Meal prepping is all the rage these days: There are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites, blogs, message boards and more dedicated to the science (or art, in many cases) of planning and preparing your meals ahead of time to save precious hours during the week. But time savings isn’t the only reason you might want to jump on the healthy meal prep bandwagon: Research has shown that there are actual health benefits to planning and prepping your meals in advance.
That’s right: Dedicating a bit of time during the weekend to come up with a weekly healthy meal prep plan can pay off when it comes to the quality of your diet — and it may even help your weight loss efforts.
Want to find out how you can harness the power of meal prepping to benefit your weight loss and health, plus save yourself some time during the week? Read on for our complete guide to creating your own meal prep meal plan for weight loss!
Benefits of meal prep plans for weight loss
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In addition to the perk of saving time preparing meals during the week, planning your meals ahead of time, and doing a one-week meal prep over the weekend can go a long way toward improving your overall diet.
For instance, a study of more than 40,000 French men and women published in 20171 found that those who did at least some meal planning were less likely to be overweight or obese than those who didn’t plan their meals in advance. They were also more likely to have a healthier diet, follow nutritional guidelines and have more variety in their meals.
Healthy meal prep for weight loss: 13 tips to get started
Now that you know about some of the benefits of healthy meal prep, it’s time to get down to basics. We’ve got 13 tips to help you create your own meal prep plan for weight loss!
1. Ease into it. If you’re new to the meal prep game, start out slowly. Rather than trying to plan and prep an entire week’s worth of meals at the outset, choose one meal that tends to be a sticking point for you and tackle that first. Once you’ve mastered that one, add in others.
For some people, dinner is the tough one, as it can be difficult to plan, shop for and prepare a healthy meal after a long day at the office. For others, coming up with a healthy breakfast while trying to get kids out the door for school in the morning is a stumbling point. (And yes, breakfast is important when it comes to weight loss!)
Researchers have found several ways the morning meal can help you reach your weight-loss goals, from quashing cravings;2 to helping you avoid weight gain around your abdomen and weight gain in general;3 to helping reduce appetite, especially related to eating in alignment with your natural circadian rhythms.4
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2. Commit to a meal prep day. No, you don’t have to spend your entire day meal prepping! But by scheduling some time on your calendar, you may be more likely to stick to your plan. Get out reusable containers, wash and prep your non-starchy veggies and cook up some lean protein so you have healthy options on hand.
3. Consider theme meals. Yes, it can be overwhelming to face the prospect of planning out an entire week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks, but once you get into the swing of it, it will become easier — and, dare we say, kind of fun! To help you get started, consider theme meals: Tofu Tuesday, Veggie Thursday, Fajita Friday — you get the idea.
4. Fall back on favorites. Keep a list of meals that work for you and your family, and don’t be shy when it comes to reusing them. You can always change them up by slightly tweaking the recipes with new spices and herbs.
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5. Include all the food groups. Research5 shows that the healthiest diets not only for weight loss, but to help prevent other serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes, emphasize the following:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Plant-based fats
- Lean proteins
- Whole grains
In addition, added sugars should comprise less than 10% of your daily calories, while non-starchy vegetables should make up one-half of each meal. Take a look at each meal you're prepping and make sure you fill half of the container with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter with lean protein and the other quarter with healthy carbs or starchy vegetables (like sweet potato, corn or peas). Need some tips estimating portion sizes when you're meal prepping for your healthy weight loss plan? Check out this useful hand portion size guide — all you need is your hand!
6. Avoid procrastinating. As soon as you get home from the farmer’s market or grocery store, wash, chop and store your fresh vegetables so they’re ready to go in a pinch. You can even preportion fruit such as grapes, berries and cherries into small plastic bags so they're easy to grab when you're in a rush.
7. Pump up the volume. Whipping up a batch of roasted veggies? Make enough that you can use them for a few meals. Broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, bell peppers: All are versatile enough to play a role in different dishes throughout the week. Ditto for beans (hello, Instant Pot!) and grains such as brown rice and quinoa. Extra points for divvying them up into meal-size portions!
8. Consider prepping full meals. Got zesty chicken fajitas on your menu? Cook and slice up some chicken, chop up vegetables and sprinkle with your favorite spices ahead of time; then store all the ingredients in a container. When dinner rolls around, you can easily cook up a quick stir-fry! Breakfast smoothies? Whip up a large batch and store in individual containers in the fridge or freezer.
9. Make friends with leftovers. There’s nothing wrong with getting two (or more) meals out of one cooking session! A dinner one night can be your lunch the next day.
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10. Don’t be afraid to go frozen. Yes, just-picked tomatoes and farm-fresh berries are delicious, but frozen fruits and vegetables are hard to beat for their convenience (plus, they can taste just as good!). What’s more, research has shown that they can be just as healthy — if not healthier — than their fresh counterparts. In one study,6 researchers found that the levels of beta carotene, riboflavin, and vitamins C and E were largely comparable between eight varieties of fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, and that frozen produce was actually higher in these nutrients in some instances.
And keep in mind that healthy frozen goods are not limited to fruits and vegetables. Lean protein sources such as chicken, turkey and seafood, as well as whole grains such as quinoa and brown rice, are all available frozen nowadays, making your meal prep plans that much easier.
11. Don’t forget the sauces! Whole-grain pasta, lean ground turkey, a collection of vegetables and a delicious, healthy sauce make for a simple, delectable weeknight meal. Whip up a batch of marinara or healthy pesto sauce and refrigerate or freeze in meal-size portions — presto pasta! Just make sure to watch your portion sizes if you’re meal prep planning for weight loss. A good rule of thumb is no more than a ½ cup of pasta and a ¼ cup of sauce (make sure to keep an eye out for added sugars in the sauce if you buy it at the grocery store!).
12. Keep pre-portioned snacks on hand. Almonds, hummus and nut butter all make great snacks, and it pays to keep them on hand and ready to go. Just be sure to exercise portion control when you measure them out (think: 1 teaspoon of nut butter or about 10 almonds). And while you’re at it, why not throw in some of your fresh prepped veggies to make your snack extra filling and nutritious?
13. Strapped for time? Let someone else do the healthy cooking for you. If work, family and other commitments make meal planning and prepping difficult for you, a healthy meal-delivery service such as Jenny Craig’s can help you save time — while doing the meal planning for you!
Taking the time to do a bit of meal prep over the weekend can pay off big time during the week — not only in time saved during those hectic weekdays, but in your sense of peace and tranquility. Throw in the potential benefits to your health and you can see how doing some healthy meal planning and prepping is a win-win!
Do you need help following a healthy meal prep plan for weight loss? Jenny Craig can help! Whether it’s guidance from one of our specially trained weight loss coaches or full-service delivery of one of our delicious meal plans, we’ve got what you need to help you reach your weight-loss goals. Get started on the path to better health and wellness today!
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
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