The pitfalls of healthy eating tend to be twofold: having nothing nutritious to eat and having no time to eat it. That’s where meal prep—preparing a week or so worth of dishes in advance—comes in.
Problem is, if you’re spending Sunday in the kitchen slicing and dicing while everyone else is out enjoying restaurant fare, meal prep can become more of a good idea in theory than an actual plan worth following. “If it is just you, it is easy to tell yourself, ‘We can order in tonight, I’ll do it tomorrow,’” says Ilyse Schapiro, RD, coauthor of Should I Scoop Out My Bagel?
Enter a meal prep squad—a group of like-minded people who cook together, eat together, break up tasks, or simply meet to discuss the ins and outs of preparing good-for-you dishes. “If you have a group you are contributing to and people who are counting on you, you are less likely to let them down,” Schapiro says.
Plus, meal prepping in a crew has its perks. “You no longer have to be responsible for making all the various types of dishes,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, an adjunct assistant professor and senior dietitian at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “You can expand your palette without putting in all the work.”
With multiple minds at work, you’ll also be introduced to new ideas, products, and ways to make meals, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and coauthor of Skinny Liver.
Don’t look forward to solo time in the kitchen (or Sundays for that matter!)? Says Hunnes: “Humans are social creatures, and we like to eat with other people. By having a group, you can do that while exploring more flavours.”
Here is how to form your squad.
Step 1: Identify members
Putting out feelers starts with seeking people who have similar tastes in food, says Hunnes. If you’re a vegan, you wouldn’t join a food prep group of meat eaters, for example. You also want to have similar diet goals. If everyone’s looking to lose weight, you’ll likely agree on whipping up filling, plant-based dishes instead of splurge meals, for example. (Plant-based meals are also not only healthier, but also safer to transport from a food safety perspective, notes Hunnes.)
She adds: “I also think that good people to assemble together are people who are open-minded when it comes to food and will be more accepting of different cuisines and cultural foods.”
Start by contacting any friends or family who might be interested. “This should be fun,” reminds Schapiro. “You don't want to be stuck with people you don’t like and who aren’t on the same page as you.”
You could also join a preexisting group or put up an advertisement at work to start an office squad.
Step 2: Set the guidelines
“It makes it so much easier if there is a leader who can delegate who shops for what, what supplies you need, and where the meal prep party will happen,” says Schapiro. “Systems work best to make sure the meal prep is efficient.”
Consider a revolving-door strategy where at each gathering, a different person makes the entrée, salad, and dessert; or try sign-up sheets where people get to choose what they will make, suggests Hunnes.
It’s also a good idea to have a budget in place that works for everyone.
Don’t forget nonfood items, says Hunnes. “You don’t want to have a gathering and realize you have nothing to eat off of!”
Step 3: Maximize your own kitchen time
No matter how many hands are helping, save yourself minutes (or hours!) by following these expert tips.
Don’t go to the grocery store. “There are so many grocery delivery services, so it makes it easy to plan your shopping list out and have the groceries delivered right to your house. This way you can properly organize and stock up for your meal prep,” says Schapiro.
Slim down your ingredient list. A dish might look yummy until you see its 20-item ingredient list. “I myself tend to be more of a four- to six-ingredient meal maker,” says Hunnes. “That to me is a manageable number of ingredients.”
Say yes to prepackaged foods. Kirkpatrick encourages patients to embrace healthier convenience products like zucchini noodles, riced broccoli and cauliflower, and even frozen chicken strips and wild salmon patties. “People want a meal made in 10 minutes or less—and there’s nothing wrong with that.” (No one said you had to be a cook-from-scratch chef overnight, right?)
Finally, any way that you decide to prep a week’s worth of meals is up to you. A meal prep squad may transform your meals into social outings. Hanging out with friends may be reason enough to start one.