Learning how to meal prep, when you do it right, can be a lifesaver.
When my health issues took a turn for the worse, my loving wife suggested that we improve our diets. I resisted at first. I am a creature of habit and change is hard. But, as I got worse, I knew it was the right decision. Then, I realized what was actually involved. I mean everyone agrees that eating healthier is better… right? What they don’t tell you, though, is that eating healthier can be much more expensive and more time-consuming.
We figured it out, though. It took some trial and error and we had to change some of our habits. Namely, we learned how to meal prep in batches so we weren’t cooking every day. We have some tips and advice that can save the day. This guide will help you eat healthier, save money, and have more free time to spend with your family.
How to meal prep like a pro:
- Equip yourself with good storage containers
- Build your menu
- Schedule your time
- Avoid common mistakes
- Be aware of the risks
What Is Meal Prepping?
In short, meal prepping is a way to prepare your meals a week, or even a month ahead, depending on how you prep. There are three common ways to meal prep; these include:
- Batch cooking: You cook bigger portions to store in the fridge or freezer. Some prefer to cook multiple big recipes at once, while others do it over several days.
- Portioned meals: You portion your food in small containers that you can easily grab when needed.
- Prepping ingredients: Chop, dice, slice, and peel your food and mix spices and dried herbs in advance. When needed, take the ready ingredients and get the cooking started.
Benefits of Meal Prepping
Prepping meals for the week can help you save time and money. It also helps to reduce waste, since you’re storing and eating leftovers.
People choose to meal prep for different reasons. For some, it’s part of a diet since meal prepping helps to portion your food and cut out processed foods. Because you’re making all of your food ahead, you know exactly what you’re putting into your body.
Many parents choose to meal prep—mostly batch cooking and prepped ingredients—since it eases the daily load of working while being a parent.
Downsides of Meal Prepping
Unfortunately, meal prepping isn’t for everyone. If you’re not careful, you’ll eat the same dishes too close together, which can cause dissension in the ranks. Getting children on board also requires a little more imagination (we’ll get more into later on).
Also, it’s important to find your way to prep. As I mentioned above, some prefer to batch cook on Sundays, while others use two or more days during the week.
Feeling pressured to do all of your cooking on a specific day can put some people off. Taking the opportunity on one or more days where you have the time and energy will make the process easier.
What Foods Can You Meal Prep?
You can meal prep any food that will store well in the refrigerator or freezer. Here’s a quick list of types of foods that can hold up:
- Cooked meats
- Roasted vegetables
- Raw vegetables
However, with the good comes the bad—you can’t prep all foods in advance—those not suitable, include:
- Cut fruit
- Soft vegetables
- Crunchy food, such as crackers
Consider how you will reheat the foods. Some foods reheat fine in the microwave, while others require the stovetop or oven.
How to Meal Prep
Anyone can meal prep, but if you want to take your meal prepping to the next level, you need to follow a few simple steps.
1. Get Quality Food Storage Containers
Good-quality food storage containers that seal airtight are essential for meal prepping. Storing your food airtight will help to preserve the dishes for longer and reduce any risk of contamination.
The material of your meal prep containers matters. Stainless steel containers that are thermal are easy to handle and enable you to keep your food hot or cold longer.
Stainless steel containers are ideal for when you’re preparing your lunch ahead. The thermal properties of these will keep your food fresh throughout the day.
Glassware meal prep containers are a safe solution since glass is easy to clean and can withstand hot and cold temperatures. Make sure you read the customer reviews when purchasing so you buy ones that do not break easily in the freezer.
Another option is plastic. Plastic containers are affordable; however, BPA is a significant concern since it can leach into your food. Even plastic marked BPA-free might still contain estrogenic chemicals.
If you use a plastic container, go for BPA-free options. Avoid putting scalding hot food in the container and keep it out of the microwave.
2. Build Your Menu
Meal planning is the key to successful meal prep. It’s essential to have a laid-out plan of what you will be eating. This will not only make cooking more straightforward, but it will also make grocery shopping less stressful.
You want to plan to make meals that will use all the ingredients on your shopping list. For example, many recipes call for ½ of an onion or bell pepper or whatever. Choosing a combination of recipes to maximize your grocery store budget enables you to buy in bulk, which tends to be cheaper, while wasting less food.
Having a small list of go-to simple recipes that you and your family enjoy is a good first step to take when meal planning a menu. We’ve mastered ours. We’ve learned how to substitute almost everything in them and still make them taste wonderful. This is super helpful when you need to overcome the occasional “bad apple” in your pantry that threatens your planned meal prepping day.
We’ve found simple dishes that you can vary to make them taste differently and this has given us more mileage than the fancier, complex ones. As you learn these recipes, then you can add more. We listed some recipe ideas below to help get you started.
Also, when you meal plan, don’t feel pressure to go “all in.” You can meal plan some, not all, of your meals. Our grocery list always has some staples that we can use in multiple ways. We tend to meal prep some meals, but have some “normal days” mixed in, too. Sometimes you just don’t feel like eating what you planned. And, that’s OK.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when creating your meal plan, involve your kids. Take a family vote. Something like, this week you can choose between A, B, and C. The which do you prefer approach will get their buy-in. Plus, if its a meal they like and can help with, then you can recruit them as junior meal preppers, making cooking day a family event.
3. Schedule Your Time
When to meal prep differs from person to person. Before defining when to meal prep, consider when you have the most time and energy—schedule one or two days of the week and a shopping day to get the ingredients needed.
In our house, we shop for groceries online almost exclusively. We asked our favorite grocer when their fresh produce is delivered and they told us Thursday and Sunday. So, we try to schedule our food to be delivered on Friday morning to maximize freshness and availability. We buy larger quantities even though we are a smaller family which allows us to obtain better prices. This makes Saturday an ideal day for our primary meal prep.
Meal Prep How to: Common Mistakes to Avoid
Prepped meals are convenient, but they can also become dangerous if you make mistakes. To help you avoid problems, here are four common mistakes people make with meal prep:
1. Cross Contamination
When preparing your meals, it’s crucial to keep fresh foods and produce that require cooking apart. If you’re cutting raw poultry and then move on to dicing carrots, trouble lies ahead!
The bacteria that live in raw meats can quickly make their way to your freshly made salad. This will probably end in a bad case of food poisoning.
Always wash cutting boards, knives, utensils, surfaces, and your hands when moving from one product to the other.
2. Not Washing Produce Correctly
Many things can cause your produce to become contaminated. Animals, substances in the water or soil, or even the poor hygiene of food workers can contaminate your food.
The FDA recommends that you first wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, then rinse your produce under running water and use a brush to scrub hard vegetables.
We’d also recommend that you avoid buying bruised or damaged produce, or at least cut away these areas if minor.
3. Leaving Food Out
Seeing visible signs of mold or smelling something odd aren’t sure ways to know whether food has gone bad.
It’s essential to keep cold foods cold. Hot food can raise the temperature if placed in the fridge, putting other food in there at risk.
If you want to store food that you’ve cooked in the fridge, allow it to cool before packing it away.
The FDA advises keeping prepared food out of the danger zone. Meaning, you shouldn’t keep food in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is when bacteria thrive the most. Avoid leaving the food out in these temperatures for over two hours.
Our solution to this is that we bought an inexpensive small second fridge. We use this fridge to cool or freeze our just-cooked food, typically overnight, before placing it in our larger fridge or freezer. This keeps our food in our main fridge and freezer safe from inadvertently raising the temperature, thereby keeping our family safer.
4. Improper Reheating
You should heat meat to, or above, a specific temperature when cooking to kill bacteria. Here’s a quick overview, according to the CDC:
- Red meat: Heat to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, then rest it for three minutes before cutting
- Ground meats: Heat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit
- Poultry: Heat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit
- Raw, fresh ham: Heat to 145 degrees Fahrenheit
- Fish: Heat to 145 degrees Fahrenheit or cook until flesh is opaque
According to the FDA, reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Soups and sauces should heat to a rolling boil. Cover the food as you’re reheating to ensure it heats evenly throughout.
How to Meal Prep: Risks
It’s crucial to follow guidelines on how long food can stay good when stored in the refrigerator or freezer. A good rule of thumb is not to store food in the fridge for over three or four days. Personally, though, we only eat food that has been refrigerated or frozen within 48 hours of cooking it.
You should also look out for any signs of spoilage, including:
- Bad odors
- Slimy textures
- Visible mold
These could all be signs of different organisms such as yeast, mold or other fungi. Although these organisms are unlikely to cause illnesses, they can cause nausea and even vomiting if ingested.
According to the FDA, food in the fridge needs to be at a maximum temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meal Prepping Recipes
Now that we know everything there is to know about meal prepping and food safety, it’s time for inspiration. You might already have a few recipes in mind, but I will share some all-time favorite easy meal prep ideas:
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #1
This recipe is a super-basic chicken preparation for meal preps. You can use the breasts for salads, shred one and toss in a salad, or enjoy with roasted vegetables.
It’s easy to make in advance and can stay fresh in the fridge for up to four days, or you could even freeze them. One of the reasons I always reach for this recipe is because it requires minimal ingredients but offers lots of flavor.
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #2
If you’re suffering from Monday blues, you need something good to look forward to. This Greek chicken meal prep is quickly done and will give you healthy lunch options for four days. The recipe uses 1 pound of boneless and skinless chicken breasts or simply four individual breasts.
This recipe is paired with a quick homemade tzatziki, a Greek tomato salad and farro—are we lunching in Athens or what?
Tip: If you don’t like farro, swap it for brown rice or quinoa. And, if you prefer low carb, then cauliflower rice should do the trick.
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #3
This is a good option if you meal prep to lose weight. It’s a well-balanced meal that’s easy to prepare ahead of time. Sweet potatoes are packed full of nutrients and are excellent sources for beta carotene, potassium and vitamin C.
The recipe is for a shawarma chicken, so it calls for paprika and cumin to spice the meat mildly, which I love, but you can leave these out if you want to.
Here, the recipe uses boneless and skinless chicken breasts that are cut into bite-size pieces. However, if you prefer to use thighs or other parts of the chicken, it will also work great.
If desired, warm each bowl before serving. Add your favorite sauce to top it off. I prefer the quick yogurt tahini and garlic sauce in the recipe, as it goes so well with the chicken.
Healthy Meal Prep Ideas
No matter your diet, meal prepping is doable. Healthy meal prepping can help with portion control and calories. Here are two favorite vegan and gluten-free recipes.
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #4
Taco bowls are easily prepared in advance and offer a delicious plate of greens and other high-nutrient foods. I like that this recipe incorporates turkey in it as a lean protein.
For gluten free, make sure any taco shells you use are made only with corn.
You can add your favorite taco toppings, such as cheese or even avocado. This recipe includes a delicious pico de gallo salad, which consists of cherry tomatoes and onions. It’s also paired with brown rice that is an excellent source of fiber and is a whole grain.
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #5
These vegan meatballs are an excellent alternative to regular meatballs. They’re made using canned black beans and breadcrumbs—it’s hard to tell the difference between this and actual meatballs. It’s an excellent idea for children as well.
The meatballs go great with spaghetti, zoodles, or in a sandwich. The tomato sauce is rich in garlic and Italian-inspired flavors of oregano, olive oil and basil.
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #6
Salmon is high in Omega-3 fatty acids as well as protein, just to mention a couple of major health benefits. Additionally, salmon is an easy fish to meal prep since it stores well in an airtight container.
For this recipe, you’ll need four salmon fillets, which you can use for lunch or dinner. I like to pair salmon with brown rice, but you can also make roasted or boiled potatoes or quinoa. Add sliced chili, onions and a drizzle of coconut aminos for extra flavoring.
Kid-Friendly Meal Prep Recipes and Ideas
Getting the kids on board might seem like Mission Impossible. However, equipped with the right ingredients, you can easily meal prep for the entire family.
Here are a few ideas:
- Coconut oil banana muffins
- Eggs wraps
- Whole-wheat yogurt waffles
- Homemade whole-wheat tortillas
- Thai chicken meatballs
- Pesto chicken pizza rolls
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #7
As a parent, I know how impatient kids can be in the morning as they wake up hungry and are craving something good. In my house, these apple-cinnamon bars are among our top favorites, and that’s right, parents love them as well.
The bars are basically a thin cake that you bake in the oven, so it’s easy to make ahead. Before serving, add a drizzle of peanut butter for extra flavor.
Meal Planning Lunch / Dinner — Recipe #8
A favorite in our household is avocado chicken burgers. These are quick to make, and you can store them in the fridge for three to four days. Cook them in a pan on the stove or grill the patties.
Add a nice toasted bun, a little bit of lettuce and maybe a slice of fresh onion for you. These burgers are guaranteed to go down quickly.
Did I mention that kids love them?
Recommended Tools to Help With Meal Prep
Here are a few handy tools to give you a meal prepping head start:
- Storage containers: For portion-sized meals, I recommend these containers from Prep Naturals. We discuss meal prep tools to make you smile in this review.
- Blender: Whether you’re making smoothies or sauces, a good blender such as Homgeek Blender, is essential. Our full review of good budget blenders provides more details.
- Cookware: A set, such as this from Finnhomy, can help you get your meal prep cooking done in a snap. You can read our review here.
- Chef knife: Whether you’re cutting produce or protein, a good-quality chef’s knife will help you achieve clean cuts. The Victorinox Fibrox is a personal favorite. We reviewed this knife here.
Planning the Week Ahead of Time
We all use meal prep for different reasons—while some use meal prep to ease the load of the week, others do it to control calories.
How to meal prep depends on your lifestyle. I recommend that you set aside one or two days a week to cook and prepare ahead of time using easy recipes.