The Ultimate Meal Prep Guide: From Beginner to Pro in No Time
Written by: Karla Tafra
You’ve probably heard of meal prep and might even have a vague sense of what it entails even if you haven’t tried it out yourself, but if you’re truly interested in how to make it work for you and your fitness goals, it’s time to dive in deeper into the topic. Here is all you need to know about meal prep.
WHAT IS FOOD PREP?
Meal prep, or food prep, is a way of preparing food ahead of time so that you have it ready during a busy day or week. You can choose to prep individual ingredients and only assemble them when the time comes, or make full-blown meals you only need to reheat and you’ll be good to go.
It usually consists of carving one or two days out of the week to prep the food after which you barely have to do anything in the kitchen. This leaves more time for other activities and helps reduce stress around food when you’re crunched on time. It also keeps you accountable and helps you stay on your fitness journey as knowing you have a healthy meal prepped in your fridge helps prevent you from reaching for takeout or fast food.
WHO IS MEAL PREP FOR?
In reality, meal prep is for everyone as it can be a great way to ensure you’re getting nutritious meals throughout the week, especially if you’re struggling in that department. But, meal prep is mostly for people who:
- Don’t enjoy cooking or don’t know how to cook
- Don’t have time to cook and live on food deliveries
- Spend most of their day outside of their home and need to take food with them
- Stress about food and cost as they need to feed a large family
- Aren’t motivated to stay on their fitness journey and need support
- Need to lose weight, but struggle with progress
- Are on a specific and restrictive diet due to an illness or disease
- Are new moms and have almost no time for anything, let alone cooking
- Are following a specific fitness regimen and very strictly count their macros (and calories)
- Want to stay within their weekly food budget and cut down on eating out
WHY DO PEOPLE CHOOSE TO MEAL PREP?
People mostly choose to food prep because it’s convenient and helps lower their stress levels around food. Knowing you have prepped, healthy food in your fridge makes it easy to take it on the go, reheat it when you come home after a long work day, or toss all of your ingredients in a salad while your kids are running around the house.
Other reasons include saving money and making it easier to stick to a healthier diet as it’s less likely they’ll reach for something highly processed and ready-to-eat. People who food prep report spending less money on restaurants and takeout, helping them put some money aside and even go under their usual allocated weekly budget.
And lastly, people who are on specific diets due to an illness, disease, allergy, or other medical condition find it easier to meal prep and know exactly what they’re getting in every meal so that they aren’t lacking in important macro and micronutrients.
BEST PRACTICES WITH FOOD PREPPING
When it comes to the technique around food prepping, there are some tips you can implement to make your life easier. These include:
- Using one ingredient in more dishes so you save time prepping
- Buying seasonal produce so you get the most nutrients
- Buying certain non-perishable items in bulk so you always have them on hand
- Investing in good-quality food storage containers to prevent fresh food from rotting or adding chemicals (such as plastic containers do)
- Scheduling your meal prep days ahead of time so you’re not rushed
- Writing your meal prep ideas down so you know exactly what you’re doing and why
- Writing an extensive shopping list so you don’t forget to buy all you need
- Separating your ingredients if you want to preserve their texture and then assembling them into a meal on the day of
- Getting creative so you don’t end up eating the same meal throughout the entire week
- Not being afraid to use spices and switch up your meals
- Keeping track of your favorite meals or recipes so you always have a backup when you’re running out of ideas
BEST FOODS FOR MEAL PREP
Even though most foods are ok to prep ahead of time, there are some that are better than others. These foods preserve their texture and rich flavor, can be easily reheated or repurposed for a variety of meals, and will stay fresh three to five days after you’ve prepped them so you know you’re not risking getting sick.
Some of these foods are available year-round, but others are more seasonal, so pay attention to where it comes from and try to stick to local and seasonal as much as possible. This ensures higher quality, better taste, more nutrients, and longer freshness.
The best foods to meal prep include:
- Root vegetables like parsnip, sweet potato, rutabaga, pumpkin, beets, carrots, and celery root
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage
- Grains like quinoa, oats, buckwheat, and rice
- Beans and legumes
- Animal proteins like chicken and beef
- Seed and nut “bread” and desserts
WHAT TO NEVER FOOD PREP
On the other hand, there are some foods that you should abstain from prepping. They either won’t taste as good a few days later, cannot be reheated, will probably lose texture, or might even be risky to eat after they’ve been sitting in the fridge for a long time.
These foods include:
- Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and swiss chard
- Potatoes (can’t be reheated)
- Seafood (most seafood needs to be eaten in two days)
- Poached eggs
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MEAL PREP & MEAL PLANNING?
People use the same term for both, but meal prep is the actual activity of prepping your food beforehand, while meal planning involves sitting down and writing out which meals you’ll be making in the upcoming week, and thus meal prepping for.
Meal prep includes chopping, dicing, and cooking ingredients which you’ll then either place in separate containers to assemble later or combine into meals you’ll divide into portions and store individually. But in order to do so, you need to meal plan so you know exactly what you’re prepping.
When you’re just starting out with meal prep, it might seem very daunting and overwhelming, but when you get the hang of it, it becomes a very easy and even enjoyable weekly session knowing there’s no cooking or cleaning up throughout the week.
WHEN SHOULD YOU MEAL PREP?
Most people choose to meal prep on the days when their schedule is mostly clear so they don’t rush the process. Go to the grocery store with your shopping list so that you’re quick and efficient and avoid buying a bunch of stuff you don’t need, or opt for online shopping if it’s available to you and save even more time by doing so.
Once you have all of your ingredients, get organized in the kitchen. There is no one way to meal prep, so find a system that works for you and yield success. Whether you’ll choose to dice and chop the foods that go into the oven first or place your rice in the rice cooker depends on you and how much time you have on hand, but after a few weeks of meal prep, you’ll get a good sense of how to be more efficient with your time.
HOW FAR IN ADVANCE CAN YOU MEAL PREP?
Most foods can stay fresh in the fridge for up to four days, but if you have the bandwidth, try to eat them in three days and meal prep two times per week. Additionally, you can store most foods in the freezer for a couple of months to always have something on hand when needed. Just make sure to freeze your meals individually in airtight containers so you don’t have to thaw a large portion of chili con carne at once, as you can’t re-freeze it.
HOW TO START WITH MEAL PREPPING
If you’ve never tried meal prep but are interested in doing so, you might wonder where to start. Here are some helpful tips to not be overwhelmed from the get-go:
- Start small - don’t go into full-blown weekly meal prep schedule just yet. Start with only a few simple meals or days at a time and ease into it. Eventually, you’ll develop your own strategy and figure out how to make three things at the same time without spending too much effort on each.
- Get good-quality containers - avoid plastic and other cheap materials as they can be dangerous and leach into the food and cause health problems
- Plan meals out with great care - the goal of meal prep is to not feel hungry and dissatisfied after you eat your meals. Choose a variety of ingredients you like eating and make them as delicious as possible so you don’t end up reaching for a full bag of chips.
- Don’t stress about it - meal prep is supposed to lower your stress, not add to it. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have time for weekly meal prep or you need to throw out a few prepped dishes, accept that it’s a part of the process. There will be times when you won’t be able to eat everything you make or you’ll get a really strong craving for pizza and ditch what’s in your fridge for a night of Netflix and chill. That’s all perfectly normal, don’t stress about it.
- Ask for help - if you want to start meal prepping, but need to feed a large group of people, get your family involved. While chopping carrots, the other can be seasoning the chicken or assembling food on the baking tray. Don’t be discouraged even if you have to make a lot of food. Ask for help and get everything done much more efficiently.
- Make it enjoyable - many people start with food prep only to abandon it after a few weeks as they find the process boring, difficult, or simply not enjoyable. If you really want to turn this into a habit, you have to find a way to make it fun. Put on your favorite music, grab a cookbook and choose some fun and exciting recipes, play around with different spices and give yourself permission to fail. That way, it will become easier to sustain and be consistent with.
- Decide it’s not for you - after a few weeks of meal prep, you might discover you really don’t like it. Don’t give up on the first hurdle, but if you really can’t seem to make it enjoyable, the task seems too big to handle, you’ve burnt more food than you ate, and in the end, reheating chicken after three days doesn’t taste good to you - drop it. There’s no point in meal prepping while you’re miserable and forcing yourself to eat it. Chances are, you’ll still order that pizza anyway.
Meal prep is a great and convenient way to ensure you get healthy and nutritious meals into your weekly diet while saving you time and money on your lunches and dinners. That being said, meal prep plans don’t have to be for everyone, and if you enjoy cooking every day, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s nice to have something prepped ahead when you’re running around and trying to cut the cost of eating out or grabbing another sandwich when you’re too hungry to function.
As with everything in life, you get better with practice. Start small and work your way up. After a while, you’ll already have your own meal prep strategy, favorite meals and recipes, perfectly-sized containers, and even some hacks and tips that will make meal prep more manageable and more enjoyable in the long run.