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Want to get started with Meal Prepping? The whole idea can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Relax and enjoy this guide on how to meal prep. It can save you time, money, and sanity, because waiting until 5 p.m. to decide what’s for dinner every night is exhausting.
What is meal prep?
If meal planning is sketching out and then shopping for a week’s worth of dinners, meal prepping takes that situation a step further. Meal prep is making those planned meals (or parts of them) ahead of time so you hit the kitchen running at mealtime. Keep in mind:
- There is no one type: Prepping can range from light (washing and tearing up lettuce for your nightly salad or chopping onions, celery, and garlic for streamlined soup making ahead of time) to heavy (cooking and freezing entire dishes like lasagne, meatballs, or soup.)
- All inclusive or a la carte? You can meal prep for seven dinners a week or cook dishes for the nights you know you have no time to spend in the kitchen.
- Breakfast and lunch included: Prepping isn’t just for dinner. It can be making a batch of overnight oats or big frittata for the week, or pre-packing school lunches, too.
Map out your menu
Like any project, the planning is paramount. Here are some things to think about and tasks to get started.
- Analyze your days and weeks: What meals and/or days do you need help with? Whether it is the Tuesday and Thursday nights your kid has a late soccer practice or the junk food you routinely gobble for lunch, look at where some pre-gaming would be helpful.
- Know yourself (and others in your house): Do you happily eat leftovers three days in a row? Then make a big lasagna and have at it. Or is variety (in the form of dinners) that spice of your life? Then go with smaller batches or try using one chicken three different ways.
- Take stock in your pantry, fridge, and spice cabinet: Go through your cupboards and fridge and take stock. What needs to be used up? What do you need to buy? Incorporate using up items you already have.
- Chose dishes that share ingredients: Make the most of a week’s worth of grocery shopping by using one ingredient multiple ways. A bag of carrots can be cut up for school lunches and go into stew. Spinach is salad one day and a pasta or smoothie ingredient the next.
- Shop smart: Now you are ready to make a comprehensive grocery list to minimize time running to the store.
what are the different types of meal prep?
Ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat meals:
There are literally the whole enchilada. A meal you’ve prepared in entirety – like a pan of enchilas that are ready to re-heated. Think, also, about the components of something like a Chinese chicken salad that are completely cooked, chopped, and ready to be dressed.
Kick it old school with big batch cooking. All those recipes that say “freeze well?” Double them and freeze half for later: spaghetti sauce, quiche, soup, stew, etc. Freeze key recipe building block ingredients, too, like grilled chicken breasts or roasted cauliflower, too.
Fresh Ingredient prep
This takes two forms: prep produce regularly used like cut carrots and celery for lunch boxes, or salad greens for dinner. But also chop ahead, for instance, cutting up onions and garlic for week’s worth of cooking or dicing all the veggies you’ll be pan roasting tomorrow.
Cooked ingredient prep
Die-hard meal preppers lean hard into this. Make a large amount of protein like roast chicken, flank steak, or beans and use it creatively in different dishes for days. (Roast chicken, chicken pot pies, chicken quesadillas, etc.) Also do this with grains like quinoa, rice, or farro.
BEST containers for meal prepping
- Glass Bento Boxes: Portion out ingredients (like cooked beans) you will use throughout the week. Or divide a large recipe -like poached salmon – into individual portions.
- Single or Double Compartment Plastic Containers: These are great for grab-and-go meal prepped portions of veggies for school lunches and snacking or overnight oats.
- Half Pint Mason Jars: These are good for preparing snacks like chia pudding.
- Silicone Bags: Multiple use freezer bags can be used for portions of big batches of cooking as well as freezing pre-cut veggies for later.
- Fridge Storage Containers: These containers are clear like glass so you can always see what’s inside, but are light and easy to carry. They’re stain and odor resistant and completely leak proof. I use them to store prepared fruits and vegetables mostly.
Tips for meal prepping
- Ramp up slowly. Start small by prepping a few ingredients or one or two meals a week. One easy way to begin is by washing and readying (chopping or portioning) all your fresh produce as soon as you return from the store or farmer’s market.
- Be mindful of how long various foods keep in the fridge. That was your efforts don’t go to waste with food thrown away.
- Label and date your food. Colorful painter’s tape and a Sharpie marker are great for labeling containers.
- Keep a pantry full of your most-used non-perishables. Items like rice, grains, pastas, canned tomatoes, and beans, as well as a well-stocked spice cabinet makes it easy to trick out just a few fresh ingredients.
Frequently asked questions
It varies dish by dish and ingredient by ingredient. Go by directions in the recipe or look up your specific ingredients. Many things – oatmeal, chicken – last about four days. Quinoa will be good for seven.
Start small, give it a try, and hopefully you will see the effort of making an extra meal on Sunday, prepping produce ahead, or big batch cooking reaps rewards that outweigh the efforts. Remember, it takes a while to build a habit.
It is work. So go easy. Space out your tasks. Do not try to do everything in one day. Shop one day. Prep the next, and reward your efforts with take-out or pizza on that night.
When it comes to meals, having the ingredients in the house and ready to go is more than half the battle.
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