you check your portion sizes because oils in particular are extra difficult to eye-ball.
You can have a whole week’s worth of food prepared in an hour – but it’s going to take practice.
Ok let’s be honest here. If you’re not used to cooking or if you’ve never tried meal prepping before then it’s going to take some time to get a week’s worth of food in an hour.
You see meal prepping is a skill. The more you practice the better – and faster – you’ll become. The first time you, e.g., cook the roasted chicken above, it may take you a little more time to get organized, go grocery shopping, find the right pan, the right seasoning, etc.
But the more you practice the more these behaviors become automatic. Yup, I’m talking about creating habits here.
You see, making this Sunday a meal prep Sunday is one thing. But the real win, and the real benefits, lie in making every Sunday a meal prep Sunday.
So again if you’re a newbie into this, don’t rush into creating 5 different lunches on your first Sunday. Take it slow – prepare one or two meals. Let yourself ease into this routine of meal prepping each week.
As it feels more and more natural you can start going from 2 days a week to 3, 4, 5. You can then think about meal prepping for snacks too.
The key here is to take it slow so that you don’t overwhelm yourself. Feeling overwhelmed will mark the death of your meal prep Sunday aspirations so do your best to avoid it by taking it slow!
Now let’s take this over to you: What is your favourite meal to take on the go? Let me know in the comments below!
- Lachat, C., Nago, E., Verstraeten, R., Roberfroid, D., Van Camp, J., Kolsteren, P. (2012).
Eating out of home and its association with dietary intake: A systematic review of the evidence. Obesity Reviews, 13 (4), 329-346.
- Nago, E. S., Lachat, C. K., Dossa, R. A. M., Kolsteren, P. W. (2014).
Association of Out-of-Home Eating with Anthropometric Changes: A Systematic Review of Prospective Studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 54 (9), 1103-1116.