Meal prepping (or meal prep) has been one of the hottest topics in recent years, not only for those with limited time but also for the ones trying to stick to a specific budget or diet.
While many think meal prep ideas involve cooking one or two recipes to be eaten in the next 3-5 days, that is not entirely true, as getting ready in advance can be very flexible, as yes, you can prepare full meals, but you can also prepare specific ingredients that can be easily integrated into different meals, meaning you can meal prep as much (ie: full meal in the fridge) or as little (ie: all vegetables chopped in the fridge) as you like.
What is meal prep?
Meal prep (or meal prepping) is the act of preparing meals, which may include multiple methods, such as preparing single ingredients, batch cooking in advance for multiple days, portioning out single meals, or just preparing parts of one or more meals, to name the few most common.
Example of most common meal prep forms:
1 – Bulk Cooking
2 – Preparing and pre-packing
3 – Single ingredients to put in food
What are the benefits of meal prepping?
Meal prepping has multiple benefits and the way you meal prep can be targeted to your needs. Whether you are looking to follow a diet, save time during the working days or stick to a specific budget, tailored meal prepping can help!
What are the downsides of meal prepping?
When adequately planned, then the downsides can be avoided, however, if the right system is not found then the meals may feel repetitive, but with a few tweaks here and there this can be avoided (ie: change spices and dressings, swap sides, or purposes of the dish).
How long does prepped food last?
This depends on the ingredients chosen, recipes followed and storage methods, however, most will last between 2 and 5 days in the fridge and up to 3-4 months in the freezer (if freezable). It is important to follow all health and safety guidelines when storing food and the use of air-tight containers is a must to preserve freshness and avoid the spread of bacteria.
How to meal prep?
Each person will have their preferred method for meal prepping, which will mainly be defined by the main reason one has chosen to meal prep (ie: is it to save time? Is it to stick to a specific budget? Is it for weight-loss?).
To start, it is important to find the day or days in the week one can commit to meal prepping, as this will define for how many days in advance to shop for groceries, and how much time is required each time. The most common days for meal prepping seem to be Sunday and Wednesday, however, everyone’s schedule is different.
Once the days and amount of time are allocated, one must decide how much of the same food they are ready to consume for the set amount of days; it is important to also consider that some foods start deteriorating once prepared.
Should one go for full meal preparation, lasagne, quiches, and soups are good choices, as they portion well and they are easy to warm up.
When going for the option of cooking some of the items for the meals, then sauces, curries, and stews keep well in the fridge and are extremely versatile as they can be served with steamed or roasted vegetables, boiled rice, bread, or a jacket potato.
If instead, one should choose to meal prep single ingredients, then it is important to choose those that keep well in the fridge, like boiled chicken, grilled peppers, or grated carrots, rather than ‘softer ingredients’, such as iceberg lettuce or tomatoes. Think of ingredients that can be used in multiple dishes, like just mentioned roasted peppers: these can be tossed in a fresh salad, added to an omelet, or mixed with some chopped tomatoes and pesto to dress a pasta dish.
Once the meals (or part of ) for the meal prep have been chosen, one must complete a full list of what is needed and must have the necessary storage containers, which are very important, if not essential, when meal prepping.
What do I need to meal prep?
There are a few things needed for successful meal prepping and these involve:
- Time: Setting aside a specific time or day (or days) to meal prep.
- Menu: Having a list of the meals for the days ahead.
- Shopping: Purchasing all the required groceries for the meals chosen.
- Storage: Having the right storage containers for the chosen meals as well as space in the fridge or freezer.
How to store meal prep?
Storage containers are very important for meal prepping and choosing the right ones will depend on the type or style of meal prep one is going for.
When deciding to go for the option of preparing full meals ahead and dividing them straight away, then multiple similar containers will be required; single-portion containers can be purchased in multi-packs for convenient prices in most stores.
These smaller containers are also excellent for use when freezing single portions for use in the future and it is good to find those suitable for use in the microwave, dishwasher, and freezer; it is good to consider whether some food prep containers suitable for use in the oven are required.
When bulk cooking, then larger meal prep containers will be required to store these dishes in the fridge, while when preparing single ingredients then different sizes will be required depending on the ingredients chosen.
Is meal prepping good for weight loss?
Most people will find meal prepping very helpful for weight loss, as it involves less on-the-spot thinking, making it easier to stick to the plan.
Like most plans do, also meal prepping requires flexibility and looking for the best way that fits not only in one’s life, but also expectations; when deciding to meal prep for weight loss it is important to know whether the foods chosen are satisfying and filling for us and whether we would be happing having that meal or ingredient for the chosen amount of days.
Once the perfect balance is found (it may take a bit of tweaking and adaptation along the way), then meal prepping can not only help achieve the desired weight loss but also maintain it.
How to meal prep for weight loss?
Meal prepping for weight loss requires the same planning as meal prepping for any other requirement, as one must choose when to do it, what to cook for the plan chosen, purchase the items for the meals chosen, and sufficient storage containers and space.
When looking to lose weight, many find themselves eating the same foods over and over again as they may be convenient to cook, tasty, and filling, as well as easy to find in the supermarket; over time, especially those that need to lose larger amounts of weight, may start feeling bored, so it is important to keep changing recipes.
While the whole concept of changing recipes may sound scary, it shouldn’t be, as new recipes do not necessarily require fancy ingredients or methods. Sometimes a roasted chicken breast can be simply flavored with some rosemary and lemon for a change, or it can be grilled with some spices to have a whole new meal!
How to meal prep for the week?
When deciding to start meal prepping, a good idea is to start small with perhaps one meal for a few days in advance and then moving on to preparing either all of the meals for a couple of days in advance or one single meal for the whole week, whichever you may find not only easier or palatable.
When selecting the way of food prepping for the week, there are multiple points to take into consideration:
1 - How many days am I willing to eat the same dish/food?
Determining this will not only help decide the types and quantity of food to prepare, but also the recipes (ie: if you like to eat the same dish only two days in a row, why not select something that can be frozen as well?) but also the amount of time needed in the day-to-day cooking as a consequence.
2 - As a consequence of meal prepping, how much time am I looking to save each day? Or: how long can I/ am I willing to spend cooking each day?
Life is busy and sometimes we have no time to cook something healthy daily, but – in all honesty – not everyone likes to spend time cooking when they could be going shopping/dancing/to the gym/reading a book/etc, so knowing how long one has on a day-to-day basis can help plan the amount of meal prepping required.
If one has only ten minutes, then dishes that are easy to warm up and can be accompanied by a simple side salad, maybe more convenient (what about this spectacular Chicken Biryani with fresh cucumber raita on the side?), while if one can invest a bit longer, like twenty minutes to half an hour, then sauces or curries that can be served with rice, boiled potatoes or greens, or any other side dish, maybe a great option that can be slightly tweaked every day (like this tasty Eggplant Caponata Sauce).
3 - What meal prep plan am I going to follow?
Will I be meal prepping to save time? Do I want to save money? Do I meal prep to lose weight?
Knowing WHY you are starting to meal prep is fundamental, as it will automatically answer multiple other questions for you. Is your aim a healthy meal prep? Do you require a vegan meal prep?
There are plenty of meal prep recipes out there to cater to all needs!
For example, check out our COOK section: this comes with multiple subcategories, such as 30-Minute Recipes, Vegan, Vegetarian, Breakfast, and so many other recipes!
4 - How many meals per day to meal prep?
How many meals do I have each day? And of these, how many do I want to meal prep?
Some have 5 meals per day, of which 3 main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and two snacks, while others may have only the 3 main meals and no snacks, and many other combinations. It is important to understand when looking at the big plan how many meals am I willing/do I need/want to meal prep and how many can I make as I go?
As an example, one may like to eat porridge at home for breakfast, which can be prepared in just a few minutes in the microwave and needs no prep, having a fruit or yogurt for a snack (again, no prepping needed), a tuna salad for lunch (do I want to chop the vegetables in advance? If so, which vegetables can I prepare in advance that will still be good to eat?), a fruit smoothie in the afternoon (do I want to use fresh fruit and vegetables as I go? Do I want to chop and freeze in portions the ingredients for future use?) and then a more filling dinner of a main protein and vegetables (Should I prepare the vegetables in advance? What kind of protein will I choose? Lentils, chicken, eggs, cheese? An instant recipe like grilled chicken or a rich sauce like Bolognese that requires time?).
Another scenario could be a quick easy breakfast on the go (like a fresh yogurt or Healthy Breakfast Oat and Coconut Soft Cookies which require no prep or batch cooking in advance), a tasty vegetarian bake (which can be prepared in small portions the night before or batch cooked in advance, like this delicious Low-Carb Vegetarian Lasagna) and then an early, but filling and nutritious dinner (Should it start with a tasty light soup or a salad? Should I have a filling chicken curry with some boiled wholewheat rice? If so, should I meal prep in advance or batch cook over the weekend?).
Two completely different meal plans, yet they can both be either fully prepped in advance, partially prepared, or prepared on the go, as needed, wanted, and planned.
The above are the main points to consider and at the beginning understanding how much and when to prepare everything may be challenging, but practice makes perfect and planning helps a lot!
5 - What do I require to meal prep?
Meal prepping requires time (ironically!) and space.
TIME: It is important to know when the meal prepping action will take place: do you have time on Sunday afternoons? Is your day off Tuesday? Plan according to your schedule, as knowing when this will get done and how long you have is essential to stick to the plan. You will also need time to plan, but the more you meal prep, the quicker planning will become.
SPACE: you will require not only meal prep containers, but also space in the fridge and freezer. Having a plan will help you understand how to manage this!
6 - What are the best foods for meal prep?
Whole fruits (ie: bananas, apples, pears, plums, etc): ready to go, no prepping required, healthy and seasonal.
Nuts and seeds (ie: almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, etc): can be eaten on their own or added to food, easy to store for a long time, very nutritious, and versatile.
Hard fresh greens (ie: romaine lettuce): these tend to be quite affordable, low in calories, can be bulked up, and need to be dressed just before serving.
Easy to cook and versatile proteins (ie: cottage cheese, boiled eggs, lean cuts of meat, tofu, tinned or fresh fish, frozen meat and fish, yogurt, etc): these are versatile and healthy add ons, that are filling and some of which require no prepping at all.
Pulses (chickpeas, beans, peas, lentils, etc): these are wholesome healthy ingredients that can be the main ingredient of a dish (ie: peas curry or chickpea hummus) or can bulk up stews, curries, and salads. They have a long shelf life and are available to purchase in many convenient formats, such as dry or tinned in water.
Hard fresh vegetables (ie: celery, carrots, peppers, radish, etc): these vegetables are great as they are very healthy and versatile, as they can be eaten either cooked or raw and tend to have quite a long shelf life when adequately stored in the fridge.
Frozen vegetables (ie: spinach, baby carrots, peas, Brussel sprouts, sweetcorn, etc): these are a meal saver, as they can bulk up stews, curries, and sauces or can be the perfect side dish that requires very little time and effort to prepare as they are ready-cleaned and chopped. These vegetables tend to be very affordable compared to fresh ones, so they are a great healthy addition when looking at the budget.
Starchy vegetables (ie: potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, parsnips, etc): these do not occupy fridge space but still have a long shelf life and are quite affordable. They are very versatile, but it is good to control the amounts consumed as they tend to be higher in calories compared to most other vegetables.
Whole grains (ie: quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur, barley, etc): these are great filling and healthy options that have a long shelf life and work well with multiple cuisines.
Dry Carbohydrates (ie: pasta, rice, etc): these are very versatile and affordable, although it is important to exercise moderation when consuming them, there is no need to eliminate them unless there are medical reasons involved. Choose brown versions if you are looking to enjoy the benefits of filling full for longer.
EXTRA BITS: MEAL PREP TIPS
I am a partial meal prepper: I cook some bits on Sunday and have them during the week paired with different sides and top up during the week when I have time. What I have learned from meal prepping is:
1 - Prepare a list
A physical list to carry with you to the grocery store is essential!
Meal prepping aims at saving time, money, and calories (or whatever other diets one follows), and forgetting even just one ingredient means another trip to the shop (waste of time), passing in front of food you do not need but as you are there may buy (waste of money) and being exposed to unplanned temptation (meal planning out the window!).
A good idea is to have a notepad on the fridge: this can be used to write needed essentials (ie: salt, plain yogurt, milk, etc) and then the whole list for the week once the plan is ready. Pads with a magnet back are a great fix!
2 - Chose meals you like and write them down in diary form
When I was 100+ lbs heavier all I could think of was food, all the time.
The next meal, ‘what will I have’, ‘should I buy this to add on top’, ‘should I have that’.
To change this mindset I had to prepare a menu, something that was there, written on paper, for which I had the ingredients and I didn’t need to go to the grocery shop every single day.
Knowing that my next meal was planned didn’t stop me from thinking about food, but knowing I was going to have a meal I like helped me relax and stick to the plan.
This worked for me, but it can work for any reason one has to meal prep, be it stick to a budget, a diet, or a to save time.
The easiest way to do so is to have a piece of paper with the days and meals written on it; there are fancy and less-fancy ways of doing so. You can start with a sheet of paper and a pen, divided into squares, you can use an excel sheet on the computer, or you can buy a meal planner online or in a stationery shop.
3 - Experiment
Prepare new dishes, try new spices and cuisines. Spice mixes, like Peri Peri or Cajun, can make a grilled piece of chicken taste different with zero investment of time and are ideal if you are meal prepping part of the meal in advance (ie: vegetable stews) and need to prepare just the side.
On the other hand, experiment with curries and sauces from around the world if you are bulk cooking for more days, as these gather more flavor with time and can be easily frozen in single portions not only for the days to come but also weeks (it’s always good to have a meal ready in the freezer for lazy days or unplanned busier days!).
4 - Take it easy
You won’t be perfect the first time, nor the second, but practice makes perfect, and the more you plan and prep, the more efficient you will be.
This is a valuable suggestion that was given to me about my weight loss: it won’t happen in a day and you still need to enjoy life while you lose weight.
So true, and so applicable to every new challenge and adventure.