In the morning after you wake up, you prepare breakfast for you and your kids to eat. Probably, cold cereal and milk are overdone. You pack lunch, and when it’s not possible, you spend more on takeout foods near your office. When you get home from work, you make dinner, eat it and clean it up. And on the next day, repeat. It’s exhausting!
Enter meal prepping – meal planning method that simplifies cooking and bases it around your schedule. Meal prepping means preparing meals or meal components ahead of time and storing them in the fridge or freezer. This way, you can make getting meals on the table easily.
Why Meal Prep?
Meal prepping can save you time and money since you’re buying and preparing home-cooked foods ahead of time. This way, you will not be wasting ingredients (because it’s planned!), and you don’t have to buy overpriced lunch outside. Prepping meals or components ahead means you only need less time to cook or prepare meals during the busy workweek.
Most people meal prep by shopping and cooking on the weekends to have easy home-cooked meals on the weekdays. Since raw, natural foods take a lot of preparation before eating, most busy people tend to eat takeouts or instant, ready-to-cook/ready-to-eat meals that are full of additives and preservatives that are not so good for the body. Meal prepping makes it easier for you to eat healthier (and even lose weight, if that’s your goal) since you will be less likely to choose a not-so-healthy option when you’ve already prepared a healthy dinner at home.
Tips for Meal Prepping
Preparing meals or some components of meals in advance can give you some peace of mind throughout the week. Here are some tips that can work for you so you can start meal prepping for your household:
Make a meal plan and write it down.
If you’re tasked with or are responsible for preparing meals for the household, you are surely familiar with the stress that comes with the question “What to eat for dinner?”
Having a plan is a way to save time, reduce stress, and prevent unnecessary spending. Before you shop, write down the meals and snacks you want for the week. Don’t forget to write it down in a notebook, on a piece of paper on your fridge, or in an app.
Choose easy recipes.
Start simple. Meal prepping is not the time to try out something new and complicated, especially if you’ve not yet had an experience about having leftovers of that dish and how long it takes before it goes bad.
Roasted vegetables and turkey chili are easy to make and reheat easily. On the other hand, fish stew and lasagna take more work to prepare and may not stay as fresh after a few days. Search the web for easy-to-make recipes that are sure to please. Once you find recipes that work, save them in a file, and make a list of each ingredient to buy, including how much of every ingredient you need.
Pick basic and versatile ingredients.
Make sure you have go-to foods always ready for snacks or to add to a meal. Here are some of the best, versatile foods to use for meal prepping:
- Whole grains – quinoa, oats, rice, barley, sorghum, buckwheat
- Lean protein – eggs, frozen or canned seafood, chicken, pork, beef, turkey, cottage cheese, shredded cheese, tofu, Greek yogurt
- Frozen vegetables – peas, green beans, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, veggie pasta, riced veggies, veggie-based tater tots
- Starchy vegetables – potato, sweet potato, parsnip, cassava, yucca, taro, pumpkin
- Stiff, fresh vegetables – carrots, cabbage, radish, bell peppers, celery
- Sturdy, leafy greens – green leaf, romaine lettuce (dress just before serving)
- Whole fruits – apples, bananas, berries, pears, peaches, oranges, plums
- Nuts and seeds – almonds, peanuts, walnuts, seeds, flax, chia
Also, look for foods that can work in a few different dishes. For instance, quinoa can be used to make a side dish, a salad, or as part of a grain bowl for lunch. A roast chicken or barbeque beef needs a few hours to prepare, so it’s best to prepare it ahead. Then, it can be served as an entrée for lunch or dinner, added to soup, or served in sandwiches or tacos throughout the week.
Pick a prep day.
Cooking more food at once makes it easier to put together healthy meals on hectic days. Pick a day of each week to prepare as many dishes that you can. And make it a fun task! Put on some music, or make it a family bonding time. If meals for a full week seem a bit much to take on, start with two to three days’ worth of dishes and snacks.
On that day, start with foods that need the most time in the oven or stove – cooking meat, soaking or simmering beans, and roasting veggies. Once they are on, you can do quick tasks like chopping carrots, washing lettuce, putting oats on a container, etc. If you don’t like to pre-cook your meat, you can prep by putting it in a marinade, so it’s ready to toss in the pan or oven when you need it. Plus, the meat becomes tastier, too!
Choose what kind of prepping works for you.
There’s no one right way to meal-prep. Maybe you want to fill your fridge with mix-and-match marinated lentils and steamed potatoes in a week. Maybe you want to easily grab your lunch to bring to the office and school. Maybe you just want to slice and dice everything in advance, so you only need to put it in the pots and pans when you need them. Figure out what kind of meal prep you prefer for some types of foods you’re in the mood for.
1. Batch prep – Batch prep or batch cooking is about cooking up a big batch of a dish or an ingredient of a dish to enjoy in the future. Here are some things you can batch prep:
- Soups, stews, sauces
- Whole chicken
- A big batch of chicken or beef dish cooked in a slow cooker
- Chili, beans, legumes cooked in a pot
2. Individual pre-cooked meals
You can prepare fully-cooked meals ahead of time so you can grab and go, then reheat in the microwave or oven (if necessary) when you want to eat them. It’s an excellent solution for breakfasts and lunches and is perfect for meals that you don’t have time to prep for. Here are some ideas:
- Breakfast – breakfast sandwiches, egg muffins, oats, porridge
- Lunch – sheet pan meals, rice meals, jar salads, stir fry dishes
- Dinner – soups, stews, stir fry dishes, curries
3. Ingredient prepping – This meal prep method does not require cooking. It’s just about washing, chopping, slicing, peeling, or roasting beforehand to use in recipes later on.
4. Portioning things out – Whether it’s an entire meal or a component of a meal, portioning out foods or putting them in single-serve packs is an easy-to-do and very convenient task that the future you will be thankful for. It means you can just grab it, put it in your bag, and go. Here are some ideas:
- Trail mix
- A batch of cookies and other snacks for snacking
- Smoothie packs
- Overnight oats
- Hummus or dip portions with veggies for dipping
5. Assemble-ahead meals – This meal prep style is typically done with freezer meals, but you can often store it in the fridge as well. It’s about assembling ingredients that go together ahead, so you only need to dump them in the pot, pan, or slow cooker when you need them cooked. Here are some examples:
- Marinated meats
- Freezer slow-cooker meals
- Freezer Instant pot meals
6. Buffet-style prep – It’s about prepping veggies, proteins, carbs, and other ingredients ahead and using them for easy-to-make meals in the days ahead. This is great for salads, tacos, and similar sorts of foods that need a bit of “assembly.” Here are some ideas:
- Chop vegetables
- Roast up potatoes or veggies in some seasoning
- Prepare minced or shredded cooked meats as a base for tacos and other meals
- Shake together sauces or vinaigrettes
- Shred cheese
- Cook up rice, pasta, grains, or quinoa
Invest in quality food containers.
Having some dependable meal prep containers is very important because it can help keep your food fresh and reheat it evenly. Here are some must-have containers for food prep:
- Individual glass storage containers – great for pre-cooked meals and ingredient prepping
- Batch glass storage containers – good for batch cooked meals
- Containers with dividers – great for grab and go lunches
- Food container sets – great for ingredient prepping, batch cooking, and pre-cooked meals
- Storage jars – great for snacks and ingredient prepping
- Quart mason jars – great for storing veggies, overnight oats, parfaits, and more
- Breakfast bowls – great for granola and oatmeals
- Ziplock bags – great for smaller freezer meals, ingredient prep, chicken marinades, etc.
- Gallon-size freezer bags – great for large-batch freezer meals
Stay organized and keep track of shelf life.
Once you have all things prepped and packed, don’t lose it in the back of your fridge and freezer, only to be forgotten. Label each container with its contents and the date. Put food that goes bad the fastest in front, so you don’t forget about them.
Here’s how long some foods stay in the fridge:
- Cooked ground beef or chicken – 1-2 days (can last up to 3-4 days if properly stored
- Cooked whole meats, fish, poultry, soups, and stews – 3-4 days
- Cooked beans and chickpeas – 5 days
- Chopped veggies and hardboiled eggs – 1 week
- Opened hard cheese – 5-6 weeks
- Opened soft cheese – 2 weeks
If you prefer to freeze to lengthen shelf life, use airtight containers. Once you store food in the freezer, keep in mind how long they will stay good:
- Cooked ground meat and poultry – 3-6 months
- Cooked soups, stews, and beans – 2-3 months
- Vegetables – 8-12 months
- Apples, pears, bananas, plums, mangoes, berries – 6-8 months
If you know, you’re going to use a lot of some ingredients or dishes, double or triple the amount you cook at once. When you’re already boiling some beans or roasting a chicken, or baking sweet potatoes, you can double up to save more time in the future. Tear, sear, or glaze the extras.