How to Meal Prep: A Dietitian Advises on 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Stephanie Skinner-Lucas - The Upside Blog

by | Read time: 6 minutes

Are you tired of having to decide what to eat every day and the struggle of making it happen? A meal prep guide may be exactly what you need. By preparing meals in advance, you can save yourself time and money, reduce stress and eat the healthiest, cleanest diet possible. If you’re new to meal prep, it may be helpful to brush up on some basics before you begin. Here, you’ll find some of the most common mistakes people make – and ways to avoid them – so you can start creating meals in advance with ease.

Woman Learning How to Meal Prep Handling Containers of Prepped Food on Kitchen Counter

Meal Prep Guide: 5 Mistakes to Avoid

Meal prep mistake #1: Starting too big  

Taking on more than we can manage is often the first mishap with meal prep. Setting a goal to prep 21 meals in a week isn’t always realistic. This can lead to overwhelm and frustration and potentially cause food waste.

Instead, start small and keep meal prep simple. Look at your weekly calendar and choose to prepare a breakfast, lunch or evening meal for the three busiest days of the week. Or, target one meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) that you struggle with daily and plan to make five days’ worth of that meal.

When planning meal prep time, keep in mind that it may take a little longer when you’re first starting out. Over time and with consistency, the process will become more efficient, and you’ll be able to create more nutritious meals in less time. Before you know it, your meal prep will increase from one meal to a full week.

Meal prep mistake #2: Scheduling only one meal prep day

Meal prep is dependent on organization. If specific days are not designated for tasks like planning (menu and recipes), shopping and cooking each week, you might be more likely to push the whole project aside.

Planning, shopping and cooking can take place in one day or on multiple days, depending on what works best for your schedule and how many meals are being prepared. Once you decide on a schedule, try to stick with it as closely as possible.

If you’re planning to prep meals for three or four days, consider two prep days for better variety, freshness (food quality), food safety and making meal prep manageable (reducing overall meal prep time). For example, Sundays and Wednesdays might work best as your cooking days. Unable to squeeze in two days? No worries! Refrigerate three to four days’ worth of meals and freeze the remainder. When planning, be sure to choose recipes that freeze well. Soups, stews and casseroles are better for freezing than pasta or rice dishes.

Meal prep mistake #3: Prepping too much or too little

Being overzealous when starting a meal prep routine can lead to mistakes, especially around portion control. One of the most common mistakes is preparing too much food. Home kitchens are responsible for around 40 to 50 percent of wasted food per person annually. Food waste is the result of poor planning, overbuying and cooking too much. You can solve these concerns with planning the week ahead. Remember to factor in the unexpected, like leftovers or surprise outings with coworkers, family and friends.

When shopping, make a list and stick with it, avoiding impulse purchases. Use recipes that indicate portion sizes and provide nutrition information to ensure enough food is prepared to create balanced meals. If you’re planning to use leftovers, choose dishes that will hold up over the course of a few days. Sometimes our favorite foods can lose their appeal when eaten too many days in a brief period.

If you’re on the opposite end of the meal-prep spectrum and find yourself cooking too little or you’re still hungry after meals, consider supplementing dishes with frozen vegetables or some pre-cooked protein. There is little prep work besides heating with these additions. It’s an easy fix to increase the volume of your meals and help you feel satiated, thanks to the added fiber and protein.

Meal prep mistake #4: Using incorrect storage containers

Another common mishap with meal prep is using the wrong storage containers or covers (aluminum foil or plastic wrap). Preserving pre-made dishes in the right vessel is an important part of the meal prep and planning process to create palatable results. Choose containers that are durable, easy to clean, dishwasher and microwave safe, have snug lids that are spill proof, leak proof and stackable. Options include plastic containers, glass containers and silicone reusable bags.

When freezing foods, choose containers that are resistant to moisture vapor, will protect foods from absorbing unwanted odors and flavors, and are easy to label and date. If adequate storage space is a concern, select containers that are the right size for the food you’ve prepared. This could look like packing certain foods in storage or freezer bags and other foods in hard-sided containers.

Regardless of the container, follow this food storage tip to keep your prepped meals tasty, crispy and fresh. Do not pack dry and wet foods in the same container – this will help prevent dishes from becoming soggy. Also keep dressings and sauces in separate containers until mealtime.

Lastly, before you begin packing your meals, always make sure you have plenty of clean, empty storage containers on hand for your various cooked dishes.

Meal prep mistake #5: Missing balance to create a nutritious meal

Variety in meal prep helps to create a healthier lifestyle. Meeting your daily nutritional needs leaves you feeling energized and satisfied. A complete meal plan will include all of the nutrients your body needs for best health: vitamins and minerals from fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates, including fiber.

Start with a visual example of a healthy-eating plate to pattern your meals. A great place to start is MyPlate. A nutritionally sound meal consists of one-fourth grains (such as whole grain pasta and quinoa), one-fourth protein (such as chicken breast and salmon) and the other half of the plate filled with colorful fruits and vegetables. Incorporate healthy fats, such as nuts and olive oil, in moderate amounts. Centering your meal prep on nutrition results in a balanced menu.

If you find that you’re falling short on nutritional balance, consider prepping some snacks. Although a snack is not a meal, it can be a healthy supplement. For a nutrient-packed snack, choose a fruit or vegetable as the base, then add a healthy fat such as avocado or nuts or a protein such as boiled egg or tuna. This snack combination is a winner to fuel your brain and body with essential nutrients.

Charting your meal prep course

Practice will help you find the meal-prep style that’s right for you and your family. Don’t feel pressured to follow someone else’s routine. Whether you start meal prepping for hectic workdays, for one specific meal of the week, or for batch-cooked protein for two or three days of the week, the time spent in advance can yield positive returns. Keep it up! Before you know it, a short-term experiment may turn  into a healthy, long-long habit.

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