Meal prep has been receiving a lot of traction online, on social media and heck in my own household. I rely on meal prep days to get me through the week so that I am able to enjoy healthy tasty meals and not have to stress about planning a last minute menu, which is when I am most likely to cave and just say "the heck with it let's order some pizza".
But here is the big question, is all of this hard work pre-cooking, pre-chopping, portioning out etc. actually robbing your body of precious vitamins? An excellent question but a somewhat complicated answer as not much research has been performed on the longevity of nutrients in the foods we prepare. So let's take a second to review the information we do have.
Cooking vs. Raw
When it comes to raw vs. cooked vegetables, fruits, grains, fats, etc. raw almost always wins when it comes to providing our bodies with the biggest bang for our buck, so to speak. Most vitamins, minerals and fats are denatured (modified or destroyed) by heat, light and air so knowing this it is pretty safe to assume that raw will almost always give your body more of what it needs, so be sure to incorporate raw fruits and vegetables into your diet.
This "rule" (if we can call it that) does not hold up when we are talking about spinach and calcium. Spinach like most greens contains a compound called oxalate or oxalic acid. Not only have oxalates been linked to kidney stones they also block the body's ability to absorb calcium from our greens. Good news here is that once you saute, steam or blanch that spinach the heat breaks down the oxalates making calcium much more available for our body to absorbe. For example 100g of raw spinach contains about 10% or 99mg of our required daily intake of calcium, but just a few minutes over heat and that same 100g of spinach now has 14% (136mg) of our daily intake of calcium.
Although raw, whole and natural foods are often best sometimes it is good to know that when it comes to certain vegetables and other foods like meats, fish and poultry it is just a beneficial to cook it. Additionally, whether you're eating your vegetables raw or cooked the important part here is that you are eating vegetables so don't get too trapped up in a game of good vs. bad.
Storage Methods - Can it Help with Longevity?
Food storage...now this is a bit tricky. All foods have different, let's call them, "shelf lives". Red meat will last longer cooked or raw in your fridge than say fish would, raw carrots will last longer than cooked, and rice will likely last longer than oatmeal, but how long is too long and what can you do to preserve your foods to avoid food waste and losing those precious nutrients?
We are talking about prepared food here so I am only going to quickly mention that unprepared, whole foods (i.e. a full carrot as opposed to prepared carrot sticks) will last much longer and retain nutrients longer than their cooked counterparts. But let's get back on topic, our food is prepared so where do we go?
Using containers that are air tight and glass when possible helps to maintain freshness of cooked and prepared foods, plus makes it easier to just toss in the oven or microwave and reheat. Plastic containers (hopefully BPA free) are great here too, I would just recommend trying to avoid reheating in them when possible. These containers don't need to be anything fancy (think old pickle jar or previously used mason jar) but them sealing fully is important.
Additionally, small thing such as storing pre-chopped and peeled vegetables in a bit of water will help to protect them from bacteria, plus keep them crispy longer or putting grains in shallow dishes and allowing them to cool completely to reduce potential condensation will help them stay fresh longer.
So in short yes, there are ways to store our foods (sealed container instead of open to the elements) will aid them in lasting longer, so check your food prep containers, make sure they fully seal and allow your food to cool off before storing it in the fridge. If you are feeling like "gosh I wish she had gone into more detail here" don't fret I will be dedicating an entire post to tips and tricks of food storage for longevity, so stay tuned.
Is there still a benefit to Meal Prepping?
Okay so we know raw is often times better and that everything has a shelf life, so it now comes down to whether or not meal prepping is actually even worth it. It takes time to get used to, you have to set time aside to be able to actually make your food, and then at the end of the day you might not even be getting the good vitamins and minerals you were hoping to because the food is too old!
A few studies have been done on this with fruits and vegetables to see if we are actually robbing ourselves of nutrients in attempt to be food prepared for the week and the majority of the studies roughly concluded to tell us the same thing. One of the major take-aways is that the more processed (I don't mean packaged foods), by processed I mean prepared (chopped, diced, steamed, baked, broiled, boiled, blanched, etc) by you in the kitchen a food is the faster it is likely to lose its nutrient integrity.
For example, cold press juice vs. lightly steamed spinach. The juice in this example is filled with super healthy and organic fruits & vegetables, after a day of it being made it will retain up to 80% of the whole original nutrients, and 3-5 days later it will be a shell of itself containing about 20% of its original vitamins. Whereas the steamed (a much less invasive form of food prep) spinach even 8 days later will still contain 53% of it's nutrients, even though that is slightly more than half 8 day old steamed spinach might not be the safest thing to eat when it comes to not giving yourself food poisoning/digestive distress.
This example only lightly touches on the fact that how we prepare our food will dictate how long/good/beneficial they will be. Methods such as sauteing have been shown to improve our absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A,D, E, K) due to using a fat while cooking, roasting and steaming because of their lower temperatures are less likely to destroy nutrients, whereas methods such as frying are likely to do the opposite.
So, what am I rambling on about?
I have been rambling on for a while without actually providing you with any definitive yes' or no's so here is a quick summary.
1. Yes, cooking, peeling, chopping and preparing your food will destroy some vitamins, minerals and reduce overall water content.
2. Yes, raw is better sometimes, but just because it is sometimes more nutrient rich doesn't mean it is always the best option, i.e. you probably want warm food in the winter so you don't freeze.
3. No, your food will not last forever, in fact 3-5 days is probably your sweet spot. So, if you are currently making 7 days worth of food, I would urge you to reconsider. Not only is the nutrient density of your food pretty weak by the end of the week you are getting into food danger zones and can potentially make yourself sick.
4. Yes, some cooking methods will actually help with vitamin and mineral absorption.
5. No, you should not stop meal prepping. It is a huge time saver and it is often the difference between you eating vegetables and potentially just having popcorn for dinner.
My name is Brittany, I am a Holistic Nutritionist, Yoga Teacher and Certified Personal trainer. My hope is to help inspire, encourage and motivate others to live their happiest and healthiest lives.