Did the extra time and effort in the kitchen pay off? One 20-something explains.
I have a confession: I love eating out. In my opinion, great food tastes so great because someone else, like a professional, prepared it for me. Call me lazy or snobby, but a meal out or a night ordering in from my favorite Thai restaurant brings me an unbridled sense of joy.
At the same time, I know eating out and ordering food in is an expensive and not always healthy habit. Takeout and in-restaurant meals usually contain lots of extra salt and oil and hidden fats. All of those things can be bypassed in one straightforward way: cooking my own food. After a friend put up an Instagram post explaining that her weekly meal prep is part of her self-care routine, I thought making a commitment to a full week of cooking all of my meals was worth a shot.
Preparing to meal prep
Before starting my journey, I spoke with Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color. She gave me some pointers on how to meal prep without feeling like I was spending my whole week in the kitchen. She suggested batch-cooking grains, since they act as a great base for all different types of meals.
“Make sure you have the gear,” she advised me. “Nothing is worse than prepping a bunch of food only to realize you don’t have enough containers to hold it.” With that in mind, I ordered a few extra plastic containers from Amazon.
To further prepare, I headed to my local Trader Joes and stocked up. For grains, I bought two bags of quick-cook farro. I also grabbed a large bag of mixed potatoes, some asparagus, pre-cooked bacon, multigrain bread, eggs, frozen tuna burgers, avocados, chicken sausage, kale, and cashew butter. I didn’t get carried away because I had previously ordered a meal kit from Sun Basket that was full of fresh produce I could use in my meals too.
On Sunday, I baked my asparagus and potatoes in the oven after seasoning them with salt, olive oil, and pepper. I also cooked one bag of farro and hard boiled all of my eggs. Then I broke out my three new meal prep containers and filled them each with a scoop of farro, a handful of kale, and one chicken sausage (they’re pre-cooked so I didn’t have to prepare them ahead of time).
Largeman-Roth said she likes to turn her meal prep into a two-day event so it doesn’t feel like she’s wasted a whole day cooking. I followed her lead and decided to make my Sun Basket meal on the first real day of my meal prep week.
Day 1: Saving money and staying satisfied
I set my alarm about 10 minutes earlier than usual so I had time to pack a couple of slices of bread and peel hard-boiled eggs for my breakfast. When I got to work, I spread cashew butter on my toast and also ate the eggs covered in Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel seasoning. I felt immediately satisfied, and the breakfast was a nice switch from my usual Greek yogurt cup or bowl of cereal.
Nearly three hours passed and I still wasn’t hungry. I was shocked. Usually, 11:30 a.m. hits, and I’m ready for lunch. But today I made it to 1 p.m. before even considering breaking out my next lunch.
At dinnertime, I was ravenous. Luckily, I had prepped my veggies in advance, so I heated up a tuna burger, topped it with Dijon mustard, and ate it alongside my asparagus and potatoes. Sure, the meal was less than exciting, but it filled me up and felt super balanced.
Day 2: Hanger pangs
I eat the same breakfast practically every day, so consuming toast with cashew butter a second day in a row was a no-brainer. But come lunchtime, I was feeling a bit sad about the prospect of eating chicken sausage, kale, and farro again. I longed for a Caesar salad from the bodega across the street and stared at my co-workers varied lunches in envy. Still, I ate the prepped meal and reminded myself of the $10 I'd just saved.
I was too lazy the day before to make my meal-kit meal, so today I headed straight home and began to make a salmon and couscous dish from Sun Basket. Everything was going great until I got that creeping hangry feeling. I decided to ditch the extra 20 minutes it would have taken to bake the salmon filets and instead microwaved another tuna burger in 3 minutes flat. The dinner was delicious and satisfying, but it was gone in a flash. Spending nearly an hour in the kitchen for my food to be devoured in 10 minutes didn’t feel worth it to me. But with my journey less than halfway through, I forged on.
Day 3: Fighting back boredom
More eggs! More toast with nut butter! I wish I had the stamina and drive to create more varied meals for the sake of this story, but the truth is, meal prep can be quite monotonous. At least it’s nutritious and filling, right?
On the upside, the simplicity of the meals made my morning feel like a breeze and had me snacking less throughout the day, I began to realize. When I did want a snack, I reached for a piece of fruit from my office kitchen or sliced up an avocado and ate it with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, mainly as a pre-workout snack.
For lunch, I ate leftovers from my meal-kit meal (since it created two servings per meal). I was very thankful to not be eating chicken sausage for lunch again. For dinner, I ate more potatoes and asparagus and an avocado. It felt nice to go completely vegetarian for a meal, but by the time I crawled into bed, my stomach started to grumble. I drifted off thinking about desserts.
Day 4: A slip-up—then back on track
My morning was pretty uneventful, and so was lunch. (You guessed it: more farro, kale, and chicken sausage!) But my breaking point finally came at dinnertime. After being stressed out about my workload and needing to prepare for my weekend, I felt like I hardly had time to think about what I was going to make myself for dinner.
The mix of hanger, anxiousness, and pressure made me start to cry—yup, cry. After a few minutes of feeling sorry for myself, I pulled it together to order some noodles from my favorite Thai place. I was only disappointed in myself for a second until I realized not all challenges have to be successful. Plus, ordering a meal gave me an extra 30 minutes to get work done.
Day 5: Over it
I woke up the next day feeling ready to finish off the rest of my meal-prepped food. All I had left was bread, bacon, avocados, eggs, and some cherries I bought later in the week, so I made different combinations of those ingredients to create lazy-girl meals from scratch.
By the evening, I was happy my five days of meal prep were over. In fact, I was so happy, I planned a brunch out with a friend for the next day.
Is meal prep worth the prep?
This challenge taught me that meal prep can be totally worth the health benefits, both mental and physical. I started out my week feeling accomplished because I took care of myself and my body by making healthy meals. Not to mention, it was nice to spend an extended period of time cooking rather than scrolling through my Instagram feed. And I probably saved about $100 that would have gone to takeout.
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However, being so reliant on meal prep and not allowing for any breaks or slip-ups proved to be somewhat stressful. That's not healthy either. “Don’t get discouraged if you get derailed for a week or two,” Largeman-Roth reassured me. “It’s life!”
Her suggestion for meal-prep newbies makes sense: Start with prepping just a few days each week before diving into a more hefty commitment. (Oops on my part.) I also decided to count my slipup as nothing major. After all, I did save lots of cash and laid off the pizza slices for a whole week.