Let’s start by knocking out a common meal prep misconception… Meal prep is NOT just for meatheads who want to eat chicken and rice 10 times in a row. There are ways to meal prep for variety and for different family sizes.
We created this meal prep guide to show you some different ways to meal prep and how to get started without feeling overwhelmed. 🙂
Here’s an outline of this guide so you can jump to a certain section (but you’ll be missing out on some dope content if you do skip ahead).
- Types Of Meal Prep: What’s The Best Way To Meal Prep?
- How Long Does Meal Prep Take?
- How to Get Started
- The Best Way To Create a Meal Prep Plan
- How Long Does Meal Prepped Food Stay Good For?
- How Much Money Can You Save By Meal Prepping?
- Tips For How To Store Meal Prepped Food
- Meal Prep Taste & Texture When Reheating
- How To Have A Stress-Free Meal Prep Session
- What If You’re Not In The Mood For What You Meal Prepped?
Types Of Meal Prep: What’s The Best Way To Meal Prep?
There are some main buckets that most folks fall into:
- Weekend Ingredient Prep: pre-chopping all produce and getting any marinades or sauces ready. Then cooking fresh each night.
- Halfway Meal Prep: Meal prep enough meals to get you halfway through the week and then cook one more night on Wednesday or Thursday.
- Full Week Meal Prep: Cook all your meals in one session on the weekend.
- Freezer Prep: Go crazy cooking enough meals for 2-4 weeks and then freeze them all.
I personally fall into the halfway meal prep bucket because I don’t like eating food on Friday that was cooked on Sunday. Prepping most of the meals gives me enough food to get me through to Wednesday or Thursday. Then for this second cooking session, I’ll just throw something in the slow cooker before going to the office or choose a really fast recipe to cook after work.
A lot of Instagram meal prep pics can make meal prep seem overwhelming when they show every single meal for the week. People in this bucket typically eat the same meal for lunch all week and the same meal for dinner all week. You don’t have to be a big batch prepper if it’s not you style.
It really depends on how much tolerance you have for eating the same meal over and over again. Around 2-3 times seems to be a good balance for most people and after that, it starts getting really boring.
If you get bored, then you risk a higher chance of opening that fridge and seeing that fourth serving of chicken fajita bowl and saying screw it … I’m going out to eat and leaving that
You want to avoid the boredom zone. A couple of things can happen when you enter the boredom zone.
You might force yourself to eat that chicken buddha bowl 5 times in a row and then never be able to look at buddha bowl again.
You might find yourself opening the fridge, seeing that buddha bowl and feeling the sudden urge to jump out of the building face first into a pile of jack in the box tacos.
So let’s just figure out where your leftover tolerance is so you can plan accordingly and avoid running to get fast food in desperation.
How Long Does Meal Prep Take?
It’s up to you on how long you want your meal prep sessions to take. Here are the general average times it takes for each prep style:
- Weekend Ingredient Prep: 30 minutes – 1 hour
- Halfway Meal Prep: 1 hour – 1.5 hours
- Full Week Meal Prep: Cook all your meals in one session on the weekend. 2-4 hours
The number of meals you make and the number of different recipes you’re cooking will really impact your time.
Obviously, if you’re time sensitive then avoid choosing high-maintenance recipes that take an hour of hands-on time (no matter how good that homemade cauliflower crust pizza with sauce from scratch looks).
Some weeks, you’ll want to make the laziest recipes possible and be done cooking for the whole week in 90 minutes. Other weeks you might be in the mood to spend a little extra time on some fancy recipes. Just go with the flow and plan your meal prep based on the realities that surround your upcoming week.
How to Get Started
You can always take baby steps if you’re new to meal prep or don’t feel like a ninja in the kitchen yet. Just start with prepping one or two recipes.
Maybe whip up an easy breakfast casserole to prep for stress-free mornings. Or make a slow cooker dish and a sheet pan dinner. Avoid picking complex recipes or trying to juggle 4 different skillets on the stove at the same time.
You can try out Meal Plan Ninja for free to create a visual meal prep calendar. You can also choose recipes to prep from our collection since all of ours are pretty easy if I do say so myself. 😉
The Best Way To Create a Meal Prep Plan
A lot of sites will tell you to keep it simple and just pick a grain, a protein, and some vegetables to cook in one giant batch. If you’re good at improvising or you’re an experienced cook then this can work.
For others… trying this simple formula can lead to food that tastes about as exciting as a cardboard box. If you throw a bunch of chicken breasts and broccoli on a pan with just paprika, salt, and pepper, it is going to be boring AF. Good luck choking that down.
So to avoid boring food, it’s good to pick out a variety of tasty and fast recipes. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make a meal plan for meal prep.
1. Calculate How Many Meals You Need
First, pull out your calendar. This step is important. Don’t skip it unless you have the same exact schedule every single week and never change social plans. If you don’t actually check your calendar then you might forget that evening work event or the kid’s musical.
Checking out your schedule (and the rest of the family’s) helps you better prepare so you don’t end up prepping the wrong amount of food. You don’t want to feel like crap throwing away excess food or scrounging halfway through the week after you’ve run out of meals.
2. Plan Eating Out with Intention
Planning how many meals you need also gives you an opportunity to decide ahead of time if and when you want to eat out. This has an immense impact on your budget and will save a lot of money if you plan the exact amount of meals you need. You won’t have to be forced to run out and buy lunch that you can’t even enjoy on a busy day. Eating out is much more fun when it’s something you’re choosing to do versus being forced to because you ran to the office without lunch and now have no other options.
3. Choose Recipes
Now that you know exactly how many meals you need to cook for this week, you can pick out your recipes.
Think about which cooking equipment is required for each recipe. Don’t pick recipes that are hard to cook together at the same time (ie: two crockpot recipes or four stovetop recipes).
It also helps to pick mostly leftover sturdy recipes and maybe just one recipe that has a shorter shelf life. Recipes that are supposed to be more “crisp” or “crunchy” like crispy chicken thighs tend to lose their crisp in the fridge over time. Eat these recipes first or just skip them altogether.
4. Put Your Recipes On a Calendar
Actually plotting when you’re meal prepping and when you’re eating each meal can benefit you in two huge ways. First of all, it helps you double check that you’re actually covered and have planned out the right amount of food.
Secondly, it helps you check for variety. If you picked 3 Mexican recipes and you see on the calendar that you’re eating Mexican 6 meals in a row, you can switch it up.
It will also help you do a reality check on the recipes. If you planned to make a slow cooker recipe on Wednesday but realize you have extra work to do that morning then you can plan for that. Either set your alarm clock earlier or adjust your plan so you don’t have to prep that dish in the morning.
5. Make Your Grocery List
Now you that your recipes are planned, you can hit up the store in one big swoop and be done. You don’t have to go to the store multiple times a week (unless you want to). All your produce will be fine if you cook it the same week and store each ingredient properly.
How Long Does Meal Prepped Food Stay Good For?
This is one of the most common questions about meal prep. There are “official” guidelines on how long certain types of food will keep that you can follow, but many people push these boundaries and are totally fine.
The FDA says 3-4 days for cooked food. So if you prep on Sunday then everything should be good through Thursday.
I used to follow these guidelines by the book because I was paranoid of eating spoiled food, but then I spent time at my in-laws. I watched them eat 6-7 day old food and they never get food poisoning. Their rule is if it smells fine and looks fine, then it’s good to go.
I’m not as cautious as I used to be after witnessing their brave leftover eating, but I still think 7 days is too long. Now I fall in the 4-5 day range as long as it smells good! Stick with the “official” guidelines if you like playing it safe, or you can live on the wild side (just don’t come crying to us if you get E. coli).
How Much Money Can You Save By Meal Prepping?
You can save way more than you probably think you can. Most people think about eating lunch out as just a cheap meal but the costs can stack up very quickly.
Even the cheapest fast casual options for lunch are $10, plus tax and a drink puts you around $12-$14. Eat out like this 3 times a week and all of a sudden you’re unknowingly spending $2,100 a year on “cheap” lunches.
The average cost of a meal prepped lunch is between $3-$6 with meat and even cheaper for vegetarian options. If you eat meal prepped food then you start to see how you big you can save each year. Maybe you can even take that extra vacation you’ve been dreaming about. Holla!
Obviously, this is different based on the family size and how much you already eat out. This just hopefully gives you the gist of how to figure out much meal prep could save you.
Tips For How To Store Meal Prepped Food
Don’t put steaming hot food in the fridge:
Let the food sit out in the containers with the lids OFF until they get closer to room temperature. Putting steaming hot food directly in the fridge can cause bacteria to grow faster.
You don’t have to use Pinterest style mason jars to layer your salads. Simply put the heavier ingredients like chicken at the bottom of your container with the lettuce on the very top. Store dressing in a separate container.
If you’re going to eat your salad on the 3rd or 4th day, you might want to put some of the toppings in separate baggies so they don’t get soggy (like cashews, tomatoes, and certain cheeses).
Cut ingredients that brown easily like avocados and apples right before eating instead of pre-cutting it during meal prep.
What’s The Best Meal Prep Container?
Ahh we’ve now reached the part where we get to the great meal prep container debate. There is team glass vs. team plastic. Here are the pros and cons of each:
Pros of Plastic Containers
- Plastic weighs less than glass so it won’t weigh down your lunchbox as much.
- Plastic tends to be cheaper than glass.
- You don’t have to worry about the container breaking if you drop it. Your food might go everywhere but at least the container will still be in one piece.
- Some low-quality plastic containers might have some nasty chemicals that leach into your food when you reheat it. Just be on the lookout for BPA-free on the label to avoid the chemicals.
Cons of Plastic Containers
- Plastic is easily stained by soups, anything with tomatoes in it, and certain spices. There are, however, some specific brands that make stain-resistant plastic containers.
- Plastic can tear or get holes in it. This happens especially when use a fork and knife or reheat meals in the container frequently.
Pros of Glass
- Glass doesn’t stain or warp when you reheat food in it.
- Glass can typically last longer than plastic containers.
Cons of Glass
- Glass is breakable.
- Glass containers are heavier than plastic ones.
- These containers are more expensive.
Another note on containers… you don’t HAVE to portion out all of the food into individual containers. Yes, it looks nice on Instagram to visually see every meal in its own nice little Tupperware, but it’s not always necessary.
You can just leave the batch of chili in one big Tupperware if you’re coming home for dinner every night. This saves on how many containers you have to buy and can give you more flexibility with your fridge space and container stacking options.
Portioning food out can be good to help with portion control but it’s not something you have to do.
Meal Prep Taste & Texture When Reheating
A common question about meal prep is whether the food will taste good or if the texture is going to get gross in the microwave. Here’s the deal… yes of course food fresh off the grill tastes better than reheated in the microwave. The reality is that reheated food still tastes great and is way more practical for busy people.
You’d be shocked to know how many restaurants get their food from centralized prep centers. They just microwave the food before serving you.
There’s a big stink about it in France right now since such a high percentage of restaurants are doing this.
So half the time you eat out, you’re essentially paying for reheated pre-prepared food anyways.
If you’re anti-microwave, then just choose recipes that don’t require reheating.
How To Have A Stress-Free Meal Prep Session
Here are some tips to have a good prep session and avoid running around the kitchen like a chicken with your head cut off.
- Pull out all ingredients before starting: I never used to do this because I thought it would be faster to grab them as I needed them. I was wrong. Take the five minutes upfront to read through all of the recipes and pull out everything you need. It will reduce the chaos.
- Check the recipes the night before. There’s nothing worse than getting to a recipe and realizing that you didn’t thaw out the meat ahead of time.
- Enlist a buddy. The time can almost be cut in half if you prep with someone else (and it’s more fun).
- Make sure you have enough containers: it’s not fun to be digging through the kitchen because you don’t have enough containers to put all this delicious food in.
What If You’re Not In The Mood For What You Meal Prepped?
A lot of people are hesitant to try meal prep because they’re worried their mood will change and nothing in the fridge will look good at dinner time. Here’s how to help avoid that:
- Prep a variety of your favorite cuisines and flavors each week. If you have Chinese food, Mexican food, and a tasty Italian soup in the fridge… chances are that one of those will hit the spot and you can find a way to be in the mood for it.
- Don’t batch cook 2 recipes for the whole week. If you like variety and are concerned about not being in the mood for something, then DON’T batch cook 1 lunch and 1 dinner. You WILL get bored and you will end up throwing it away or hating your life on the fourth day eating that same food. Keep it interesting and cook at least 3-4 recipes per week.
These are solid tips, but here’s the deal… sometimes your moods are unpredictable and unavoidable. You either suck it up and just eat your meal prepped food or you say screw it and eat something else.
I highly recommend sucking it up and just focusing on how much time and money you’re saving by eating it.
If you really don’t want to suck it up then just eat something else and move on with your life. You can even freeze some of those meals you’re not in the mood for and save for later depending on how freezer-friendly they are.
If you find yourself consistently not in the mood for what you made, ask yourself why? Is it because the recipe sucked or the food didn’t turn out very tasty? Is it because your body is craving some other nutrients? Is it stress related?
Dig into what’s going on. If you’re super moody then maybe meal prep just isn’t for you and it’s best to stick with cooking fresh each night based on your mood.
Choose Your Meal Prep Date
Now you know everything you need to know to meal prep! Go forth and crush your next meal prep Sunday (or whatever day floats your boat) …