Failing to prepare is preparing to fail!
So, you are interested in meal prepping. Congratulations! I am an avid meal preparer and it is a lifestyle that I have come to embrace and enjoy.
Notice that I used the word lifestyle to describe this idea? Meal prepping is a way of life and takes time, energy and requires a sacrifice or two. Understand that some of the free time that you have to binge watch a TV series on Netflix (or in my case, trips to the beach for paddle boarding) may be dramatically reduced in exchange for prepping. But you will reap your reward throughout the week.
What is meal prepping?
Before we move forward, let’s define what I’m talking about. My definition of meal prepping is the process of preparing food, raw and cooked, for future consumption. For example, chopping onions to use in dishes throughout the week and preparing full meals in advance. This post will focus on preparing pescatarian friendly mid-day meals and snacks.
You may have tried a form of meal prepping in the past by brown bagging, e.g. taking last night’s leftovers to work for lunch. Just for fun, here is a brown bag lunch calculator that will provide an estimate of what you saved.
I have been preparing meals to take to work for years, but I got heavily into the meal prep lifestyle about four years ago. My primary motivation was gaining control of my family’s health. By preparing delicious portable meals and snacks at home, I was able to prevent visits to the vending machine and company commissary (think Google’s cafeteria), which can be filled with unhealthy temptation.
Secondarily, hubby and I are both mid-day exercisers. After 60 minutes of working out, we have little time to grab a healthy bite to eat – and One can only eat so many sandwiches. We needed a meal solution that would not result in a two-hour lunch break and didn’t involve commercially made frozen microwavable meals (you can make you own frozen meals – more on this later).
Lastly, budget was a consideration. As a pescatarian, virtually everything that I eat at home is far less expensive than the cost of similar quality food at restaurants. For example the wild salmon salad that I make at home for $4 cost about $12 at the local salad café.
Same goes for our favorite snacks. The snacks in the photo cost about $3.50 at home, but on the open market I’d pay about $9 for Barney’s almond butter, organic trail mix, one hard boiled brown egg and Yogi Indian chai and a tangerine. I urge you to find your motivation for meal prepping. It will keep you inspired and help get you through those days when you’d rather be paddle boarding (like me).
From a practical standpoint, you will need to prepare for meal prepping. Yes, prepare to prepare! If you dive-in without preparing, frustration will ensue. I have outlined my steps below.
1. Clean out your refrigerator and make space for your meals.This is important because it will allow you to start with a clean slate. Start by throwing out all of the old food, including ancient condiment bottles taking up valuable real estate. Use your favorite cleaning product to clean up any spills, dried herbs or food hiding in crevices. Once this is done, you will have a sparkling new home for your meals. Keep in mind that your refrigerator should maintain a temperature of 40°F or lower and 0°F or lower for your freezer. This process will become routine after a few weeks and may prove therapeutic. If you need help figuring out how to clean out your refrigerator check out this post by @thekitchn.
2. Take an inventory. As you are cleaning out your refrigerator, make a list of what you have – Kalamata olives, nuts, lemons, lettuce, marinated artichokes, whole grain mustard, etc. This list will help you during your upcoming shopping trip. For example, Greek salad is one of my favorite menu items, based on the list above, we already have four key ingredients – no need to by these at the market.
3. Purchase good quality storage containers. You get what you pay for so don’t buy cheap containers. You will be using these for at least 6-12 months so consider something fashionable as well. The idea here is that you eat with your eyes first, so if the food looks good and is packaged in an attractive manner, you will be more encouraged to eat it.
My favorite containers are made by a company called Sistema. They offer a variety of sizes that are cute, made well and spill proof. You can find them at stores like Home Goods, TJ Maxx, Whole Foods and Sprouts. You can also order then online at Amazon. Once you have them, wash them with warm soapy water.
4. Buy heavy-duty paper towels. You will need these for drying fruits and vegetables and for use as an absorbent for your food containers. I will explain this further in the food prep section.
5. Invest in good quality plastic bags. Since real estate in the refrigerator is limited, I like to maximize space by using plastic bags to store items like lettuce, spinach and olives. I can squeeze these in between containers and in small places since the bags take up less room. Make sure they are good quality and won’t leak or spill, or you will be back at step one.
Weekly menu design
This is the fun part for me! Figuring out what hubby and I will nosh on for the next four or five days is kind of an adventure. It also brings me a sense of calm, because I know that regardless how crazy things get during the week with us both running our own companies that we will eat well.
Beyond eating well for the sake of tasty food, eating well also means eating purposefully with nutrition in mind. Note that I am not a nutritionist or a dietician, but the meal ideas that I have mapped out all share nutritional principles at the basic level. If you have special dietary restrictions, please check with your medical provider.
After I have cleaned out my refrigerator and made a note of what I have on hand, I check-in with hubby to see if he has any food requests. This is important, because this gives him some ownership of the process and it ensures that he will actually enjoy the meal. Once I have his feedback, I balance it with my needs and I choose a theme for the week.
By theme I mean food theme such as soup, salad, wraps, finger foods, etc. I typically have two themes going at the same time, such as chowder and salad. This is because I get bored quickly with food and I like variety. Once you get the hang of meal prepping, you will find that it pretty easy to make different themes with the same basic ingredients. For example, a sandwich wrap is basically a salad wrapped in a tortilla or flat bread! See what I mean?
Ready? Set. Prep!
Let’s start with prepping salad and fresh fruit cups. What I love about salad is that it packs and stores beautifully for up to five days. No joke! It is also easily customizable, which helps fight boredom. The fruit cups work great as breakfast or a snack.
I will share below my process for making a Greek-inspired salad with grilled wild salmon and fresh fruit cups with cottage cheese.
1. Shop for ingredients. For the salad I purchase fresh wild salmon, romaine lettuce, feta cheese, Roma tomatoes, English cucumber and red onion lemons and Kalamata olives.For the fruit cups I typically purchase what is in season or on sale. My favorites include strawberries and blueberries. I also pick up cottage cheese (Greek yogurt is an alternative).
2. Next, I grab my favorite beverage and begin the process of washing, chopping and drying fruits & vegetables. This takes about 30 – 45 minutes so its important to make the process enjoyable. I listen to music or have one of my favorite TV series running in the background.
This is where the plastic bags come in handy. Once my lettuce is washed, chopped and dried via my salad spinner, I store it in a plastic bag with a folded paper towel at the bottom. The paper towel helps to absorb any residual moisture. I do the same for the cucumbers, tomatoes and red onion. They all get their own separate plastic bag with a paper towel on the bottom. When all of my salad fixings are done I store them in the refrigerator and start the salmon.
I buy a whole fillet salmon side and cut it into my desired portion size, about 3 ounces each. I season them with sea salt, black pepper, red pepper flake, fresh oregano and olive oil. I put this in the refrigerator to marinate then tackle the fruit.
With a clean cutting board and knife I rinse and chop the fruit. The rinsed blueberries go into a plastic bag with a paper towel on the bottom and the strawberries get the same treatment. I also bought a mango that I will keep whole and chop on Wednesday night for enjoying on Thursday and Friday (I like the mango fresh).
Next I grill my salmon. Once it is done I cover it and allow it to cool.
Pack your meals
Now that the prep is done, it is time to assemble the meals. Finally! For the Greek salad I use my folded paper towel technique and start building based on preference.
Using my 4 ounce containers, I portion out my cottage cheese and berries, and store it in the refrigerator.
Try meal prepping for one week and I think you will be amazed at how life changing it can be.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! Keep this in mind when food shopping and menu planning.
I prep meals that will last between 3-5 days in the refrigerator. The reason? Some food items stay fresher longer than others. Have you ever purchased a pre-packaged sandwich or meal from a market and there is a time stamp on it? The stamp is a freshness indicator.
The Greek salad with wild salmon recipe that I have walked you through will get hubby and I through until Wednesday or Thursday. This is because the salad keeps beautifully for about 5 days in the refrigerator, but the salmon is great for around 4 days. So typically on Thursday we want to switch things up. This could result in a “free” day where we both dine out for lunch, but it usually means putting together a fun this & that meal. Hubby loves these lunches!
Mid-week plan B
A this & that meal is a combination of our favorite small bites. Typically 4 to 5 food items that we enjoy. One of my favorite this & that meals consists of smoked oysters in olive oil, Saltine crackers, a variety of olives, cheddar cheese and cucumbers & hummus. If it sounds like party fare, it kinda is. It’s a great way to ease out the week.
I researched food safety and storage prior to developing my menu ideas and snacks, so rest assured that I am fully aware of how they taste a few days after packing. The results are always delicious. Things to keep in mind – salmon is great in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, hard boiled eggs are good for about 7, soups keep for about 4 days and salads about 5 days.
If you have questions about food storage or want to conduct your own research, I recommend the U.S. Food and Drug Administrations guidelines, or food safety’s website. There is also a food keeper app that you may want to download here on the USDA’s website.
My favorite snacks
I tend to have long periods of time in between meals so snacks are important to my lifestyle. I am not a big breakfast eater, but I do love my morning coffee. I have a couple of cups in the morning before heading to the office. And sometimes another when I arrive.
I typically work out around 11:30am, so I try to get a quick bite in around 10:15am. The snacks that I gravitate toward are things that are easy to eat, nutrient dense and packed with flavor. I left my fear of eating (good) fat behind about 6 months ago, so almond butter, hard boiled eggs and cheese are back on my regular menu in moderation.
I switch to tea in the afternoon. My first choice is peppermint because it excites both my palate and my senses. I love the way it smells! It also has medicinal properties and helps to clear my sinuses. When I need a pick me up, I gravitate towards a cup of black tea, usually India chai or chocolate chai. I was into green tea for a while, but got bored and started experimenting with the various forms of chai.
Drinking tea in the afternoon also helps keep me from mindless snacking. When afternoon boredom sets-in or some good-intentioned person brings in a pile of beautiful donuts into the office, I grab a cup of tea. I typically save donuts and birthday cake for a weekend calorie splurge! This way I can get exactly what I want, and not what is readily available.
If you are not careful with spending, snacks can cost a small fortune! That is why it is worth the time to buy them in bulk and prep them in advance. I got caught off guard a few weeks ago and one hard-boiled egg cost me $1.75 and a packet of Barney butter was $2.
Short list of my favorite snacks & mini-meals:
Mini Caprese sandwich
Humus with cucumbers
Nuts and seeds
Smoked salmon slices
Sardines (in olive oil)
I hope you found this post helpful! Please give me feedback and let me know what else you want to know about meal prepping.