- Meal prepping can help you save time, money, and help you establish healthy eating habits, but there are some things to look out for when meal prepping.
- When meal prepping, it’s important that you wash your hands and food properly before you cook.
- Other common meal-prep mistakes include leaving food out for too long, not storing food properly, and using the same kitchen tools on different items.
There are many benefits to preparing your meals ahead of time. Not only is meal prepping a major time saver, but it also takes the guesswork out of deciding what to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Meal prepping has also been acknowledged as a good way to establish healthy eating habits.
Mastering the art of meal prepping, however, takes practice and there are some common meal-prep mistakes that can actually make you sick. Here’s what you should know.
If you don’t prepare well-balanced meals, your body will miss out on key nutrients
Meal preppers tend to focus too much on grains and proteins, and neglect produce and healthy fats, causing them to miss out on a variety of vitamins and minerals, Grace Derocha, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, told INSIDER.
“While an unbalanced meal may not make someone severely sick, over time, poor planning habits can cause deficiencies in key nutrients required for a balanced diet and strong overall health,” Derocha said.
You’re eating food that isn’t good anymore
It’s important to take note of the sell-by, best-by, and packaged-on dates listed on the packaging of the foods you purchase. It’s also important to keep note of when you opened and prepared food. This is because oftentimes what you meal prep on Sunday is only going to be safe to eat up until Wednesday or Thursday, and eating spoiled food can make you sick.
Nealy Fischer, founder of The Flexible Chef and author of the upcoming book, “Food You Want For The Life You Crave” told INSIDER that although there are many benefits to preparing big batches of food and portioning them out for the week, it’s critical to your health to take note of your food’s shelf life.
“For example, a freshly cooked salmon fillet only lasts up to three days in the refrigerator, and cooked poultry shouldn’t really sit in the refrigerator for more than four days,” Fischer explained. “So, what you cook on Sunday isn’t always good to eat on Friday. If these foods are on your menu, just make sure to reserve them for earlier in the week. Or, plan to meal-prep twice in a week (like Sunday and Wednesday) versus just one.”
You’re leaving food out for too long, causing it to spoil
Have you ever taken food out of the fridge, dropped it on the counter, got distracted with another task, and minutes went by before you could take a bite? It happens, but a general rule of thumb to stick with, is the two-hour rule, Fischer said. In other words, if food is left out of the fridge or its proper storage for over two hours, toss it.
“And if the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, drop that time frame to just one hour,” she added. “Even if the food doesn’t look, smell, or taste spoiled, if it’s been left out then don’t risk it.”
Where and how you’re storing your food matters, too
If the food you’re preparing for the week isn’t stored properly, Derocha said certain items may spoil, which, she added, could lead to food poisoning.
To avoid that unfortunate scenario, Derocha told INSIDER a regularly cleaned refrigerator that’s kept at below 40 degrees Fahrenheit “will help keep bacteria from growing in prepped dishes.”
How you store your food will play a huge factor in this as well, she said, so it’s best to do your research on which types of storage containers, freezer bags, jars, and other storage containers are best for different types of food.
Using the same kitchen tools to cut produce and raw meats can result in cross contamination
Cross-contamination occurs “when bacteria or other microorganisms are transferred between objects, especially between raw and cooked foods” and can be the root cause for a handful of foodborne illnesses, Derocha told INSIDER. In other words, it’s definitely not something you want to experience, but the good news is that it is preventable.
“Use different kitchen tools for raw and cooked ingredients and clean them thoroughly between uses,” Derocha suggested. You could also colour code your knives and forks and spatulas as a way to designate what tools to use for what items.
“Also be mindful to store raw items, like raw meat, in separate containers from ready-to-eat ingredients to avoid the transfer of harmful bacteria through unintended contact,” she warned.
Not washing your produce thoroughly enough can make you sick
You’re probably aware of how important it is to wash your produce before you eat it. But did you know there’s a right way to do so?
“Generally, people are best-advised to rinse fruits and vegetables with water, rubbing away residues and dirt with their hands, then drying them with a clean towel,” though delicate items, like berries, Derocha told INSIDER, just need a quick rinse.
If you want extra-clean produce, however, Derocha suggested scrubbing your produce with a DIY solution of “one-third vinegar or lemon juice, and two-thirds water.”
Not prepping, and therefore not eating, enough food weakens your immune system
Every body is different, which means your body might thrive on more food than a serving or meal plan calls for. Eating too much can cause a stomachache, among other digestive issues, but eating too little may weaken your immune system, according to DeRocha.
Practicing mindful eating and becoming more in tune with your individual hunger and fullness cues can help you to better judge how much food you need to thrive. But because this takes practice, Derocha told INSIDER a general guideline would be to load half your plate with fruits and/or veggies, a quarter of your plate with protein, and a quarter of your plate with grains to start.
That way you can get a feel for how your body responds, and adjust accordingly.
Not washing your hands before you cook spreads germs
The US Food and Drug Administration recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce. If you don’t, you risk spreading germs from your hands to your food.
In addition to washing, Fischer recommended meal preppers use kitchen gloves when marinating or handling raw meat. “Once you’re done touching the food, simply take them off and toss,” she said.
Your grocery store strategy needs some work
Meal-prepping mistakes can start at the grocery store but strategising can help ensure food safety. For example, Derocha told INSIDER that you should always be securely bagging or wrapping raw items, like chicken and fish, to prevent contact with other food items and possible contamination.
Another tip Derocha offered is to always pick up produce first and perishable items like raw meat, raw fish, and dairy last as they need to be kept refrigerated.
“Reducing the time away from proper storage will help prevent conditions that promote foodborne illnesses,” Derocha explained.
“Similarly, try to make a grocery stop the last on a list of errands or stop home between errands to ensure perishable items get stored properly and safely as soon as possible.”