For some people, the thought of meal prep — all the planning, organizing, chopping and storing — triggers a jolt of stress to the system. But preparing healthy meals ahead of time doesn't have to be a hassle. In fact, meal prep can be a form of self-care, as long as you take the right approach.
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Here, dietitian Serena Marie Hunt, RD explains how meal prepping can reduce stress and shares tips on how to make the process simpler and more enjoyable.
How Meal Prep Benefits You Mentally
When life feels hectic, there are days when dinner becomes just another tedious task on your long list of to-dos. And when you're tired and hungry, cobbling together a meal can feel like a feat of mental gymnastics.
Meal prepping takes the day-to-day stress out of deciding what to eat and makes it possible to "honor your hunger," Hunt tells LIVESTRONG.com.
If hunger hits and we don't have healthy, nutrient-dense foods on hand, "we are more likely to choose high-calorie fatty or sugary foods because our body wants a lot of energy quickly," Hunt says. Because these foods often come pre-packaged, the time-saving convenience factor is also very appealing — especially when you're ravenous.
But when it comes to self-care, ultra processed foods packed with salt, sweeteners and fat not only hurt your overall health in the long run — eating them is linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, among other concerns — but may also sabotage your mental health in the short term.
For example, getting too many simple carbs, like those found in sugary foods and drinks, causes your blood sugar levels to spike and dip, and this rollercoaster can affect your mood. Conversely, eating complex carbs (think: whole grains like brown rice and oatmeal) is thought to increase your serotonin levels, which may create a calming effect, according to the Mayo Clinic.
All this to say, prepping nutritious foods in advance helps facilitate healthier choices at mealtime and fosters a more positive relationship with food, Hunt says.
How to Practice More Self-Care During Meal Prep
Below, Hunt breaks down ways to simplify and enjoy meal prepping more, so the process feels closer to a positive self-care strategy than a chore.
1. Cut Back on Counting
If you're following an eating plan that includes counting calories or macros, you might feel the need to track every morsel of food while you prep, which can quickly become time-consuming and stressful. But you don't have to get bogged down by the arithmetic.
"Rather than weighing everything and obsessing over hitting your macros, keep meal prep simple by prepping batches of protein, (i.e. chicken, salmon, tofu), veggies and starch (i.e. quinoa, sweet potatoes or beans) for the week," Hunt says.
"By prepping in parts (protein, starch and veggies), you are likely to set up a plate that is balanced from a macronutrient and calorie perspective, but without getting tripped up in the math," she explains.
Once you stop fixating on the numbers, you can relax and get creative with your food. Hunt recommends using different healthy toppings, herbs and spices to change up the flavor profiles of your meals.
For instance, "you can take the same three foods and add salsa and avocado one day and then tomato sauce and parmesan cheese the next day," she says. And when it comes to feeling happy with your food and sticking to a healthy diet, a little variety can go a long way.
2. Keep Recipes Simple
If the time investment is what's keeping you from meal prepping, know that it's possible to scale back.
"Meal prep should not be a time-consuming, laborious process," Hunt says. "Start with the easiest thing you can manage and build from there."
That means taking small, simple steps that'll save you time later, like buying a pre-roasted chicken or pre-cut veggies or having easy-to-whip up foods like eggs or pre-seasoned tofu and tempeh in your fridge. These work-arounds help you make sure your meal prep gets done, even in a real time crunch.
Hunt says she always stocks her freezer with convenient options like veggie burgers and nutrient-dense frozen veggies, like broccoli, cauliflower rice and pre-spiraled butternut squash.
"When a week is really stressful, I reach for basics like a veggie burger on toast with broccoli, or some runny eggs over butternut squash and high-fiber crackers for dipping," Hunt says — proving you don't need to be a master chef or a time-management pro to prepare a healthy meal stress-free.
3. Be Flexible
"Remember not to be too rigid when doing meal prep," Hunt says. "Just because you prepped something does not mean you have to eat it."
If you're pining for pizza, for example, have a slice or two. "When you're really craving something else, you have permission to order or cook something else, but consider using the veggie or protein you already prepped to make the meal a little healthier," she says.
In other words, toss the pre-cut mushrooms you bought or the broccoli you roasted on top of your pizza to add more good-for-you nutrients.
4. Assess Your Stress
When something about the meal prep process feels stressful, listen to those feelings. Identify the stressor and work toward solutions that slash the anxiety from the process and help you feel more at ease.
For example, maybe food shopping is making you feel uneasy. Whether you feel overwhelmed trying to pick the healthiest foods, or you're afraid of possibly exposing yourself to the novel coronavirus, the grocery store may be an uncomfortable place for many reasons, Hunt says.
Consider alternatives like online shopping or a delivery service — or at least go to the store prepared.
"I like to pick one to two recipes for each category of protein, veggie and starch before heading to the store," Hunt says, adding that she recommends writing down the ingredients you need on paper or in a note saved on your phone.
Since you know exactly what you need to buy, this plan-ahead strategy can help you move through the supermarket quickly and reduce overwhelming feelings.
5. Factor in Some Fun
Meal prep doesn't have to be all about business. Indeed, there are plenty of ways to make the process more pleasurable.
"There are no rules to meal prepping, so do whatever you want to make it fun and stress-free," Hunt says. For her, that's listening to podcasts or blasting Broadway hits while cooking.
Need other ideas? She suggests pouring yourself a glass of wine or enlisting a loved one to help so meal prep becomes a time to be together. You might even consider setting up a video call with a friend so you can share your meal prep virtually — and catch up at the same time.