There’s no shortage of food and health influencers populating our Instagram Explore pages. But for meal prep novices and experts alike, Kevin Curry’s @fitmencook account manages to stand out. The chef, fitness expert, and author of Fit Men Cook makes the sometimes daunting task of cooking healthy at home seem completely doable—and even enjoyable. But, like many of us, Curry turned to meal prep more out of necessity than anything else.
“When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, millions of people around the globe suddenly had to learn to live on less. I definitely understand this,” he tells Mic. “When I graduated from grad school in 2008 and lost my job offer, I moved back in with my parents and applied for federal assistance. During that time, I needed to adopt wiser spending habits." Meal prep was one of these habits.
For Curry, the process of planning and preparing meals ahead of time eliminates the ‘what’s for dinner?’ struggle by cooking once for several meals, instead of every night.
Data from 2013-2016 shows that on any given day, over a third of Americans eat fast food. And while burgers and fries are satisfying, the high cholesterol and blood pressure that come along with regularly consuming these foods are not. Plus, those daily orders add up. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American household spends $3,008 a year on dining out, which is just shy of the $4,015 they spend on actual groceries.
Let’s get one thing straight, though: You do not, by any means, need to be training for a bodybuilding contest or looking to slim down to benefit from meal prepping, nor do you need to calorie-limit your meals or track your macronutrients unless under the guidance of your doctor.
Meal prepping is simply a great way to gain more awareness about what goes into your food, vary your nutritional intake, and save money—which can all feel empowering, Curry says. Here are his six tips for getting started.
1. Set a goal
Meal prepping can feel tedious if you aren’t even sure why you’re doing it in the first place. By having a goal in mind—be it to save money, save time, or eat healthier—Curry says you’re more likely to stick to your program. “Imagine how much more productive and efficient we’d be if every morning we set an agenda to work toward something. When it comes to prepping, your goal doesn’t have to be fitness related, either. When I was broke-as-a-joke, meal prepping was budget-driven as much as it was fitness-driven,” he says.
2. Eat foods you actually like
You can read all the meal prep blogs in the world, but at the end of the day, it’s important to let your personal taste dictate your weekly menu. No idea how to prepare asparagus, and didn’t particularly enjoy it that one time at your aunt’s house? Don’t force yourself into eating it, only to resent the whole meal prep process altogether.
“I call these [foods] aspirational purchases or buys,” says Curry. “You aspire or hope to eat the items, but you don’t necessarily have a plan for how to do so.” Begin with ingredients you already know and love in order to prevent food and financial waste. Besides, buying trendy foods that everyone else is eating tends to be more expensive anyways. I'm looking at you, celery.
3. Keep it moving
Meal prepping requires a momentum. “Think of meal prepping as a high-intensity gym workout—without the shortness of breath, of course—in that you keep going until the routine is finished,” he says. Make intelligent use of your time by cleaning up the kitchen while your food is cooking, and making sure you’ve measured and prepared each ingredient before it’s time to add it to the recipe. This way, you aren’t scrambling for utensils and neglecting foods that need to be perfectly timed, like quinoa or soft-boiled eggs. Once your food is nearly complete, Curry recommends spreading your meal prep containers out on the counter or table so you can easily dole out portions.
It’s good practice to work efficiently, but don’t feel pressured to move at lightning speed and risk cutting yourself with a knife or burning yourself on the stove. “The more comfortable you become in the kitchen, the less time you’ll spend cooking since you’ll gain efficiency through multitasking,” he says.
4. Make your leftovers count
Eating leftovers is a great way to save money, and they let you enjoy your favorite meals all over again. But eating the same thing for several days in a row can be unappealing, so Curry suggests thinking about how you’ll make leftovers exciting while you’re cooking your current meal. “Refresh your favorite recipes with different ingredients and spices. Make it a point to try a new food on a monthly basis and keep it interesting,” he says. “In my experience, the greater the variety of flavorful foods in my diet, the less I need a ‘treat meal’ to get me through the week.”
To avoid chicken and quinoa (these are bulk-prepped items Curry highlights in his book) fatigue, incorporate them into different dishes by making small yet impactful changes. “For instance, if you have leftover tomato pulp from making stuffed tomatoes, make homemade marinara sauce for zucchini noodles or whole wheat pasta, [or] throw leftover veggies into a frittata to make a breakfast packed with vitamins,” he says.
5. Let your food cool
We know you’re eager to pack it all up and call it a day. But Curry says your food will taste better if you give it a chance to cool off. He explains that if it’s still warm once you add it to meal prep containers, and seal it with an airtight lid, it’ll create steam, trap moisture, and make your food soggy. Limp, moist food doesn’t only taste gross, but according to a study from the Journal of Food Research, wet foods are a more susceptible to bacteria like E. coli, and may rot sooner.
6. Stay away from the microwave
Yes, microwaves are convenient. But when it comes to meal prep, defrosting food naturally makes food more palatable than flash-heating it in a microwave. “This will help ensure that the food reheats evenly and uniformly when placed in a microwave or oven. It also lessens the risk of your food drying out, which is a very common complaint from people new to meal prep — it's why many people either toss out their prepped foods or drench them in condiments just to be able to choke them down,” says Curry.
Ideally, you want to defrost meals slowly in the fridge the night before you plan to eat them (don't leave them out on the counter overnight). On that note, a little patience, planning, and the integration of flavors you genuinely like will take you all the way in the meal prep game.