In working with clients, I’ve found that for most, meal prepping is one of the true secrets to success when it comes to changing both their health outcomes and body composition. When you have the right foods for your goals on hand, it makes staying on track much more likely and doable.
We’ve all experienced the flip side of not being prepared at some point, even at times when we have the best of intentions. Does this sound familiar?
- You rush in the door after a hectic day feeling famished.
- You fling the fridge door open to find either nothing at all, or a solid inventory of ingredients, such as raw chicken breast, some potatoes, a head of lettuce, and a few other raw veggies.
- You think to yourself, “those ingredients aren’t going to prepare themselves,” and washing, chopping, prepping, and cooking is way more time or work than you can handle right now.
- You pick up the phone or hop in the car: Last-minute takeout or pizza delivery to the rescue!
The above scenario isn’t necessarily bad — every once in a while. Life happens! But if you’re working towards a specific goal or are trying to address the wellness of your family and find that the above scenario is playing out on repeat, having a different backup plan might be in order.
When it comes to meal prep, there are certain convenience foods I recommend having on hand. This suggestion often surprises clients, with them frequently asking, “That’s really OK? That’s healthy?” To which I respond, “Compared to what alternative?” Some options might not necessarily be perfect from a nutrition standpoint, but they are better than restaurant food or fast food.
As I always say, don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. These are the convenience foods that I think are actually worth it when it comes to meal prep.
Precooked sausage, meats, or meatballs
Processed meats are not usually considered ideal, and you may have heard that certain studies have linked them to negative health outcomes, such as colon cancer. But it’s important to note that, in most cases, these studies look at preservative and additive-laden options not ones that have fewer, more recognizable ingredients. It’s also critical to consider the many benefits of getting enough protein in your diet and the positive impact that meat can have on your health.
I’m certainly not endorsing bologna or conventional lunch meats and hot dogs — but you might be surprised by the variety of decent options springing up at some natural grocers and large-box stores. Fully cooked versions with minimal and identifiable ingredients — primarily made of meat and spices — are becoming more and more readily available.
Here are some ways I’ve paired my recent precooked meat findings to whip up quick lunches or dinners:
- Chicken sausage (apple and gouda flavored) sliced with chopped veggies like cucumbers, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes, tossed with dressing and sunflower seeds for a chunky, colorful, salad.
- Italian-style meatballs warmed with a jar of no-added-sugar marinara, served on top of high-fiber chickpea pasta (which usually only takes seven to 10 minutes or so to cook).
- Mediterranean chicken skewers served atop pre-washed herbed salad mix with olives and jarred roasted red peppers.
- Nitrate-free turkey brats (made with ground turkey and spices) heated in a cast-iron skillet and served with sauerkraut and stone-ground mustard.
- Salmon burger heated up and served with aioli (made quickly by combining an avocado oil-based mayonnaise with a dash of lemon, garlic, and dill) and sliced cucumber.
Be sure to check the ingredients list on precooked meat items and when possible avoid additives such as nitrates and nitrates (often listed as a compound with either sodium or potassium), as well as processed seed oils such as canola, safflower, or soybean oils.
Frozen veggies and fruit
Since it’s already washed and chopped, frozen produce can save you a ton of time on prep. Plus, you don’t need to worry about it going bad quickly, so it’s something you can always keep stocked. As a bonus, produce is usually frozen at the peak of ripeness, preserving its flavor and nutrient content.
Having a stash in the freezer can also help increase the likelihood of you getting in the desired seven or more cups of produce per day — even on your busiest days. Additionally, it’s easier to access some out-of-season produce in frozen form if you’re looking for variety but the desired fruit or veggie is not currently available locally.
I always recommend having a stock of frozen berries and a variety of frozen veggies on hand. Here are some client favorites for ways to have frozen produce come to the rescue:
- Frozen broccoli steamed and either topped with some shredded cheddar cheese or tossed with some pastured butter, salt, pepper, garlic, and a squeeze of lemon.
- Stir-fry vegetable mixes sautéed from frozen with a bit of sesame oil, garlic, ginger, coconut aminos (a gluten- and soy-free soy sauce alternative), and red pepper flakes.
- Frozen “riced” cauliflower cooked quickly in a skillet and used as a base for a taco bowl or burrito bowl with a dash of lime, salt, and chopped cilantro mixed in.
- Frozen berries tossed into a protein shake or mixed into plain Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.
Fast, easy, colorful, and full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber — frozen produce is a no-brainer to utilize to help you stay on track. Aim to buy versions without added sugars or sauces, and focus on options in which the fruit or vegetable is the only ingredient.
Batch cooking a dozen eggs at a time and having them ready for a quick snack, breakfast, or salad topper is a great weekly strategy in a healthy nutrition plan. But as we know, our intentions might not always come to fruition.
Given that it’s easy to boil and peel a bunch of eggs at once, it’s hard for some of us to justify buying pre-portioned and already prepared hard-boiled eggs. However, going this route occasionally might be worth it, particularly if you’ve been meaning to meal prep your eggs in advance to make your routine easier — and it’s still yet to happen.
A lot of sealed, hard-boiled eggs come in convenient packs of two, which provide an easy, portable 14 grams of protein, hunger-busting fat, and several key nutrients such as choline, which is important for brain and liver health.
I’ve seen this option work best for those running out the door with no breakfast or snack plan, as well as a solid fall back when heading into the work week after a busy weekend that left no room for your usual weekend grocery run.
We always advise people to focus on real, unprocessed food first. That’s the primary goal.
But the reality is that the majority of us are living a busy lifestyle that can benefit from the unmatched convenience of having a high-quality, well-sourced protein powder on hand. Not only can you use this to help you hit your protein goals, but it’s also a huge time saver. Even as a dietitian and trainer, I consume at least one serving of protein powder on most days as part of my nutrition routine.
There are several ways to use protein powder, but here are the ones I’ve seen work the best in terms of convenience and meal prep:
- Meal replacement shake: This is best reserved for days where there’s a significant time crunch. With the right strategy, the nutrient content of a whole-food meal can be mimicked by blending up a shake with protein powder, veggies (such as frozen spinach or kale), some berries for a healthy carbohydrate source, and nut butter or shredded, unsweetened coconut to amp up the healthy fats. It’s fast and portable.
- Oatmeal booster: When meal prepping breakfast, batch cooking oatmeal or overnight oats is a great option. (As a bonus, you can get some benefits of resistant starch if you’re willing to eat it cold.) By adding protein powder, you can slow the blood sugar spike from the carbohydrates in the oats and feel more satisfied — without having to figure out what protein to pair it with to create a balanced meal.
- Hidden protein: When planning family meals — especially with picky eaters — using unflavored collagen peptides is my best-kept secret. Since it doesn’t change the consistency or taste of liquids when blended in (unless you use a lot of it), it’s easy to add into soups, broth, and sauces to ramp the nutrient content and protein. If you’re in a pinch, it can make the soup you’re serving for dinner more robust, or provide the benefits of collagen with a quick blend into pasta sauce if there’s no other protein on hand to include.
Be picky when it comes to protein powder quality, as a lot of cheap versions commonly available are poorly sourced and have unnecessary additives. Rest assured that at Life Time, we only offer well-sourced ingredients that are all batch tested for purity, and every Life Time protein powder option is free of artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.
Having a few go-to sauce options at your fingertips can be game-changing. They can turn plain chicken breast into a more exciting entrée, transform otherwise boring steamed veggies into a dish the family wants more of, and can change a side of quinoa or rice into a more flavor-packed carbohydrate option.
Given that our grocery stores have literally thousands of products to choose from — many with questionable or unneeded additives and preservatives — it’s important to closely check ingredient lists to know what you’re consuming and to make informed buying decisions.
I recommend taking a bit of time to find two to three go-to options at your local grocery store to keep in the pantry or fridge. Steer clear of artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, and added sugars, and look for options without canola, safflower, corn, or soybean oils.
Here are some common ones to search for that are more likely to have options available that align with healthy ingredient priorities:
- Refrigerated pesto: This is perfect for serving on top of chicken or salmon. Look for options that are made primarily from cheese, basil, garlic, spices, and nuts.
- Salsas: These are easy to toss into a slow cooker with other ingredients or atop grilled protein and veggies. Think mango-jalapeno salsa on whitefish for a quick dinner, or a mild tomato salsa with cheesy eggs for a satisfying breakfast.
- Simmer sauces: More companies are springing on the market and providing ready-made sauce options such as tikka masala, curry, spicy Thai coconut, mole, and fajita sauces. In just a few minutes, these can be thrown on the stove with meat, veggies, or lentils to pack in a lot of flavor with minimal planning. Most of these can also easily be used in a slow cooker with a cut of beef, pork, or chicken to have a gourmet-feeling dinner ready a few hours later.
- Marinara and pasta sauce: Luckily, no-added-sugar pasta sauce options are now easy to find and versatile enough to serve with some ground meat and veggies, a higher-protein pasta made of lentils or chickpeas, or atop baked chicken with some Parmesan.
Pre-portioned hummus, guacamole cups, and nut butter
Having portable dips and flavors can be a huge help when it comes to fast side dishes and snacks.
I know from experience that if a single-serving container of spicy guacamole or red pepper hummus is tossed into my lunch bag alongside a well-intentioned serving of cut-up carrots, celery, and cucumbers, those veggies a lot less likely to come home uneaten. The same goes for an apple or banana with a small packet of almond butter.
Another reason that these are good go-to options for meal prep is that they’re tools to help us get used to appropriate portion sizes. I’ve found that while these are all nutritious options packed with healthy fat, if you’re spooning from a multi-portion container, the serving size can be hard to eyeball and can add up quickly from a caloric standpoint.
Staying “on track” with health and wellness looks different for various people and situations.
The gold standard from both a health and sustainability perspective would be to have a dialed-in nutrition plan where 100 percent of the time you’re eating fresh, locally grown food, with your diet centered around colorful produce, protein from animals raised sustainably and on their natural diets, and fiber-rich carbohydrate sources, all with no packaging or plastics and with all food waste used or composted.
For most, implementing that ideal is not a workable, real-world option for the immediate future, or something that’s going to be achievable 100 percent of the time — and for many, just getting meals prepped and ready to consume is a huge achievement.
While we can and should take steps toward the ideal scenario, it’s important for your health outcomes and individual goals to find a plan, strategy, and approach that is realistic given your current circumstances.
For those who are busy, the convenience options above are battle-tested tricks that can help you as you work to achieve your goals — and are likely worth it when navigating a demanding schedule that can otherwise threaten your healthy habit consistency.
Consistency with healthy eating is a non-negotiable for health. If finding convenient options helps you achieve that consistency, aim to rely on the strategies that work for you — and that save you time and energy.