I don’t recall precisely where I was or what I was doing when I first heard the term “meal prep.” I imagine I was floating somewhere in the deep abyss of the internet, looking for funny memes and grabby headlines to distract me from my late afternoon, office-induced malaise. And one could argue that learning the concept of meal prepping succeeded in this suddenly, I was transported to a world of diced vegetables and identically braised cutlets of salmon, of itemised shopping lists and plastic storage containers with special compartments for salad dressing. If I was Toto and Kansas was my dated notion of making one meal at a time… well, you get the idea.
At some point over the past few years, meal prepping — the act of preparing a week’s worth of pre-portioned meals — has become the de facto money-saving, clean-eating, good-feeling life hack. Google searches for the term began only in 2013, but have spiked considerably every year since then. (Searches for “best meal prep containers,” meanwhile, spiked 500 percent last January.) Not only does every lifestyle, food, and wellness publication (including this one) have numerous articles on the topic, there are whole websites and social media accounts devoted to the art of meal prepping. Like SoulCycle or juice cleansing or getting a salaried job right out of college or university, it has become one of those things that people can’t do without loudly broadcasting it.
I get the appeal. Much like a capsule wardrobe or a meticulously maintained to-do list, meal prepping takes some of the mundane guesswork out of daily life, leaving you room to focus your time and energy on bigger things. It eliminates the nagging desire to order all your takeout meals on an app, and ensures you’ll stick to whatever dietary restrictions you have. But, even as I enter 2019 with some of those goals — who doesn’t want to save money and eat better? — I refuse to hop on the meal prep bandwagon.
Part of my aversion to meal prepping is based on the culture that surrounds it: one of oversharing and humblebragging and rigid planning that leaves little room for spontaneity. I personally tend to approach life with more of a “treat yo’self” mentality, in which Sunday evenings are best spent binge-watching Netflix and ordering a takeaway, not chopping up a week’s worth of produce. That’s not to say I never cook, but when I do, it tends to be on a whim, based on something I’m craving, a recipe I’m inspired by, or, most often, simply what I have lying around in the fridge. This makes cooking a fun, creative endeavour, not another addition to my list of chores.
I realise this mentality is a privilege — I don’t have children or a family to plan meals for every day. I don’t have to worry about anyone’s food preferences or dietary restrictions but my own. And generally, I have enough money that I’m able to buy what I want and need at the supermarket with some left over for dining out. I get that this isn’t everyone’s situation, and if meal prepping helps relieve some of the stress associated with feeding yourself and your loved ones, that’s wonderful.
What I resent, however, is that it’s often presented as the be-all, end-all of wholesome, cost-effective eating. Aren’t there ways to achieve our health and finance goals without dining on some variation of the exact same meal every day for a week? To hear meal preppers tell it, no, there is not.
One of the best strategies for maximising your grocery budget (and minimising food waste) is to make a series of meals that use many of the same ingredients. That’s one of the central tenets of meal prepping, but this really isn’t too hard to naturally do, even without meticulously planning and preparing a week’s worth of food. For example: I almost always have a bunch of kale in the fridge, which can be easily combined with staples like pasta and eggs. I also typically have avocados around, which I can combine with the kale to make a salad or pair with eggs for breakfast. If I decide to roast a big batch of butternut squash, I’ll use it in a macro bowl on night, or as part of a vegetable stir-fry the next. These aren’t exactly gourmet meals, but neither are most of the things made as part of a pre-planned meal prepping regiment.
In the interest of honesty, I will confess this: I almost always buy my lunch during the week. I know, I know. I’m awful! I know not the value of money! I’m everything that’s wrong with my generation — nay, humanity! But putting together lunch every day is not a priority for me. No aspect of it appeals to me, even the objectively adorable lunch boxes suddenly flooding the market (okay, so maybe I covet the cute lunchboxes a little). And you know what? That’s okay! Plus, I relish an excuse to get out of the office and stretch my legs. Hence my love of the near-extinct, far-too-smelly-for-the-office tuna fish sandwich.
Luckily, I’ve found enough restaurants in the vicinity of my office where I can get a lunch that doesn't cost a lot. I’ve also gotten very creative at making the takeaway orders I get at home last for three meals or more. If I order chana masala from my local Indian joint, for example, I can usually stretch that plus rice, samosas, and garlic naan for two meals, and then have a few chickpeas left over to smear on whole wheat bread and top with balsamic crusted-kale. (I know it sounds weird, but it’s delicious, and I won’t hear otherwise.)
I’m not saying this mode of gastronomic existence is perfect — far from it. But our generation’s hyper-specific, Pinterest-approved version of “having your shit together” is vastly overrated. If meal prepping is something that helps you stick to goals and allows you to feel good about life, that’s great. But if it’s not — if it’s just one more thing you have to do to be someone else’s idea of an unimpeachably successful human — then screw it. Daily existence is hard enough already. And, at least for my life, there are enough other ways to eat well without spending a ton.
There’s an old adage about two types of people: those who live to eat, and those who eat to live. I’m not sure I agree that all of us fall perfectly into one category or another, but if you’re someone for whom meal prepping has turned food into a monotonous, neverending chore, well, maybe it’s time to live a little.