What’s the Difference Between Meal Planning and Meal Prep?

published Jan 11, 2018
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Meal planning and meal prep are regular parts of my weekend routine. They’re the steps that make getting weeknight dinners on the table easier, and even help me spend less at the grocery store. These two steps are talked about a lot, often together, and for good reason — they really go hand-in-hand. But there is an important point that sets them apart.

The Difference Between Meal Planning and Meal Prep

Meal planning and meal prep work together to ultimately serve the same purpose: to make getting weeknight dinners on the table a little easier. Meal planning is the process that asks and answers the question of “What’s for dinner?” by choosing recipes that best fit your needs and schedule. Meal prep is a step in the meal planning process. It’s the final critical step that puts your plan into action by readying ingredients and meals for the week ahead (think: cooking up a batch of shredded chicken, dicing up the onions and tomatoes, and making a pot of beans to assemble into meals throughout the week).

(Image credit: Faith Durand)

A Closer Look at Meal Planning

Meal planning is asking the question “What’s for dinner?” once for the whole week, instead of every night, and then shopping for and prepping the ingredients before cooking. We believe the simplest way to approach meal planning is with three steps.

  1. Select your dinners (and their recipes, if needed).
  2. Shop for ingredients.
  3. Prepare those ingredients.

Looking at meal planning from the end point of the prepared meals has a way of feeling elusive and totally overwhelming to the uninitiated. This is why the three-step approach works; it breaks the process down into small steps that feel much more manageable.

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Meal Prep Puts the Plan into Action

Meal prep is the final step in meal planning. After selecting your meals for the week ahead and shopping for ingredients, meal prep involves setting aside some time, be it an hour or just 20 minutes, to literally begin prepping the upcoming meals. This can mean different things for different people, and it all comes down to what you’re cooking and what is the most helpful approach for your needs and schedule.

Meal prep can involve making entire meals ahead, portioning them into individual containers, and then stashing them in the fridge or freezer. It can also mean making a pot of grains, baking a few sweet potatoes, poaching a few chicken breasts, chopping up a bunch of vegetables, or making a sauce or dressing.

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Meal Plan Club with Kitchn

Meal Plan Club is our self-paced 4-week program full of educational posts, downloadable tools, and real-life sample meal plans where we’ll walk you through each step of meal planning — from choosing recipes to meal prep and actually executing each meal — to make you a more confident meal planner in just one month. You can follow along here!