If you're the type to get excited about weekly meal prep, then you're a special breed of human. And we salute you. If you're like the majority of the population, though, you probably despise preparing lunch for the work week. But there are tons of very good reasons to be more proactive about make-ahead meals. For one, a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Heath discovered people who often consume meals prepared at home are less likely to gain weight and suffer from type 2 diabetes than those who eat out.
In the study, published in PLOS Medicine's special issue Preventing Diabetes, researchers analyzed 58,051 women (from 1986 to 2012) and 41,676 men (from 1986 to 2010) from two separate studies. Researchers followed up with the men and women frequently, asking them how often they consumed lunch or dinner meals prepared at home and collected self-reported information on participants' eating habits and the onset/occurrence of type 2 diabetes.
The researchers found men and women who reported eating five to seven evening meals prepared at home during a week had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who consumed two pre-prepared meals or fewer in a week. One reason for the trend: Those eating healthier, homemade meals will see less weight gain and a low risk of developing type 2 diabetes; those who eat out have a higher inclination to eat fast food, which is high in calories but poor in nutrients, which can cause weight gain and a greater onset of type 2 diabetes.
So, if the takeaway is to make more meals at home, then the next logical step is making meal prep suck less. Here are four simple ways to make the process easier so you can eat healthy food—not have healthy food eat up all your free time and money.
1. Create a schedule—and stick to it
Make meal prep a part of your weekly routine, just like going to the gym is. Sunday is usually the easiest day for people to dedicate a few hours to cooking and preparing lunch for the following week. It's logical. It doesn't interfere with your weekend plans (if you do it in the evening) and you can cook for Monday-Friday without your food spoiling (depending upon what you're preparing). But if you find yourself getting tied to the kitchen longer than you'd like, then only prep for two or three days out, then cook again in the middle of the week (say you do Sunday and Wednesday). This ensures your food is fresh and, best of all, it's a more realistic timeframe. You're only going to keep up meal prep if it's simple, convenient, and manageable.
2. Have a game plan
Crafting a plan may seem like more of a nuisance than meal-prep itself, but trust us, it's not. How many meals a week are you preparing? Just lunch? Or breakfast and dinner, too? What macros are you working with or trying to stay under? Search for healthy recipes that fit your goals and make a good old fashioned grocery list.
Look at supermarket flyers to see what's on sale before you shop, too—if it's chicken breast, you can be sure to include that great low-carb chicken recipe in your game plan. This will help you avoid making multiple trips to the grocery store, minimize food waste, and prevent you from overeating since you can better manage proper portion sizes.
3. Keep ingredients simple
It may seem like a good idea to cook two to three different meals to spread out through the week to keep your tastebuds suprised and happy. But be practical. Do you want to buy three different types of protein and sides to create gourmet meals? If you enjoy cooking—say, you're a guy who just really loves food and being in the kitchen—go for it. Otherwise, stick to the basics and choose just one or two things to make each week. (You can start with these 10 easy recipes for lean muscle that even an idiot can make.) Get your variety instead by cooking something different every week. (This will save you time, money, and sanity.)
4. Get the right equipment
So you picked out your recipes, made a grocery list, and came home with bags of gorgeous ingredients. But wait, you don't have a skillet. Or a pot. Or even a measuring cup to speak of. Ensure you're good to go by checking out this list of 10 kitchen and cooking essentials. Also key: containers for storing the fruits of your labor. Opt for leak-proof glass containers (rubbermaid.com) over plastic; they're your safest bet if you're constantly reheating your food. There are also freezer-friendly containers (amazon.com) if you make food well in advance, as well as stackable containers (bentgo.com) that take up less space. This way, you can make sure all your hard work in the kitchen doesn't go to waste—literally.