The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Meal Prep

The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Meal Prep

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Kelli Foster
Oct 14, 2018
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Scroll through the #mealprep hashtag on Instagram and you'll see image after after image of impressive and perfectly organized meals portioned out, ready to go. So impressive! So colorful! And sometimes so intimidating, right?

If you're thinking about taking charge of your own weekly eating through meal prep, those images can be both inspiring and overwhelming. Do you want to start, but just don't know where? We're with you! Let us show you how easy and doable weekly meal prep can be. Just start here with this playbook to get you going.

What Is Meal Prep, and Why Do It?

Before we really jump in to the nitty-gritty, I want to make sure we're on the same page about what meal prep is — and what it isn't.

Meal Prep Is: Dedicating a block of time to batch-cook ingredients and/or prepare full meals for the week ahead to make feeding yourself and your family easier each day.

It can be as simple as chopping a bunch of veggies for salads and stirring together a sauce for the week, or as involved as cooking and portioning full recipes. Meal prep should make feeding yourself and your family easier. It gives you a head start on the week, and helps you feel more in control of what you're eating and how you're spending your time.

Meal Prep Isn't: A one-size-fits-all process that looks the same every week, for every household and person. It also does not necessarily mean prepping, cooking, and portioning every single meal for the week ahead. Unless, of course, that's what you want it to be. What works for one person might not work for another, and that's okay. It also might not look the same from week to week, as schedules or needs can shift or change.

What's the Difference? Meal Prep vs. Meal Planning

Meal prep and meal planning are both tactics that make getting weekday meals on the table easier, but they're not the same thing. Meal prep is the process of setting aside a block of time to prep ingredients and/or cook meals for the week ahead, while meal planning asks and answers the question of "What's for dinner?" by choosing recipes that best fit your needs and schedule. While the two can work hand-in-hand, they don't have to. You can be a meal prepper even if you're not a meal planner, and vice versa.

Read more: What's the Difference Between Meal Planning and Meal Prep?

Learn the 3 Steps of Meal Prep

OK, ready to jump in? Here are the three main steps of meal prep:

1. Identify your mealtime pain points (and needs).

The point of meal prep is to make mealtimes easier! So what do you need to feel more in control, healthy, and free? Think about your struggles. Do you need healthier breakfasts? Maybe focus on prepping make-ahead eggs or oats for breakfast. Do you want to quit spending all your money on lunch? Maybe lunch is the first thing to try meal prepping. Or maybe getting dinner on the table in 20 minutes after work always leads you to grab the takeout menu. Time to tackle that challenge.

Don't try to prep everything at once, your first time. Pick your biggest pain point, and decide where to focus.

2. Choose your prep-ahead foods to meet your needs.

This is easier said than done, right? You want a healthy breakfast, or a cheaper lunch, or an easier dinner. But where to start? That's where we're going to come in — with tons of recipe ideas and prep plans.

But in general, you are going to either choose a make-ahead recipe that will be easy to make in a big batch and taste good all week. Or you will make some mix-and-match meal components like a a pot of grains, roasted vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and chicken thighs or baked tofu to eat off of all week long.

Here are few more ideas to get you started:

3. Make (and do!) a meal prep plan.

One you know what you want to make ahead for the week, here's what you need to do next.

  1. Make a written, ordered list of all the tasks you plan to accomplish during your meal prep session. List out what you need to cook, and look for ways to double up (make something on the stove while something else is in the oven).
  2. Make a shopping list and head off to the store to pick up anything you need.
  3. Prep! Then it's just you, some groceries, and your kitchen. Start with a clean sink and dishwasher, and set out your clean containers for putting everything away. Turn on some great music or a podcast, and get to work! (Treat yourself to a little snack somewhere in there too!)

The second two steps can feel tough and overwhelming, especially when you're new to this. But stick with me — we do almost all the work for you with our meal prep plans.

Meal Prep Ideas and Resources

Those three steps above are (obviously) the 1-2-3 of meal prep. But so much easier said than done, right? You will need to decide what to make and how to get it all done. Here are more tips and ideas for your first try at meal prep.

5 Signs a Recipe Is Great for Meal Prep

Part of the secret to successful meal prep is choosing the best recipes for your needs. There are telltale signs to determine if a recipe is suited for meal prep. We've got the details on how to pick recipes right here, but here's the gist.

  • It has distinct make-ahead moments: Stick with recipes that can be fully or partially made in advance. A recipe should tell you this.
  • It requires prep work before cooking: Recipes that call for slicing, dicing, and chopping (I'm looking at you, stir-fries!) make great meal-prep candidates.
  • It will keep well in the fridge or freezer: It's essential it can hold up for at least a few days.
  • It reheats well: If it makes tasty leftovers, it's good for meal prep.
  • It's easy to scale up (or down): Big-batch recipes are a boon for meal prep.

Get inspired: 10 Pro Home Cooks on Their Favorite Meal Prep Recipes

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Or! Make Mix-and-Match Whole Foods

You're not just relegated to making full meals during meal prep. For some (myself included!), the best approach is making a few components that can be turned into a variety of meals during the week (think: a meat, some grains, some cooked vegetables that will hold up well in the fridge). This approach gives you flexibility, and is a great option when you don't enjoy repetitive meals.

More ideas: The 10 Essential Things to Prep for Easier Weekday Meals

How Much Time Does Meal Prep Take?

There's no right or wrong answer about just how much time you should block off. But to be successful, it's a good idea to clearly block off a set amount of time so your attention can be totally focused on your prep session.

When I started meal prepping, I spent upwards of three hours (sometimes more!), and quickly learned that it simply was not sustainable. Meal prep burnout is real, so if you're just getting started go ahead and take it slow.

We recommend blocking off at least 30 minutes of time, with one to two hours being the sweet spot.

Follow these tips: 7 Rules for Meal Prepping All Your Food for the Week in Just One Hour

Tricks to Make Meal Prep Easier

Remember, your meal prep session is about making life easier. That goes for both the week ahead and the meal prep session itself. That means relying on appliances like your Instant Pot or slow cooker for easier, hands-off prep, as well as picking up some smart grocery store shortcuts, like pre-shredded slaw, bottled dressing, a stir-fry kit, and rotisserie chicken.

Shop smart: 10 Grocery Store Buys That Will Help You Meal Prep in an Hour

Make Sure You Have Enough Storage Containers

You're going to need storage containers for all the food you prep! It took me a while to embrace this part of meal prep, and I wish I did it long ago. Whether you meal prep a little or a lot, do yourself a favor and get some good containers. Bonus points if they're freezer-, microwave-, and oven-safe.

Buy Our Favorite Meal Prep Containers

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman | Kitchn)

What We Wish We Would Have Known

Like many things in life, when it comes to meal prep, experience truly is the best teacher. While I have a great meal prep process in place for my family, that certainly was not always the case. I got here with a lot of trial and error, learning what works and what doesn't along the way.

The best way to develop a meal prep strategy that meets your needs is by doing it, and learning as you go. And it's always helpful to know the most common meal prep pitfalls to avoid and smart tips to embrace.

A sample plan from a Power Hour Meal Prep Plan
(Image credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez)

Ready? Start with One of Our Easy Meal Prep Plans

While you figure out what you want to eat and how to get it done, start first with one of our meal prep plans. We've done all the planning and list-making — you just shop and cook. As you try these you'll learn how to take off the training wheels and adjust to make them faster, easier, or better suited to your own needs.

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