- Use a Food Scale for Accuracy
- Save Yourself from the Misery of Food Poisoning
- Know the Difference Between Food Spoilage and Food Pathogeneis
- Keep Food Safe in the Fridge
- Does Freezing Your Meal Prep Really Work?
- Use the Freezer to Store Your Preps Long Term
- Know How to Properly Reheat Your Meal Preps
- How to Keep Your Meal Preps Fresh the Longest During Storage
- Maximizing Nutrient Retention in Your Meal Preps
- What's the Takeaway?
There's nothing more exciting than finishing a long day's worth of work to come home, open the refrigerator, and discover that thanks to planning ahead, you don't have to make dinner tonight. Conversely, there's nothing more disappointing than repeating that same scenario and discovering that you have a dish of bland chicken, unseasoned plain rice, and soggy broccoli to endure.
Meal planning can be an incredible gift to yourself – nobody wants to have to slave over the hot stove after working all day, but if done incorrectly, it can quickly backfire and lead to self-sabotage. By planning ahead, you can save yourself a lot of stress and time and make healthy decision making an easy choice.
Swinging through the drive through is both costly and incredibly detrimental to your health – it has been demonstrated time and again to lead to obesity and poor health. Preparing your food at home can help you manage both your bank account and your waistline. Whether your objective is to drop those last ten pounds, tighten up your body for an upcoming vacation, or finally dip back into a healthy BMI range, meal planning can help you achieve those goals.
While the drive-through may seem to promise you a plethora of easy meals, it's actually deceptive in its variety: do you want a side of greasy, deep-fried starch next to your mystery-meat meal on a questionable bun? Cooking at home gives you a bounty of meal choices that you can't find at any fast food restaurant, making your taste buds, your wallet, and your health sing for joy.
Your biggest secret weapon in the kitchen may very well be your food scale. If you know how much something weighs, you can ultimately determine how many calories are in it. For foods that have no nutritional label (i.e., real food), all you need to do is log onto the USDA Food Composition Database to determine how many calories it contains. Cross reference the number on the scale to the number on the database and you have your answer. For instance, an apple has 52 per 100 grams, and if you have a 150 gram apple, you can divide the weight by calories per 100 grams and then multiply it by the weight of your apple to determine that your apple has 78 calories in it.
Avoiding pre-packaged food is difficult; inevitably, some processed foods are going to slip into your shopping cart. As long as your diet is mostly unprocessed, the occasional packaged food isn't going to kill you. If you check the back of the package, the food label will tell you how many calories are in it per gram. Simply divide the calories by the weight, then multiply it by how many grams showed up on the digital readout when you weighed it on your food scale.
[Source: NIH.gov ]
While the United States uses imperial measures (ounces and pounds), using metric is much simpler and more accurate when using a food scale. For starters, you'll get a tighter measurement and won't have to worry about rounding off. Secondly, food labels are typically in grams anyway. It'll quickly become second nature to learn metric measurements, but for now, know that there are 28 grams in an ounce and 448 grams per pound.
As for what food scale is the best, any simple one will do, but a digital scale is not only affordable, it's more accurate.
The first time you weigh something may be very eye-opening. Of course there are ways to eyeball portions, but you'd be surprised how off your measuring tools can be. It's also easier to lie to yourself when you're not using a food scale: of course that heaping scoop of peanut butter is just a tablespoon, right? You may be able to fool your measuring spoon, but your food scale is going to set you straight and tell you that your so-called tablespoon of delicious peanut-buttery goodness is actually edging closer to two tablespoons (32g) versus the one tablespoon (16g) that you had secretly hoped it would be. That's a whopping 100 calorie difference. Added up over the day, how many hidden calories are sneaking into your diet and onto your waistline?
Don't forget about the tare feature on your scale. It makes measuring a cinch! Instead of having to scoop food out of one dish and onto another to weigh it, you can press the "tare" button on your scale to zero it out. That way, it "forgets" the weight of your dish and allows for more accurate measuring. For instance, if you place a bowl on your scale and you want to measure out 4 ounces (112g) of chicken, you don't want to have to do the math of both the weight of the chicken plus your bowl.
Once you place your bowl on the scale, hit "tare" and the weight is suddenly zero again. Then you can place your chicken on the bowl and get the most accurate weight without having to think to yourself, "Hm, okay, this bowl is 237 grams and with this chicken I now have 356 grams and therefore I have...[cue frantic mental math here] – 119 grams of...wait...dang it, where's my calculator?" Nope. Hit tare, and boom: you now know you have 119 grams of chicken on your dish. Easy peasy, right?
Another trick of the tare button is to press it when you place an entire container of something that you're trying to remove a portion from without dirtying an extra dish. Instead of placing a bowl on the scale, then a spoon, then trying to perfectly scoop out two tablespoons of hummus, place the entire tub of hummus on the scale, tare it out, then take out the portion you want from it. Your scale will read the missing portion as an integer, telling you exactly how much you took. For instance, if you wanted two ounces of hummus to eat with your crudites, take out exactly how much you wanted until the scale reads "-56g". It's incredibly simple and makes any estimations and guesswork a thing of the past.
Even the most perfectly packaged pickings will eventually spoil. Knowing how long they will last in your refrigerator and freezer can save you from a lot of heartache and, um, stomachache. Violent, explosive...stomachache.
All joking aside, food poisoning is something you absolutely want to avoid. Essentially any food can become contaminated with illness-causing bacteria, including fresh fruits and vegetables; E. coli and salmonella aren't just limited to raw meat. Symptoms of food poisoning will hit you pretty hard and pretty quickly, typically within 2-6 hours after eating the contaminated food, and include:
- Abdominal cramps
Fortunately, symptoms typically blow over within 48 hours and treatment is typically lots of fluids and easy to eat foods. However, avoiding contracting it in the first place would be ideal. How can you avoid coming down with food poisoning?
By storing you prepped foods properly, you can avoid any unwanted gastric upset. The average person doesn't seem to understand proper food handling, so if this information is all brand new to you, don't sweat it too much; you're in good company. By learning how to properly store and keep meal preps fresh, you're taking steps to better protect your health and the health of your family.
Sometimes food can go bad without any sign of it having gone over. This is known as "food pathogenesis" and occurs most often when food is left out at temperatures above 40F for over two hours. Harmful bacteria will start to proliferate and the food will be no longer safe to consume – but you'll have no idea because it has no off odors or textures. At the surface, it looks fine.
That's why it's so crucial to store your foods properly. Even if you stuck your prep in the refrigerator, if you unearth it a week later and it seems like it passes the smell test, throw it away. It's not worth risking your health for some iffy chicken breast.
Conversely, sometimes food can go bad – complete with a yucky, slimy texture and a flatulent ("farty" to us laymen), sulfuric stench – but it won't necessarily make you sick. That's "food spoilage" and is an entirely different animal. Regardless, don't eat food that has spoiled. (We don't actually have to tell you that, though, right? You know better than that? Good.) Some molds can contain mycotoxins -- the byproduct of bacterial growth -- which can be deadly to humans and pets.
First things first: all of your preps need to go into the refrigerator within two hours -- and just one hour if your room temperature is 90 F or higher -- of coming out of the oven. Letting them sit out any longer puts you at higher risk of food poisoning. Food-borne illness causing bacteria can proliferate so quickly that they actually double every twenty minutes! Your delicious and lovingly prepared preps can become little toxin bombs in very little time, so please please please be careful to put it into the fridge quickly.
Your refrigerator needs to be set to 40 Fahrenheit or lower to properly store your food safely and keep your meal preps fresh. Make sure you have plenty of room in your fridge to let air circulate properly; over packing it can actually allow your food to get to dangerous temperatures and spoil quicker. Also, make sure you thoroughly cover all of your preps to keep them fresher longer. Oxygen is actually a catalyst for promoting food spoilage.
Cooked chicken, beef, and fish are typically safe for 3-4 days. Hard-boiled eggs can be stored up to one week. Deli salads (such as tuna or egg) can be kept in your refrigerator for 3-5 days. Deli meat can also be kept safely for 3-4 days. As for your prepped grains, pasta and rice can also be kept for 3-4 days in your refrigerator. Casserole, soups, and stews are subject to the same limitations; only keep them for up to five days.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can vary. Avoid rinsing and cutting them until you're ready to use them, but expect them to last around 3-4 days once you do. And obviously do not prep them on the same cutting board where you prepped your meat – that's a nasty case of food poisoning waiting to happen.
When in doubt, use your best judgment, but just be sure to err on the side of caution. Humans actually have an innate aversion to food spoilage, and food that has gone over actually triggers an adverse visceral response in people. So if you're uncertain if the food is safe or not, give it a good whiff – your nose won't steer you wrong. If you feel as though something is amiss, throw it out.
If your goal is to have as many meals squirreled away for the future, then freezing your meal preps is may be something that interests you. Be careful to freeze and store them properly to keep meal preps fresh and avoid losing that delicious flavor you worked so hard to attain when you initially made the meal. Proper storage of your meal preps in the freezer can also prevent food poisoning, so take extra caution when portioning your leftovers away in the freezer.
The best way to freeze your meal preps to ensure they're palatable when you finally get around to eating them is entirely dependent on your storage method. You always want to make sure to use high-quality meal prep containers. Avoid plastic ones; glass is always superior. Make sure you get an air-tight seal before placing in the freezer to prevent freezer burn and spoilage.
If you're going to store your preps in the freezer, make sure you bring them down in temperature rapidly. That helps twofold: you're less likely to get freezer burn and you'll be more likely to prevent spoilage. By using glass meal prep containers, you'll be able to divvy up your preps into smaller compartments, allowing them to freeze more evenly, making reheating them a cinch while retaining optimal flavor and nutrients.
Most meal preppers are planning ahead for the next few days, which makes the recommended best-by dates on most foods fairly standardized. However, if you're wanting to get a head start on your cooking for the future, you may want to cook in large batches and stick your leftovers in the freezer for retrieval at a later date.
If that's your plan, great! Storing your preps in the freezer is a fantastic way to keep meal preps fresh and prevent them from spoiling, especially if you're not going to eat them right away.
Most foods can keep safely in your freezer for months, but some foods should never go into the freezer. For instance, deli salads? Yuck. Don't do it. The texture and taste would become overly compromised, and it's not like you're going to heat them up to eat them, anyway. Hard-boiled eggs should also be spared the freezer treatment. However, if you need to set aside large batches of cooked poultry or beef, feel free to stick them in the freezer for up to six months to help keep meal preps fresh. The same goes for cut fruits and veggies; stick 'em in the freezer and pull them out up to six months later, if you feel so inclined.
A Comment on Freezer Burn: Freezer burn occurs when food isn't properly wrapped up before storing it in the freezer. When bits dry out (a process called “sublimation,” which is actually one of the steps of freeze-drying foods for long term storage) and become dehydrated and grey, their quality may diminish but they're not necessarily unsafe to eat. Cut off the freezer burned parts of your food and the rest should be fine to eat!
If you were smart and stocked up on glass meal prep containers, that's one less thing you'll have to worry about when reheating your meal preps. If you accidentally picked up plastic meal prep containers, don't sweat it. Just throw them out (check with your local recycling facilities first!) and start over with high quality glass meal prep containers.
You might be wondering: “Why does my meal prep containers matter? Won't just any old meal prep container keep meal preps fresh?”
The answer is a resounding "Nope!"
Plastic meal prep containers, despite their low cost, are absolutely not advised to use when meal prepping. They have been shown to leach something called Bisphenol-A (BPA), a powerful endocrine disruptor, into your food. BPA has been shown to dramatically alter hormones by acting similarly to estrogen in the body, which can have lasting and devastating long term repercussions in your body such as cancer, reproductive damage, birth defects, and permanent hormonal damage in the testes, ovaries, and thyroid.
On the other hand, it's perfectly safe to reheat your meal preps in the microwave if you have glass containers. Just be cautious when taking them out – glass can get hot! If you prefer, you can transfer your meal preps to an oven-safe baking dish or reheat them on the stove top.
Regardless of how you choose to reheat them, though, be careful to avoid improperly bringing them back up to an enjoyable temperature. There are two recommended methods of thawing your meal preps. If you prefer, you can thaw frozen meal preps in your refrigerator overnight. It's not advised to thaw them on the counter, however; the risk of bacterial contamination is too high. The other option is using a cold-water bath to thaw them, but be mindful and monitor them closely to avoid letting them sit in tepid water for too long.
It's also advised to not use plastic wrap when reheating your prepped foods. When reheating your preps, be careful to spread all foods evenly in your meal prep containers to ensure even cooking. Stir them midway through to confirm that they reach the safe temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit throughout to kill off any bacteria that may be lurking in it. Leave the lid on, but allow it to vent out to avoid food-splosions; the moist heat from trapped steam actually helps kill any bacteria that may be remaining in your preps.
If you bit off more than you can chew, don't fret. Despite any old wives tales that say you can't re-freeze your pre-frozen meal preps, it's actually perfectly fine and safe to stick your leftover leftovers back into the freezer. (That was a mouthful, wasn't it? Whew!) Just be careful to heat them up all the way to 165F and store the leftovers carefully to ensure their quality doesn't decline in their second round in the freezer.
You cook at home because it's better for you and you're trying to do your body a favor by avoiding junky fast food that can be full of preservatives. Therefore, you're not about to start adding preservatives back into your food to keep them fresher longer...are you?
Some of the more common preservatives found in food can be highly dangerous to your health. For instance, research has shown that nitrates and nitrites are linked to stomach cancer. Benzoates can cause allergies and asthma, and sorbates have triggered contact dermatitis in some people. Why would you even consider using preservatives in your food, then?
Believe it or not, "preservative" doesn't have to be a four letter word. There are several all-natural preservatives you can add to your food to keep them fresh and tasty. Consider the following when storing your meal preps to help stave off bacterial and mold growth:
- Honey: This natural preservative has been used since ancient times, when Egyptians used it to help prevent food spoilage and store food long-term (and, um, embalming bodies for mummification, but that's a story for another day).
- Garlic: The antimicrobial properties of garlic have been well known for a long time, but recent research has shown that it can help ward off salmonella and E. coli in chicken.
- Lemon: A squeeze of lemon juice can stop the enzyme process that can cause produce from browning and spoiling, but the active terpenes in it has also been shown to prevent food spoilage, too.
- Antioxidants: One major cause of food spoilage is oxidization, and what better to prevent it than an anti-oxidant? Some naturally occurring sources of antioxidants include green tea, wine, and of course, dark chocolate. Adding these items to your food may help ward off food spoilage and improve its flavor – a win-win!
- Herbs: Certain herbs, like rosemary and thyme, have been shown to act as natural food preservatives. Add a sprinkle of these flavorful herbs to your food and enjoy the flavor of them longer!
Artificial preservatives can make you ill, but these all natural ones can help keep your meal preps fresher and help prevent spoilage. Plus, who's going to argue against adding something delicious like garlic or a squeeze of lemon to your food to brighten the flavor? If it keeps it from spoiling, it's just an added bonus at this point, right? Exactly!
How Long Does Prepped Foods Last?
One of the biggest questions that a first time meal prepper faces is wondering how long prepped foods last. After all, you don't want to dedicate hours of your Sunday painstakingly crafting a delicious cornucopia of variety to eat during the week only to pry up the lid on your meal prep container on Thursday or Friday and be greeted by a whiff of what can only be described as, "Yuck, what the heck, dude?!"
There's a long answer and a short answer to this pressing question. The short answer is, it varies. Cooked meat, chicken, and fish can last anywhere been 2-5 days. Fruit can last between 3 days to 3 weeks (or longer) and veggies? Up to 2 weeks.
Ready for the long answer? Thought you'd never ask! We wrote an entire guide to storing your meal preps.
You can find it here:And if you still have questions, reach out to us! We're here to help.
The microwave has a bad rep that it just can't seem to shake. Ever since it came out, it's been subjected to a barrage of accusations that are hell-bent on undermining its validity and safety. The fact is, microwaves are completely safe. They don't render foods contaminated with radiation (so please don't put spiders in there in the off-chance that you hope you can create the next Spiderman, thanks) and most of the dangers of using them come from burns from foods becoming super-heated while cooking.
In reality, microwaves may actually be better than conventional ovens at retaining nutrients in your meal preps. Because they cook quicker than conventional methods, the chances of retaining nutrients are that much higher. Plus, because typical stove-top methods require boiling your vegetables, much of the nutrients are lost in the water where the produce was cooked. In other words, don't fear the microwave. It's actually superior in many ways to your conventional stove and oven methods. Don't lose sleep over freezing your meal preps either; freezing them can actually help keep meal preps fresh and encourages nutrient retention. Just remember – never use plastics. BPA is leaked in extremely high amounts when heated in the microwave.
Another reassuring thing to consider when shopping for your meal preps is that frozen produce is not only more affordable, it's actually more likely to have more vitamins in it versus the fresh produce that you might be more inclined to reach for. Of course, if you picked a fresh tomato off the vine and ate it that same day, you would be enjoying the most amount of vitamins possible from it. The reality is, however, that between picking, shipping, waiting at the store, and sitting around in your fridge, it could be several weeks from the day the tomato was picked to actually being consumed by you. By then, it will have suffered fairly serious vitamin loss at this point.
On the other hand, produce that is picked for freezing is packaged shortly after it was taken from the vine. Frozen produce has several benefits over so-called fresh produce, including having a lower cost as well as higher nutrient retention. Even canned produce isn't entirely nutritionally void, though it perhaps has the least amount of remaining nutrients due to the high cooking temperatures they're subjected to.
The bottom line here is that you have goals; whether you're trying to build muscle, shed a few vanity pounds, or you're just trying to be better organized in the kitchen so you can feed yourself and your family more healthful, nutritious meals, you want to ensure that you're doing your very best and not skipping anything essential when reaching for those goals.
By arming yourself a comprehensive arsenal of facts, you're going to be more likely to succeed. Little slip ups here and there are all part of the learning curve, but as long as your progress continues in its own meandering, non-linear manner, you'll get there. Taking care to properly prepare and store your food is one of the most critical steps you can take, but knowing also how to weigh and measure it is important, too.
Preparing your meals at home is incredibly empowering, and by doing so, you'll hit your goals sooner rather than later. The best part is that you'll never have to come home to an empty fridge, starving and miserable, and resort to having to dial out for heavy, greasy, unsatisfying takeout. Properly planning ahead, and having a variety of delicious and wholesome meals in your fridge, will ensure you'll always have a hearty and satisfying meal on call, saving you time, money, stress, and needless frustration.
What Are the Best Tools for Meal Plan Success?
You've got the drive and the ambition to get started today -- but do you have the right tools?
Every successful meal prepper needs an arsenal of indispensable equipment to make their foray into the kitchen a resounding success. You already know that you need a meat thermometer, a kitchen scale, and glass meal prep containers, but what else is essential to complete your beginner's collection?
Don't overlook the importance of:
Want to read more? We compiled an exhaustive list of the must-have tools for succeeding at meal prepping. You can find it here:
But what's the absolutely, hands-down, must-have tool for meal planning success?
Having Meal Plan Magic in your back pocket, of course! With our comprehensive program, we will give you a complete nutritional blueprint custom-tailored to your specific needs. It includes meal prep outlines and shopping lists. By investing in Meal Plan Magic, you're investing in yourself and your long term health.
Excited to start meal prepping today? These comprehensive articles are great for both beginners and more advanced meal preppers!
- 13 Trusted Methods For Storing Food Safely And Extending Shelf-Life
- The Complete Guide To Storing Prepped Veggies
- How To Use These Essential Types Of Kitchen Knives For Meal Prep
- 10 Must-Have Tools For Meal Prep Success
- Delicious Healthy Weekly Meal Plan Options with a Full Week Sample Meal Prep