Meal prep is growing in popularity as a method of saving money on going out, maintaining a healthy diet, or just being able to enjoy a home-cooked meal without actually having to cook the entire meal every night.
The intention of this article to shed some light on things:
- What is Meal Prep?
- Why is it appealing?
- How does meal prep work in real life?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Meal Prep Resources
Welcome to Meal Prep 101!
What is Meal Prep?
At it’s most basic, meal prep is preparing your meals ahead of time. While meal prep was initially popular as a means of maintaining a healthy diet (think weight loss/muscle building) it’s come to be so much more. Having dinner prepared (or, mostly prepared) at the end of a day’s work makes things so much easier. I enjoy the ability to eat a home-cooked meal every night, without having to make it all from scratch.
There’s two general categories of meal prep we’ll cover:
- Daily Meal Prep
- Batch Meal Prep
Which one you choose depends on your personal needs, including how much time you have to get dinner “on the table” every night and how much cooking you’d like to do. Meal prep can be used to create a full slate of meals for the week, including breakfast, lunch and dinner, or can be used for that one meal of the day you never seem to have enough time to make.
If you are just starting off with meal prep, I suggest picking one meal a day to prep. It’s a nice way to ease into prepping and you’ll have the opportunity to try different meal prep methods to see what works best for you.
Daily Meal Prep
Daily meal prep involves fully preparing full meals to eat throughout the week. With this, you can prepare a weekday’s worth of breakfasts, lunches and dinners ahead of time. These can be the same dish for each meal, or a variety, depending on how much you’d like to prep.
Here is an example menu for all three daily meals utilizing the same dish for each. This is a typical workweek (M-F) meal prep menu.
These are all items I’ve made and prepped for the week. I chose them because they contain ingredients and flavors that I enjoy, and because they are relatively easy to make in large batches.
The biggest advantage I found with daily meal prep was not having to think about what I was going to make for dinner, or scrounge up for lunch every day. During the workweek, my meals were covered. I had filling and delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner all planned out.
Some daily meal plans also include snacks. I keep mine simple with fruit, nuts, or chips and salsa. I’m also a big fan of popcorn, which is easy to make on a whim.
There are a TON of resources for planning meal prep, some of which I’ve included at the end of the article. Recipes made for meal prep can be particularly useful, as not all dishes hold up well over the course of a few days. They may be safe to eat, but less enjoyable or lose their texture.
Batch Meal Prepping
Batch meal prep differs from daily meal prep primarily in that it involves cooking, or at the very least, assembling meals before you eat them. This may be more suitable for someone who has the desire to cook dinner every night, but may be short on time. Meal prepping this way saves cooking time and allows you to throw together delicious, homemade meals in minutes.
Here’s an example menu, where chicken breast and ground beef were batch cooked before the workweek.
Setting aside time to wash, dice and prep vegetables for the week is also a way of batch meal prepping. This type of meal prep allows for more flexibility, as well as fresh-made meals, but does require more time and planning. To do batch meal prep well, you’ll need a plan for the week on what you’d like to make. Now, that can always change, but it’s much easier to prep when you have an idea of what you’ll be cooking for the week.
Why Meal Prep?
Have complete control over what ingredients go into the food you are eating.
For some, meal prep is a way to control what goes into their food. I’m lactose intolerant, so having prepped meals that I knew contained not one trace of dairy was a relief, and much easier on my body. If you have specific dietary needs, such as gluten intolerance or practicing veganism, meal prep can be an easy stress-free way to eat with confidence.
Meal time convenience.
With your meals already prepared, no thought is required when meal time comes. Heat up your meal (or not, if its a no-reheat meal like salad or a fun bento box) and you are ready to eat. By having a homemade, prepared option, you’re less likely to eat out, grab fast food, or even substitute a granola bar for dinner (no shame intended, but you are worth more than a granola bar!).
Buying groceries in bulk and preparing your own food undoubtedly saves you money, particularly if you shop what’s on sale and in season in the grocery store. Saving money on weekday cooking means more funds for weekend fun! Personally, I’d rather save during the week and go somewhere special on the weekends.
Less dishes throughout the week/on days with prepped meals.
Need I say more? Typically, I deep clean my kitchen once a week, after we’ve completed prep. All it needs is simple maintenance throughout the week to stay clean and organized.
Improve your cooking skills.
Tackle basics you’ve been wanting to learn or branch out and try something new. Additionally, meal prep will improve your budgeting and planning skills, a completely unanticipated but warmly welcomed side effect of meal prep I discovered a few months into it.
It’s YOUR meal prep… make what you want to eat! Whether it’s low carb, vegan, high protein, all greens, you name it, you can prep it. There are some incredible resources available to assist with your meal prepping journey. You can choose to have meal plans created for you to follow, use a meal-planning service like Blue Apron, or do it all on your own. It’s up to you.
How does meal prep work in real life?
My husband and I both work full-time. Certainly having breakfast and lunch made work days easier, and saved us the time, effort, and money of going out to eat for lunch every day. Having dinner meal prepped allowed us the opportunity to heat and eat, and have more time to relax and enjoy each other’s company at the end of the day.
Honestly, when we first started meal prepping, I hated it. It takes a few hours on the weekend, and at first I felt I was wasting time. Despite my discontent, I increasingly appreciated being able to come home from work and have dinner ready. I didn’t have a mound of dishes in the sink, only our meal prep containers and plates to rinse and throw in the dishwasher. Eventually, I learned to love meal prep and couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.
Whichever way you choose to prep, the most important part is finding what works for you. Otherwise, you won’t be consistent about it. Whether that means carving out a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, or prepping for only three days at a time, find what works for you and run with it.
Everyone has different reasons for meal prep. For us, it was a time-saving, convenient way to enjoy homecooked meals. Additionally, it helped us save money, which we’d prefer to splurge on a nice evening out or stash away for a vacation full of fun new foods.
A note about time management
Depending on what and how much you meal prep, you may find yourself with all four burners occupied on the stove and both racks in the oven full. This can be overwhelming at first, cooking three full meals for multiple days at once.
My best advice, start slow. You’ll learn what you can do at the same time as you go, and you’ll get better at kitchen multitasking in the process. Here’s a basic method to tackle meal prep:
- Dice your veggies and measure ingredients — In the world of foodservice, this is called mise en place meaning everything in its place. Have everything ready to go, so that once you start cooking, its a seamless process of adding ingredients. This way you won’t be rushed to chop an onion when you’re pot of water is boiling and the chicken is ready to be taken out of the oven. It can get hectic, fast.
- Start with the oven — Once your ingredients are ready, start with the recipes to be made in the oven. Whether it’s roasted veggies, or a sheet pan pork chop, get the oven heated and get those things in there first. Oven recipes are great for meal prep, because once their in there, the oven does all the work.
- Move to the stove — While your food bakes away in the oven, turn your attention to the stovetop. Start anything you’ll be cooking and keep a close eye on it. In the meantime, clear counter space to place those hot pans once they’re ready to come out of the oven.
- Let everything cool — Don’t store your food as soon as its done cooking. In accordance with food safety measures, it’s best practice to allow hot food to come to room temperature before placing it in the refrigerator. Otherwise, it may cool down unevenly and even leave food susceptible to spoilage. No one wants that. While everything cools, set out your containers.
- Fill and store — Once everything is cool, fill up your containers and stick them in the fridge. For no heat meals like salads, keep dressing separate and items that may cause the lettuce to get soggy, like tomatoes or cucumbers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Don’t you get tired of having the same thing every day?
A: The honest answer is… sometimes! When we make something I don’t like that much, or that didn’t turn out as I had expected, it gets tiresome to eat it day after day.
But when we make dishes I truly enjoy eating, that are filling and tasty and cooked to my preference, I do not tire of eating it throughout the week. Make no mistake — I greatly look forward to the weekends, but I’d much prefer eating the same dinner five days a week without the stress of whipping up a healthy meal after a full work day. Chicken Enchiladas and the Lemon Miso Pork with Coconut Curry Vegetables were two meal preps I 100% looked forward to eating every single day. As I said before, it’s imperative to find what works for you and to start with flavors and dishes you already know you love!
Q: Can you ever eat out? Aren’t you committed to eating what you prep?
A: Yes, you can eat out and no, you aren’t obligated to eat what you prep for every meal. The flexibility of your meal prep depends on your own personal preference. I’d rather make meals for the week and have that option. When plans change, or the opportunity arises to eat out, or with friends/family, it is simple enough to put the planned, prepped meal into the freezer to eat at a later date. By doing this, you’ll eventually build up enough meals to eat for a week without prepping! Believe me, it happens faster than you’d think.
Q: Does all of your prep really keep for five days?
A: It depends. Some ingredients hold up much better than others. An easy way to think about it: any food that would hold up to a trip to the beach, or a picnic is a great candidate for meal prep. There are also ways to preserve your food, like dressing salads only right before you eat them.
Foods that, once cooked, get mushy or undesirable in a day are not recommended for meal prep — my number one example: zucchini! Additionally, if you are concerned about the freshness of your food, you can prep for three days a time only, instead of the full five.
Ultimately, start small to learn what you are comfortable with. We’ve prepped this way for over a year and have never had issues with food going bad. There were some things that just weren’t tasty after a day, but those were experimental and things we won’t do again. Okay, so it was the one time I tried making roasted radishes. The internet made it look tasty but I do not recommend. Ever.
Meal Prep Resources
My all-time favorite meal prep resource. Talia, founder of Workweek Lunch, provides kitchen-tested meal prep recipes, sized and ready for you to cook. The website is full of free recipes, but to unlock all of the meal prep potential, including weekly meal plans complete with recipes and a shopping list, a subscription is required. I’d recommend starting with the free recipes if you’re new to prepping and consider a subscription if you’re having difficulty planning what to make each week.
Budget Bytes has an entire section on their website dedicated to meal prep recipes. Beth, founder of Budget Bytes, creates tasty recipes on a budget that don’t compromise nutrition or flavor.
The Kitchn has a great list of meal prep plans to get you started prepping. All the meals are planned out for you, and they give you full recipes and cooking instructions.
Yep, that’s me! I have a growing collection of meal prep recipes available on the website, as well as an ongoing series of posts about meal prep (including this one). I also have two different meal planning templates available as free downloads on the Free Resources page.
Do you meal prep? If not, is it something you’re interested in? Let me know in the comments below.
Until then, happy prepping!