New to Meal Prep? Here's How to Design a Menu and Portion Your Foods For Weight Loss
Carving out time to meal prep is challenging enough, but when you're trying to lose weight, the idea can frankly be overwhelming. That's why we've created this comprehensive guide with the help of Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition. Her tips will help you plot a menu; put together a grocery list filled with fresh produce, lean proteins, and whole grains; and cook and portion your meals in a way that's most supportive of your goals. With time, you'll learn how to design your own dishes, and making meals ahead will become second nature. Let's get started.
Best Proteins For Weight Loss
Lean protein is essential for weight loss. It helps you feel full and aids in muscle recovery and growth — and the more muscle you have, the more calories you'll burn. That doesn't mean you have to eat the same baked chicken at every meal. Try mixing things up with Amy's picks.
- Salmon: "A 4-ounce cooked portion of salmon has fewer than 200 calories yet offers 25 grams of protein," Amy told POPSUGAR. "Salmon (and other fatty fish) also provide EPA and DHA, omega-3 fatty acids that can help lower your risk of heart disease and boost brain health."
- Tofu: Plant-based proteins aren't just for vegetarians and vegans. Amy explained that a half-cup serving of tofu — which is made from soybeans — offers 22 grams of protein, but fewer calories and less fat than meats like beef and sausage.
- Pulses: Pulses like chickpeas, lentils, black beans, and dried peas are perfect for meal prep. "They make it quick and simple to prepare nutritious meals, like this vegetarian rice bowl," Amy said. "One study found that eating pulses daily can lead to a weight loss of close to a pound over a six-week period. It may not sound like much, but it adds up over time."
Best Fruits and Vegetables For Weight Loss
If you're trying to lose weight, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables should be the star of your plate. They're filling, and fiber helps regulate blood sugar, preventing cravings. All fruits and vegetables have different health benefits, so aim for variety — the more colors, the better. Here are some of Amy's favorites.
- Blueberries: Amy keeps her freezer stocked with wild blueberries. "They're so versatile to use in healthy recipes, like smoothies or this wild blueberry lemon nice cream," she said. Blueberries get their rich color from anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant that helps lower the risk of cognitive decline.
- Mango: A great source of fiber and hydrating water, mango makes a great topping for overnight oats.
- Grapes: Eat them as a snack (they're delicious frozen!) or as a topping in a healthy Greek yogurt parfait.
- Spinach: Spinach is low-calorie and a good source of filling fiber, with two grams per three-cup serving. It's a tasty salad base, but you can also sauté it with scrambled eggs or blend it into a smoothie.
- Tomatoes: "Tomatoes can be used in so many dishes, and they add flavor for very few calories," Amy told POPSUGAR. "The nutritional benefits are impressive, too. Tomatoes provide lycopene, which can protect your skin from UV damage."
- Squash: Zucchini isn't the only option to replace traditional noodles. "Butternut squash noodles are delicious when tossed with tomato sauce or pesto, or you can use them as a base for a cold salad," Amy said. "I also love spaghetti squash because you can make low-calorie 'pasta' dishes with it."
Best Grains For Weight Loss
Carbs are not the enemy, as long as you pair them with a source of protein and some healthy fats for a well-balanced meal. Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa have more fiber and nutrients than refined grains like white bread. Try these picks.
- Oats: "You can use oats to make overnight oats, a savory dinner oatmeal, and snackable protein bites," Amy said.
- Barley: This heart-healthy grain is severely underrated, she said: "The filling fiber content of barley is one of the highest of any grain, and it can be used in a variety of ways, from soups to sides to breakfasts."
- Whole-wheat pasta: "Combine pasta with a lot of veggies to add bulk to your meal, and then top it with a lean protein," Amy suggested.
Best Fats For Weight Loss
Healthy fats are more calorie-dense than carbs and protein, but that only serves to make your meals more satiating. Plus, fats are crucial for a healthy brain and hormone function. These are the ones Amy suggests adding to your list.
- Avocado: A little goes a long way, so Amy recommends adding only a quarter of an avocado to any given meal. They're delicious on sandwiches and salads, but you can also use them to make healthy desserts.
- Pistachios: "These are my go-to nut for meal prep because they're one of the highest in protein, not to mention their polyunsaturated fat and fiber content," she said. For snack time, keep 100-calorie packs of pistachios in your car or purse or make Amy's almond butter protein balls.
- Nut butter: Whether you prefer almond or peanut butter, there's no denying that nut butters are some of the most perfect foods around. Use them as a dip for fruit or try them in oatmeal, yogurt parfaits, and stir-fry sauces.
Foods to Leave Off Your Grocery List
If weight loss is your goal, there are certain foods best left out of your grocery cart. "Don't buy high-calorie foods that are hard for you to resist," Amy advised. If you can't stick to a half-cup serving of ice cream (who can?), don't buy a large container that will tempt you every time you open the freezer. Instead, plan to go out for a small serving if you're craving dessert.
Cooking Methods to Try
Once you get all those healthy foods home, and you're ready to start cooking, remember that certain methods will better serve your goals than others. Amy suggests grilling, roasting, steaming, and sautéing using low-sodium broth or water. "If you're trying to eat healthier, you'll want to avoid frying your food or cooking in a lot of oil or butter," she added.
How to Portion Your Meals For Weight Loss
Amy typically advises clients to include a lean protein, healthy fat, whole grain, and veggies or fruit with each meal. While portion sizes are highly individual (you might try meeting with a dietitian, who can create a plan based on your age, activity level, and more), Amy did give this example. "If I was aiming to create a meal with about 400 calories, I might include 3/4 cup pulses (such as canned, no-salt-added chickpeas) as a protein, 10 kalamata olives as a healthy fat, 1/2 cup cooked whole-wheat pasta for a whole grain, 1/2 cup grape tomatoes, 1/4 cup onion, and 2 cups spinach sautéed in low-sodium broth, topped with 1/4 cup tomato sauce," she said. "You can also add seasoning as you like, such as black pepper."
When you need to eyeball it, many experts recommend following the 50/25/25 rule, in which you fill 50 percent of your plate with fruits and nonstarchy vegetables, 25 percent with lean protein, and 25 percent with whole grains and starchy vegetables, with a small amount of fat (such as nuts or avocado) mixed in.
A Sample Meal-Prep Menu For Weight Loss
Changing the way you shop and cook can be overwhelming, so we've put together a couple examples of each meal to get you started. As long as you follow Amy's recommendations for portioning out your foods, you can branch out and come up with your own creations.
- Oatmeal with blueberries, cinnamon, and nut butter
- Plain Greek yogurt with grapes, pistachios, and a drizzle of honey
- Mason jar chicken taco salad
- Sandwich with whole-grain bread, deli turkey, lettuce, cheese, and mustard, with carrots and hummus on the side
- Salmon with sweet potatoes, asparagus, and barley
- Red pepper and corn tempeh tacos