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Meal prepping is a convenient way to ensure that you have nutritious meals ready ahead of time. However, I recently heard that improper meal prep could cause a loss of nutrients! Is this the end of meal prep? Don’t panic. Meal prep is as important as ever if you follow some simple guidelines.
Does Meal Prep Lose Nutrients?
Unless you eat only raw food, anything you prepare by slicing, peeling, cooking, and storing will lose some nutrients in the process. What’s important is to minimize the loss of these nutrients and to ensure that you get as nutritious a diet as possible. Here are four ways meal prep is losing nutrients and what you can do instead.
Losing Nutrients When Meal Planning
The first place you lose nutrients is in your meal-prep planning. If you don’t know how to plan meals as part of a balanced diet and prepare them timeously, you won’t achieve your health goals.
Ensure your diet supplies the nutrition you and your family need, including fruit, vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates. Dieticians tend to find that meal preppers focus on carbs and protein to the exclusion of fruit and vegetables.
Poor eating habits can have the following consequences:
- Fatigue, primarily if your body relies on carbohydrates for energy and you’re overeating protein
- Hunger, if you eat too many carbs and not enough protein
- A weak immune system, if you’re not getting enough vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from fresh fruit and vegetables
- vitamin deficiencies
- Malnutrition, which can occur even in food-rich environments.
Another way that poor planning can lose you nutrients is by over-preparing.
When I started with meal prep, I was totally enthusiastic. I planned healthy breakfasts, lunches, and suppers and prepared a ton of meals. I realized my mistake after eating the same meals for a whole week (anyone for overnight oats, tuna salad, and sheet plan chicken?). Finally, I threw out the rest because it had spoiled.
- Only prepare as much food as you can realistically store. Food can spoil within four to six days, becoming a safety hazard. If you don’t have a fridge or freezer space, schedule meal prep twice weekly, so your food is always fresh.
- Allow flexibility in your meal planning so that you don’t have to eat the same three meals day in and day out. I still can’t look at tuna salad. You’ll stay motivated and choose to eat a balanced diet.
Losing Nutrients When Ingredient Prepping
Your next step when meal prepping is getting all your ingredients ready: washing, peeling, slicing, and chopping. However, you could be losing essential nutrients in the process.
Removing Veggie Skins And Peels
Try not to remove the skins, peels, and outer leaves of vegetables, as you are losing vital fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Eating the skins of fruit and vegetables will make you feel full for longer and boost your immune system, protecting you from disease.
I was always taught to remove peels until I learned that nutrients lie close to the vegetable’s surface and that I was trimming off the goodness! Now I scrub them, and my family really enjoys potato wedges with peels attached!
There are exceptions, of course, as you have to remove inedible peels, like avocado skin or pumpkin peel. You also need to make sure your food is organic. While washing and scrubbing will remove some impurities, peeling is necessary if you know the produce has been sprayed.
Leaving Chopped Veggies Exposed
Another way your meal prep could go wrong is if you leave your vegetables and fruit chopped for too long. Water-soluble vitamins like B and C are unstable and susceptible to nutrient loss by air and water.
Instead, choose miniature versions of your favorite vegetables to eat them whole. Besides, tiny veggies look cuter.
Losing Nutrients When Cooking
Another meal prep stage where your food could lose nutrients is in the cooking process, whether batch cooking ingredients, making full meals, or cooking each day. While cooking will always leach nutrients from your food, there are healthier and less healthy methods.
Boiling, Simmering, and Poaching
These three methods of cooking involve placing your food in liquid. The longer you cook the food, the more water-soluble vitamins are released, including all the B and C vitamins. They end up in the water, which you discard.
The solution? Cook the ingredient as briefly as possible, and re-use the cooking water. I love cooking water from vegetables for a hearty soup or broth.
These water-based cooking methods are not optimal for vegetables, so prepare them another way.
Grilling and Frying
These two methods involve cooking with fat, destroying fat-soluble nutrients, like A, D, and K vitamins, calcium, and potassium. Grilling can also cause carcinogenic substances to develop.
Avoid frying with fat, and grill meat or vegetables as briefly as possible.
Cooking or heating food in the microwave does not involve water or fat. Microwaved vegetables retain their vitamins and nutrients, especially vitamin C, more readily than boiling.
Generally, I microwave food for short periods at low temperatures, resulting in fewer nutrients being lost.
Steaming is the ideal method of cooking vegetables, retaining nutrients, and optimizing flavor and color. So long as you steam briefly and quickly, producing vegetables that still have crunch, you won’t lose many nutrients.
Losing Nutrients During Storage
The success of meal prep is based on you being able to plan and prepare your meals in advance and storing them until you need them. Unfortunately, if your storage techniques aren’t up to scratch, you lose vital nutrients from your food.
Once food has been chopped, processed, or cooked, it cannot stand on your kitchen counters for more than two hours. Vitamins will start oxidizing from the food while exposing it to food-borne bacteria.
Use your fridge for short-term storage (especially of veg in the crisper section) and ensure it remains below 40⁰F. Start using your freezer for longer-term storage – that is, freeze any meal prep food you’re not going to eat within three to four days.
I’ve gotten into the habit of labeling any container in the fridge or freezer with the date and contents. This avoids waste and helps me to remember what I’ve prepped. Yes, I forget within three days in the whirlwind of family life!
Food exposed to the air loses water-soluble nutrients and becomes rubbery, soggy, unpalatable, and stale. Your food also becomes vulnerable to bacteria that cause food poisoning.
Wrapping your food in aluminum foil or plastic wrap or putting a whole saucepan in the fridge is only effective if you eat it within the next few hours.
If you’re going to embark on meal prep as part of your lifestyle, it’s worth investing in containers. Choose decent well-sealed, airtight containers of various shapes and sizes for storage and transportation.
Storing Portion Sizes
A side-effect of not using the correct storage containers is storing portions of the wrong size, which can lose you the proper balance of nutrients.
Once you’ve prepped your meals, transfer them to individual containers in the correct portion sizes. It’s easy to overestimate and underestimate the proper portion of a particular food, so you may be eating too many carbs, for instance, and not enough protein.
Doing all your meal prep and then overeating because you didn’t buy containers will sabotage your healthy lifestyle.
Meal prep can lose nutrients if not done correctly during the planning, ingredient preparation, cooking, and storage stages. Simple changes to your meal prep will keep your health goals on track and ensure you get all the nutrients you need from your meals.
Nathaniel Lee is an avid cook, drawing on his decades of home cooking and fine dining experience. He is a contributing chef at Mashed, and his recipes and contributions have been featured in Tasting Table, Edible Arrangements, Insanely Good Recipes, and The Daily Meal.