I’M ALL ABOUT meal prepping. I do it regularly to make feeding my family easier and healthier, and I have even written two cookbooks – “The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook” and the upcoming “Smart Meal Prep for Beginners” – on the topic. But I’ll also be the first to tell you that meal prepping in and of itself isn’t a bulletproof route to better health. Here are some of the top ways you can sabotage your healthy meal prepping efforts – and how to avoid those mistakes in the future:
1. You select unhealthy recipes.
There’s a difference, of course, between meal prepping a series of mayo-laden casseroles and meal prepping some versatile baked chicken breasts. If a majority of the recipes you choose to prepare are high in calories, saturated fat and sodium, you’re setting yourself up for health issues like heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes later in life – especially if you plan on meal prepping regularly. What’s more, if you’re looking to maintain weight or drop a few pounds, you probably won’t achieve that if you’re eating more (or more calories) than you used to.
The solution: Smart meal prepping begins by selecting healthy recipes. If you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet (which is the average American recommended daily calorie intake), that would mean about 350 to 400 calories at breakfast and about 550 to 600 calories each at lunch and dinner, plus two to three snacks at 150 to 175 calories each.
2. You don’t divide meals until later.
The last step of meal prepping is dividing meals into individual portions and packing them into containers. Skipping this step can lead to poor control of portions, last-minute scrambling to divide meals and even the probability of being left with too little to no food by the end of the week. Left without prepared dinners, you can end up doing what you’re probably trying to avoid by meal prepping in the first place: running to the nearest fast-food joint or just picking up a pizza.
The solution: Divide meals before eating the first serving to ensure appropriate portions and that your meals will last throughout the week.
3. Your meals aren’t well balanced.
Healthy eating is about having a well-balanced, varied diet. Your prepped meals may have a lean protein, whole grain and vegetable, but what about fruit and dairy? Many meal preppers fall shy when it comes to these two food groups. This can also mean that – like most Americans – you’ll also fall short on good-for-you nutrients like calcium, vitamin D and potassium.
The solution: Plan to eat fruit and dairy for snacks and breakfast. For example, prep a fruit and yogurt parfait for breakfast or cheese stick with fresh fruit as a snack. For variation, add whole grains and veggies to snacks as well.
4. You over-prep.
Does every recipe look so good that you have to prepare them all? Over-prepping can lead to tossing good food away, or having an over-packed freezer that just doesn’t have any more room. When you over-prep, you can end up eating two or three meals at a time because you don’t want to waste anything.
The solution: To minimize over-prepping, start slow to get to know your meal prepping needs. If you know you’re going out for lunch or dinner in the week ahead, plan fewer meals.
5. You don’t keep food safety in mind.
When you’re cooking numerous meals at a time, food safety most certainly comes into play. For example, you may cross-contaminate foods when you slice raw fruit or vegetables on the same cutting board and with the same knife that you used for raw chicken or meat. You may also accidentally under-cook food when you’re trying to cook several dishes at once. Or, if you’re in the multitasking zone, you may forget to wash your hands appropriately between tasks. Falling victim to these mistakes can lead to illness.
The solution: Follow safe food handling procedures, especially when preparing numerous meals at once. Make sure to have a clean cutting board and knife before starting to prepare a new food, use a thermometer to check for cooking temperatures, wash hands often and put cooled food in the refrigerator quickly.