Whether it’s to eat healthier, save time and money, or any other reason, meal prepping offers a lot of benefits. But, it can be intimidating to get started.
I’ve cooked in restaurants for over a decade, and in a lot of ways, professional kitchens are just large-scale meal prep operations. We spend 90% of our time planning and prepping for the service or week ahead. It’s one of the reasons restaurants work at all, because it saves time and money.
While your motivation might be different, the process is about the same. So, today I’ll be breaking down what meal prepping is, why you should try it, and how to set yourself up for success.
What Is Meal Prep And Is It Right For You?
Meal prepping is a simple idea where you prepare entire meals or parts of meals ahead of time. There are several different ways to go about it, but by putting in a little work and effort ahead of time you’ll make cooking and eating throughout the week easier.
Meal prepping is hugely popular and can be beneficial for a lot of different reasons, here are some of the areas where it can have a big impact in your life:
- Eat more home cooked food
- Save time throughout the week
- Save money on food cost
- Control portion sizes
- Control the ingredients you eat
- Reduce food waste
So, if you’re trying to stick to a diet, fitness plan, or just want to cook more of your own food, meal prepping is a great option.
The Tools And Ingredients For Success
You don’t need any fancy equipment to be a successful meal prepper. Of course you’ll need a few pots and pans for cooking. But the only additional equipment you might think about adding is a good set of food storage containers.
I’ve been known to preach about the usefulness of inexpensive deli containers. But, when it comes to meal prepping you may want to spring for something a little more durable that can also be microwaved or used in the oven.
And for that, I think glass is the way to go. They can go in the fridge, freezer, oven, microwave, and dishwasher. Which is more than you can say for most other options.
There are no real limits on the ingredients you can use for meal prepping. But, there are some things to keep in mind when it comes to how your food will taste after being stored for several days.
Starches like grains and beans are perfect food prep candidates. The same goes for root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes. It’s easy to prepare a lot of them, and they hold up really well even after several days in the fridge. Plus, they’re inexpensive and filling.
Leafy greens and avocados are a bit more delicate and will quickly wilt or turn brown after they are cut or dressed. For these, your best bet is to have them washed and ready to go, but hold off on cutting or dressing until right before eating.
Proteins generally stand up well after being cooked. And while it’s important to cook meat thoroughly, you don’t want to overdo it and end up with items that are dry and chewy after being reheated.
Lastly, don’t forget about raw fruits, nuts, and vegetables! Which are all easy to prep, store, and transport.
Most importantly, choose ingredients and meals that you enjoy and won’t get sick of. You’ll be much more successful if you actually want to eat the food you prep.
Challenges You’ll Face And How To Overcome Them
Doing Too Much Too Soon
Meal prepping for every meal of the week can take a lot of planning and work. Instead, try meal prepping for one meal period to start with.
Once that seems easy or at least manageable, try adding a couple more days. After that, maybe you’ll be comfortable adding breakfast or dinner to the mix as well.
There’s no reason to rush into things and meal prep for every meal every day of the week. That can be difficult even with a lot of experience, and it’s a quick way to get overwhelmed right off the bat.
Getting Tired Of The Food
I know that food is necessary to survive, but I also think that it should be delicious and enjoyable. And eating the same thing 5 days a week can get old fast.
If you can eat the same thing every day without getting tired of it, you were made for meal prep and should have a pretty easy go of it.
For the rest of us, it can help to mix things up throughout the week. That could be done by having a few different sauces or dressings on hand that can be used to change the flavor of the same meals.
Or, you could try freezing different meals which can then be pulled out to mix things up each week.
Not Enough Time To Actually Do The Prep
While weekly meal prep is a great way to save time throughout the week, you do have to make sure you have enough time to actually get the prep done.
One of the best ways to do this is to actually schedule a specific time in your calendar. If you’ll be doing meal prep for a Monday through Friday work week for example. It probably makes the most sense for your prep time to be on Sunday.
That way your meals are as fresh as possible going into the week.
Common Meal Prep Misconceptions
Meal Prep Recipes Are Boring
Some people think that meal prep recipes consist of plain grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli 5 days a week. And I did actually know a bodybuilder who ate like that, but I’d personally be sick of that after day 1.
The meals you make can be anything you want, and as simple or extravagant as you’d like. But no matter which route you choose, you should enjoy the food you’re cooking and eating.
Meal Prepping Is Only For People On Diets
While a diet may be a motivation for some, anybody can meal prep. Sure you can focus on low carb recipes, or count calories, but you can also prep and eat hot dogs and lasagna every day.
Meal prepping can be as healthy as you want it to be, or not at all. For many, it’s just a great way to ensure that you don’t have to worry about cooking or thinking about what to eat throughout the week.
Now that you have an idea of what meal prepping is and who it’s for (anybody), here’s a quick guide on how to actually get started.
1. Make A Plan
This is easily the hardest part, but having a solid plan ahead of time will make everything else a piece of cake. And, this step will get easier and easier the more you do it.
First, map out the meals you’ll be prepping for. That could be something like lunch 3 days a week, or dinner 5 days a week.
Then, choose what food you’ll be prepping and eating during those meal periods. This is another place where you should try and keep it simple at first. Stick to foods that you know how to make and know you’ll enjoy.
Finally, schedule the time that you’ll be able to go grocery shopping and the time you’ll need to actually do the prep.
If you’re handy with spreadsheets, I would highly recommend using one for your weekly plans. That way you can easily reuse plans that you loved and edit ones that weren’t so great.
2. Make A Grocery List
This one is simple, take the meals that you’ve decided on and make a grocery list for everything you’ll need to buy.
It’s always a good idea to take a quick kitchen inventory at this stage to make sure you’re not buying any ingredients that you already have on hand. Learning how to FIFO your kitchen will be a big help here.
3. Go Shopping
Go shopping. I told you, once you have a good plan, the rest is easy.
Try to do this as close to your scheduled prep day as possible. That will ensure meat and produce is fresh and will last through the week.
4. Prep, Label, Organize
Ok, time to get cooking. Prepare your meals, then portion into containers for the week or to freeze. It’s also a good habit to label and date each container. That will keep you organized and ensure meals don’t get mixed up, forgotten, or wasted.
While meal prepping can be intimidating to first-timers, it’s actually a simple process that anyone can do.
Remember, start slow. There’s no reason to start meal prepping for every meal of the week right off the bat. And taking the time to physically write or type out a plan will make the whole process feel easy and attainable.
If you’re having trouble deciding what to eat each week, take a look at our guide to eating seasonally. It will do a lot of the deciding for you, and ensure you’re eating the best foods throughout the year.