3 Meal Prep Experts Share Their Best Advice for Make-Ahead Lunches

updated Sep 2, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

While some of us continue to work from home, others are returning to the office, all while the kids start school in a variety of ways. The unpredictability of the past six months (and the uncertainty of the next six) has forced us to cope by focusing on the things we can control — no matter how small. And if you ask me, lunch is the obvious place to start fresh this fall. Even if you don’t have kids, the back-to-school season is the perfect opportunity to take a second chance at refreshing our lunchtime routine.

In theory, I know that meal prepping lunch makes the midday hustle a whole lot easier. But putting it into practice — prepping a lunch I actually want to eat days later, and sticking with — it feels tricky. That’s why I turned to the experts. I chatted with Talia Koren of Workweek Lunch, Chungah Rhee of Damn Delicious, and Erica Adler of Fresh Erica for their very best meal prep advice on make-ahead lunches. Here’s what they want you to know.

1. Keep lunches simple.

Chungah Rhee, author of Damn Delicious Meal Prep, puts it plainly: “Keep the menu simple — simple food lasts longer than complex meals or elaborate dishes.”

According to Talia Koren, make-ahead lunches should be easy to put together and reheat quickly: “Avoid trying to prep meals that you’d generally serve at a nice dinner party.” Instead, one place she takes inspiration from are the cheese- and nut-filled snack boxes sold at Starbucks. They are easy to make at home in advance and are the perfect solution for kids and adults.

Koren relies on a variety of “foolproof meal prep recipes” like one-pot meals, curries, stir-fries, chilis, soups, stews, and burrito bowls. These meals are what she refers to as complete meals. These stand-alone recipes, according to Koren, include all of the elements in a meal you’d want, like protein, vegetables, carbs, fats etc. Talia’s bonus tip, especially for meal prep newbies, is to choose meals you can freeze in case you make too much.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

2. Be thoughtful about how you pack your lunch.

Nothing can bring the pleasure of your already-made lunch to a screeching halt faster than a soggy sandwich or salad. Rhee suggests investing in washable, non-BPA plastic or glass food containers and, if you’ll be transporting lunch, to pack it in a cooler or insulated meal bag.

Erica Adler elaborates on that and suggests packaging salad dressings separately from tender greens to keep the vegetables crisp. She uses single-serve grab-and-go containers that include a well-balanced main and a side dish to make lunch a no-brainer when breaking from endless work-from-home Zoom calls.

Koren uses the same strategy for sandwiches, storing all of the ingredients separately, then assembling just before eating.

3. Start small to make it a lasting habit.

Outside of the ins and outs of actually making and packing lunches in advance, there’s one more point that all three experts wholeheartedly agree on: If you want to make meal prep stick, start small.

In fact, you don’t even have to tackle the whole week. Adler’s best advice is to consider only meal prepping for two to three days at a time. Once you’re comfortable, you can increase the volume of your prep. If the task is manageable, it’s much more likely to become a habit.

While Koren relies on meal prep so much that her entire workday is structured around the fact that she doesn’t have to cook or prepare anything, and Rhee spends two hours each week to prepare and pack all of her food for the week, they’ve each been doing this for a long time. To make lunch prep a lasting, weekly habit, start with small, manageable tasks. This will make lunch prep a sustainable task and give you confidence to keep at it.

Your turn. What are your best strategies for meal prepping lunch?