Health & Wellness: Meal Prep 101

June 14, 2021
Dana Harrison explains why preparing meals in advance, whether at the firehouse or at home, contributes to better health, generally, and better job performance, specifically.

“It’s too complicated.” “It takes way too much time.” “I get bored of eating the same thing over and over again throughout the week.” “I don’t know where to start.” These are common complaints that I hear in regard to meal preparation.

However, here’s why meal prep on your own terms is worth it: It sets you up for success, both on and off shift. By preparing healthy meals and snacks in advance, you’re less inclined to eat anything and/or everything in sight at the last minute. Hence, it allows for a healthy diet and lifestyle to be attainable, which in turn positively affects general health, well-being and job performance.

To make meal prep work for you, figure out what you are willing to commit to—time, cooking skills, ingredients, etc. Then take a look at the steps that are outlined in this column, to make incorporating meal prep into your routine, as a group on shift or at home with your family, a breeze.

Where to start

Meal prep is something that firefighters can do at home (individual or family meals) and/or at work (group meals). There are two options for creating your plan prior to cooking. You either can: organize before you head to the supermarket, identifying your grocery list ahead of time, which also might keep your budget in check; or create a plan after shopping (I call this reverse meal planning). With the latter, you take inventory of what’s in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry and make a list of meals and snacks and then get to work on the prep.

Both options take the thinking out of it when hunger kicks in, and you’re less likely to binge after a long day or a workout, because you have a game plan.

Simplify it

Focus on stress-free prep that works for you. After all, when you create a habit or behavior change, it must be feasible and individualized for you. Particularly if you’re new to meal planning, try not to make it more difficult than it must be. Set an amount of time that’s dedicated to meal planning (I suggest one hour maximum, remembering that this process doesn’t have to be overwhelming to be successful), choosing an ideal cooking temperature (for all food to be cooked at) and being open to trying new foods and ways of preparation.

By taking an hour or so per week to prepare a few staples, you’ll be able to make new meals daily in a maximum of 15 minutes, particularly if it only involves reheating. This saves you time in the long run, both at home and at the firehouse.

Whether you’re new to meal planning or trying to improve your current routine, my suggestions for how to create a game plan includes the following:

  • Cook a few staple dishes that you can keep on rotation. You can experiment here or go with some of your favorites that you know that you’ll enjoy. Remember that you always can freeze extras to enjoy in the days or weeks to follow.
  • Cook simple foods that have minimal ingredients in bulk. For example, the focus can be on protein, vegetables and a whole grain or a different complex carbohydrate option. Looking for a place to start? Try 1–2 protein sources, 2–3 vegetables and one whole grain or complex carbohydrate source, with seasonings of choice. Initially keeping the seasonings to a minimum allows you to combine these simple flavors as leftovers. In this way, one meal can be combined with new additions to create a new meal. This serves as a blueprint guide to prepare some staples, which can be repurposed into a completely new meal.
  • Repurpose leftovers for other meals. Think of it like this: Make a side dish, vegetable or protein once, then make a new meal out of it the next day or next meal on shift. By doing this, your weekly meal routine is kept fresh and exciting, in contrast to a rigid prep routine that includes the same meals. This sets you up for a meal plan that’s flexible and that allows it to be changed based on your taste and nutrition preferences, while being sensitive to time and preparation.

Although repurposing might take practice, you can start by creating a list of what meal options you can make from recycling one of the simple foods that you prepared. For example, let’s say that you make or buy a rotisserie chicken. You might use it as is once, then incorporate it into a salad the next, use it for a quesadilla, tacos or sandwich on another night and then use what remains in a soup.

Whether incorporating these tactics at home or at the firehouse, you then can get flexible by including healthy swaps and alternatives, bringing the flavor (via sauce or herbs), and making the nutrition profile individualized with versatile flavors and nutrients that are based on personal preferences. For more information about improving buy-in for healthy eating in the firehouse kitchen, see “Back to Basics: Increasing Nutritious Cooking at the ­Firehouse”.

Have a backup plan

Even with all of this insight into meal planning, the reality is that it doesn’t always go as planned. Life might interfere, schedules can change and sometimes you won’t stick to a meal-planning routine. I suggest that you create a backup plan of quick and easy meals or snacks for when you are pressed for time or hunger strikes quickly. This not only works well at home but is great to apply while on shift at the firehouse: Unknown work tasks and call volumes can serve as barriers to cooking nutritious meals.

List some quick and easy go-to meals that you can whip up in a flash. Some ideas include a veggie scramble or egg sandwich, a yogurt bowl, a balanced and filling smoothie, a protein and vegetable stir fry or a loaded baked sweet potato. Writing the list on a piece of paper and putting it on the refrigerator or keeping the list on your smartphone can be very helpful.

Start somewhere, then adjust

Meal planning looks different for each person, but it doesn’t have to be extreme to be beneficial and successful on your own terms. Keep in mind that small steps add up when it comes to setting up your meal plans for success. Allowing yourself some trial and error helps you to implement sustainable positive changes.

As with anything that’s related to health and wellness, consistency is key. Once you find what works for you, continue to do it for long-lasting benefits that are focused on creating a healthy diet and lifestyle, whether at home or at the firehouse. 

About the Author

Dana Harrison

Dana Harrison, MS, is a nutritionist and educator who is based in Massachusetts. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Vassar College and a master’s degree in nutrition science (community nutrition concentration) from University of Massachusetts Amherst. Harrison is the founder of The Cultural Shift Method, which is a nutrition education program that makes nutrition, health and wellness easy, individualized and attainable. She presents simple, realistic, sustainable and dynamic plans for positive health and wellness behaviors, which allow for changes to occur on a cultural level. For more information, visit or contact her at [email protected].

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