Meal Planning and Preparation—Good for the Body, Mind and Wallet
Writers over at Harvard’s Nutrition blog know what’s up—when you get home after a long day, the last thing you want to do is chop veggies and cook a healthful meal. Oftentimes, this exhaustion and desire to decompress after a hectic day leads to poor food choices. Opting for fast food may feel good in the moment and help contribute to temporary mental reprieve, but as the Harvard writer notes, these “takeout meals...are often calorie-laden and a contributor to expanding waistlines.”
Wondering if it’s even possible to balance the pursuit of your career goals with healthy lifestyle choices? Maybe it’s time to give weekly meal prep a try.
What is Meal Prep?
Meal prep means a lot of things to a lot of people. In general, it refers to dedicating a block of time during the week to the planning, preparation and portioning out of meals for the coming seven days. Weekend days—especially Sundays—are the most popular days for scheduling in meal prep time (case in point: #mealprepsunday has been tagged around half a million times on Instagram).
Depending on your health and nutrition goals, meal prep can take as much or as little time as you’d like. The gourmands of the world may choose to spend more time creating complex meals from brand new recipes, while those with less time on their hands may opt instead of fuss-free, quick-preparation meals.
We’ll leave some advice for how to get started on a meal prep routine below, but what it all comes down to is spending time now to make healthy eating convenient for the rest of the week. Whether this means making all your meals at once, just chopping up your veggies for cooking on a later date, focusing mostly on getting your protein prepped, or putting together a few “emergency” meals for those nights when you can’t even think about picking up the kitchen knife, meal prep is a great way to keep your health goals in check.
Why Can’t I Just Eat Out or Opt for the Prepackaged Meals in the Freezer Aisle?
Have you checked out Dr. Rosenstein’s book, Defy Aging, yet? If not, and if optimizing for longevity and general health is at the top of your to-do list, go grab a copy now. In the meantime, here are some gems of wisdom—straight from the Doctor’s mouth—to consider as you think about your food choices for the coming week.
Number one? You should be aiming to eat “whole, real, natural, and preferably organic food” as often as you can. “The closer it is to the way it came out of the ground, tree, or bush, the better.”1 This means that, as much as possible, you should be keeping pizza delivery and frozen TV dinners off the table. There are no substitutes for home-cooked meals made from fresh vegetables, meats, and other “real food” items.
The same goes for restaurant meals. It may be tempting to think that food prepared in a restaurant is no different from what you can create at home. But the reality is, you just can’t know for certain whether the chef is preparing your food with additives and other substances to artificially amp up the flavor. Dr. R. is quick to burst the bubble: “Studies have compared similar meals made at home versus eaten in a restaurant. The meals made at home were in general far healthier than their counterparts in a restaurant because restaurants tend to use a lot more added sugar, salt, and fat than you would at home.”2
What Are Some Other Meal Prep Benefits?
Physical Benefits of Meal Prep
If it’s not obvious yet, one of the biggest benefits of preparing and consuming home-cooked meals is that they tend to be great for your health. Recent studies suggest that the more time you spend on food preparation, the greater the likelihood that you’re consuming a high-quality diet that includes “significantly more frequent intake of vegetables, salads, fruits, and fruit juices” than diets centered around on-the-go and fast-food eats.
Mental Benefits of Meal Prep
Getting in a regular dose of fruits and veggies isn’t just good for the waistline—it may contribute to happiness. Results of recent studies confirm the idea that eating well can have a direct impact on feelings related to life satisfaction. The jury’s out on what, exactly, creates this link—whether it be the carotenoids, B12 vitamins, serotonin, something else or all of the above—but the research on nutrition and mental health is promising.
Even better? Some therapists suggest that meal prep can help you relieve stress in the moment. Writer and social worker Elizabeth Brown, in conversation with mental health professionals on the benefits of having a Sunday ritual, suggests that “mundane” weekend tasks are not only good for the body, they’re good for the mind, too: “The repetitive motions of chopping and slicing, the kneading of dough, the sprinkling, the mixing, the whisking, even watching and waiting for water to boil—they’re all actions that keep us in the present moment and distract our minds from the worries of the past and future work weeks.”
And it may not be just your own mental health at stake: studies link nutritious meals to better test scores among young students. Given that mornings tend to be a hectic time for getting the family in order and out the door, preparing meals in advance can help guarantee that even the most frantic of mornings won’t compromise your child’s ability to eat well—and think well—once you’ve sent them off to school.
Financial Benefits of Meal Prep
Anthea Levi over at Health.com breaks down the financial benefits of preparing meals at home. When comparing average prices of restaurant meals to those of similar foods made in bulk at home, the potential cost savings add up quickly.
From sandwiches to soups to salads, Levi highlights just how much money you could be keeping in your wallet by avoiding the traps of eating out: “If you turn your $10 lunches into $4 lunches, you'd save $1,500 dollars a year (a sum you could drop on a fancy road bike, or a spa trip).” And who doesn’t want a little extra “dough” on their hands?
How to Get Started with an Easy Meal Prep Routine
Making time for meal prep can be hard, but it tends to be a heckuva lot easier than making time every single night to put together a full meal.
A 2009 study of factors contributing to the eating habits of college students suggests that “time and energy” were two of the main perceived “barriers of eating a healthy diet.” Education about healthy eating, alone, was not enough to get students to eat their greens. Unsurprisingly, the study’s authors propose that “meal sharing and meal preparation sharing” could help mitigate these barriers as budget and immediate availability of foods strongly determined students’ choices.
If the idea of spending a couple hours every Sunday making meals intimidates you, start with the basics. Find a few meals you like and that are easy to make; prepare those consistently for a few weeks until you feel comfortable adding in a little extra variety.
Here are a few quick meal and snack ideas to get you started:
- For a good, simple go-to meal, rub a few chicken breasts with olive oil, salt and pepper and stick them in the over for 40 minutes at 350ºF. Pair with a whole grain like quinoa or brown rice as well as some steamed broccoli and carrots.
- Hard boil eggs to have on hand for a quick afternoon snack (coupled with veggie sticks); this is a great and super quick option. Roasted chickpeas are great for snacking, too.
- Hummus and guacamole are both easy to make and pair as well with vegetables as they do with crackers and chips (if you do make guac, be sure to consume it 1–2 days after prep—otherwise it’ll turn brown).
- For the non-chefs out there, consider investing in a slow cooker. Slow cooker recipes are often well balanced, quick, easy to make, and hard to mess up. Plus, they tend to have high yields—you get more meals in less time. A quick Google search will showcase a ton of great chili, soup, and meat recipes. Avoid recipes that call for added sugar, and focus instead on creating well-balanced meals that center around a variety of vegetables and lots of lean protein.
Aim for Optimal Health with the Right Multivitamin
So, you’ve taken our advice and become a meal-prepping machine. That’s awesome! Your body will thank you for years to come.
Want to take that hard work a step further? Step up your game with a good multivitamin. We created our VitaYears™ Anti-Aging Multivitamin with your health in mind. In Defy Aging, Dr. Rosenstein notes what makes his Anti-Aging formulations so special: “These provide not only the usual vitamins, minerals and trace elements of a multi-purpose, broad-spectrum multivitamin, but they also have added ingredients that have been shown in the scientific literature to promote and in many cases increase the size of your telomeres thus reversing cellular aging.”3 (What are telomeres? Glad you asked.)
Regardless of whether you choose to meal prep or not—or take a multivitamin or not—just remember that there’s no substitution for eating good whole foods. Save your trip to the restaurant for a special occasion and eat home-prepared foods as often as you can.
And if you are ready to give meal prepping a try, we’ll see you on Sunday.
1. Defy Aging by Dr. Jacob Rosenstein, page 113.
2. Defy Aging, page 114.
3. Defy Aging, page 116.