By now, you know the importance of breaking up with refined carbohydrates (which include added sugars) in your diet. After all, excessive consumption of refined carbs has been linked to everything from weight gain and type 2 diabetes to heart disease and poor mental health.
So scaling back is smart. But simply making sure you’re stocked up on nutrient-rich whole foods isn’t always enough — after all, how many times have you come home to a fully loaded kitchen after a long day and still called for takeout?
That’s because, while about half of making sure you eat well is buying the right foods, the other half is preparation — and devoting a couple of hours every weekend to meal prep is the key to making healthy dietary changes stick.
The good news: You don’t necessarily need to prep full-blown meals — even a little chopping and boiling can go a long way. Here, we cover some simple meal prep strategies to make following a low-carb, low-sugar diet that much easier.
Step 1: Pick a day and time, and put it on the calendar.
It doesn’t have to be Sunday, but consistency with when you prep will help you make regular meal prep a habit. So, pick a day and time, slot it into your Google Calendar or iCal, and devote about two hours to the process.
Step 2: When shopping, consider this basic formula: protein + veggies + fat + (optional) starch.
If you’re scaling back on sugar and refined carbs, and you want to boost the satiety and nutrient content of your meals, your lunches and dinners should predominantly be comprised of vegetables, quality proteins and some healthy fats, plus an optional whole food starch (think: something like brown rice, not bread). Let this formula guide you as you’re grocery shopping. Be sure to select a few options you like from each category. Here are some examples:
- Various meats (steak, ground beef, chicken, lamb, bison)
- Seafood (frozen, individually vacuum-sealed filets of salmon are great to keep on hand)
- Quality plant-based proteins (tofu, tempeh, black soybeans, etc.)
- Leafy greens
- Brussels sprouts
- Purple cabbage
- Green beans
- Bell peppers
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter
- Sweet potatoes
Of course, breakfast might look a little different, and you don’t have to follow this same formula — especially if savory foods aren’t your thing in the morning. Additional ingredients you may want to keep on hand for morning meals:
- Frozen berries
- Unsweetened nut milk
- Nut butter
- Naturally derived non-caloric sweeteners (like Pyure’s organic liquid stevia extract and sugar-free maple syrup)
Step 3: Prep ingredients, not full-blown meals.
For most people, unless meal prep is easy, it’s not going to be sustainable. So instead of always prepping full-blown meals, I make sure I have a couple of options on hand from the categories above and prep them as needed. This allows me to mix and match different foods to create a variety of meals (like grain bowls, stir-fries, and epic salads) throughout the week.
Contrary to popular belief, though, you don’t need to actually cook everything when you’re meal-prepping for a given week. In fact, not all cooked foods keep well in the fridge for very long. So with veggies, sometimes it’s best to just pre-chop and cook as needed; and with animal proteins, cooking what you’ll eat toward the beginning of the week is fine, but keep some easy-to-cook options in the freezer for later in the week (things like smaller cuts of meat, individual filets of fish, and shrimp can be cooked quickly, or even directly from frozen).
Here’s an example of what my personal meal prep routine might look like. Keep in mind, depending on the size of your family, you may need to prep more or less:
- Cook one large protein. I like to whip up a 4-pound roast chicken (which only takes about 1 hour 20 minutes in the oven) or a 3-4 pound pork shoulder (which takes about 6 hours in the slow cooker). I can easily add these proteins to several salads or grain bowls for lunches and dinners. (Cooked meats keep for 3-4 days in the fridge.)
- Cook up a big batch of whole grains. While my protein cooks, I like to prep a large batch of brown rice or quinoa, storing half in the fridge and half in the freezer. This way, I have some ready to go immediately, while also ensuring that none of it goes bad by the end of the week. These are good as a side, or as the base to a grain bowl. (Cooked grains keep for 3-4 days in the fridge, 2 months in the freezer.)
- Make a batch of hard-boiled eggs. The underrated hard-boiled egg is actually pretty darn versatile — and I always like to keep 6-12 on hand for the week. You can pair them with a piece of fruit for a quick breakfast, put them on a salad, or whip them up into egg salad. (Hard-boiled eggs keep for 1 week in the fridge.)
- Pre-chop veggies for roasting or sauteing. The most annoying part of prepping veggies is washing and chopping. So I often chop up a bunch of sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and beets and store them in a container in the fridge. That way, when I’m done with work, all I have to do is dump them on a sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, and pop in the oven to roast for 30 minutes. Roasted veggies are great on salads or in grain bowls. I also like to chop broccoli, zucchini, onions, mushrooms, purple cabbage, and carrots in advance so I can whip up a speedy stir-fry. (Fresh veggies typically keep for 1 week, give or take a bit, in the fridge.)
- Slice veggies for snacking. During my veggie prep, I always slice up some carrots, bell peppers, and cucumbers to have on hand for snacking. Combined with a few nuts or some hummus, they’re a satiating and nutritious snack.
- Embrace the simplicity of soup. While I typically don’t make full-on recipes or meals, I do make an exception for soup, especially during colder months. That’s because it’s just so darn easy to make and requires hardly any clean-up. What’s easier than tossing a bunch of ingredients in a pot with some broth? One of my favorite combos includes ground Italian sausage, onions, sweet potato, white beans, kale, and chicken broth. Consider portioning out your cooked soup into individual glass containers for easy transport and reheating. (Cooked soups or stews keep for about 3-4 days in the fridge.)
- Whip up some overnight oats. If you’re constantly rushing in the morning, prepping a grab ‘n’ go breakfast like overnight oats is a great idea. To prep, add ½ cup of rolled oats to a mason jar, add toppings of your choice (nuts, seeds, fruit, cinnamon, nut butter, stevia), pour in some milk, stir, and set in the fridge. The oats soak up the milk and soften without the need for cooking. (Overnight oats keep for about 5 days in the fridge.)
Step 4: Make meal prep something you look forward to.
So now you know what to do to prep meals and lay the foundation for a healthy week of eating, but how do you actually get the motivation to do it? Personally, I try to tune into the tasks at hand and consider those two hours of chopping and boiling a form of culinary mediation. It’s also a perfect opportunity to catch up on podcasts. In fact, I often save up a few great episodes specifically for meal prep time to make the overall process more enjoyable.
Taking a little time every Sunday (or whatever day works best for you) to prep a variety of real, whole foods that can be mixed and matched into meals that are low in refined carbohydrates and added sugars is one of the most valuable ways you can invest in your health.