Hello and welcome to The Complete Meal Prep Guide. Great to have you here! Meal prep has become quite a topic nowadays. Hasn’t it?
Well… actually, not really! People have been preparing meals in advance for ages. Grandma made grandpa his lunch.. Whether that’s leftovers from last nights dinner or she intentionally cooked more. The important thing is: He got something to eat, because otherwise you might have had to stay hungry. Speaking more generally: People have always packed their food for the day or days to come.
Today things look a little differently: Food is widely available and staying hungry is a conscious decision (= you choose not to eat), not because there were no other ways or options to get something to eat.
So, today, what are these options?
With all these uncontrolled food options a problem arises: Humans are designed to eat a lot when food is available. Eating a lot, when we were nomads, meant survival. These mechanisms still do their job, that’s why you see so many people get and stay overweight.
But today there is no need to pack on fat because you know there is an abundance of food. It’s not a secret that sugar, fat and salt make up most of the unhealthy, because that shortcuts the brain. This combination is almost impossible to resist.
It’s only in the last couple years that canteens and restaurants added healthy options to their menus. But how wants to eat the same salad every day?
Well, I certainly don’t! How about we get some variety? How about we make it so that the meals we eat make us healthy and good looking when naked? Can we actually do that?
The short answer is yes.
The long(er) answer will be the topic of this guide.
Lets have a look at the big topics for this series of guides:
Part 1: Planning – or:
How to create a meal plan from healthy foods? How to compile a shopping list?
Part 2: Kitchen & Tools – or:
How to get around in the kitchen? What tools do I need and how to use them?
Part 3: The Merged Recipe – or:
How to prepare a whole week of cooking in one session?
Meal Prep is referred to as the practice of purposely cooking meals in advance. It’s the idea of bringing your own food so you don’t have to rely on fast food restaurants, gas station food or other locations foods which are known for unhealthy food options.
Knowing what you want to cook is the first step.
In this part of the Complete Meal Prep Guide we will get the planing done. If you know what to cook, the actual cooking wont be any hustle!
No worries, we will go through all these together. And for starters I want you to skip 1) and 2). Yes! I just showed you a fancy looking graphic and now I ask you to skip half of that?
Steps 1) and 2) are a what I would call “advanced” meal-prep. If all you want to learn is how to create your own meal plan and how to get around in the kitchen, keep reading. If you want to know a “bit” more, check Part 4 which covers steps 1) and 2) in full detail.
A coach or nutritionist would go through a similar set of steps:
Calculate daily calories, set daily macros, split macros over meals, take/ create a meal plan and set food amounts according to macros. Done.
The meal plans are usually very simple. Chicken, fish, egg, rice and all the salad and veggies you can imagine. And to be honest: That is a really good and healthy food selection. But some coaches don’t take you into consideration. A female who does not lift weights does not need a meal plan designed for a heavy lifting 25 y/o male.
Or maybe you found a plan on the internet that sounds tasty but leaves you eating too much or too little and you end up spinning your wheels.
A custom meal plan is exactly what you need, so let’s create one!
When I was thinking about how I did my meal plans in the past I noticed a pattern. A few questions that I asked myself to guide me through all the noise. I think we humans have so much potential to be great, but also we have the talent to overthink. We try to think of everything at once.
One thought leads to another and only an instance later we go through all the possibilities imaginable. We loose focus and drift away. One part of your brain is fascinated. The other part gets the dawning feel of complexity that can shut you down. We forget our initial thoughts, which are usually the simple basic ideas that pop up right away. And these basics are what we need to start with.
Think about meal prep. Do you see yourself in the kitchen or do you see yourself at your desk putting a meal plan together?
Let me guess: You saw yourself in the kitchen with cooking pots and filled containers around you rather than at a desk writing a meal plan. That is because our brain likes what it knows. And because some things are unknown it’s hard to think about them.
What helps is a jump-start! A “how to”.
To give you that jump-start I want you to read these three questions below. They might seem basic and simple. That’s because they are. And that is exactly what you need to do in the beginning. To think simple. Things get more detailed as we go deeper, don’t worry.
But at first you want the big picture, the outline. Ready? Here we go!
Q1: Which days and meals do I want to prepare the meals for?
Q2: What should I eat? What do I need to eat?
Q3: How much do I want to eat? How much do I need to eat?
See, I told you – simple. Let’s have a closer look.
Before you start and think about what you want to eat, think about which meals you want to prepare.
Maybe it’s lunch and breakfast for the days you work on. Maybe it’s for every meal of the whole week. Maybe for a few days scattered across the week you know you won’t find the time to cook.
Make sure to check back with your calendar and see which spots are already occupied. You might notice that there are many times where you eat out or get something on the run. These can be replaced with meals you cook in advance.
This is also a good time to think about a potential spot for shopping and cooking. I highly recommend to do prep on the same day or days every week. This creates a habit and will set you up for long time success.
Furthermore, I don’t like to do the cooking on the weekend. Many times you are not even at home. Besides the fact that there are so many way more fun things you can do on the weekend! Family and friends are top priority.
In any (your) case: The very best time to do it, is, when you have the time.
Below you find a simple weekly meal planner that you can also download as a printer friendly PDF.
Real foods. I could end this paragraph right here. You are a grown up person, you know what to eat. Why real food? It’s unaltered, unprocessed and hopefully clean. It’s the food we evolved from. And most importantly: They keep us healthy.
Right now we are not choosing any hyped diet, let’s just look at food as a whole.
As you remember from my first article, there are 3 main building blocks which our food is composed of. Protein, Carbohydrate and Fats. The macro-nutrients, hence the nickname “macros”. The body needs them for different purposes.
Speaking simplified: Protein is used to repair and build tissue, fat is a longtime energy storage but is also used to build hormones and makes up cell-membranes. Carbohydrates aka sugar is the bodies favorite energy source.
Without going into any more detail: You should eat all three macros in different quantities. This is called the macro-ratio.
Keep that in mind when you create a meal plan.
What can and should you eat? Check this overview out:
>> Of course this is not a complete list, but a little collection of healthy food choices.
And don’t worry about macro-ratios for now – we talk about that in the Q3!
Where are the vegetables you ask? I included mostly foods that have considerable amounts of calories.
Greens & Vegetables usually contain very little calories. I consider them “free foods” and you can really load up on these. Because of the high fiber content they also make and keep you full.
Certain foods have immense health benefits and especially berries, nuts, fruit and vegetables are packed with vitamins and minerals. This is why I like you to have these in your diet.
Most foods have a certain overlap into other macros. Meats have some fat. Pasta, rice and bread have some protein. Nuts are high in fat but also have high quality protein. Same for cheese: protein high, fat very high.
Make sure to choose a variety of foods. I like to have my basics and try something new every week.
Education is important, that’s why I like to share a list of foods that are not good for you, but might appear healthy.
This is equally important as the stores are packed with food that won’t serve your health goals well. They lure you in with colorful packaging which is designed to shortcut your brain. There are foods that are sold as healthy or “better choices” but are a disaster for your body.
This list does not contain the obvious junk. You are not reading a health-blog to rectify your burger-cravings, are you?
On to the bad stuff (yes, it really is just “stuff”) and their better choices:
Also known as “Hydrogenated vegetable oil” also known as trans-fats. Super hard for your body to break down. What does it do with that stuff? It gets stored. Even worse: Because it’s so hard to break it down your body has a really hard time to pull those fatty acids out of the cells and into the bloodstream which eventually transports them away to be burned.
The better choices: butter, olive oil, coconut butter
This is more of an environmental aspect than it’s a health issue. If you haven’t heard of it: jungle is being burned and chopped down to plant palms. This hurts a lot of animals like orangutans. Check ingredients list on the packaging and you will be surprised how often it’s used – or sneaked in! Don’t buy this, help make this planet a little better.
The better choices: Palm tree fat is often used in highly processed foods. Avoid these and check the food labels.
Sugar, sugar and did I mention sugar? And… How old are you again?
The better choices: Get some oatmeal, add fruit, nuts, seeds and low fat curd or yogurt.
Added sugar. Check the food labels. Some cans don’t have fruit juice to fill them up.
The better choices: fresh fruits (from the market).
Added low quality vegetable oil
The better choices: Tuna in broth or olive oi. Watch out for the extra calories from the oil.
Added sugar, sugar and to our all surprises: sugar! And almost no fruit or jam.
The better choices: Greek/ plain yogurt with added fruits and nuts.
Like mayonaise or cream substitues.Fat is changed for sugar. Can be lower in calories, but “low fat” does not automatically mean “low calories”. Don’t be fooled by the packaging. No alternative, though. Again, check the food label and compare calories per unit with similar non-low fat products.
The better choices: None. Mayonnaise and cream should never be a regular feature in your diet. Exception: low fat cheese.
I am a bit bipolar about fruit juice, because it’s still made from fruit. Problem is the naturally high sugar content. Lower quality juices even have added table sugar. And most of the vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants are in the peel. The fiber makes you full. Ever tried to eat 5-6 apples at once?
The better choices: You will have the most benefit from eating your fruits or juicing. FYI: Soda does not qualify as “juice”. (Hope that wasn’t even a question!)
You see, the “What” is more about health then it is about loosing weight. Certain food combinations help with persistence, sure. And certain diets absolutely have their place. But if calories are matched, every senseful, healthy diet will give you similar results. More on calories later.
Figuring out which foods are good and bad can be a bit tricky. The magic lies within the food labels. It’s no fun reading them but once you identified a bad food you won’t have to read the label again. Nice!
Reading the food labels can be irritating at first – I know! My advice: Only read the listed ingredients! If you can barely pronounce the words or feel like you might need a degree in chemistry to understand what’s in there: Don’t eat it!
I had a hard time finding simple butter. There are products that contain ingredients I cannot pronounce correctly or even understand what they are. And basically, butter is just cream – so what is the other stuff? I have no clue, but it’s definitly not what I want to eat.
I ended up reading a lot labels until I found butter with only one item on the ingredients-list: cream.
Now that you know what you want to put into your meal plan, you have to figure out “how much”. One can make a real science of it and the truth is that very smart people spend a lot of time and effort to figure out “how much” really is needed. What they all agree on is, that calories are the main driver for a change in body-weight – whether that is fat loss or muscle gain.
Meaning: how much you weigh largely depends on how much you eat!
This “How much”, to your body, for the most part, means: calories.
Remember thos three macros: protein, carbs and fat?
To your body all three represent energy which is measured in kilo calories (kcal for short).
Protein and carbs have 4 kcal per gram and fat has 9 kcal per gram. To figure out how many calories a meal has, you have to do some math or let an app do it. Or the author …
Here is an example:
A meal consisting of 100gr of chicken, 100gr of rice and 25ml of olive oil – how many calories does it have?
100gr of chicken have around 20gr of protein:
>> 20gr x 4kcal per gram = 80kcal
100gr of rice have around 75gr of carbs and 8gr protein:
>> (75gr + 8gr) x 4kcal per gram =330kcal
25ml of olive oil have around 23gr of fat:
>> 23gr * 9kcal per gram = 207kcal
Add everything up for a total of 617kcal for that meal.
If you eat 3 meals per day that have 620kcal each you would eat 1860kcal per day. If you burn/ use only 1500kcal on average per day there is a difference of 360kcal each day.
That difference, my friend, is what makes you fat! Because it will get stored as body fat. It will not get lost or disposed in any another way. It’s known as “calories in vs. calories out” and is the basis for any diet.
Want to loose weight? Eat less than you burn.
Want to gain muscle? Eat more than you burn.
Want to stay where you are? Keep “in” and “out” equal.
How you mix those calories is almost irrelevant as they will always be composed of ingredients that contain calories.
And that is the reason why we have to control portion size and therefore calories!
More on this in Part 4 where I talk about calories, meal sizes and how to adjust meals in way more detail.
That all smells like calorie-counting or tracking and you are right.
Every other guy would tell you to download an app and start counting. And you can absolutely do that. But I prefer a smarter way!
You decide how much you are going to eat before the day even started.
If you plan a whole week/ couple days in advance, you have set your calories for that time.
Right there, no more counting or tracking!
It is already set how many calories you get to eat.
How do you do that? How do you take control? You decide how much you eat and find ways to control how much you eat.
Below you see a table with recommendations of food quantities per meal. The food groups are divided into protein, carbs and fat by body-weight (top row). As mentioned earlier there are foods that overlap into each other. That is what you see in the last two rows.
The quantities shown are for a person who wants to loose weight and eats three meals per day. Calories are evenly distributed: Every macro gets 33% of daily calories (this is called an Iso-Caloric-Diet). You can add a little snack like an apple or an orange if you like.
A lot of numbers – really sorry! To make up for that:
On the left you see food groups: Protein, Carbs, Fat, Protein + Fat and Protein + Carbs.
Next to it you see different foods that belong to a group.
For example: Carbs are a group and in this group you find Rice, Paste, etc.
The fat amount does not account for the little bit you use to prepare the food. Use as little fat for cooking and frying as possible. Otherwise you have to account for it.
Step 1: Pick your current body-weight. Mine is 82kg, I choose foods from the column “80-89”.
Step 2: Next is a Protein: For my meal I want some chicken. It should be around 130gr.
Step 3: Carbs: Today I feel like pasta. So with that meal I can have 140gr of pasta
Step 4: Lastly a Fat. 32ml of olive-oil is what I pick.
Step 5: Add any vegetable(s) you like that does not contain a lot of calories
Not so hard, ain’t it? With those ingredients you can make a pasta salad with fried chicken and some olive oil. Fill up with any greens, add seasoning you like and the meal is complete.
On a side note:
If you choose a fattier protein source (row “Protein + Fat”) like eggs or salmon: don’t add another fat.
If you choose a vegetarian protein source (row “Protein + Carb”) like chickpeas: don’t add any more carbs.
Please round the numbers up or down to something useful. It is not necessary to weigh everything to the gram. I think 5 gram accuracy is sufficient!
Take the table as a recommendation for your meal prep. The amounts are not set in stone. I sadly don’t know you and where you’re at on your journey. How much you should eat is highly individual and needs to be adjusted at some point anyway.
Use the table at a starting point.
If you weigh 65kg, do little activities and work at a desk, you might find that 100gr of chicken per meal can be too much. Pick a lower number.
If you weigh 95kg, lift heavy a couple of days per week and work in steel shop, then 160gr of chicken might be better for you.
You might notice that, although in the same category, some foods are recommended in quite high quantities. Check potatoes -> 410gr!
Even for a light person this is a lot of food!
If you like to have a very big meal, but don’t want to exceed calories /carbs: eat a meal with potatoes.
Potatoes only have 17gr of carbs per 100gr – compared to pasta which has 75gr of carbs per 100gr. That’s why you see the big number. To match the required carb-load the overall number has to go up.
If we compare the two: you could eat 90gr of pasta vs. 410gr of potatoes.
Imagine your on a diet for a couple of weeks. Calories are not crazy low, but the hunger creeps in. Every day a little bit more. But you are determined: “I will stick to my calories/ macros!”
Which food would you choose to ease your mind?
You can also use this the other way around:
If you don’t like to eat a huge meal at work because it makes you tired or feel uncomfortable, choose a food which has a lot of “something” in it. Rice is super compact and dense compared to potatoes. For this situation the better choice.
This is the beauty of a custom meal plan: It takes care of those details.
I like to encourage you to try different food combinations. How do they make you feel? Feel bloated and tired or powerful and energetic? Try and see what works and use it strategically.
The human body is about 80% water. This makes it obvious to drink plenty. Water is your best choice. If you prefer something with flavor stick to unsweetened tea, coffee without milk or cream. Anything that does not contain calories.
If you want to include fruit juices be aware that they have quite some calories. A glas of orange juice (400ml) has around 200kcal. For a light person that can be the daily calorie deficit or 30 minutes of jogging!
A rule of thumb I got from a college buddy goes like that:
For every 20kg of body weight that you weigh you should drink 1L of water. For a 80kg person that is 4L every day. I tried it and think that is a bit high as it does not take any water content into account which foods – especially vegetables – naturally have.
So, what can you do? Just go by thirst. It is your best indicator. But it’s also important to drink water throughout the day, because when you get thirsty your body is signalling a need and you might be a bit late. So here are a few tips:
So, 500ml in the morning and 500ml with lunch and dinner and another half liter to a liter throughout the day gives roughly 2L to 2,5L plus the water content from food. If you end in this realm your all good.
Real Life Example
Changing only what you drink every day can create big changes.
A cousin of mine is a very interesting example:
He stopped drinking anything that contains calories – a few beers with the bud’s on the weekend being the exception – and lost 20kg (!) over the course of a year.
This is not fast but substantial and without any change in diet or lots (if any, in his case!) of activity.
Even if you would not change your eating habits but stop drinking soda and juices can have a huge impact on the scale!
These will not affect your successes in diet a whole lot but should also be considered. If you plan to have a meal that you cannot cook because you miss certain tools the meal is not relevant.
Do I have enough containers?
Do I have enough frying pans?
Do I have enough pots?
Do I freeze meals or do I keep them in the fridge?
Do I have enough space in the freezer or fridge?
How do I reheat the food at home/ work if necessary?
Okay, now that we have everything in place it is the time for …
By now you know a few things.
To me, that sounds almost like a meal plan but lags the personal and creative note. Let’s piece it all together and give it some taste!
I’ve taken the Meal Planner from above and put in some meals I like. Also consider free spots for eating out or family events:
This is the easiest part. After all the planning the last thing to do is add everything up. If you buy your foods from different stores put them on different lists. Use an app, make a check-list on your phone or go old-school with pen and paper. Totally up to you!
A shopping list is also like an insurance: Stick to it and prevent yourself from buying food that is not good for you and your goals.
This is what the shopping list for my example meal plan looks like:
1 Canned Pineapple (un-sweetened) or fresh pineapple
2 Bags Mixed Salad
Vegetables & Fruits (tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers (red, green, yellow), onions, spring onion, fresh garlic)
1 Canned Tomatoes (chunky, with herbs, 250ml)
1 Coconut milk (250ml)
520gr Chicken Breast (2x 300gr)
260gr Beef (flank)
260gr Ground beef (80/20)
100gr Feta cheese
500gr Mixed Nuts*
200gr mixed seeds
600gr Whole Grain Bread
The * marks groceries I need to stock up on.
Having a list takes away all the guessing while shopping, because you know what to eat and how much you actually need. If you know your way around in the stores you can do the shopping in almost no time.
Buy dry, canned and frozen foods in bulk as they stay fresh for a very long time and stock up once a month.
Put only specific foods on the list where needed.
For vegetables, salad and fruits my list says exactly that: Veggies, salad and fruit – unless I want something specific like asparagus or pumpkin.
I have a few basics that I always buy and add something new I want to try. This way if I don’t like what I bought I am still covered.
Re-Purpose foods: Check what you still have in your fridge and freezer!
Please think about our environment and bring bags or containers with you and buy as much unpacked food as available.
Most of the wrapping ends up in our oceans, pollutes our planet and is very dangerous for the animals – us included!
Insulated, collapsible or simple cardboard boxes should wait in your car or shopping cart.
What you’ve learned:
Thank you so much for reading I am sure you have learned quite a bit. I know, it got a little lengthy, but I am sure the few extra thought will help you greatly by creating you own personal meal plan which will bring you on the right path to meet you goals!
What tools do you need? How to setup your kitchen for more productivity? What are some cooking basics?
Check out Part 2!
The comments are open, so please ask any questions you have, give some feedback and share this article on your socials!
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