Meal Prep Ideas for Busy People

By Carly Smith, BS, MPH(c) 

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So, you want to start meal prepping in 2024? Perhaps this is related to a larger goal to lose weight, eat cleaner, or meet your nutritional goals. To set yourself up for success, you have bought a container for each day of the week and started to plan your week-by-week meals. Maybe you’re planning to make the Sunday morning farmers market and subsequent wash, chop, and prep of your vegetables part of this new-you routine?

Once we begin to break down this resolution, we can see that it is composed of many smaller action steps, which many people may not have the time to do. Busy schedules often do not mix well with New Year’s resolutions that require a lot of time and effort.

Stanford Lifestyle Medicine’s head of the Healthful Nutrition pillar, Marily Oppezzo, PhD, MS shares that you only need to make a few adjustments to your meal prep plans to set you up for success!

“For the New Years’ resolutions, you can have your aspirational goal, but start with the side quests that lead up to that lofty goal in the end,” says Dr. Oppezzo. “Even if your first goal is to eat just one vegetable today, you are learning consistency and making progress. Incorporating one healthy habit a day based on your situation helps you feel successful and see that little accomplishments build up with time.”

3 Meal Prep Tips

“Realistically, not everyone has three hours every Sunday to dedicate to meal prep,” says Dr. Oppezzo, Registered Dietitian with 20+ years of experience in nutritional coaching. “If you have the time, that is great, but I encourage people to always have a back-up plan for when they don’t. Instead of ditching your resolution, rely on pre-cut vegetables, frozen vegetables, and bagged salads and add them wherever you can during the week.”

1. Frozen IS Fresh

Many of us succumb to the belief that frozen fruit and vegetables are not fresh, but oftentimes they are just as fresh, if not more, than those bought in the produce aisle or at the farmer’s market. You may prefer to buy fresh produce, but frozen produce is a great option when trying to make healthy meals in a pinch. Since these fruits and vegetables are frozen and preserved upon harvest, they will still maintain their day-one freshness once cooked.

2. Drawers of Doom

Dr. Oppezzo recommends avoiding the “drawer of doom”, or the drawer in the refrigerator that you toss all your veggies in. It is common to forget about these items once they are discarded into a drawer, especially during a busy morning or when you’re tired after a long day at the office. Instead, Dr. Oppezzo recommends keeping your healthy options on display so that they can help remind you of your nutrition goals. Throw your fruits and veggies into transparent containers and keep them within view on the shelf, rather than the drawer of doom. You can put all your less-than-healthy options in this drawer since you’ll grab for these items anyways.

3. You Know You

Perhaps the most important part of your meal-prep regimen is to be realistic with yourself. You know your schedule, abilities, and preferences the best. Your meal prep practices can adjust to match the time that you have available each week. If you have a free Sunday, you can spend more time preparing your meals for the busy week ahead. If you’re catching up on life on Sunday, perhaps you could opt for making a larger batch of quinoa or brown rice between activities to have on hand throughout the next few days. If you only have time for a quick trip to the grocery store on Sunday, shopping for convenient but still healthy options is just as good of an option if it helps you stick to your nutrition goals.

Dr. Oppezzo recommends grabbing a few microwavable grains and your preferred pre-cut, frozen produce to greatly cut down on cook time. Having these convenient staples can help keep healthy meals a viable option when spending an hour to cook a healthy meal is not realistic. The goal is to make meal prep easy, convenient, and consistent, rather than being overly repetitive or overly strict and giving up by the end of February.

“It is not so much about how psychologically committed you are, but more about what your life is like right now,” says Dr. Oppezzo. “Once you have mapped out your availability, you know how to best adjust your behaviors to keep with your resolutions using the time that you actually have.”