Meal prepping is the concept of preparing whole meals or dishes ahead of schedule.
It’s particularly popular amongst busy people because it can save a lot of time.
Having pre-prepared meals on hand can also reduce portion size and help you reach your nutrition goals. This way, you’ll avoid unhealthy options like TV dinners or takeout, especially when you’re overwhelmed or exhausted.
And since it requires you to determine what to eat ahead of time, meal prepping can lead to more nutritious meal choices over the long term.
Despite what people may think, there are various ways to meal prep—not all of which involve spending a whole Sunday afternoon cooking dishes for the week to come. You can choose methods that work best for you.
This article explores the most important principles of meal prepping and breaks down the process into a few simple steps.
Different Ways to Meal Prep
You may think that cooking meals for the week ahead will consume a big chunk of your weekend.
However, because there are various ways to meal prep, you don’t have to stand in the kitchen for an entire Sunday afternoon. Everyone can find a suitable meal preparation style.
The most popular ways to meal-prep include:
- Make-ahead meals: Full meals cooked in advance which can be refrigerated and reheated at mealtimes. This is particularly handy for dinnertime meals.
- Batch cooking: Making large batches of a specific recipe, then splitting it into individual portions to be frozen and eaten over the next few months. These make for popular warm lunch or dinner options.
- Individually portioned meals: Preparing fresh meals and portioning them into individual grab-and-go portions to be refrigerated and eaten over the next few days. This is particularly handy for quick lunches.
- Ready-to-cook ingredients: Prepping the ingredients required for specific meals ahead of time as a way to cut down on cooking time in the kitchen.
The method that will work best for you depends on your goals and daily routine.
For instance, make-ahead breakfasts might work best if you’re looking to streamline your morning routine. On the other hand, keeping batch-cooked meals in your freezer is particularly handy for those who have limited time in the evenings.
The different meal-prepping methods can also be mixed and matched depending on your own circumstances. Start by choosing the most appealing method, then slowly experiment with the others to determine what suits you best.
There are many ways to meal prep, depending on your goals, schedule and meal preferences. Some options include making large batches to be frozen, full meals to be refrigerated and separate portions to be combined as you see fit.
Picking the Right Number and Variety of Meals
Figuring out how many meals to make and what to include in each meal can sometimes be tricky.
The best way to plan ahead is to first decide on which meals you’d like to focus and which meal-prepping method fits your lifestyle.
Then, check your calendar to decide the number of breakfasts, lunches and dinners you’ll need for the upcoming week.
Also, remember to account for times you’re likely to eat out—for instance, on dates, at brunch with friends or at client dinners.
When selecting which meals to make, it’s best to start with a limited number of recipes that you already know. This will ease your transition into meal planning.
That said, it’s also important to avoid picking only one recipe for the whole week. This lack of variety can lead to boredom and won’t provide your body with the nutrients it needs.
Instead, try picking meals that contain different vegetables and protein-rich foods, as well as varied complex carbs such as brown rice, quinoa or sweet potatoes. Integrating a vegetarian or vegan meal into the mix is another way to add variety.
The right number of meals depends on your individual routine and needs. Variety is key to providing your body with the vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds it needs.
Tips to Cut Down on Cooking Time
Few people look forward to spending hours in the kitchen while meal prepping. This is only natural since the key incentive for meal prepping is reduced cooking time.
The following methods will help streamline prep and cook times.
Stick to a Consistent Schedule
Meal prepping works best when you stick to a regular schedule. Knowing exactly when you’ll shop for groceries and prep your meals will help you form a good routine.
For instance, you might reserve Sunday mornings for grocery shopping and meal prepping. Or you could select Monday evenings for making lunches for the rest of the week.
The schedule is up to you and should fit your weekly routine. Keep in mind that picking specific times and sticking to them will simplify the decision-making process, freeing up mental space for other things.
Pick the Right Combination of Recipes
Picking the right combination of recipes will help you become more effective in the kitchen.
To save time, select recipes requiring different cooking methods. Having too many recipes requiring the same appliance—the oven, for instance—will limit the number of dishes you can prepare at once.
This is especially important when selecting make-ahead meals or for batch cooking.
A good rule of thumb is to stick to one oven meal and a maximum of two stovetop meals at once—for example, loaded baked potatoes, a stir-fry and a soup.
Then simply add meals that don’t require cooking to the mix, such as sandwiches or salads.
Organize Your Prep and Cook Times
A well-thought-out workflow will save you a lot of time in the kitchen.
To best organize your prep and cook times, start with the recipe requiring the longest cook time. This is often the soup or oven meal. Once that meal is underway, focus on the rest.
Reserve the cold meals for last since they can easily be made while the other meals are cooking.
For extra time savings, double-check the ingredients for all recipes before starting. This way, if two recipes require diced onions or julienned peppers, you’ll be able to chop the total quantity at once.
Using automated gadgets such as a rice cooker or slow cooker can further streamline your workflow.
Make a Shopping List
Grocery shopping can be a big time waster.
To half the time you spend in the grocery store, keep a detailed grocery list organized by supermarket departments.
This will prevent doubling back to a previously visited section and accelerate your shopping.
Limiting grocery shopping to once per week and making use of a grocery delivery service are two additional ways to spend less time shopping.
To cut time in the kitchen, stick to a consistent schedule and make use of a shopping list. Picking the right combination of meals and organizing your cooking is also important.
Picking the Right Storage Containers
Your food storage containers can make the difference between a fabulous or mediocre meal.
Here are some container recommendations:
- Airtight containers for ready-to-cook ingredients: Washable, reusable silicone baggies and stainless steel containers are great for keeping ingredients crisp and foods fresh.
- BPA-free microwavable containers: These are both convenient and better for your health. Pyrex glassware or collapsible silicone containers are some good options.
- Freezer-safe containers: These will limit freezer burn and nutrient losses. Wide-mouth mason jars are ideal, as long as you leave at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) of headspace so food can expand as it freezes.
- Leak-proof, compartmentalized containers: These are great for lunches or meals which require ingredients to be mixed at the last minute. One good example is bento lunch boxes.
Stackable or similarly shaped containers will help optimize the space in your refrigerator, freezer or workbag.
Containers are convenient and save space. They can also help your meals taste better and retain more nutrients.
Cooking, Storing and Reheating Foods Safely
Food safety is an important yet overlooked component of meal prepping.
Cooking, storing and reheating foods at the right temperature can prevent food poisoning, which affects an estimated 9.4 million Americans each year (1, 2).
- Be mindful of proper temperatures: Make sure your refrigerator is kept at 40°F (5°C) or below and your freezer at 0°F (-18°C) or below.
- Cool foods quickly: Always refrigerate fresh foods and meals within two hours of purchase or cooking. For quick cooling, spread out cooked foods in shallow containers and immediately place in your refrigerator.
- Keep storage times in mind: Cook fresh meat, poultry and fish within two days of purchase and red meat within 3–5 days. In the meantime, keep them on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator.
- Cook at the right temperatures: Meats should be cooked until they reach an internal temperature of at least 165°F (75°C), as this kills most bacteria.
- Thaw foods safely: Thaw frozen foods or meals in your refrigerator instead of on your countertop. For faster thawing, submerge foods in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes.
- Reheat foods only once: The more times you cool and reheat a food, the higher the risk of food poisoning. That’s why defrosted foods should only be reheated once.
- Reheat foods at the right temperature: All meals should be reheated to 165°F (75°C) before being eaten. Frozen meals should be reheated and eaten within 24 hours of defrosting.
- Use labels: Remember to label and date your containers so that you can consume foods within the food-safe period.
- Eat foods within the right time period: Refrigerated meals should be consumed within 3–4 days and frozen meals within 3–6 months (3).
Cooking, storing and reheating foods at the correct temperatures can reduce your risk of food poisoning. The guidelines above give you an overview of the main food safety measures to keep in mind.
Steps to a Successful Meal Prep
Prepping a week’s worth of meals can sound daunting, especially for first-timers. But it doesn’t have to be hard.
Below, you’ll find a simple step-by-step guide to streamline your meal prepping process.
1. Select your meal prep method of choice: This can also be a combination of methods and should be based on your lifestyle and nutrition goals.
2. Stick to a schedule: Pick one day each week to do your meal planning, shop for groceries and cook.
3. Pick the right number of meals: Bear in mind your calendar and the restaurant meals you’ve planned for the week.
4. Select the right recipes: Keep an eye out for variety and preparation methods. When starting out, stick to recipes you already know.
5. Reduce the time you spend on grocery shopping: Make a grocery list organized by supermarket departments or shop for groceries online.
6. Spend less time in the kitchen: Choose which meals to cook first based on cook times.
7. Store your meals: Use safe cooling methods and appropriate containers. Refrigerate meals you’re planning to eat within 3–4 days, then label and freeze the rest.
Meal prepping doesn’t have to be complex. Basic steps can help you cut back on cooking time, freeing you up for the activities that matter most.
The Bottom Line
Meal prepping is great for people who want to spend less time in the kitchen.
It can also promote nutrient-rich, healthy meals and discourage less nutritious fast food options.
Depending on your goals, schedule and meal preferences, meal prepping may involve making large batches to be frozen, full meals to be refrigerated or prepared ingredients to be combined as needed.
Find a method that works for you and pick one day per week to meal plan, shop and cook.