A quick search on Instagram reveals the hashtag #mealprep has been shared an astounding 8.6 million times. Among the published posts are images of polished, regimented and colourful meals packed neatly in Tupperware for the week ahead.
The trend has become immensely popular over the last five years or so, with major social media influencers including fitness coach Joe Wicks anointing meal prep as the holy grail of health and wellbeing—and it’s easy to see why. One of the key attractions of preparing meals in advance is that it saves time.
But beyond the obvious, it has the power to save money, increase nutritional intake and forge a more mindful, healthy relationship with food. While all this is very well, where should meal prep novices begin? The resounding advice among health and fitness experts is: start small. This means dedicating one to two hours each Sunday to prepare simple weekly lunches or breakfasts to begin with to avoid being overwhelmed. From there, introduce other key meals and healthy snacks.
The main meal
Getting to know the core building blocks of any nutritious meal is the first step in smart meal planning. According to the NHS, one third of our diet should consist of starchy foods, so it goes without saying that this food group should form the base of each meal. Opt for potatoes with the skin on, wholegrain rice or whole wheat pasta for a fibre (current guidelines suggest that we should be consuming 30 grams of fibre each day) and vitamin-rich meal.
Secondly, protein is a vital component of every meal. The body uses it to build and repair cells and tissues, it provides energy, and it helps to create enzymes that regulate the metabolism, antibodies and neurotransmitters. To calculate how much protein to consume per day, times 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Choose protein sources that are low in fat including skinless chicken, omega 3-rich salmon or beans and pulses.
Government recommendations advise eating at least five portions (at 80 grams per portion) of fruit and veg per day, so a range of colourful vegetables should comprise the third portion of a meal. Abundant research has found that those who consume the daily recommended amount have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers.
Leafy greens such as spinach or kale; diced, pre-cooked root vegetables such as butternut squash, carrots or parsnips, and sweet veggies like peas or sweetcorn, add key vitamins and minerals that are proven to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, keep skin and bones healthy and promote healthy gut flora.
Despite our best-laid intentions, the mid-afternoon slump makes it easy to reach for the biscuit tin. Choose one of these healthy alternatives for an energy boost instead:
Mixed berries—Not only do these little fruits deliver vital antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre, they also release energy-boosting sugars that are easy for the body to absorb.
Apple slices and peanut butter—Apples are a key source of slow energy-releasing fibre, vitamin C and potassium, while peanut butter (opt for a brand made with 100 percent peanuts) provides protein and keeps you feeling fuller for longer.
Edamame beans—Packed with essential amino acid tryptophan, these crunchy veggies are a tasty way to add vital nutrients.
Nut mix—Keep a container filled with plain almonds, peanuts, cashews and walnuts for a healthy mix of unsaturated fats, protein and fibre.
Workweek lunch bowls
These very simple workweek lunch bowl ideas provide a perfect base for beginner meal preppers:
Carbohydrates: Sweet potato cubes
Protein: Paprika chicken
Vegetables: Steamed tenderstem broccoli, peas
Carbohydrates: Roasted baby potatoes
Protein: Soy-marinated salmon
Vegetables: Roasted carrots and parsnips
Carbohydrates: Wholegrain rice
Protein: Cubed chicken, kidney beans
Vegetables: Sliced red, yellow and green peppers
Carbohydrates: Pesto whole wheat pasta
Protein: 1 hard-boiled egg
Vegetables: Chopped cherry tomatoes, wilted spinach
Carbohydrates: Wholegrain rice
Protein: Flaked tuna
Vegetables: Sweetcorn, shredded carrot, avocado slices
Berry Yummy overnight oats
100g rolled oats
240ml milk (or a dairy-free alternative, like almond milk)
145g mixed raspberries, blueberries and strawberries
14g honey (or golden syrup)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)
1. Combine all ingredients before storing in a mason jar.
2. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
3. Serve cold the following morning.
This article was originally published in Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones. Read the digital edition, here.