Whether you want to shed pounds, learn portion control or save time in the kitchen during busy weekdays, meal prepping can help you achieve your goals. But if planning your meals becomes more of a headache than a help, you might need to hit the pause button and reassess your prepping process.
"Meal planning should make your life less stressful — not more — so if it's overwhelming to you, that's a sign that you haven't landed on the best method for the way you want to cook and eat," Samantha Cassetty, RD, nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock: The Hidden Sugar in Your Food and 100+ Smart Swaps to Cut Back, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Here, Cassetty explains how to dodge the seven most common meal prepping mistakes and plan like a pro.
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1. Meal Prepping Too Many Things at Once
"Some people like reserving hours on a Sunday to meal prep, but this strategy can quickly fall apart if it makes you feel overwhelmed and resentful that you have to spend so much time in the kitchen," Cassetty says. This type of large-scale Sunday prep can also backfire if your plans happen to change.
Instead, Cassetty recommends working with a more flexible time-saving system where you have a few meal components going at once on any given day. For example, you can stir-fry veggies on the stove while making quinoa in the Instant Pot and baking chicken in the oven.
"In this case, the items require very little prep or hands-on time, and you can add other components and seasonings throughout the week to add variety," Cassetty says.
She also suggests pinpointing the parts of a meal that are most challenging or burdensome for you and troubleshooting solutions to make prep easier. "So, for example, if you're stuck on the chicken, buy a rotisserie chicken and just prep the veggies and grains, or if you're stuck on the grains, buy frozen brown rice, quinoa or a flavorful grain-based frozen entree."
2. Not Prepping Perishables First
"People shop for fresh food with the best intentions, but if you aren't using perishables first, it can lead to a lot of waste in food and money," Cassetty says. To avoid spoiling produce and meat, design your weekly meal prep around these fresh ingredients. "So, if you know you have ground turkey in the fridge, you'd plan to make tacos or turkey burgers early in the week," Cassetty says.
If you struggle with this part of planning, Cassetty recommends using an app like Mealime, which helps you create a shopping list and identify perishable ingredients so you use them first. And if you need inspiration for meal ideas, this useful tool also generates recipes based on your preferred ingredients to further ease the burden of planning.
3. Making Meals That Don’t Keep Well
Not all foods make for great leftovers. Breaded and fried fish, for example, might be fantastic the first night, but a soggy mess the second. Since making use of leftovers (either as a complete or repurposed dish) is the crux of meal planning, it's important to incorporate foods that hold up and reheat well, Cassetty says.
Whole grains work great in this way and can form the base of your weeknight meals, Cassetty says. For example, you can make a simple grain-based salad with cooked quinoa, sun-dried tomatoes and chopped herbs like basil or parsley, and then vary your protein options, serving your salad with chicken, salmon and drained, rinsed pulses (such as canned chickpeas or white beans) on different nights of the week.
"If you serve it with the chicken and beans twice and salmon once, you'll get four meals — practically covering the whole work week — out of a big batch of the grain salad," Cassetty says.
4. Making Meals That Lack Balance
While you might be getting plenty of calories, if your meals don't contain a proper combination of nutrients, you can still end up hungry, low energy and moody, Cassetty says. Conversely, balanced dishes deliver energy and keep your stomach satisfied, which can also help minimize snacking and aid in weight loss or maintenance, if that's your goal.
So, how can you guarantee you're prepping balanced meals? "For the sake of planning, the key is to think about meal elements like puzzle pieces," Cassetty says. To complete the puzzle, you need non-starchy veggies, lean protein, fat (ideally plant-based, like extra virgin olive oil, nuts or avocado) and starches (preferably a whole grain or starchy veggie).
When you're planning a meal, Cassetty says you should ask yourself if it contains most of these puzzle pieces. Then, if you're missing one (or more), think about some tasty ways to incorporate it. "For example, if you've made a stir-fry with veggies, tofu and brown rice, you might add some chopped cashews for the fat element," she says.
"Another good trick to help you strike a healthy balance is to have twice the amount of non-starchy veggies to starchy foods," she says. So, in the stir-fry example, fill your plate with twice as many veggies and greens as brown rice.
5. Not Prepping Enough
New to meal planning? It might take some time to get the hang of how much food to prep for you and your family. If you've made too little, add some frozen veggies to your plate, Cassetty says. Frozen veggies require no prep, other than heating them to your liking, and will beef up the volume — and nutrient profile — of your meal.
A meal planning app can also come in handy here, helping you plan for the number of people you're cooking for, Cassetty says. Many apps simplify the process by generating recipes and food shopping lists based on the number of portions you're making.
Alternatively, if you've cooked too much, Cassetty suggests incorporating your leftovers into tomorrow's lunch or snack, so you don't waste food. You might also consider what parts of your meal can be frozen, and save these for a future dinner.
6. Forgetting to Prep Snacks
While it's called meal planning, snacks are an essential part of the prepping equation, too. Cassetty says omitting snacks from meal planning can lead to over-snacking or under-fueled afternoons. "A well-designed snack can help tame your hunger between meals while also providing the nutrition that your body and brain need to stay focused," she adds.
When planning snacks, Cassetty recommends building with a fruit or veggie base and adding either a healthy fat (such as avocado) or a protein option (like a boiled egg). This winning mix of macros will keep your blood sugar steady and help you stave off the belly rumbles.
Too pressed for time to prep snacks? Have a back-up plan handy, she says, in the form of healthy pre-packaged and pre-portioned foods, like a bag of baby carrots or a healthy packaged snack.
7. Modeling Your Meal Prep After Others'
"The biggest mistake you can make is trying to use a method that works for someone else rather than finding the meal planning method that works for you," Cassetty says. In other words, meal prep isn't a one-size-fits-all technique.
Indeed, there's a whole spectrum of meal planning possibilities. Some people prefer prepping and portioning full recipes, while others might do best by having some meal components (like quinoa, brown rice, grilled chicken, ready-to-eat salad and roasted veggies) to mix and match, Cassetty says.
And let it be known: No one method is better than the other. The key to success is figuring out what planning strategy makes your life easier, Cassetty says. Because when you find the right technique that fits your lifestyle, you're more likely to stick to it, thereby creating a long-term healthy habit.