How to Prepare a Week of Healthy Meals in Just an Hour

January 31st, 2011

Meal preparation is in my opinion the most significant factor in preventing people from following a healthy diet. When it’s time to eat, most people are either too hungry or too tired to invest time and effort into preparing a truly healthy and nutritious meal. With a little planning, however, this is an excuse that you should never be justified in using again.

The healthiest meals are those based on whole foods, but for many people, the time it takes to prepare this type of meal is both a problem and an inconvenience. Fortunately, even for the busiest people, meal preparation can be streamlined to the point of it being a minimal time commitment.

Think of how easy it is to pack dinner leftovers for the next day’s lunch. When lunchtime arrives, there’s no thought or effort involved. You simply grab the meal you packed, heat it up if appropriate, and eat. It couldn’t be any easier. The key to simplifying the preparation of healthy meals is very similar in concept. In short, you intentionally prepare a bunch meals in advance. The following are 3 simple steps for doing so.

Step 1: Food Selection

Meals that are healthy and based on whole foods don’t need to be elaborate. Even at the fanciest restaurants, it’s not uncommon to find simple meals that consist of a single type of meat and just one or two types of vegetables. Especially when first transitioning to a diet based on whole foods, there’s not much point in trying to prepare complicated recipes because the extra effort required will likely be discouraging. Instead, your initial goal should be to establish a food preparation routine that’s easy, simple, and tolerable enough to last a lifetime. Although it can be nice to prepare an elaborate meal on occasion, it’s important to realize that it’s certainly not necessary.

The first step is to choose 4 to 6 different types of meat or seafood and at least as many vegetables. It’s generally good to also include a moderate amount of fruit, but in my opinion, a truly healthy diet should primarily be based on meat, seafood and vegetables. Even though fruit is nutritious and whole, it contains sugar. As such, consuming too much fruit can promote many of the problems associated with excessive sugar consumption. It’s important to realize that the optimal portions of meat, vegetables, and fruit can vary depending on the individuality of your metabolism.

Here are some examples of my typical selections. For meat, I tend to choose beef roast, pork loin, and chicken thighs, and some weeks I’ll choose turkey thighs in place of the beef or pork. I also include at least one type of seafood each week which is usually salmon. For vegetables, I usually choose mixed greens, spinach leaves, green beans, carrots, and tomatoes. In addition, I always include several types of fermented vegetables which I rely on as a natural source of probiotics. I also like to include avocados, nuts, and berries, but I usually reserve these foods for snacks or individual meals that I eat immediately after preparing them.

Step 2: Cooking

Although the title of this article indicates that it’s possible to prepare a full week’s worth of meals in just an hour, this probably won’t be the case until you settle into a routine, and one of the key reasons behind this is cooking time. Once you’ve figured out what cooking methods you prefer and how long it takes to cook the food to your liking, you’ll be able to complete the process more quickly.

I prefer to bake meat in glass cookware at a low temperature. In less than 5 minutes, I melt some coconut oil or palm kernel oil in the glass baking dishes, put a different type of meat in each of them, and have them in the oven cooking. At 170° F, which is the lowest temperature that my oven can be set at, it takes about 3 hours to cook about 8 pounds of partially thawed meat to the point of medium rare to rare. Knowing my routine to this extent allows me to do other things while the meat cooks.

If you’re going to cook or steam any of your vegetables, it would be most efficient to do so just before the meat is finished. I don’t cook any of the vegetables that I include with my meals because it makes preparation easier, and more importantly, raw vegetables tend to be more nutritious.1,2,3 In addition, it’s believed that some of the enzymes in raw foods facilitate digestion, and in turn, spare valuable resources by reducing the amount of enzymes that need to be produced by the body.4 Even at temperatures well below 200° F, many of these enzymes are inactivated.5-8

In case you’re wondering about the reasoning behind some of my cooking choices, I use glass cookware to minimize exposure to the toxins that may exist in other types of cookware, I use coconut oil and palm kernel oil because of their high resistance to heat, and I cook at a low temperature to preserve as much of the food’s nutritional quality as possible. Contrary to popular opinion, I think vegetable oils are poor choices for cooking. This is because the polyunsaturated fatty acids they contain are much more susceptible to oxidation, especially when heated.9-12 Oxidized fatty acids are a concern because they’re associated with free radical damage, and in turn, an increased risk in serious health conditions including heart disease and cancer.13-18

Step 3: Meal Preparation

Once you’ve selected your food and cooked what needs to be cooked, all that’s left to be done is to assemble the meals for storage. I package and store my meals in 3 cup Pyrex glass containers. They’re a good size for a single meal and they fit well in a reasonably sized lunch cooler which makes them good for traveling or bringing to work. In addition, the fact that they’re glass, except for the lid, eliminates the exposure to toxins that would be much more likely with plastic containers. Although I try to avoid using plastic anyway, I consider it to be especially important in this case since food will be stored in these containers for up to a week.

Although you may discover a method that you like better, I’ve found that it’s easiest to arrange all of the empty containers on a table or counter top in columns of three. The point of this is for each column to represent a day’s worth of meals which makes it a bit easier to visualize what you’ll be eating each day. If you eat more or less frequently than three times each day, you can adjust the arrangement of the containers accordingly.

The next step is to begin filling the containers with vegetables and any other foods like fruit or nuts that you plan on including. To be most efficient, it’s best to time this so that you’ll be done at about the same time that the meat is finished cooking. Although you could fill the containers in random order to increase variety, there’s actually a good reason why it’s better to fill them in sequence. For example, if you have enough mixed greens for 4 meals, it’s best to put them in meals that will be eaten one after the other. This may seem repetitive and boring, but there’s an important benefit behind it. Although you’ll be eating some of the same foods for 3 or more consecutive meals, you won’t be eating any of these foods again for at least a few days, and this is a simple form of food rotation that helps to prevent the development of food sensitivities.19

Above is a picture of 14 containers filled with vegetables. Below and to the right is a picture of the same meals after adding the meat and some finishing touches. At this point they’re ready to be covered and stored.

Once the meat is finished cooking, the next step is to cut it up and add it to the containers. As with the vegetables, it’s best to add the meat in sequence so that each type of meat will be eaten in consecutive meals. This is even more important with the meat because protein is the basis for food sensitivities.20-22 To minimize the chance of cross contamination, it’s best to cut up one type of meat at a time and then rinse off the cutting board and knife before moving on to the next type. In addition, a wood cutting board is in my opinion preferable to a plastic one to avoid exposure to toxins. Contrary to popular belief, wood cutting boards have generally been shown to be just as resistant to bacteria proliferation as plastic cutting boards,23,24 if not more.25

Optional Finishing Touches

Once the basic preparation of each meal is complete, a few things can be done to add flavor and improve palatability. Two things I like to do are to pour melted coconut oil or palm fruit oil over each meal and add herbs or spices such as ginger, turmeric, pepper, sage, nutmeg, or paprika. There are plenty of different things you can do to accommodate your personal preferences. Just be sure to not add anything that would detract from the healthfulness of the meal. If you do, it will also detract from the benefits of the process, at least to some extent. Store bought salad dressings are an excellent example. They’re an extremely common condiment and very few of them are truly healthy. If you’re tempted to make a compromise like this, keep in mind that there’s almost always a better alternative that tastes at least reasonably good. You just have to commit yourself to finding it.

Determining How Many Meals to Prepare

Excluding snacks, most people eat 3 meals per day which equates to 21 meals per week. Obviously, this number needs to be adjusted if you eat more or less frequently. In general, you should have a pretty good idea of how many times per week you tend to eat out or prefer to prepare meals from scratch. This should be accounted for when you determine how many meals you’re going to prepare in advance. It will also dictate how much food you’ll need. Over time, you’ll probably find an optimal number of meals that you’ll make each week and the entire process will become second nature.

As you can see from the pictures, the optimal number for me is usually 14 meals, and I know exactly what I need for them. I usually eat out 2 to 3 times each week, and for the remainder of the week’s meals, which tend to be on weekends, I put together dishes that involve very little preparation. One of my favorites is raw salmon, mixed greens, avocado, nuts, and berries, all covered with extra virgin olive oil. I can put this meal together in about 5 minutes.

Storage Considerations

If you follow my suggestion to sequence your meals for the purpose of food rotation, you’ll have to store them in the same sequence. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you have a system that you can remember. I have a shelf in my refrigerator dedicated for my meals and I arrange them in stacks of 3 or 4 in sequence from left to right and top to bottom.

Refrigeration time is another important consideration. Based on my experience, changes in the taste and appearance of meat are fairly easy to notice after 4 days, and this is in general agreement with USDA guidelines of not refrigerating cooked meat for more than 3 to 4 days.26 Based on this, I only refrigerate 3 or 4 days of meals and freeze the rest of them. The only problem with this is that some foods don’t freeze as well as others. Since I buy some of my vegetables frozen, typically green beans, I make sure to use them in the meals that I know I’ll end up putting in the freezer anyway. I also tend to put chicken in these meals because its taste seems to be less affected by freezing.

In the past, I prepared meals twice each week to avoid freezing anything, but for me, the additional time commitment proved to not be worth it. If you have the free time and don’t mind the extra work, perhaps twice per week would be a better schedule for you. Otherwise, if you’d still like to minimize the need to freeze meals, you can plan on a few simple impromptu meals each week such as the one I mentioned earlier with salmon and avocado. Although these meals are intended to be quick and easy, it’s still important to maintain the high quality of the meals that you prepare in advance. As I said before, failing to do so will detract from the benefits of following a healthier diet.

Miscellaneous Tips for Getting Started

At first, don’t concern yourself too much with matching certain vegetables with each other or with certain meats. What’s more important is to establish a routine that you can maintain indefinitely. Once you get to this point, it’ll be much easier to plan specific meal combinations. I know this because I do it every week.

Cutting up the meat is probably the most time consuming and laborious part of the process. Using a good knife and keeping it sharp will make it a lot easier. The knife you use can make the difference between the job being a really difficult, frustrating, and tiring process versus it taking a minimal amount of effort. Having learned this the hard way, I hope to spare you from the frustration and prevent it from negatively affecting your motivation.

Another way to make things easier is to buy meat such as stew beef that’s already been cut into relatively small pieces. Alternatively, you could put larger cuts of meat in each meal and cut them up into smaller pieces as you eat, but this makes the meals less suitable for travel and bringing to work.

Worried About the Repetition?

I suspect that most people don’t like the idea of eating the same foods for 3 or more consecutive meals and then repeating the same pattern with different foods. I’ve been eating this way for years and don’t mind it at all. In fact, I love the simplicity of it. Despite the repetition, I still look forward to most of my meals, and at worst, I’m occasionally indifferent to them. It’s extremely rare for me have any sense of dislike for them.

It’s only fair for me to point out that I tend to have a preference for routines and repetition in general, but repetitive eating is a part of human nature. Throughout our evolution, it was likely required for survival, and even as recently as the 20th century, indigenous cultures enjoyed and thrived on the relatively small variety of foods that were available to them.27,28

Either way, it’s inevitable that this type of approach to food preparation is going to sacrifice some excitement, and this is the trade off for its simplicity and convenience. However, remember that the priority here is not to have gourmet meals every day, but rather to eat healthy food more frequently and regularly. This is a significant aspect of promoting optimal health, and the benefits of doing so are much more substantial than the satisfaction of a fancy meal. I’m not against eating for enjoyment, especially if it involves healthy food, but health comes first, and it requires consistency and dedication.

A Note About “Undercooked” Food

I’ve experienced a wide variety of reactions from people who’ve seen me eat and assumed that I was eating raw meat, particularly if it’s beef. Although it’s really not, it might as well be in comparison to how most other people eat meat, and the center of it most likely never reaches the temperatures recommended by the USDA for the destruction of pathogens. However, as I mentioned earlier, I actually do eat salmon raw. These are choices I’ve made for myself, and I support these choices by choosing high quality meat and seafood. I firmly believe that the meat and seafood I buy is not nearly as likely to contain pathogens, but I also know this doesn’t mean it’s not possible. Food borne illness is a legitimate concern, so if you choose to eat meat or seafood that is cooked minimally or not at all, please be sure it’s of good quality, and be aware of the potential implications of your decision. As we know from the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak, this applies to vegetables as well.

In case you’re wondering, US Wellness Meats, Blackwing Quality Meats, and VitalChoice Wild Seafood and Organics are a few of the places that I get my meat and seafood from.

Preparing Food for Others

One of the obvious limitations to this meal preparation approach is that it’s best suited for someone who only cooks for themselves. However, this doesn’t mean that it can’t be used for an entire family, but doing would require more food, more storage space, and more effort. It would also require some creativity to provide for differing needs or preferences as well as family members who are willing to make reasonable compromises.

If you prepare food for someone who’s unwilling to compromise, here are a few things to consider. Chances are that you probably don’t want to spend any more time preparing food than necessary. The people who you prepare food for should be appreciative of this. If they’re not, perhaps you should encourage them to be, or at the very least, suggest that that they help you if they’re going to make the process more difficult for you.

Remember that the primary goal here is to reduce the time and effort required to follow a truly healthy diet that will promote optimal health. Anyone who you prepare food for should appreciate and respect that this is your top priority. They should also appreciate the fact that it will benefit their health as well.

If the people you prepare food for just aren’t willing to fully embrace a truly healthy diet, another option is to prepare some basic foods that they can use throughout the week to put their own meals together. There are many alternatives to consider before abandoning healthy eating habits because of lacking family interest, but for any of them to work, you have to stand your ground and be fully committed to your health.

No More Excuses

Although some of the methods and habits that I’ve suggested may not sound appealing, you can still greatly reduce your meal preparation time without implementing everything that I suggested. There are plenty of ways in which you can modify the process to better suit your own needs and preferences. Either way, it certainly is possible to follow a truly healthy diet without investing a significant amount of time into it.

Given the opportunities and demands of modern life, nearly all of us are very busy, and that includes me. Being busy is easily one of most common excuses for not eating well. However, diet has a significant influence on health which in turn can have an even stronger influence on happiness. This should make healthy eating a top priority for everyone. With the information presented in this article, I hope you now realize that being busy isn’t a valid excuse, and I hope you’re inspired to make more of a commitment to your health. When you experience the benefits, I’m sure you’ll be happy with your decision, and I think your only regret will be that you didn’t do it sooner.

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