Nothing feels more adult than actually doing weekly meal prep. When your fridge is stocked with ready to eat grains, vegetables, and proteins, you can throw together a satisfying meal in a matter of minutes—bing, bang, boom…breakfast, lunch, dinner. You’re eating well, saving time, and living your best life.
Now if only meal prep were actually easy to do. Making enough food for a week’s worth of meals is time consuming, and if you’ve never done it before, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind before you get started. For one, you’ll need to carve out at least a couple hours a week to do it, because no matter how hard you try, one hour just isn’t going to cut it. You’ll also want to invest in the right cooking equipment and food storage units, and stock your freezer, fridge, and pantry with healthy ingredients that are built to last.
Once you’ve done all this, you’re still probably going to encounter the occasional meal prep bump in the road, because there are a handful of common mistakes that can trip up even the most expert meal-prepper. These not-so-obvious missteps can undermine your weight-watching, healthy-eating best intentions.
If you are trying to lose weight, it’s important to note that what works for some doesn’t always work for others. If you’re interested in trying out a new weight loss regimen, check in with your doctor beforehand to be sure it’s the right move for you. Of course, prepping healthy meals isn’t all about weight loss. There are plenty of good reasons to plan and make ahead, like saving time after work, saving money, and controlling what you’re eating by making it yourself. Whatever your goal, these four mistakes could get in the way, so read ’em, learn ’em, and ditch ’em.
1. You’re prepping too much food.
When it comes to meal prep, better safe than sorry isn’t always the best attitude to have. Over-prepping can often leave you with more food than you actually need. And if you don’t recognize that you’ve gone overboard, then you’re likely to divvy it all up into Tupperwares and consume excess calories while patting yourself on the back for your hard work. It just takes a little measuring and math: If you only eat a half cup of brown rice at a time, and you’re trying to prep enough for five different meals, 2 1/2 cups should hold you over. Anymore than than and you’ll end up eating more rice than you meant to.
What’s more, Michelle Dudash, R.D., Cordon Bleu-certified chef and creator of Clean Eating Cooking School: Monthly Meal Plans Made Simple, points out that if you don’t eat all that food, it’s going to go bad, which is a shame—and a waste of money. “It’s important to consider how much food you can comfortably eat before it needs to be thrown out.” If you do find that you’ve made too much, Dudash explains that most food will only last in the fridge for about five days. After that you’ll either need to freeze or throw your leftovers out. Fortunately, you can safely freeze many cooked whole grains and cooked proteins for up to 3 months, and certain uncooked fruits and veggies (like strawberries and spinach) for up to a year.
2. Or you’re prepping too little food.
If you’re playing it too safe with your portions, you may find you didn’t actually make enough. This is annoying because you’re either going to run out of food by Wednesday, or you’re going to be stuck eating insanely small meal portions all week long. Too small meals won’t keep you satisfied, which may lead you to overcompensate with extra snacks, or by making your next meal too big. (Or both.)
Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution to avoid under-prepping, at least not while you’re just starting to get into a routine. When you first begin meal prepping, you’re not going to know exactly how much food you’ll always need. So, for the first couple of weeks, take note of how you feel after each meal. If you find that you’re still hungry, you may want to up the portions. And if you find that you’re too full, do just the opposite.
3. You use store-bought sauces and dressings.
Store-bought salad dressings are often full of extra calories, added sugars, and more sodium than those that are homemade. It’s an easy way to take a meal down a couple notches on the health-o-meter without even realizing it. Luckily, there are lots of ways to add flavor without dousing your good intentions in compromising condiments. Try flavoring your food with a few sprinkles of your favorite spices (turmeric, anyone?). Even just a light drizzle of olive oil or spritz of lemon juice can do wonders to a meal. If you feel like making your own dressing, a simple vinaigrette is one option that you can throw together in a jiff. Start with three-parts oil to one-part vinegar, season it with salt and pepper, and (if you like to turn up) a splash of lemon juice, then mix it all up, drizzle, and go.
4. You don’t actually like the food you cooked.
This happens to me all the time. I make a bunch of food because I know it’s good for me, and I convince myself that I’m going to eat it, and I’m going to like it. But then the time comes to dig in and I remember that, no, I don’t like fennel, or I am not into this plain chicken breast, so I just end up buying something else to eat instead.
This is both a waste of money and time, and the food I usually end up eating isn’t all that healthy. If this is a problem you’re all too familiar with, the solution is simple: Don’t try to force yourself to eat something just because it’s “healthy.” Prep foods you know you like or that sound legitimately delicious. Because when recipes like these high-protein pastas exist, there’s no reason healthy eating should be a drag.