The Ultimate Guide to Best Meal Prep Meals
|– Plan out a weekly menu based on your goals and preferences|
|– Shop for ingredients all at once to save time and money|
|– Prep and portion ingredients to assemble meals easily all week|
|– Store prepped foods properly to maximize freshness and avoid waste|
|– Batch cook staples like grains and proteins to use in multiple meals|
|– Make big-batch meals like casseroles and soups to eat all week or freeze|
|– Prep produce and snacks for easy grab-and-go options all week|
|– Meal prep saves time, money, helps you eat healthier, and reduces food waste|
Meal prepping—or preparing and portioning out meals and snacks in advance—has become an increasingly popular way for people to save time in the kitchen, eat healthier, and reduce food waste. The basic idea behind meal prepping is to plan out what you’re going to eat for the week, shop for and prep ingredients all at once, and then assemble meals through the week from your prepped foods.
With some advance planning and a few hours of prep work, you can have delicious, nutritious, homemade meals ready to go all week long. No more scrambling to figure out what’s for dinner or relying on takeout on busy nights. No more wasting ingredients that go bad before you can use them. Meal prep simplifies your weeknight routine and sets you up for healthy eating success.
This comprehensive guide will walk you through the entire meal prep process, from planning your weekly menu to storing your prepped foods properly so they last all week. With a little practice, you’ll get into an easy meal prep groove that saves you time and stress in the kitchen.
Benefits of Meal Prep
Before diving into the how-to’s of meal prepping, let’s look at some of the major benefits this planning and prep approach offers:
Meal prepping drastically reduces the time you spend cooking and cleaning up after meals all week. You’re basically doing all your chopping, cooking, portioning, and container loading in one or two sessions instead of repeating those steps at every meal.
Meal prepping helps prevent food waste since you buy and prep ingredients with a plan in mind, instead of letting fresh foods spoil in your fridge before you can use them. It also reduces spending on takeout and dining out when you have tasty, ready-to-eat meals waiting at home.
Encourages Healthier Eating
When you plan and prep your own food, you control exactly what goes into it. Meal prepping makes it easier to work with nutritious whole foods and avoid processed options. You can carefully tailor your meals to meet your dietary needs.
Reduces Decision Fatigue
No more standing in front of the open fridge trying to figure out what to eat. With meal prep, you’ve decided what you’re eating in advance and can just grab your prepared meal and eat.
Allows for More Flexibility and Variety
Even with a weekly meal plan, you can build flexibility by batch-cooking versatile staple ingredients to use in different ways. You can also prep various snacks and sides to mix and match with different main dishes for more variety.
Now let’s look at the key steps for effective meal prepping.
|Key Meal Prep Steps|
|– Plan weekly menu based on goals/preferences|
|– Shop once for all ingredients needed|
|– Prep ingredients (chop, cook, portion, etc.)|
|– Batch cook versatile staples|
|– Assemble meals as you go|
|– Store prepped foods properly|
|– Use up leftovers later in the week|
Step 1: Plan Your Weekly Menu
Menu planning is the foundation of meal prepping. Before you go food shopping and start prepping, think through what you want to eat for the coming week.
Consider the following factors when planning your menu:
- Dietary needs and preferences: What are your nutritional requirements or dietary restrictions? Favorite foods? What foods do you want to eat less of?
- Schedule and convenience: When will you have time to cook vs. need fast grab-and-go options? What meals can be easily reheated at work?
- Grocery budget: Plan affordable meals using ingredients you have on hand and seasonal produce.
- Leftovers: How can you repurpose leftovers into new meals later in the week?
- Food waste: Only buy perishables you’re sure to use up within the week.
- Variety and flexibility: Find the balance between structure and flexibility so you don’t get bored.
To stay organized, you can create a weekly meal plan template to fill out. List out main dishes, sides, snacks, and breakfasts. Don’t plan every single detail—leave room for flexibility.
Here’s an example weekly meal prep plan:
|Monday||Turkey taco bowls|
|Tuesday||Veggie fried rice|
|Wednesday||Baked chicken thighs|
|Sunday||Greek turkey burgers|
Step 2: Grocery Shop for Ingredients
Armed with your weekly meal plan, make one big shopping trip to buy all the ingredients you’ll need for the week ahead. Shopping just once saves time and ensures you get everything on hand before you start prepping.
To make your shopping efficient:
- Take inventory before creating your grocery list to avoid buying duplicates of staple ingredients you already have.
- Organize your list by grocery section (produce, pantry items, refrigerated items, frozen foods, etc).
- Shop sales and use coupons when possible. Buying in bulk for staples can also save money.
- Stick to your list and weekly meal plan to avoid impulse purchases.
Step 3: Prep Ingredients
Once you’re home from the store, it’s time to start prepping your ingredients. This involves steps like washing, chopping, dicing, batch cooking, and portioning out foods.
Washing and Chopping Produce
As soon as you get home, wash, dry, and chop hardy produce like onions, carrots, and bell peppers and store them in containers in the fridge.
Delicate produce like berries and greens are best left unwashed until ready to eat.
Batch Cook Versatile Staples
Cook once, use multiple times. Batch cook staple ingredients to use in various meals all week.
Grains: Cook 1-2 pots of grains like rice, quinoa, farro or oats. Portion into servings.
Beans: Simmer a big pot of beans to use in bowls, salads, tacos, etc.
Proteins: Roast a tray of chicken breasts or sheet pan salmon. Cook ground turkey or plant-based crumbles.
Portion and Store Prepped Foods
- Portion batch cooked proteins, starches, and vegetables into individual containers to grab and go for easy lunches.
- Prep snack bags with carrot sticks, snap peas, nuts, crackers, cheese, etc.
- Bake or cook items like hard-boiled eggs, granola, and chia pudding that store and keep well all week.
Proper storage is key to keeping foods fresh. Use airtight glass or plastic containers. Allow foods to cool before sealing containers. Refrigerate perishable prepped items within 2 hours of cooking.
Step 4: Assemble Meals
When it’s time to eat, simply assemble meals from your prepped ingredients according to your meal plan. Having batch-cooked proteins, grains, produce, and snacks ready to go makes throwing together meals a breeze.
Turn prepped ingredients into meals in endless combinations:
- Bowl meals: Grain base + protein + veggies + sauce
- Salads: Greens + prepped veggies + protein + dressing
- Tacos: Tortillas + beans + batch cooked chicken + salsa
- Snack boxes: Combine portioned snacks like nuts, cheese, hummus, and crackers
Step 5: Cook 1-2 Big Batch Meals
In addition to prepping staple ingredients and snacks, it can be helpful to cook 1-2 big batch meals like soups, casseroles, or chilis that will last several days or provide leftovers you can freeze. Big-batch meals help cut down on cooking each night.
Some good make-ahead batch meals:
- Chili – freeze or keep all week
- Veggie soup – freezes well
- Casserole – keeps 3-4 days
- Burritos or enchiladas – freeze uncooked then bake as needed
When batch cooking:
- Double recipes to yield a larger batch.
- Store in shallow containers for fast cooling.
- Let cool completely before refrigerating or freezing.
- Portion into individual reusable containers before storing.
Step 6: Use Up Leftovers
Don’t throw out leftovers! Use them strategically later in the week:
- Repurpose proteins and veggies into new meals, like leftover chicken in salads or stir-fries.
- Turn leftover cooked grains into fried rice. Soups and chilis keep for freezing.
- Stretch batch-cooked meals into new dishes, like casseroles into tacos.
Step 7: Store Prepped Foods Properly
Storing prepped foods properly is vital for preserving freshness and avoiding waste. Follow these tips:
- Let hot foods cool completely before storing. Seal tightly in airtight glass or plastic containers.
- Keep fridge below 40°F. Use containers on top shelves for older ingredients first.
- Freeze meals if not eating within 3-4 days. Thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating.
- Don’t keep leftovers longer than 3-4 days. Toss if you smell or see spoilage.
- Label containers with name and prep date so you know what’s oldest.
With some organization and TLC, you’ll get 5-7 days of use from your prepped foods!
Meal Prep Tips and Tricks
Streamline your meal prep and make the process as easy as possible with these pro tips:
Pick One Day to Prep
Dedicate 1-2 hours on the same day each week to do your chopping and cooking. Sundays tend to work well.
Preprep Some Steps
Do steps like soaking beans, marinating proteins, and cooking grains in advance when you have more time.
Keep it Simple
Focus on prepping versatile ingredients rather than complex recipes. Simple foods assemble into meals easily.
Prep Produce First
Chop and store delicate veggies early on while still fresh, then batch cook.
When cooking proteins, grains, etc. make extra to use in multiple meals.
Microwave meals gently with a splash of water to keep foods moist.
Freezing portioned leftovers prevents waste. Thaw before eating later.
Do What Works For You
Take bits of advice but modify meal prep to suit your lifestyle. Find a routine that is realistic and sustainable for you.
Meal Prep Ideas and Recipe Inspiration
To give you an idea of recipes that work well for meal prepping, here are 10 meal prep-friendly meals:
1. Chicken Fajita Bowls
Sauté peppers and onions. Roast chicken and portion. Add to bowls with rice, beans, salsa, cheese, etc.
2. Taco Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Bake sweet potatoes. Stuff with taco meat, beans, cheese, lettuce, salsa.
3. Zoodles with Turkey Meatballs
Spiralize zucchini ahead. Bake turkey meatballs. Toss with marinara.
4. Burrito Bowls
Cook rice, beans, veggies. Portion into bowls. Top with chicken, salsa, cheese, etc.
5. Chicken Salad Mason Jar
Layer mason jars with chicken salad, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, and dressing.
6. Veggie Quinoa Salad
Cook quinoa. Toss with roasted veggies and chickpeas. Dress and portion.
7. Loaded Baked Potato Soup
Make soup. Portion into containers. Top individual portions with bacon, cheese, etc.
8. Chicken Banh Mi Bowls
Marinate and roast chicken. Portion rice bowls. Top with pickled carrot and radish, cucumbers, etc.
9. Veggie Stir Fry
Cook rice. Stir fry veggies and tofu. Portion into bowls.
10. Overnight Oats
Mix oats, milk, and yogurt. Portion into jars. Top with fruit, nuts, etc.
If you’re looking for an easy system to streamline healthy cooking and eating all week long, meal prepping is the way to go. Follow the tips in this guide to plan, shop, prep, cook, and store homemade meals. In just a few hours each week, you can set yourself up for healthy, timesaving lunches and dinners ready right when you need them. Time to embrace the meal prep life!
How long do prepped meals last in the fridge?
Most prepped foods stay fresh in the fridge for 3-5 days. Make sure to store foods properly in airtight containers and at a safe fridge temp under 40°F. Label foods with the prep date and use the oldest ingredients first.
Can you freeze meal prep meals?
Yes, freezing is a great way to preserve certain meals like soups, chilis, casseroles, etc. Allow to cool completely before portioning into containers and freezing. Thaw in the refrigerator before reheating.
What are the best meal prep containers?
Look for BPA-free plastic or glass containers with tight sealing lids that won’t leak. Wide, shallow containers allow for faster cooling. Make sure containers are microwave and dishwasher-safe.
How do you reheat meal prep meals?
For the crispiest results, reheat on the stovetop with a splash of water or broth. You can also reheat gently in the microwave. Add water to help prevent drying out.
Should vegetables be prepped raw or cooked?
Hardy vegetables like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower can be chopped raw and then cooked as needed. More delicate veggies like greens, tomatoes, and herbs are best prepped raw just before eating.
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