What you’ll learn here
You have probably invested time in researching the best exercises to build a butt that’s sexy and perky (who hasn’t?). Now, I hope you will take some time to learn a little bit more about meal prep before you brush it off as something ‘only bodybuilders need’. It’s definitely something you can benefit from – especially if you know your diet is a mess.
Also, it can be a life-saver when you’re stuck at home, and sick of preparing your meals every. single. day. Because, coronavirus.
But, well, actually doing it … that’s another story.
Maybe meal prep conjures mental images of cooking a truckload of food and sorting through stacks of Tupperware on what was supposed to be a leisurely Sunday afternoon for you. Or eating a steamed chicken breast with broccoli – over and over again.
In reality, meal prep doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t need to be difficult, unappetizing, or take up an entire day. And this complete beginner’s guide to meal prepping is going to prove it.
We’re going to show you how to prepare your meals in advance: from planning meals to sinking your teeth into the (mouthwatering) fruits of your labor.
Along the way, you’ll learn some genius hacks like what to prep immediately and what should wait, mistakes you never want to make, and how to store your foods properly, so you don’t get explosive diarrhea.
Sounds good? Let’s get started.
What is meal prep?
As implied by its name, meal prep means prepping for meals.
It’s all about batch-cooking ingredients and (or) preparing full meals for the week ahead to make your daily meals easier.
Doing so gives you a head start on the cooking responsibilities for the week and helps you feel more in control of what you’re putting in your body every meal.
Different ways to meal prep
This may be surprising to you, but meal prep can look different for everyone.
Depending on the ingredients you prefer to prep ahead, schedule, and cooking style, one (or a combination) of the following meal prep methods may work best for you:
- Make-ahead meals: Have little time to prepare meals during the week? Consider make-ahead meals, where you cook complete meals in advance to be reheated during mealtimes (like pasta and casserole). These make for super-quick, fuss-free weeknight dinners.
- Batch cooking: Batch cooking is where you make large batches of a specific recipe, then splitting it into individual portions to be frozen and eaten over the upcoming months. This approach is especially useful for foods that can be cooked in large amounts, like mashed sweet potatoes and stir-fried rice. Think of this as make-ahead meals – but in much larger quantities.
- Ready-to-cook ingredients: If you’re more of a ‘cooking and serving food all at once’ type of person, you can just carve out some time to prep parts of the recipes. Chop onions, marinate meat or mix spices in advance to save time spent in a kitchen on a busy weeknight. All you need to do is combine and cook your ingredients.
Meal prep is all about preparing your meals in advance. Depending on your schedule and preferences, you can choose to go with one (or a combination) of the three meal prep methods: make-ahead meals, batch cooking, or ready-to-cook ingredients.
How to meal prep
Ready to start meal prepping? Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get started.
Step 1: Calculate the number of meals you need
Consider your schedule for the upcoming week and plan accordingly.
For example, do you have dinner plans? How much time do you have for lunch at work? Will you have time to cook in the evenings?
From there, you’ll be able to calculate the number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you’ll need for the week.
Here’s a tip: when starting, don’t be overly ambitious and attempt to prep for all the meals of the day.
Meal prepping for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on your first meal prep try is a recipe for tears, frustration, and panic. Trust me; I’ve been there.
Start with just one meal at a time, such as your lunch.
You can then decide on the meal prep method that works best for you. For example, if you have many meals to account for, make-ahead meals and batch-cooking may work better.
Calculate the number of meals you’re going to make in advance. Don’t be too ambitious when you’re just starting.
Step 2: Create a game plan
Now that you’ve decided on your preferred meal prep method, it’s time to create a game plan. You know what they say: fail to plan and plan to fail.
Search for meal prep recipes
Here comes the exciting bit: selecting meal prep recipes!
Part of the secret to successful (and sustainable) meal prep is choosing the right recipes for your needs.
The truth is, as appealing as that #mealprep picture looks on Instagram, its recipe may not be ideal for your meal-prep session.
Here’s how you can tell if the recipe you selected is up to the task:
- It includes make-ahead moments: Stick with recipes that can be made, either fully or partially, in advance. This means that the food keeps well even if not eaten immediately. Important if you want your meals to be delicious.
- It requires prep work: Recipes that call for chopping, slicing, and dicing all make for great meal-prep candidates. This is especially useful if you’re opting for the ready-to-cook meal prep option.
- It keeps well in the fridge or freezer: You want your meals to hold up for at least a few days (instead of turning into an unpalatable, soggy mess after an hour).
- It reheats well: Unless you’re relying on the ‘ready-to-cook ingredients’ meal prep method, recipes that taste best straight out of the pan aren’t the best choice for meal prep. You want recipes that’ll taste scrumptious after they’ve microwaved.
- It’s easy to scale up (or down): This isn’t a necessity, but recipes that can be easily adjusted in volume can really help you out when meal prepping.
Also, if you’re new to cooking, stay away from recipes that require too many ingredients or fancy techniques.
Keep it simple by thinking of a meal as a veggie, a protein, and a starch.
For instance, a quick lunch could be pan-fried pork loin, asparagus, and sweet potato.
And if you’ve already calculated your daily target calories and macronutrient ratio, you want to make sure the recipes you’ve chosen help meet them.
If you haven’t, here’s a guide on how many calories to eat based on your goals. It’d also be useful to learn more about the macronutrients and micronutrients in your diet.
Schedule your prep
Setting aside some time for actually prepping is essential. Those recipes aren’t going to cook themselves, after all!
Schedule one or two days per week to prep your meals.
Consider meal prepping on the same day you grocery shop and come up with a meal plan.
Also, there’s no rule that you need to meal prep for the week on Sunday – even though that’s what most people do.
If it works better for your schedule to prep on Tuesday and again on Friday, go for it.
Build your menu
Now, you want to build your menu for the week.
Take a few minutes to figure out what the week ahead looks like – which meal for which day?
Doing so allows you to know exactly what you’re going to eat for a particular meal on a particular day. This predictability means you have one less thing to worry about – an absolute relief when you’re busy.
Once you’ve planned your meal schedule, be sure to compile all your recipes in a single place – be it as print-out or note on your phone.
You’ll have a clear overview of all the ingredients you’ll need for the prep. And this leads to the next step.
To stay organized, you need to create a game plan. Here’s how:
- Search for recipes that are suitable for meal prep
- Decide on the day you’re going to meal prep (e.g. Saturday afternoon)
- Build your menu for the week – allocate specific meals to days (e.g. Teriyaki chicken on Wednesday)
Step 3: Go shopping
To make the most of your trip to the supermarket (you don’t want to go back for the third time because you’ve forgotten onions – again), you need to build a comprehensive grocery list.
And you can do so in two steps.
Make a master ingredient list
There will undoubtedly be overlaps and differences between each of the recipes you’ve chosen.
You want to go through each recipe’s ingredient list to make up the master list of things you’ll need to prep for the week.
Then, go through everything you have in the kitchen and cross off anything you already have.
Now, you’ve got an accurate list of all the ingredients you need to buy.
Make the grocery list
Of course, you could take your master ingredient list to the supermarket and pick everything you need without much hassle, but there’s a better, more time-efficient way.
Reorganize your list for easier shopping in the store.
Begin by grouping ingredients together by departments in the supermarket. Take it a step further and put those sections in order of how you’d like to move through the grocery store.
This prevents you from going through your shopping in a haphazard, time-wasting manner.
Here’s a tip: leave the frozen section for the last – you don’t want to end up with defrosted-everything by the time you’re done shopping.
Oh, and swing by the meat section first if you want the butcher to dice up meat or fillet fish for you. This saves you precious waiting time – time you could use in the kitchen!
To save yourself from making multiple trips, be sure to take note of everything you need to buy to meal prep for the week. It will also help if you organize your grocery list into the various sections at the supermarket.
Step 4: Prep and store
Got all the necessary ingredients? Excellent – you’re now ready for the fun part: prepping your meals!
Here are some useful tips to keep in mind before you bust out the knife.
Make the most of your time
Don’t be afraid to multi-task! Begin with foods that take the longest to cook and prepare other ingredients in the meantime.
Feel free to throw both fish and chicken into the oven at the same time – even if they’re not ingredients from the same recipe.
And if two recipes call for the same ingredient, like chopped garlic, prep the garlic for both recipes at once, then divide to use as needed (this is where your master ingredient comes handy).
To avoid washing your cutting board repeatedly between tasks, cut produce that will be eaten raw first, followed by ingredients that need to be cooked.
Also, make sure to cook at the right temperatures.
Meats should be cooked until they reach an internal temperature of at least 75 degrees Celsius (165 Fahrenheit), as this kills most bacteria (1, 2).
Pick the right storage containers
Once you’ve done all the necessary prep work, you want to pick the right containers to store all your hard work.
Your food storage containers can make the difference between a mouthwatering or mediocre meal.
There’s no point in spending all that time prepping foods in bulk if they’re not going to keep well.
Here are some container types that may fit your needs:
- Airtight containers: Washable, reusable storage options, like silicone baggies and stainless steel containers, are great for keeping ready-to-cook ingredients crisp and foods fresh.
- BPA-free microwavable containers: If you’re going to dig into the meals as they are (individually-portioned), consider BPA-free microwavable containers. Not only are they convenient, but they’re also better for your health.
- Freezer-safe containers: These limit freezer burn, which occurs when frozen food has been damaged by dehydration and oxidation due to air reaching the food. Storing your meals in such containers can, therefore, prevent nutrient losses.
- Leak-proof, compartmentalized containers: If your meals require ingredients to be mixed just before you eat them (e.g. milk with granola for breakfast), these are a great option. One good example of these is bento box containers..
Be mindful of food safety
Food safety is arguably the most critical (yet overlooked) part of meal prepping.
You don’t want to suffer from food poisoning because you didn’t store and (or) reheat foods at the right temperature.
Here are some general food safety guidelines:
- Store at proper temperatures: Make sure your fridge is kept at 5 degrees Celsius (40 Fahrenheit) or below and your freezer at -18 degrees Celsius (0 Fahrenheit) or below.
- Cool foods quickly: Don’t leave your cooked meals out in the open for too long before stowing them away! Refrigerate your meals within two hours of cooking. For quick cooling, spread out cooked foods in shallow containers.
- Reheat foods only once: The more you reheat and cool a meal, the higher your risk of suffering from food poisoning. You don’t want that, do you? Reheat your prepped meals once, and that’s it.
- Reheat foods properly: Your meal shouldn’t be cold in the middle after it’s popped in the microwave. All meals should be reheated to 75 degrees Celsius (165 Fahrenheit) before being eaten.
- Eat prepped meals within the right period: Refrigerated meals should be eaten within 3 to 4 days and frozen meals within 3 to 6 months.
- Use labels – Worried that you’ll forget about a meal’s ‘fresh period?’ An easy solution for you would be to label and date all your containers! I go with my trusty Post-its for this job.
- Make the most of your time when you’re meal prepping (cook as many ingredients concurrently as possible).
- Be sure to choose the right container suited to your storage needs.
- Always be mindful of food safety – whether you’re storing or reheating your foods.
Step 5: Dig in
After all that, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor!
Tricks to make meal prep easier
Remember, your meal prep session is about making life easier.
And just like how you would look for ways to stay motivated for your workouts, you can do the same for meal prep with these simple tips:
- Keep breakfast simple: Mornings can be incredibly hectic, so you’d do best to keep breakfast simple. If possible, consider having the same breakfast every day. Just chop up some fruit (e.g. bananas, strawberries, and kiwi), so it can be thrown into the blender for smoothies, or pair it with some Greek yogurt for a change.
- Keep a backlog of recipes: You don’t want to spend hours scrolling through Pinterest and Google search results whenever it comes to prep-day. An easy solution would be for you to set aside a few minutes every other morning to browse while you’re on the move or eating lunch.
- Invest in kitchen gadgets: Let’s face it. Some tools will do (and cut) things faster than we ever will. Look into time-saving gadgets like food processors, slow cookers, and mandoline slicers. Appliances like these help you save time on two fronts: the time it takes to perform the steps and the time to remake the food if you screw up.
- Choose easy cooking methods: Sure, you may love the beautiful sear on your chicken, but cooking on the grill or stove requires more attention. Go for recipes that allow you to use an oven or slow cooker. This way, all you need to do is throw food in for a designated amount of time and simply monitor its progress.
- Buy budget-friendly staples: Worried that you’re busting your weekly budget? You don’t have to opt for the premium versions of ingredients! Opt for a cheaper cut of beef instead of the sirloin, for example. Going for frozen options can also help you save money – they tend to be less expensive than fresh produce.
- Play with condiments: You don’t have to eat completely different meals every day. Just prepare a variety of sauces and spices. This way, if you prepped chicken, broccoli, and quinoa for the week, you can still make every night taste and feel different — teriyaki sauce on Monday, then Greek yogurt on Tuesday, for example.
Don’t worry if it’s all still a little overwhelming for you – especially if you’re just doing it for the first time.
With a little bit of practice, you will discover a style (and process) of meal prep that works best for you and your schedule.
It doesn’t matter if you prepare ingredients for just one meal, several quick dinners for the week, or cook a double batch of soup to heat up for the upcoming month. You’ll find that any amount of time spent meal prepping is bound to yield high returns!