How to Properly Meal Prep and Why You Really Should Be Doing It
Make your life a whole lot easier.
Meal prepping all your meals for a week can help ensure you have a great week ahead. And what do lots of great weeks add up to? A better life.
Life can be hectic. Between work, the commute, the kids’ school and activities, the home to maintain, the errands to run, your fitness routine, and that little necessity called sleeping, time just disappears.
That often means another of life’s necessities (eating) can feel like more of a hassle than a pleasure. It often results in an unhealthy diet in the name of convenience.
There’s a reason they call it fast food, after all: it’s fast. It’s also fatty, salty, and often nearly devoid of nutritional value. Expert opinion is overwhelmingly in agreement that home cooking is the healthiest way to eat, so it’s imperative you find a way to do as much of your own cooking as you can. One of the best ways to do that is to start meal prepping.
Remember, you are what you eat, so eat good food! With healthy meal prep, it’s really not hard to do. And it can even be fun, as we’ll talk about later. But first, let’s get on the same page with a definition of what meal prepping means in the first place.
Meal Prepping 101: What Does Meal Prep Mean, Anyway?
When we say meal prep, we don’t necessarily mean preparing one of your favorite delicious recipes to eat for dinner. Sure, making a great-tasting, healthy meal takes preparation, what with veggies to peel or wash and slice and cook, regular or cauliflower rice to simmer, chicken or seitan to roast, and so forth.
Preparing and cooking a meal you eat right away is quite different from the meal prep in question. What we’re referring to here is really a meal plan, one that will last you for days, saving you time later on and helping you eat foods that are better for you.
Work Now, Benefit Later
For our purposes, meal prep means the preparation of meals today so you can eat them later.
Often, it means preparing your lunches for the coming week on a Sunday afternoon. Or, if you’re truly living the spirit of meal prep to its maximum, it means prepping your breakfast, lunch, and dinners.
Meal prep can be as simple as preparing and packaging tomorrow’s dinner today, because sometimes busy schedules just work out that way, and busy people are hungry people too! Meal prep can also be as involved as prepping and cooking ingredients you will use in two dozen dinners over the coming weeks, in which case you’ll carefully package and then also freeze them.
Healthy meals: more than just leftovers
So again, meal prep means planning for meals to be eaten later, and that later can mean tomorrow, next week, or even next month. It means doing as much of the rinsing, chopping, cooking, and portioning all at once, so you will have as little work as possible later. As you know, sometimes planning a healthy diet can be difficult when you do it at the last minute, so by planning it out in advance, you not only enjoy the benefit if healthier food, but you save a bunch of time in the process.
Now granted, there are plenty of meals wherein the leftovers lend themselves perfectly to meal prep such that batch cooking (making a double batch, that is, or even a triple or quadruple batch) is a great move.
Slow cookers are your friend
Many complete slow cooker meals where all of the ingredients – meaning proteins, starch, healthy fats, and vegetables – cook together are ideal for the person who meal preps. In fact, slow cooker dishes are almost de facto the best meal prep recipes already, as by their very nature you prepare them well ahead of when you’ll eat them anyway.
But don’t think of popping some leftovers from dinner into a food container as meal prepping – it’s unlikely your leftovers will be in the perfect balance to offer individually portioned meals with all needed nutrients and a proper number of calories. And also, leftovers don’t always keep as well (or for as long) as properly prepped foods; they won’t be as easily or as quickly heated, mixed, combined either.
A Few Pro Tips for Meal Prep Success
To make your meal prep process as easy and efficient as possible, always start with meal plans. You can’t just wing it!
In other words, think about what you want to eat in advance, and take your time. You can come at this in terms of thinking about healthy meals and then make sure all of their ingredients work well if cooked ahead, or you can think about favorite ingredients and consider whether they will come together to constitute a proper meal.
As you consider meal prep ideas, think about how well each given food keeps in the fridge or freezer and make sure they make sense to serve together, whether it’s roasted vegetables with a glaze of maple syrup or just the lemon vinaigrette salad dressing that you wouldn’t want to make at the last minute. And don’t forget: some items just don’t reheat all that well, so leave them out of your plan if you can.
Start with a grocery list
Once you have built out the ideas for some meals, prepare your grocery list and go load up on the foods you are going to cook. And by all means do load up when logical to do so: many of the best foods for meal prepping have very long, stable shelf lives, such as rice and other grains, beans, oils, and so on, whereas other foods can be frozen for long periods of time. Whereas meal prep will save you time each and every day, planning carefully and doing a large grocery shopping will also save you time by reducing the number of trips you need to make to the store.
Finally, on the day when you will do all your meal prep work itself, take a tip from professional chefs and practice proper “mise en place,” which is French and essentially means “everything in its place.” That means having your cooking tools out and at the ready, your ingredients measured and prepared, and your meal prep containers at the ready for once a given foodstuff is ready to be stored away.
And make sure you put your kitchen to best use, too. If certain foods can be cooked on the stove or in the oven, for example, opt for the stove, where you can set multiple burners to different heats and enjoy maximum efficiency, leaving the oven free for things that must be roasted or baked.
Speed up thawing with the microwave when safe, turn to food processors to help with mincing or chopping, and make the meal prep a whole family affair when you can, assigning everyone in the household a role.
A Few Different Kinds of Prepped Meals to Consider
A prepped meal can mean a lot of different things. A sandwich you make one day to eat for lunch on the next absolutely counts. So do a container loaded with pre-portioned chopped fruits and nuts set beside a bottle of almond milk all of which will be quickly blended up into a breakfast smoothie. And so too does a dinner prepared ahead of time then tucked into a glass baking dish that need only be popped into a hot oven count as a prepped meal.
Meal prep does not mean that you complete each and every single step of a meal ahead of time, but rather it means that you take care of every step you can logically complete ahead of time, leaving yourself with minimal needed effort prior to a given meal itself.
So while a meal that’s 100% ready to go – like that sandwich or a wrap or a hearty salad – might be great, it’s not the be all and end all of meal prep.
Another great prepped meal approach is to fully cook a meal that will then need only a quick zap in the microwave to be ready and taste fresh. You can think of it as a healthy homemade take on the TV dinner.
If you still have to chop or slice, it ain’t “prepped”
And finally, there are meals that still take some time to cook, but that require no further effort on your part save for commencing the hands-off cooking. That may mean adding prepped ingredients to a slow cooker at lunchtime thus to have dinner hot and ready, it may mean starting ingredients simmering while you grab that last cup of morning coffee so your lunch will be ready.
It might even mean a few minutes of hands-in cooking in a pot or pan, but what it never means is a meal that requires chopping, slicing, rinsing, measuring, and other such work – that you will do ahead of time.
The Five Best Benefits of Meal Prepping
Meal prepping is, first and foremost, about saving time. But if you think that’s the only benefit of making full meals well ahead of when you plan to eat them, then you’re in for several pleasant surprises.
Seeing all the myriad benefits of meal prep may well convince you it’s finally time to start planning and prepping ahead instead of figuring it out right before each and every meal.
Here are five of the primary reasons to start meal prepping
You will save time
When you get out all the cooking tools needed – the pots and pans, the knives and cutting boards, the ladles, the strainers, and so on – and use them to prepare one meal, and then clean everything up again, you spend a lot of time on that one meal.
However, when you get all that stuff out and prep meals that will keep you fed all week, you save that tool-gathering time five times over. And the setup and cleanup are just one way meal prepping saves you time.
There’s also the fact that six cups of brown rice cooks at just the same speed as one cup of brown rice, as long as you have a big enough rice cooker. A rotisserie chicken that can be used as the protein for five meals cooks at about the same speed as chicken breast that will serve for one. The same goes for chopping enough veggies for multiple meals ahead of time. It doesn’t take too much longer than chopping for one dinner, and on the time saving goes.
Sure, meal prep for multiple meals takes longer than making one breakfast, lunch, or dinner, but once that longer session is done and all the prepared eats are in those meal prep containers and ready to go, you will enjoy a huge net savings of time.
You will save money
When you go to the store with your grocery list clearly thought out thanks to your meal planning, you will buy everything you need for that week’s worth (or more) of meals, and you won’t end up buying a lot of random ingredients you don’t need.
Your grocery shopping bill will shrink, you will experience less food waste (a good thing for your wallet as well as for planet earth as a whole), and you will also save money because you won’t spend cash on meals purchased out of necessity.
You will eat more healthily
By preparing yourself healthier meals, it only stands to reason that you will be eating healthier foods. But once you get into meal prepping, making it an everyday part of your life, you will also eat less and less unhealthy food.
When you eat healthy food the whole week long, you won’t turn to fast food, snacks, energy bars, candy, and other foodstuffs that are really best avoided if you value a healthy lifestyle. And because meal prep ensures you have a proper portion of food at the ready, you are less apt to eat more than you need, and you are also less likely to still be hungry after eating.
You will reduce stress
When you prep meals ahead of time, the worry about what you are going to eat and when you will find the time to make that lunch or this dinner are simply gone. You can count on having healthy food ready to enjoy and can devote your time, energy, and attention to work, family, hobbies, and really anything else that you want, because you’ll have the food covered.
You will improve your cooking overall
Ever wonder why restaurant meals always taste so good? The first two reasons are usually salt and fat (and not the healthy fats you want, we’re talking butter and olive oil and such). But the third reason is that professional chefs are not only trained but practiced and experienced.
When you make the same meal over and over again, invariably you will find ways to make it better and better. By choosing a rotating menu of the best meal prep recipes and making the same healthy recipes every few weeks – not to mention by preparing the same meal multiple times over in one cooking session if it will freeze well – you will get better at making that one meal, and you will also get better at cooking in general.
A Few Notes on Meal Prep Safety
When it comes to preparing foods that will be not only tasty but also safe to eat, the person who meal preps needs to have a bit more consideration than the person who will be eating their meal immediately thereafter.
A food should only be reheated once after it has been warmed, for example, so if you thaw a food to cook it then chill it in a prepped meal, it must be eaten or discarded the next time it’s heated. There are no leftovers with meal prep, in other words.
If you freeze your prepped meals and then thaw them ahead of eating, make sure you only thaw them out a maximum of 24 hours before you will consume the foods. And whenever possible, let foods thaw in the fridge, not at room temperature.
When you reheat a food, it needs to return to a food safe temperature; use 165º Fahrenheit as a good standard for food safety, that being the temperature to which poultry and well-done red meat needs to be cooked – and also a safe bet for non-meat foods.
It’s also a good idea to label your food prep containers or to keep notes on what you packaged and when so you don’t end up eating something potentially past its safety date.
And finally, make sure to use the right food storage containers. Not all plastic bags are fit for use in the freezer and some containers may risk cracking if frozen, not all containers are suitable for use in the microwave or oven, and so on. Follow logical food safety protocols and keep yourself safe.
One More Potential Meal Prep Benefit
Busy people who turn to meal prep as a way to make their lives a bit easier may ironically come to enjoy cooking more, not less. Sure, a big part of the meal prep lifestyle is about making food prep (and even the actual eating) as efficient as possible.
But when you do a lot of cooking, you may very well find not only a way to streamline your days but also a hobby you enjoy spending time on during those rare afternoons or evenings when you have plenty of free time.
Cooking efficiently is a great skill to have and to hone, but cooking slowly and for fun is a great hobby to enjoy at your leisure when time permits.