Your Guide to Healthy, Easy Meal Prep on a Plant-Based Diet

Photo: Stocksy / Suzanne Clements
Opening the fridge to find pre-made food is a godsend for busy healthy eaters. Investing a few hours on a Sunday to grocery shop and meal prep a few lunches or dinners at home helps make eating well throughout the week (without having to think too much) that much easier.

But that planning can get tricky if you're working on a new eating plan. The go-to recipes you may rely on for easy meal prep might not work with how you eat now, or figuring out how to build a healthy, filling meal might be harder depending on what macronutrients or ingredients are now emphasized with this particular way of eating.

That certainly can be a challenge for people new to plant-based eating, which emphasizes putting vegetables, fruits, and other plants at the center of your plate. You have to get used to a different dietary style, which can make planning a week's worth of lunches or dinners a bit more challenging than usual.

The good news is that many plant-based foods and proteins are actually easy to buy and prepare in bulk—making them a meal-prepper's dream if you know how to work with them. Here’s a starter guide to building healthy meals when you're starting plant-based meal prep.

Step one: Define what being plant-based means to you

While people might think "plant based" is another way of saying "vegan," that's not quite the full story. A plant-based diet is a bit less rigid than a vegan one, which eschews all animal products, from meat and dairy to honey and leather. On a plant-based diet, the focus is definitely getting most of your nutrients from whole plant foods, but there can still be room for some animal products if you want there to be.

“For some people, plant-based means eating predominantly plants with some other whole foods, like dairy, eggs and even a little meat thrown in. For others, it’s eating only plants,” says NYC-based registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo, RD.

There's room for interpretation when eating plant-based, so it's important to come up with your own definition of how you want to eat, based on how your body operates and your lifestyle. Once you have a clear idea of how you want to manage your diet, you can then create a meal prep schedule and the ingredients you’re most likely to use.

“For instance, if you’re vegan, you’ll have to pay more attention to getting protein, iron and Vitamin B12. If you eat dairy or eggs, you’ll have more access to those nutrients,” says Rizzo. So, if it’s the former, you’d want to probably supplement the vitamins (in consultation with a doctor or dietitian, of course), and load up on foods that have these key nutrients like beans, grains, and leafy greens.

Step two: Pick your main protein source for the week

“When you’re meal prepping, everything should focus around the protein source," says Rizzo. That should be the building block of all of your pre-made meals, and thus the first place you start when menu planning, she says.

Everyone should be getting decent amounts of complete proteins—proteins that contain all nine amino acids essential for overall health—every single day. (The average woman should be getting about 46 grams per day, although that number varies depending on body weight and activity level.) You can get complete proteins in two ways: by eating foods that are complete proteins (such as eggs, lean meats, and soy proteins like tofu and tempeh), or by combining plant-based incomplete proteins (beans, nuts, lentils, and whole grains) to create a complete protein.

Speaking of protein, these are the best vegetarian and vegan protein sources: 

You don't have to do a ton of alchemy in the kitchen to make these protein combos either. Just by eating beans and rice together, making a lentil-barley soup, or mixing nuts and chickpeas into your lunch salad, you're creating complete, plant-based proteins.

Once you've nailed down your protein, you can then can use other sides from your meal prep to work around it. For example, you can prep some diced, cooked tofu and then use it in a stir fry with vegetables or turn it into "scrambled eggs" for a prepped breakfast. If working primarily with incomplete proteins, prep two and use them in creative ways throughout the week, like cooking a big batch of quinoa and beans and then using them in salads, burritos, or as a base for a veggie burger.

Step three: Add in vegetables

“The next step in building a healthy meal is to add some veggies—the more, the better," says Rizzo. Regardless of eating plan, vegetables should make up at least half of your plate. So once you have your protein nailed down, think about vegetables you love that can complement it.

"Pick veggies that are in season, like beets, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower in the winter, and mix-and-match colors,” says Rizzo. In general, the more colors you have in one dish, the more nutrients you are eating.

Looking for some ideas? Chop up a batch of your favorite vegetables to have ready to cook in minutes on a weeknight. Or you can save pre-cooked veggies (roasting or air-frying a tray of vegetables is one of the easiest ways to do it) to re-heat when you need them. A big green salad base or bowl of cooked cauliflower rice is easy to divvy up throughout the week, too.

Step four: Round things out with healthy fats

Time to bring our your favorite green fruit (avocado, of course) and nut butter. “Healthy unsaturated fats add texture to a dish, as well as increase the satiety factor. Add a little bit of healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado, or nuts to a plant-based dish to make sure it keeps you full for a long period of time,” says Rizzo. Your healthy fats can easily be incorporated into the cooking process (like sautéing your vegetables in olive oil), in dressings or sauces (like making a vinaigrette), or as toppings (like slicing up avocados for your grain bowls or salads.)

It's important to prioritize these fats rather than eating more saturated fats (the kind associated with higher cholesterol and heart issues) you’d find in meat, butter, and some plant sources like coconut oil. Don't fear healthy fats—just stick to moderation when consuming them. (Read: Don't eat a whole jar of PB in one sitting.)

FYI, here's why a top dietitian isn't that into coconut oil: 

Plant-based meal ideas to get you started

Need some inspiration for meal prep? Here are a few ideas:

  • Try a tofu stir fry with bok choy, peppers, carrots, and broccoli sautéed in olive oil. Serve with a side of brown rice or another grain. Or go with a low-carb substitute, like zoodles or cauliflower rice.
  • Enjoy a lentil and barley grain bowl with your favorite raw vegetables—like shredded cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, onions, or leafy greens—for lunch or a light dinner. “Top it with an avocado-based dressing or some olive oil and lemon juice,” says Rizzo.
  • Wake up the grill (or your grill pan) and make BBQ marinated tempeh and pair it with sweet potato cubes roasted in olive oil, as well as a side salad for some greens.

Looking for more plant-based eating inspo? This food pyramid will help you prioritize ingredients properly. And here are some of the most common questions RDs get asked about plant-based eating. 

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