For most of human history, a significant chunk of time was dedicated to growing, gathering, and preparing food. “Meal prep” to hunter-gatherer societies was a way of life. Whereas today, healthy meal prep for anything from salad to pre-made dinners is something we have to make time for. It didn’t take us long to find new ways to fill the time that used to be dedicated to staying fed, and now even taking 30 minutes to cook a meal can feel like a sacrifice.
The downside to the relatively recent food conveniences we enjoy is the toll it takes on our health. Given the choice between fast and easy on the one hand and nutritious on the other, it’s hard not to go with the easier option. But no matter how wonderfully efficient that microwaved burrito is, we need to prioritize foods that are good for us, even if that means carving out time in our packed calendars to put those meals together.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean we have to go back to the meal-prep techniques of the Stone Age. Most of what we need has already been prepared and shipped right to us. We have refrigerators and an infinite number of cooking gadgets. All things considered, meal prep doesn’t take as much time as people tend to think, and it’s definitely cheaper than eating out all the time.
If you’re new to prepping healthy meals ahead of time, let’s start with one of the easiest meals: salads. Here are some tips that will have you turned into a meal prep pro in no time.
Step 1: Make a plan
The most important part of meal prep isn’t the manual labor; it’s making a plan before you even go to the store. Trust us, planning everything out first will save oodles of time later on and prevent unpleasant surprises (like finding out you don’t have any leafy greens on hand for the salad you’ve just prepped toppings for).
Here are a few things you’ll want to have pinned down before you get started:
Pick a day to prep all your salads. Many people like to dedicate an hour or so on the weekends getting their meals ready for the upcoming week. Pick a time that works for you and block it out on your calendar.
Take stock of what you already have in your pantry and fridge and figure out how you can use it in a salad.
Pick your recipe(s). It doesn’t have to be a complicated recipe, but try to pick salads that hit all the major food groups. If there’s a food group you know you don’t get enough of, find ways to sneak in some extra nutrients from that food group.
Make sure you have containers to store your salads in. Mason jars are a fun way to store salads—and are microwave safe if your meal requires heating—or you can use simple plastic containers (just make sure they’re stackable so you can easily store several days’ worth in your fridge). It will most likely be easiest to order these online ahead of time, but they may be available at your local grocery store too.
Make a shopping list. Jot down your list on old-fashioned paper or open a note on your phone to keep track of everything you need.
Step 2: Shop
With your customized shopping list in hand, it’s time to hit the store. If possible, buy the ingredients you need on the same day you plan to put your salads together—this ensures the ingredients will be as fresh as possible when it’s time to bust open those salads.
Buy in bulk when you can, keeping in mind ingredients that can be used again in other recipes. (Tip: Plan on prepping just five days’ worth of salads at a time. Save any leftover ingredients to add to future salads.) And don’t forget the containers if you don’t have some at home already!
Step 3: Cook, chop, and store
If your salad includes ingredients that need to be cooked—i.e., meat, pasta—take care of those first. If you plan to cook your meat in a crock pot or Instant Pot, be sure to start it early so it’ll be ready to divide up by the time your salad is ready for assembly.
Next, wash and chop your fruits and veggies. Drain canned ingredients. Measure out the remaining ingredients and put them in their own containers if necessary (this mainly applies to dressings, but could apply to crunchy ingredients you want to keep crisp until mealtime, too).
Once all of your ingredients are prepared, all that’s left to do is package them up and put them in the fridge! To avoid soggy salads in the future, it’s best to keep your ingredients separate. For example, if you’re storing your salad in mason jars, stack the ingredients, starting with the heaviest and wettest on the bottom and placing the lightest ingredients on top. Or, if you’re using plastic containers, arrange salad elements in individual rows. Then, when you’re ready to eat, all you have to do is stir it all together and enjoy!
Keep meal prep fun
Sometimes you have to spend time to save time. Meal prep definitely saves you time in the long run, but it can seem daunting at first to do all that work at once.
So make it a fun chore!
Listen to music or a podcast while you chop.
Prepare ingredients while watching a favorite TV show or sports team.
Get your kids involved and make it a family activity.
Use meal prep as a reason to give your mind a break while your hands stay busy. Cooking can be a soothing, relaxing ritual, especially if you’re occasionally overwhelmed or stressed.
Having a few go-to favorites will keep the meal-prep process efficient, but don’t be afraid to mix things up every once in a while. Keep enjoying those healthy, beautiful salads, free from the hassle of having to quickly throw something together or run to the nearest fast food restaurant every time lunch or dinner comes around.
Let us know in the comments what recipes you’ll be prepping this week!