I have been meal prepping in some fashion for nearly a decade now. Over that time I’ve developed hundreds of meal prep recipes and learned the things that work well and the things that don’t. I wanted to write a Guide to assist individuals looking to begin meal prepping who might be new to the idea. Consistency is key for any diet or lifestyle changes so it is imperative that you find strategies to make adherence as easy as possible. Bland and ineffective meal prepping is a good way to fall off the wagon. I want to make sure that you have a resource available to answer any questions you might encounter.
Why Meal Prep?
Everyone will have their own reason for why they would like to start meal prepping. I think when most people think about meal prep they relate it to dieting and it is a great way to maintain a diet but it can be so much more. Meal prepping can be used for dieting, convenience, to save money, to save time, and to promote healthier eating to name a few of its utilities.
Having prepared meals in your refrigerator will do wonders for your nutrition. Humans are creatures of convenience. We are hardwired to take the easy route and our nutrition is no exception. Many of us struggle to eat healthy because many nutritious foods require some form of preparation in order for them to be edible. People resort to snack foods because they are ready to eat right from the bag. Increasing the availability of healthy, ready to eat food in your house will make the decision of what to eat an easier choice. If you keep healthy meals in your fridge, you will eat them. Reducing the amount of friction surrounding eating healthier should be your number one goal if you want to see success. This means that making smart choices should be made easier and vice versa. Prepping your meals in advance so they only need a short trip in the microwave to be ready is much easier than having to cut and cook some meat and vegetables each night. Meal prep makes it easy for you to succeed.
Meal prepping makes calorie counting exponentially easier. Because you are making the same food for multiple meals you only need to calculate calories and macronutrients one time. There are hundreds of dieting strategies you can use to lose or gain weight but all of them lead to success in the same way once you pull back the layers….they operate within the parameters of energy balance. Energy balance is the relationship of the energy (calories) you take in from food and the energy you burn to live and move around. If the amount of calories you eat and absorb is less than you burn, you will lose weight. If the amount of calories you eat and absorb is more than you burn, you will gain weight. Energy balance is the fundamental principle surrounding all body composition changes. Meal prep can help you to control the energy in portion of the energy balance equation in a way that is easy to measure.
Meal prepping is a fantastic way to save money. Meal prepping makes it possible for you to have prepared meals on the ready while only cooking once or twice a week. Eating out is obviously expensive. The last two meals I have had out have totaled just shy of $25 each after tip and I don’t get appetizers or drinks. That’s a lot. Clearly fast casual places like Chipotle or fast food would be cheaper but even still a burrito bowl from Chipotle will run you 10+ dollars. When I worked an office job I had coworkers that would go out for lunch every single day of the workweek. This was mind boggling to me. I recently did the math on what it would cost to go to the Chipotle by my office every day for the week. It is $10.91 for a burrito bowl from that store. Multiply that by 5 days in the workweek and you get $54.55. Take that one step farther and you’ve got $2836.60. Now I’m sure that’s nothing to some of you but to me that is a lot of money to spend on lunch. My recipes from this website average between $3-$4 per dish but we’ll use $5 just to be conservative. That would be $25 a week and $1300 a year for lunch if you were to meal prep. That’s a $1500 savings.
Cooking only a couple of times a week drastically cuts down on your time spent in the kitchen. Meal prep allows you to only cook once or twice a week and that also means you only need to do dishes once or twice as well. Let’s face it, many of us don’t want to stand in front of a stove for 30 minutes when we get home from work or school and meal prep can save you from that. A common complaint among non-meal preppers is that it takes too long to complete. Meal prep does require a bit of an upfront time investment. It may take a few hours on your Sunday to set yourself up for the week but it will safe yourself time across those 7 days. Cooking every night may take less time than a larger prep but the cumulative time you will spend over the course of the week cooking and cleaning each night will surely add to a greater value than what it would take you to meal prep.
Where to Start.
Before you begin any meal prepping it is important that you have high quality containers for you to store your food in. You want your food to stay fresh as long as possible while it is being stored in the refrigerator. Your container of choice should follow these guidelines:
- Microwave safe
- Dishwasher safe
- Freezer safe
I would not recommend purchasing any container that does not follow these four guidelines at a minimum. It will make your life much easier. A quick search on Amazon for meal prep containers will return just under 2,000 results. I use a generic brand 28oz black plastic container and I have no problems with freshness for up to a 5 days. If you can spend a bit more money then I would buy glass containers. They will last longer and will likely be more air-tight than their plastic counterparts. Whatever container you choose to purchase, buy at least 10 so you have one for lunch and dinner for each day of the work week.
Cooking multiple meals at once will take a bit of cookware if you want to use time and kitchen space as efficiently as possible. The absolute essentials for meal prep are the following:
- 1 large skillet
- 1 chef’s knife
- 1 cutting board
- 1 large pot
- 1 roasting pan or cookie sheet
- Spatula/large spoon
- Measurement utensils
Ideally you will have a collection of cookware of different sizes but you can make do with the list above. It is nice to have a separate cutting board for vegetables and meat or multiple skillets to cook more than one thing at once but it is not mandatory. Having a high quality, sharp knife will make your chopping, slicing, and dicing easier and safer. If you are interested in cooking and will continue to prepare meals, I highly suggest making a small investment in a well crafted chef’s knife. Your knife is your best friend in the kitchen and a good one will stay with you for years. I also recommend purchasing a small kitchen scale. It will run you about 20 dollars but it is the most precise way to get accurate calorie counts. The products I use are linked below.
LINKS TO THE PRODUCTS I USE
Shopping and Preparation
Now that you have everything you need to begin meal prepping, it is time to start your preparation. Getting in a routine will help you stick to your nutritional goals and make things run more smoothly. Pick a day of the week that you designate for meal prepping. Most people choose Sunday because it is the beginning of the work week and a day off of work or school for many. Come up with a plan of what recipes you are looking to prepare before anything else. Your recipes are the most important part of meal prepping. You have to find recipes for meals that taste great and will store well in the refrigerator for up to a week. I have hundreds of recipes on this site that have been specifically designed to taste great, look appetizing, and keep well in the fridge. All of the recipes have nutritional information already estimated for you as well. Planning out your recipes will make sure you don’t forget anything during your grocery trip and won’t leave you wandering around the store searching for something to make. There is a shopping list function included with the recipes on this site where you can add the recipes you are planning to make to your Collections and it will populate a shopping list for you. Have a plan and stick to it, it will save you time. If you want to be extremely efficient you can go as far as to planning out your stove space and cutting board assignments. You can strategically plan your recipes so that you utilize the oven and stove top in the most efficient way to save you even more time. I don’t go that far into it but if you are looking to save as much time as possible, take this into consideration.
Another important note is to wash dishes as you go. When you have downtime and don’t have to babysit what is cooking, wash any dish that you can. Read over your recipes and start whatever takes the longest to cook first. Once you get that started you can begin washing and cutting vegetables and preparing other portions of your meals. If you are new to cooking, cutting vegetables will probably be the most time consuming step for you. Use YouTube as a resource to learn knife skills with different vegetables. Once you become more efficient with the knife, you will drastically cut down your kitchen time.
An important thing to remember with meal prep is that you are going to be “cooking” your meals again in the microwave again when you reheat them. You do not want to overcook your food while you are preparing it. Overcooking foods, especially lean meats, will dry them out and make them almost inedible upon reheating. You obviously don’t want to eat undercooked meat so there is a fine line you walk but with practice you will learn where that line is. A meat thermometer is a great investment.
Once all of your meals are cooked, evenly portion them out into your containers. Eyeballing the portions is likely sufficient for the vast majority of you reading this and as long as you eat all of the food by the end of the week it will even out anyway. If you need to have perfectly even containers for specific nutritional values then you should weigh and measure the food while plating.
Let the meals cool before you put the lids on and refrigerate them as you don’t want to steam the food in the container and create moisture. I wait to put the lid on until they have reached close to room temp and then move them into the fridge. Keep your meals in a cold part of your fridge where they are unlikely to be disturbed. The meals should last up to a 5 days without issue. For optimal freshness and quality, 3 days is probably the best target to shoot for. However, I find the sweet spot between freshness and the time investment spent cooking is 5 days. I don’t personally keep any meals past 5 days.
I am not a food safety expert. For the best information I would reference foodsafety.gov’s guidelines at https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html. If we are going to invest our time in preparing a large amount of meals, then we don’t want it to go to waste because of careless storage procedures. There are a number of steps we can take to ensure that our food stays fresh and safe for us to consume before we get the chance to eat it throughout the week.
Try and buy meats and dairy products with the “sell by date” farthest in the future.
I’m sure you are aware that all perishable items we buy in the grocery store are stamped with a sell by/use by/expiration date. Meat and dairy products are stamped with a sell by date in which the store must remove them from the shelves if it has not sold yet. The sell by date allows for a reasonable time for the product to be used once it has purchased. Buying meat and dairy products that have sell by dates farther in the future will give you a little extra time to ensure that your food is as fresh and safe as can be. Reach towards the back of the shelf for the newest stuff.
2. Ensure that the temperature in your refrigerator is set below 40 degrees F (4.4 degrees C).
The Danger Zone for bacteria growth is defined as being temperatures between 40-140 degrees F (4.4-60C). It is important that your refrigerator is set below 40 degrees to help mitigate the growth of bacteria. Bacteria are able to thrive in environments where it has a food source, optimal temperature, and moisture. If you live in a warmer climate it may be necessary to place a thermometer inside of your refrigerator to ensure that it doesn’t get too warm. Try and keep the door closed as much as possible and store your meals in a place where they are least likely to be bothered. It may be helpful to designate a shelf or two in your fridge specifically for your meals. Don’t put your meals in the door as this is often the portion of the fridge where temperature fluctuates the most because it is exposed to outside air.
3. Let your meals cool to room temperature before you cover and store them.
If you put a lid on the food while it is still hot, you will create moisture inside of your storage container. Covering your food too soon and creating moisture can lead to soggy meats and vegetables that are soft and mushy. Creating the additional moisture inside of the container is not wanted because it adds an extra variable in which bacteria are more likely to thrive.
4. Keep your refrigerator clean
As a meal prepper you will have a lot of raw meats and vegetables in your fridge at the same time. Raw chicken is especially notorious for having leaky packaging. You do not want to store your fresh vegetables or your prepared meals somewhere that has been exposed to raw chicken fluid. Cross contamination does happen and salmonella will destroy your digestive organs. Try and keep your meats wrapped in plastic bags before you use them to decrease the chance of cross contamination. If you do find a spill in your fridge, clean the surface with hot soapy water and then rinse.
5. Good quality storage containers will help keep food fresh longer.
I would recommend glass storage containers to anyone who can afford them. They are quite a bit more expensive but they will last longer, have a tighter seal, and you don’t have to worry about any plastic issues. You can achieve an air-tight seal more easily with glass when compared to plastic. This will help prevent moisture or other odors inside your fridge from getting in.
A popular topic of question among meal preppers is about freezing their prepared meals. When done correctly and with enough space, freezing may allow you to cook as little as once a month. Freezing meals is undoubtedly convenient, however it is likely to change the composition of the food. Foods like lettuce, tomatoes, and cooked plain lean meats do not work well in the freezer. Some foods freeze better than others and the quality of the food doesn’t diminish by a measurable amount, like soups and stews. As a general rule, anything that is sauce/soup based will freeze better than anything else. When considering freezing meals you have to determine whether you value convenience or food quality more. If you are someone who is okay with a small decrease in the flavor and consistency of your food then freezing your meals is an option for you. If you don’t mind spending a few extra days a month cooking then you are probably best prepping your meals for 5 days at a time and avoiding the freezer.
If you decide to freeze your meals there are few guidelines you can follow to help preserve as much freshness as possible.
Use high quality, air-tight containers.
Freezer burn will render your meals inedible and thus a waste of money and time. To prevent freezer burn you must create an air-tight seal and inhibit moisture from entering your container. One way I like to add an extra layer of protection is by wrapping each of my containers in freezer plastic wrap. Vacuum sealers are another good choice.
2. Label every meal with the date it was cooked and what it is.
After you wrap it in freezer plastic wrap it may become hard to see what’s inside and labeling it will prevent you from having to crack the seal and risk spoiling the food.
3. Don’t block the cooling source.
If you prep a large amount of meals to be frozen your freezer will fill up quickly. It is very important that you do not block where the cold air is released into the freezer. This will inhibit the coolant system to reach the entire freezer and could create temperatures too warm to allow the meals to stay frozen.
4. Keep your freezer at 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) or below.
Make sure your freezer is cold enough. I recently moved to a new apartment and the cooling element on my freezer was shitty. The food would freeze, but not to the degree I wanted. Keeping a cold freezer will lead to longer storage capabilities.
Reheating Your Meals
Microwaving is the clear favorite when it comes to reheating your meals. You can also use your oven, toaster oven, stove top, air fryer, etc. The microwave will be the quickest and most convenient way. I recommend microwaving your food in one minute intervals. Heat for one minute, stir, and then test. After two minutes decrease the interval to 30 seconds and test. If you find that your food has poor taste after microwaving, experiment with changing the power level on your microwave to 60-80%. It will take longer for your food to cook but you may find that it makes the food more enjoyable. If you have meals in your freezer that you want to eat, defrost them in your refrigerator a day or two in advance. Before placing it in the microwave, drain any water that may have accumulated in the thawing process.
One way to assist your microwave in the heating process is to cut your meat and vegetables to be of similar thickness. Some people find that rice becomes hard and grainy when it is refrigerated. I have found that this doesn’t occur when I use calrose rice. Long grain rice isn’t my favorite choice for meal prep. Sprinkling some water over the rice or putting an ice cube on top before heating will help to give some moisture back to the rice.
As with everything, practice makes perfect. The more you meal prep the more in tune you will become with different foods and how they act throughout the process. A lot of meal prepping is trial and error. I would suggest not doing any large scale prepping until you have tried the recipe and know that it has good flavor and will stand up in the fridge or freezer. Remember that the purpose of meal prepping is to save time, money, and to assist us with our nutrition goals. Take time to plan out your meals each time you prep so that you are giving yourself the best opportunity at success.