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As tempting as it may be to order in or live off the office bagel tray, planning your own meals can have big payoffs — for both your health and your wallet.
Take lunch for example. In one survey, people said they spend about $20 per week on lunch, amounting to more than one grand per year. Factor in the pricier chains, dining out more than a couple of times per week, or living in a big city, and you could be spending much more. Setting your budget aside, it seems pretty obvious that frequently picking up lunch is less healthy and more costly than preparing meals at home, and science backs this up.
A little bit of meal prep and you could be on your way to a healthier, leaner body. In one study among more than 100,000 participants, meal planning practices were tied to improvements in diet quality, increased diet variety and were linked to lower body weight. Here’s why: When you plan your meals, you’re less likely to buy prepared foods or dine on takeout dishes, which tend to be higher in calories, sodium, added sugar and saturated fat.
How to meal plan like a pro
Meal planning isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Spend just 10 or 15 minutes mapping out your meals, jot down what you need and head to the store. That’s it. And since the holidays are busy enough, we’ve also got suggestions for streamlining meal prep. Here are six simple steps that’ll help you get organized and take the overwhelm out of meal planning and prepping.
1. Decide on your meal prep strategy. One way to go is to choose up to three breakfasts, lunches and dinners you’ll make this week. You’ll minimize meal prep if you plan to have some meals on repeat. Also, for this step, think about whether your weekends look different than your week, and make sure you account for that in your plan. For instance, maybe you have time to cook breakfast or make a more elaborate dinner over the weekend.
If you’d rather not commit to recipes, make a list of simple, unseasoned, or lightly seasoned ingredients (such as plain chickpea pasta, brown rice, rotisserie chicken, tofu, and roasted veggies like broccoli) that you can season and combine during the week. (See meal ideas for more on this below.)
2. Fill your pantry with healthy convenience foods. Items such as canned tuna and salmon, canned beans (no- or low-sodium preferred), canned or boxed soups (again, low-sodium), microwavable whole grains (including brown rice and quinoa), bean-based and whole grain pastas, and nut butters (or nut-free butters) are easy ingredients that shave time off of meal prep.
3. Stock your fridge and freezer strategically. Stocking the basics at home makes planning, prepping, and last-minute meal changes even easier. Some healthy options include eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage and/or ricotta cheese, shredded cheese, frozen fruits and veggies, frozen edamame and peas, frozen whole grain waffles, and veggie burgers.
4. Make a list. Use whatever method works for you. Some people swear by a digital reverse shopping list, which is a master document of all the things you regularly eat or cook with. Basically, you’re taking inventory of your kitchen rather than just a list of foods you need. Then, highlight or use an identifier (such as an emoji) next to the items you need to buy. This gives you a big picture of everything you have in your fridge and pantry, making it less likely you forget an important ingredient (or overbuy something you already have).
5. Lean on easy seasonings. Everything but the bagel seasoning, Italian and Greek seasoning, dried herbs and spices, lemons, pesto, low-sugar marinara sauce, tahini, and coconut aminos or lower-sodium soy sauce come in handy when you want to upgrade a bland meal or quickly transform unseasoned ingredients into a delicious entree.
6. Prep extra veggies. Say you’ve got your cutting board out to chop broccoli — well, don’t stop there! For example, slice up some cucumbers to have as a snack or alongside a sandwich, and make another veggie to use in salads and grain bowls throughout the week. You’ll have the same amount of cleanup on night one and minimize cleanup (aka save time) later in the week.
Make breakfast a no brainer. Have a simple list of go-to options or make-ahead meals that make mornings easier. Think: Greek yogurt with berries and nuts, easy egg bite muffins, baked oats, smoothies, and high-protein avocado toast (mash white beans or chickpeas into the avocado and serve with a sliced boiled egg on top or on the side).
Keep things simple by making some unseasoned foundational ingredients (such as baked or grilled chicken breasts, sauteed shrimp, quinoa, or brown rice) that you can dress up and mix and match as you please. For instance, make a shrimp Caesar salad with pine nuts, parmesan, and bottled dressing one day and then a shrimp-veggie brown rice bowl another day. Or, have a tuna sandwich for one lunch and then toss tuna into a veggie-loaded pasta for dinner later in the week. Need more inspiration? Joy Bauer’s Harvest Bowl and Burrito Bowl ought to give you some fresh ideas. Basic ingredients like rotisserie or baked chicken, quinoa, and canned beans work well in these recipes.
Your best chance of getting through the day without distracting hunger is to choose a protein- and fiber-rich snack. Snacks that contain whole food sources of protein and fiber (say, from some combo of nuts, veggies, fruits, beans, eggs, or yogurt) offer a winning formula that keeps you full for hours. Plus, if your snack is dominant in protein- and fiber-rich food sources, these healthful ingredients are likely crowding out less healthful ones, namely added sugar and refined grains. Here are some pointers for picking a healthy, high protein, high fiber snack, along with some tasty options that fit the parameters.
What to look for in a healthy snack
- At least 3 grams of fiber (you need around 25-38 grams per day).
- 5 or more grams of protein (for reference, a boiled egg has about 6 grams).
- No more than 6 grams of added sugar (about 1 ½ teaspoons, but lower is better).
- Wholesome ingredients, like beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, veggies, eggs, yogurt, and cheese.
- No artificial sweeteners, like sucralose or aspartame (the stuff in the yellow and blue packets.
- No artificial colors or preservatives (often clues that something is overly processed).
Of course, you can also make a healthy snack using quick ingredients you have at home. An ideal combo is a fruit or veggie paired with a protein source, such as nuts, seeds, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, boiled eggs, canned tuna, or leftover chicken.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Sliced cucumbers with olive tapenade.
- Baby carrots with hummus or guacamole.
- Sliced apple with a slice of cheese.
- Sliced pears with nut or seed butter.
- Plain or lower-sugar Greek yogurt with berries or grapes.
Below, we’ve pulled together a list of some of our most popular healthy recipes on TODAY.com to make meal planning easier — feel free to swap out recipes for different days of the week or make enough of one dish to serve as leftovers to save time on another night. To make dinners well-balanced, we’ve offered serving suggestions, most of which involve the convenience items we’ve suggested throughout.
What a healthy meal plan looks like
Here’s a sample plan that serves as a blueprint for easy meal prep. You’ll see that breakfasts entail some make-ahead meals and some morning-of options. Lunches utilize the mix-and-match strategy outlined above. While we’ve offered five different dinner options, you can streamline the menu by making enough for leftovers.