No matter which intermittent fasting plan you follow, the time restrictions can be a challenge, especially when you’re used to eating whenever you want. A 2019 review of studies on intermittent fasting proved just how true this. Published in Nutrients, the review analyzed 11 studies, and found that 20 to 43 percent of participants dropped out of them before the study was done. Why? In short, because intermittent fasting was hard.
Here’s the thing, though: Yes, intermittent fasting isn’t easy when you first start. But it doesn’t have to be impossible – or even difficult. The secret is developing a plan. (Just like your vacation would be impossible if you didn’t book your flights ahead of time, confirm a hotel, and organize on-site transportation, sticking to a specific diet is impossible – or at least very tough – if you don’t take the time to plan ahead.) Intermittent fasting meal prep is the way to go.
Whether you’re following intermittent fasting (or any other diet, for that matter), the key to making it easier to stick to and boosting adherence is meal prep, confirms Cynthia Thurlow, NP, a Richmond, Virginia-based nurse practitioner and author of Intermittent Fasting Transformation. “We plan to succeed. Setting aside just two or three time slots per week to ensure you have sufficient protein, veggies, and carbs prepared allows you to have grab-and-go options that can support a healthy lifestyle while fasting,” Thurlow says.
Forget What You Think You Know About Meal Prep
When you imagine “meal prep,” you might think of those meticulously clean Home Edit – inspired refrigerators that are all over Instagram and TikTok. But that’s what we’re talking about here. “The definition of meal prep has become so skewed,” says Lauren Grant, a Minneapolis-based culinary food scientist and the owner of zestfulkitchen.com. “Many people think of a container full of egg bites and several portions of two or three fully cooked meals to be reheated all week on repeat. Instead, I encourage people to think of meal prep like a chef preps their kitchen for service.”
Read on to discover how you can follow Grant’s wise lead — no cooking school techniques or budget-busting buying sprees required — to make it easier than ever to fuel yourself deliciously and nutritiously in between fasting periods.
Meal Prep Tips and Basics
Beyond saving your sanity as you try to ease into a new fasting lifestyle (or keep up with your current one), planning and prepping ahead can also help you save a lot of money, confirms Bridget Lancaster, the Boston-based executive editorial director and host of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country.
“Meal prep and planning are the best way to simultaneously save yourself some serious time
and money. It cuts down on food waste and allows you to control the ingredients that go into the food that you and your family eat. Considering the ever-increasing price of groceries, meal prep just makes good sense,” Lancaster says.
Perfection Isn’t Real
There’s no one “right” way to meal prep, so don’t feel like you have to stick to a preconceived notion of perfect meal planning – and you definitely don’t have to organize your ingredients in any specific way. (Hey, what happens inside your refrigerator is nobody’s business but your own!) That said, there are some basics that can help you get a meal on your plate faster so that when you break your fast, you’re not waiting any longer than necessary.
“The best meal prep starts with meal planning. Sit down with paper and pen or a computer or phone and jot down several meals for the week,” Lancaster says. Once you have your menu sketched out, place your online grocery order or shop for it IRL, then channel your inner restaurant prep chef, Grant suggests.
Break Prep Times and Cook Times Down
“Consider what components of each dish can be prepped ahead of time to make the cooking time shorter and more efficient,” she says. “Ask yourself what things actually get better with time — or don’t degrade quickly? What part of each meal takes the longest to cook and can be done ahead of time? This is what meal prep should be, and this type of prep is how chefs keep kitchens running smoothly while also pumping out incredibly delicious meals. You can, and should, be doing the same.”
Grant makes this a reality in her kitchen by following this four-step plan every Sunday:
- Prep (slice, dice, peel, shred, spiralize or “rice”) vegetables.
- Cook grains, such as rice and quinoa.
- Prep any raw meat (trim, cut into cubes, slice filets, etc.) so you don’t have to dirty and clean a cutting board several times.
- Make the sauces or dressings.
From there, you can get a jump on the first recipe or two for the week — taking advantage of opportunities to “piggyback” certain tasks. “If you’re already at the stove to simmer grains, cook and crumble a couple of additional strips of bacon at the same time. If your oven is already on to roast chicken thighs for dinner tomorrow, roast salmon filets for tonight at
the same time. Or if your dish calls for a little basil and you’ve bought a big bunch, finely mince the rest of the herbs, divide this among empty ice cube tray wells, and cover with a little olive oil before storing in the freezer,” Lancaster says. “All of these little things add up.”
Budget-Friendly Grocery Shopping
A well-stocked kitchen — and by that we mean the food in your pantry, fridge, and freezer as well as the tools you use to prep with — will make each step along the way easier. These purchases are MVPs for Grant, Lancaster and Ashley Reaver, MS, RD, an Oakland, California-based registered dietitian and the creator of the Lower Cholesterol Longer Life Method:
- Stackable glass food storage containers
- A sharp knife and knife sharpener
- A cutting board
- A food processor or blender
- A large skillet
- A large sheet pan
While a counter full of specialized appliances certainly isn’t necessary, an Instant Pot can come in handy for pressure cooking large cuts of meat or making big batches of hard-boiled eggs, beans, or grains; slow cookers are dreamy for set-and-forget stews and braises; and air-fryers are ideal if you and your crew crave crunch.
As far as the ingredients go, aim to keep these basics in stock:
Pantry: Vinegars, nut butter, nuts and seeds, canned vegetables, canned beans, canned fish, stock, pasta, rice, quinoa, dried fruit, spices
Refrigerator: Store-bought sauces (barbecue, marinara, pesto, soy, etc.), milk, fruit, vegetables, fermented vegetables, eggs
Freezer: Shrimp, scallops, chicken sausage, chicken breast, ground meat or plant-based meat, vegetables, fruit
True, tackling a full week of meals and snacks at once can feel daunting — especially if you currently have pizza delivery on speed dial and are on a first-name basis with your Grubhub driver. But don’t feel like you’re in it alone. “Meal prep is an important part of an overall cooking strategy, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be an all-day, time-consuming weekend event,” Reaver says. “It can be as simple as thinking through a weekly menu, organizing your groceries by meals or prepping some of the longer-to-prepare items in advance to make weeknight cooking easier. We need to break away from an all-or-nothing mindset related to meal prepping.”
And don’t be afraid to take some help from the store. Pre-chopped vegetables, bagged salad kits and already-cooked proteins can drastically trim your prep time, while maintaining the flavor and nutrition your body — and taste buds — need. For example, by buying one rotisserie chicken at the supermarket on Sunday and Thursday, you have the ultimate head start to check off at least seven of your weekly meals. Use these savvy ideas from Lancaster and Grant for inspiration:
Better-Than-Canned Chicken Noodle Soup
Remove the meat from the chicken, then, in a pot of chicken broth, simmer the bones with diced onions, carrots, and celery for an hour to make enriched stock. Drain the vegetables, add egg noodles to the reserved stock, and cook until tender, then finish by stirring in the reserved chicken (shredded or cubed).
Dice the chicken and layer it atop lettuce alongside toasted sliced almonds, halved red grapes, and goat cheese. Drizzle with dressing.
Stuff a large whole-wheat tortilla with diced or shredded chicken, cooked and crumbled bacon, and a handful of bagged salad mix tossed with store-bought ranch dressing.
Sauté onion, garlic, fresh chilies, and Mexican-style spices. Combine with shredded chicken, then wrap with shredded Monterey Jack cheese inside corn tortillas. Place in baking dish, top with store-bought red chili sauce and more cheese; bake until golden.
Shred the chicken, then toss with barbecue sauce and minced chipotle chili packed in adobo sauce (from a can). Heat and pile between soft hamburger buns with a quick slaw made from pre-shredded cabbage, fresh lime juice, and cilantro.
Cook your favorite high-fiber pasta until al dente. Drain and mix with store-bought pesto, shredded chicken, and leftover vegetables you’d like to use up.
Thicken chicken stock with a flour and butter roux, then add frozen peas and diced chicken. Transfer to a pie dish, top with thawed frozen pie pastry, and bake until golden brown and bubbling.
As long as it’s within your eating window, snacks are a stellar way to sneak in more vitamins and minerals and fuel your day. (You want to cover your nutrient bases during your eating window, right?) “Since protein and fat take longer than carbohydrates to be digested in the stomach, incorporating protein and fat in each meal and snack can help to keep you full,” says Ashley Reaver, MS, RD.
Here are seven protein-rich, healthy fat–focused snack ideas from Reaver and the other pros featured in these pages. Prep them ahead so when you break your fast, you can fuel-up STAT.
- Hard boiled egg
- Full-fat greek yogurt with berries and granola
- Dried fruit and nut trail mix
- Overnight oats mix 1⁄2 cup oats + 1⁄2 cup milk + 1⁄4 cup full-fat Greek yogurt + 1 tablespoon chia seeds; sweeten and flavor as desired and chill 2 hours or overnight)
- Mozarella string cheese
- Crudités and olives with hummus
- Whole grain crackers with nut butter
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine The Complete Guide to Intermittent Fasting For Beginners.