|$3 a meal for a perfectly portioned menu that also saves on time and energy. Here’s all the advice you need for this lifestyle.|
Yesterday I helped to cook a week of lunch and dinner for 2 people with $60 in under 3 hours, including a trip to the grocery store! This is the meal prep lifestyle and my friend Emmanuel Sean Peters is an expert. Instead of making excuses, Sean sets aside a little time to plan for a healthy and budget-friendly week. Here’s how you can do it too.
Every Sunday and/or Monday Sean will post a picture of five lunches and five dinners, all packaged in containers, on instagram. The picture sums up its value – if you’re tired, busy or lazy, you can just reach for a perfectly portioned meal – like the healthier, cheaper, and homemade answer to the convenience of Lean Cuisine. Even if you just don’t like to cook, you can consolidate your work by taking care of it all at once. It just requires a bit of discipline. Sean told me that even the time he came home late on one prep day and cooked past 1 am, he was pleased to have prepared for the week.
|Sean thinks it strange to be called an “expert,” but his hundreds of followers on instagram wouldn’t agree. After posting pics, he always shares recipes and advice for recreating the dishes.|
When Sean started the #mealprep lifestyle in the spring of 2013, he was already into fitness, cooking and healthy eating. On off days, he would try to find nutritious options when eating out, but that meant justifying $10 or more for lunch to avoid deli traps. Cooking from scratch keeps processed foods out of his diet for $2.50 to $5 per meal. Sean is a PhD student in Electrical Engineering at Columbia University and noticed the added savings in his bank account at the end of the year. Portion control also means results from his fitness regimen are visible on his muscular frame.
|Groceries for lunch and dinner meal prep came to only $60 – that’s $3 per meal! And no packaged foods made their way into the menu plan as staples or snacks.|
Sean’s Trinidadian roots help him to #eatclean. Instead of using salt and fat to flavor dishes, he uses a lot of garlic and spices to make dishes like his specialty of chicken curry. Though he no longer can reach for mango or guava from backyard trees, all of his shopping is done between the produce and meat aisles of the grocery. The difference between his cart and those around us at the Harlem neighborhood’s Best Yet Supermarket was stunning. The only plastic before these 20 meals were cooked was from a bag of brown rice and bags of pre-washed spinach. These sensible shortcuts help Sean to avoid extra work to clean or cut vegetables and make the process go faster.
|Fruit for the week was included in the $60 budget. Sean keeps it close at hand for afternoon snacks.|
Sean’s meals are always fresh and colorful – a good sign that they are diverse in nutrients – and the menu plan is always chicken or turkey for lunch and a lighter meal of fish for dinner. By avoiding pasta, salty and fatty additions like cheese also become less important. A consistent breakfast of oatmeal with peanut butter or protein powder keeps him full in the morning and instead of reaching for a vending machine, Sean always keeps fruit close at hand. By minimizing the food decisions throughout the week, you can eliminate stress from all the little choices and temptations.
|Sean’s friend Devon, a PhD candidate in Sociology at Columbia University, has replaced eating out a lot with joining the meal prep session. Dirty Rice (recipe below) was his suggestion from a family favorite.|
If this sounds a bit redundant to you, remember these rules. Give yourself flexibility by prepping only five lunches and five dinners – that’s four meals a week to cook something different or dine out. But make sure you’re making something that you will not mind eating for five days. Experiment with new recipes on your day off so you don’t commit to meals you will lose taste for. Spice it up with hot sauce or mango habenero sauce here and there so the flavors change a bit from day to day. And finally, cook with a friend. Extra help makes the preparation faster and more fun. If you want to try meal prep as a family, make sure everyone is on board and lends a hand.
|These are intentional meals, not sad leftovers. Use the freezer to keep each box fresh until it’s day has come.|
Sean uses uniform, inexpensive containers to package the meals and everything is moved to the freezer to prevent spoilage. Each night a set of containers is shifted from freezer to fridge to be thawed in time for the meal. Some foods do better than others with this change of temperature – avocado is not recommended – and Sean factors in reheating the fresh vegetables. For example, you can under cook broccoli a bit so it finishes in the microwave. At the end of the week, everything is fresh and delicious – these are intentional meals, not sad leftovers.
|The lunchbox always includes chicken or turkey and lots of veggies. Recipes for this menu are below.|
|The dinner box is always lighter and features a fish. This box includes baked tilapia with lemon, roasted and mashed sweet potatoes with honey and cinnamon, and spicy sauteed spinach.|
This healthy, convenient, and waste-free lifestyle is taking root in Sean’s friends and family. As we began to cook together his sister called to discuss her plan for the week. I too am going to pick up some of his discipline to make lunches for the week and avoid running across the street to pick up udon so often. If you think you’re ready to try, check out Sean’s instagram for more inspiration and click through the #mealprepsundays and #mealprepmondays hashtags. There’s a whole community of #fitmencook and #fitwomencook who want to share ideas and encourage you to thrive with the #mealprep lifestyle.
Shopping List for 10 Meals
2.5 pounds ground turkey
1 medium red onion
1 bunch of scallions
1 red bell pepper
1 yellow bell pepper
2 pounds carrots
3 bunches of broccoli
Dirty Rice – Brown Rice with Ground Turkey, Peppers, and Spices
|Fresh veggies season these dishes instead of fats, creams, or salt.|
|Cooking for more than 2 people is difficult because of the sheer volume. With just two, each dish is scaled to make 10 servings.|
|Colorful and flavorful additions like these peppers make each meal something to look forward to.|
|A final handful of cilantro brightens the dish and then it’s done!|
Measure 2.5 cups of brown rice, 5 cups of water, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil into a medium pot. Bring pot to a rolling boil over high heat. Once boiling, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer (without opening) for 40 minutes, making sure the water hasn’t all evaporated.
Dice red onion, finely chop 8 cloves of garlic, and slice scallions. Cook vegetables with 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add turkey and cook for about 10 minutes until browned, stirring and breaking up chunks with a spoon. Add diced red pepper and yellow pepper, season with garlic powder, thyme, chili powder, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, salt, and pepper and cook for a few minutes longer. Stir in half a bunch of cilantro, finely chopped. Stir in cooked brown rice and adjust seasonings to taste.
|Sean always lines baking pans with aluminum foil to help with cleanup. This quick step makes the whole task of the cooking session less burdensome.|
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Scrub and/or peel 2 pounds of fresh carrots. Slice lengthwise then cut into even pieces. Toss with garlic powder, salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast for about 30 minutes until fork tender.
Spicy Steamed Broccoli
|Pull the broccoli from heat a little before it’s done so it can finish cooking when reheated in the microwave.|
Wash broccoli and break florets into even pieces. Bring a pot with 1 inch of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Set broccoli in steamer basket over water, cover with lid, and cook for four minutes. Remove broccoli from heat and shock with cold water to stop the cooking process. Toss dried broccoli with garlic powder, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and olive oil.