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If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s helpful to have the right foods on hand to fuel your body and provide you with the nutrients you need to feel your best.
Meal prepping can be a helpful tool for anyone, regardless of whether you want to lose, gain, or maintain weight.
Planning and preparing meals and snacks ahead of time can save you time, reduce stress around mealtime, help improve diet quality, and help you reach and maintain a healthy body weight (1, 2).
This article breaks down meal prepping for weight loss and includes foods to prioritize, how to create healthy and filling meals, sample recipes, and evidence-based, sustainable weight loss tips.
Though you may be surprised to hear this, you don’t need to follow any particular diet for weight loss.
Some dietary patterns such as low carb and vegan diets have been shown to promote weight loss, but this doesn’t mean they’re necessary to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable way (3, 4, 5).
Meal prepping is a great tool because instead of following a fixed, restrictive plan, you can enjoy a nutrient-dense diet that works for you and your individual preferences. The planning piece helps make healthy meals a reality on days you’re crunched for time.
You’re also more likely to enjoy the meals and snacks that you’re eating, and you have the freedom to choose foods that you like because no foods are completely “off-limits.”
With this in mind, some foods — like fruits and vegetables — are highly nutritious and have been linked to weight loss, while others — like donuts and cookies — can still be enjoyed but should be more limited as part of a healthy diet.
A healthy, weight-loss-friendly diet can simply be a well-rounded, nutrient-dense dietary pattern. The most important factor in weight loss is making sure you’re in a calorie deficit, which promotes fat loss.
However, this does not mean that you have to go on a strict low calorie diet. Instead, try cutting back on certain high calorie, nutrient-poor refined foods, choosing nutrient-dense, filling foods more often, and adding in more activity on a daily basis.
This will help you create a calorie deficit while still feeling nourished and fulfilled.
Even though very low calorie diets that only deliver 1,000 or 1,200 calories per day are likely to result in quick weight loss, studies show that the weight lost on these programs is quickly gained back once a person returns to normal eating habits (6, 7, 8, 9).
Plus, these diets are typically unnecessarily restrictive, take the enjoyment out of eating, and they can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food.
So, what does a balanced, weight-loss-friendly dietary pattern look like? Honestly, it looks just like any other balanced diet. It should be nutritionally complete, affordable, appropriate, culturally acceptable, enjoyable, and sustainable.
One thing that many health professionals agree on is that a healthy diet should comprise mostly whole, minimally processed foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, nutrient-dense whole foods like whole grains, beans, fish, chicken, eggs, nuts, and seeds should make up the majority of your diet — while still leaving some room for treats.
Be wary of generic meal-prep-friendly meal plans available online or handed out by trainers and nutritionists with a set calorie limit, especially if they are rigid and deliver fewer than 1,500 calories per day.
It’s impossible to know how many calories a person needs on a daily basis without information like their height, weight, age, sex, and activity level. Plus, it’s important to remember that calorie calculations are just estimates (10).
If you would like to have a general idea of your calorie needs, work with a registered dietitian or another qualified healthcare professional who specializes in metabolic health to help determine an appropriate and safe calorie range to support weight loss.
Even though it may be helpful for some people to know how many calories they require on a daily basis, it’s not necessary to count calories, track foods, or follow a very low calorie diet for weight loss.
You can still follow a diet that promotes weight loss without counting calories. Choose the right kinds of foods to fuel your body, compose filling meals, eat in accordance with your feelings of hunger and fullness, and prepare healthy meals and snacks.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet for weight loss. A healthy diet, regardless of whether you’re trying to lose weight, should be sustainable, nourishing, nutritionally adequate, and most importantly, enjoyable.
When meal prepping for weight loss, it’s important to know how to plan meals that are filling and nutrient-dense.
In general, aim to make most of your meals and snacks balanced, meaning they should contain a source of protein, fat, and fiber.
Getting adequate protein at every meal and snack is essential, as protein is the most filling macronutrient and helps keep you feeling satisfied between meals.
For example, eating an apple paired with natural peanut butter, a source of plant-based protein and fat, will be more satisfying than eating an apple on its own.
Adding more fat and protein to your meals and snacks adds more calories, but it also helps prevent you from being hungry and fuels your body with key nutrients.
Plus, a higher protein diet helps preserve lean muscle mass during weight loss, which is important for maintaining strength, as well as optimal energy expenditure (11, 12, 13).
Adding sources of fiber and healthy fats to meals can also help ensure your meals are filling, tasty, and contain a variety of nutrients.
Here are a few meal and snack upgrades that can help you get an idea of what well-composed, weight-loss-friendly meals and snacks may look like.
Although it’s a good idea to prepare many of your meals and snacks from scratch, using some premade foods such as turkey sticks, hummus, whole grain crackers, salad dressings, and more can help make your life much easier and save time when meal prepping.
When prepping weight-loss-friendly meals and snacks, it’s important to design balanced meals that contain protein, fiber, and healthy fats to promote satiety and provide the nutrients your body needs.
As mentioned above, any healthy diet should comprise mainly whole, nutritious foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and healthy proteins and fats.
When planning meals for the week ahead, it’s helpful to create a shopping list. Grocery lists can help you stay organized while at the store and may even help you make healthier choices while shopping (14, 15).
Think of your list as the first step in your meal planning. You’ll want to pick up healthy foods but also have a plan to use them so they don’t go to waste. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables last longer and are typically less expensive.
Here’s an example of a meal-prep and weight-loss-friendly shopping list:
- Fruits: blackberries, blueberries, bananas, apples, and grapefruits
- Non-starchy vegetables: spinach, peppers, onions, cauliflower, green beans, mushrooms, zucchini, lettuce
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, potatoes, and butternut squash
- Proteins: canned salmon and tuna, frozen shrimp, chicken breast, lean ground beef and turkey, and eggs
- Beans: chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, and lentils
- Grains: oats, brown rice, whole grain pasta, and quinoa
- Frozen foods: frozen mangoes, sprouted-grain bread, frozen cherries, frozen broccoli, and frozen spinach
- Dairy and non-dairy substitutes: milk, unsweetened nondairy milk, cheese, Greek yogurt, and plain yogurt
- Nuts and seeds: sunflower seeds, pistachios, almonds, natural peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, and cashews
- Condiments and pantry: salad dressing, salsa, marinara sauce, mustard, spices, chicken broth, diced tomatoes, garlic, etc.
- Oils: olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, etc.
- Other healthy fats: avocado, hummus, and tahini
- Beverages: sparkling water, coffee, and tea
- Snack foods: dark chocolate chips, turkey sticks, nut butter packets, whole grain or seed-based crackers, whole-food-based bars, popcorn, plantain and bean chips, etc.
This is simply a suggested shopping list. Your shopping list will change weekly depending on the meals and snacks you choose to meal prep.
Focus on consuming whole, nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, and fish. Fill your refrigerator and cabinets with healthy, meal-prep-friendly foods and make a plan to prep them into healthy meals and snacks.
In addition to a well-organized shopping list, having some kitchen tools on hand makes meal prepping easier.
Having a variety of durable containers in a number of shapes and sizes is critical for meal prepping.
Try keeping glass and stainless steel food storage containers on hand.
Shop for glass meal-prep containers, which are available in a variety of sizes, online.
It’s nice to have containers in different sizes and even try some with multiple compartments, both for snack boxes and keeping foods separate.
A well-designed lunch bag or transport tote is important for meal preppers as well. A good choice for a food transport tote will be insulated and have a place for ice packs to keep your food cool.
Shop for an insulated lunchbox or larger lunch tote online.
Consider how many meals you’re planning on prepping and taking with you on a daily or nightly basis. If it’s just one meal and a snack per day, a smaller lunch bag will suffice. If you’re prepping multiple meals, consider buying a larger tote.
Having a well-stocked kitchen can help you meal prep, and a few key tools, such as storage containers and lunch boxes, can be very useful.
A healthy diet tends to be low in nutrient-poor, ultra-processed foods and added sugars. These include foods and beverages like fast food, candy, sugary baked goods, sweetened cereals, deep-fried foods, soda, and other highly refined items.
Reducing consumption of these foods is essential for everyone, not just people who want to shed excess body weight. However, it’s especially important to cut back on these foods if you’d like to promote fat loss.
This is because research shows that diets high in ultra-processed foods and added sugars are associated with weight gain and obesity, as well as a number of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease (16, 17, 18, 19, 20).
If your diet is currently high in ultra-processed foods and added sugar, cutting back can help you lose weight and improve your overall health.
However, that’s not to say that you should completely avoid your favorite foods. A well-rounded, sustainable diet should always leave room for you to enjoy your favorite foods on occasion.
Just remember that the majority of your diet should be made up of nutrient-dense whole foods like the ones listed above.
Even though a diet low in ultra-processed foods and added sugars is best for overall health, a balanced diet should leave room for you to enjoy your favorite foods.
If you’re new to meal prep, you may want to start gradually by preparing just a few meals a week. Once that becomes a habit, add a few more meals.
It’s also a smart choice to prep meals that you seem to have the most trouble with in terms of making healthy choices.
For example, if you typically resort to a fast-food lunch because there are very few options near your worksite, start prepping lunch at home. If you have a habit of grabbing a donut and coffee on your way to work, start with prepping breakfast.
Once you’ve decided on how many meals you’d like to prep, pick a day that you have time to prep and set aside an hour or two — depending on the number of meals you’re making.
Browse the internet for meal-prep-friendly recipes and take screenshots or print out the recipes and ingredient lists. Use these recipes to create an organized grocery list.
Go grocery shopping a day or two ahead of your meal prep day so you have everything you need to create healthy meals for the week ahead.
It may seem like a lot at first, but you’ll get better at meal prepping the more you do it, and you’ll figure out recipes and strategies that work for you.
Simple weight-loss-friendly meal and snack ideas
Now that you’ve decided to take on meal prepping to create healthy meals to support weight loss, you may want a few meal and snack ideas to get you started.
These meals and snacks are all easily made in advance, and many rely on staples that are easy to keep on hand, like eggs, oats, peanut butter, sweet potatoes, and rice.
Here are a few weight loss and meal-prep-friendly breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack recipes that are tasty and simple to make.
Lunch and dinner ideas
- Turkey stuffed sweet potatoes. Serve these fiber- and protein-loaded sweet potatoes with crispy roasted Brussels sprouts.
- Grain bowls. Grain bowls are a great choice for meal prep. Simply top a cooked grain of your choice (e.g., quinoa or brown rice), with a protein (e.g., tofu or chicken), your favorite vegetables, and a sauce or dressing. Here’s an idea for a Mediterranean-style grain bowl.
- Burgers. Burgers are perfect for meal prep because they are easy to store and pair well with just about anything. Try out this spinach feta salmon burger recipe or Mediterranean chicken burger recipe and pair them with baked potato wedges and a green salad.
- One-pan recipes. One-sheet-pan recipes, including this balsamic chicken and veggies recipe or this salmon and veggies recipe, make meal prep a breeze.
- Bento boxes. Fill a multi-compartment food container with your favorite snack foods like fresh fruit, veggie sticks, hummus, nut butter, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and nuts. Add a variety of foods for flavor, and aim to include protein, fiber, and a healthy fat.
- Energy balls. Energy balls are a portable snack option that can be prepped in large quantities and frozen ahead of time. Try out this simple lime coconut energy bite recipe.
- Premade snacks. Keep healthy, premade snacks handy to help save time. Think hummus, whole-food-based snack bars, whole grain cereal, whole grain crackers, and mixed nuts — these make perfect snack additions to fresh ingredients like fruits and veggies.
There’s no doubt that meal prepping could help promote weight loss. However, meal prepping is only a small part of a larger puzzle that makes up healthy weight loss.
If you want to lose weight, there are a number of factors to consider, including getting enough sleep, proper hydration, stress reduction, and engaging in enjoyable and consistent physical activity.
Weight loss can be difficult and takes time, lots of self-love, and patience. It’s often helpful to build a support system that includes a registered dietitian, a therapist, and trusted loved ones like friends and family to support you through your journey.
If you’re a meal prep newbie, start gradually by prepping just a few meals a week. Stick with nutritious, yet simple recipes like the ones listed above to save time in the kitchen.
Meal prepping for weight loss doesn’t have to involve calorie counting or complicated low calorie recipes.
Instead, a weight-loss-friendly meal plan should be high in nutritious, filling, and delicious foods and involve preparing recipes that appeal to you using foods that you enjoy.
Remember, if you’re new to meal prep, don’t go overboard. Start by preparing a few healthy meals per week to create a sustainable habit that can help you lose weight in a healthy way.