Meal prepping is the concept of preparing whole meals or dishes ahead of schedule. Since it requires you to determine what to eat ahead of time, meal prepping may lead to more nutritious meal choices over the long term.
Meal prepping is particularly popular amongst busy people because it can save a lot of time.
Having pre-prepared meals on hand can reduce portion size and help you reach your nutrition goals. This way, you’re less likely to reach for TV dinners or takeout, especially when you’re overwhelmed or exhausted. By planning ahead, it may lead to more nutritious meal choices.
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.
Below, we explore the most important principles of meal prepping and break down the process into a few simple steps.
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.
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.
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.
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.