I started meal-prepping in college when brain space, time, and money were limited. It’s a habit I continue to apply in my weekly dinner process and still find it incredibly valuable. Meal prep saves me time, keeps me organized in the kitchen, and helps me stick to my grocery budget. Doing tasks in bulk is a time-saver, no matter what, and bulk food prep allows me to organize ingredients in my fridge based on each recipe’s needs. Plus, I’m able to coordinate recipe ingredients over multiple days so I can reuse ingredients and save money on groceries.
At Plan to Eat, we frequently get questions on how to meal prep successfully, so I’m hoping this will be a definitive guide for the meal-prepping curious.
What is meal prep?
Meal prep is up-front work with the goal of saving yourself time later. Like meal planning, meal prep means you’re doing your future self a favor.
There are two ways to think about the term “meal prep”. For some, meal prep is preparing full meals ahead of time and portioning them for quick, grab-and-go meals. But many people also use the term “meal prep” when referring to weekly food prep of recipe ingredients.
I’ll go over both practices, but with more emphasis on food prep because the majority of our questions revolve around that aspect of meal prepping.
How does meal planning help with meal prep?
The first step for successful meal prep is to create a meal plan. Making a meal plan gives you an overview of the week ahead, so can go grocery shopping with a complete list and buy everything you need.
If you’re meal-prepping full recipes, increase the serving size of the recipes in your plan to match the number of days you want to prep for.
For food prep, meal planning can help you coordinate recipes, so you buy similar ingredients and do not have to prep a bunch of different things. For example, if you’re making both fajitas and burritos in the same week, you can prep all your onions and peppers together.
Each household meal plans differently, based on their particular needs, so meal prep will also be individualized and customized to your household. There’s no right or wrong way to meal plan or meal prep, it’s all based on what works best for you and your circumstances.
With that said, I have some general tips for meal prep that will help you get started and save time.
Meal prep best practices.
After meal planning and grocery shopping, the next step is to carve out time to do the work. Many people find Sunday to be a great day for food and meal prep since they already have some free time. Whatever day it happens, make sure you have allotted enough time. Depending on what you’re cooking and prepping, it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. If you’re new to meal prepping, I recommend padding your time a bit at first until you find a system and know how long it takes you to get your prep done.
You can also simply do as much as you have time for. If you only have 30 minutes to dedicate to food prep, that’s okay! Make it work for you.
Next, I like to create a list of the ingredients I need to prep, and I will have my meal plan accessible on my phone for quick reference.
It’s also good to think about what tools you will need for prepping. For leafy greens, you might need a salad spinner, for grains you may need different-sized pots or an instant pot. The most important tools to have are a sharp knife and multiple cutting boards.
A high-quality, sharp knife will be your best meal prep buddy to chop, dice, slice, and mince your ingredients. And I like to have multiple cutting boards so I can work on different ingredients and not cross-contaminate with pungent flavors like onions and garlic.
You will also need containers for your prepped ingredients and meals. Tupperware, pyrex, bento boxes, stasher bags, zip-loc bags, whatever works best for you and your budget will work for meal prep! The containers do not have to be fancy and matching, they’re just a vessel for your prepped foods.
If you’re new to meal prepping, start small. You don’t have to start meal-prepping for multiple recipes or even meal-prep for the entire week ahead! You can simply prep the ingredients for tomorrow’s dinner or prep a simple salad to eat for lunch. Find a system that works for you and then build on it.
Prepping “ready-made” meals:
Prepping full meals is great if you don’t mind eating the same leftovers for multiple days in a row. It can be a huge time saver to make a large batch of one meal and then portion it out for multiple days. Multiple meals are done at once with the same effort it takes to make a single meal.
As I stated above, the best tip for prepping full meals is to increase the serving size of those recipes according to how many meals you want to prep. Then it’s simply making the recipe, portioning your meals, and storing them.
One of our customers says that she meal preps four total servings of a recipe, eats three of them that week, and freezes the fourth for a pre-made freezer meal in a pinch. This is a great tactic because it saves her from getting tired of that recipe or that final serving going to waste.
Weekly food prep:
Start weekly food prep by pre-cooking ingredients that take the most time in recipes, like proteins, root vegetables, and legumes. Cook or roast one large batch of what you need and then those pre-cooked ingredients allow you to quickly assemble your recipes later in the week.
If you have a slow cooker or Instant Pot, try cooking your grains that way for no-fuss prep. For meats, I like to grill, smoke, or bake them so I’m not flipping and stirring in a saute pan.
While your proteins, grains, or other ingredients are cooking, wash and chop fruits and veggies. If you have three recipes on your meal plan that call for chopped onion, chop all three at once and store them in a container (or separate containers) in the fridge.
If you like to have fruit and veggies as grab-and-go snacks or as part of lunches, prep them all at the same time and either portion them individually or all in one container.
Sometimes I prep ingredients without a specific recipe in mind. You will have your own preference for putting ingredients together into meals, but I like to have a Protein + Grain/Starch + Veggie. This might look like baked chicken thighs + roasted sweet potatoes + a garden salad. If I prep all those ingredients ahead of time, reheating and assembling that meal happens fast!
A great way to add variety to your prepped foods is to make sauces. You could prep one or two sauces each week to complement the foods you’ve prepped like pesto, aioli, tzatziki, remoulade, or spicy mayo.
Easy ingredients to prep ahead:
- Boiled eggs
- Chopped veggies or fruit
- Beans and legumes
- Grains like rice, quinoa, and oatmeal – can also be frozen after cooked
- Slow-cooker pulled pork or chicken
- Hamburgers or ground beef
- Roasted vegetables like potatoes, Brussels sprouts, or carrots
How to meal prep when feeding fewer people.
The tendency when meal prepping is to do a lot of work all at once, but if you’re only feeding one or two people, you don’t need to do as much.
For prepping individual ingredients, an accurate shopping list will help you not over-purchase items like fresh produce. You may not need to prep five onions, two broccoli crowns, and four bell peppers, like someone who’s food prepping for a large family.
A related tip from Erin Lowell of YNAB is to buy less than you think you need and then make adjustments to the quantity week after week. It can actually be helpful to run out of something, so you know where your “low end” is, versus throwing away food that went bad and wasting food and money.
For full meal prep, my suggestion is to decrease the servings for your recipes. Especially recipes for soup and casseroles, which tend to make large quantities. Cut them in half! You will still have enough for a few meals, but not so much that you’re sick of soup by the end of the week.
You can also take advantage of putting meals in your freezer and then reheating those meals on nights when you’re tired of cooking or tired of what you prepped for that week!
Meal prep is not for everyone. You may not have time to devote to prepping food or batch-cooking recipes. You (or someone you live with) may not like eating leftovers or similar foods multiple days in a row. This method of cooking doesn’t have to be the solution for everyone.
If convenience and time-saving are high priorities for you, then meal prep is a great way to accomplish both. You will be “doing your future self a favor” by prepping food and meals because it’s less to think about and less work when you’re cooking.
While there are tons of tips in this post about meal prepping, the first place to start is by creating a meal plan. Planning ahead for your meals is how you ensure your meal prep is successful and efficient.