Back in 2013, when I originally posted on meal prepping, it was quite the novel concept! The idea hadn’t quite taken off on Instagram yet, and people were blown away with how much easier it was to get healthy food on your plate with meal prep.
Now, meal prep is a pretty common tactic folks use to streamline their meals. There are tons of meal prep recipes, menus, and even services that provide entire meals for you for a week. I’m so excited to see so many people jumping on the meal prep bandwagon!
So here, I’m updating my old “How to Meal Prep” content with all the goodies I’ve learned over the past 5+ years of meal prepping, plus giving you an easy get-started primer if you’re new to meal prep. I get that seeing those perfectly organized beautiful meals on Instagram or Pinterest can be mega-intimidating—and I’m here to tell you that meal prep doesn’t have to be overwhelming or super time consuming. We’re going to make meal prep work for you!
Because some folks are better auditory and visual learners, you’ll notice in this post that I pulled all my favorite Meal Prep 101 Tips and Tricks into a short video to get you started. This definitely isn’t a deep dive into Meal Prepping, but it will give you enough info to get you going!
First up: Identify Your Meal Pain Points
It might be tempting to dive into meal prepping all your meals, but the truth is, most of us have at least one meal a day that is relatively “easy” to get on the table. Maybe you head into work later, and breakfast is normally pretty easy for you to get going. Maybe you love cooking dinner as a family, so dinner is a joy to prepare! You don’t really need meal prep help for those meals.
Instead, focus your meal prep efforts where it’ll really count. For me, that’s primarily lunches and snacks—I tend to get hyper-focused and forget (or choose not) to eat. Having food prepped and ready makes it super easy for me to get my midday meals in!
You and your family’s meal habits will undoubtedly be different. Meal prep should be customized to what’s going on in your household! If breakfast is a struggle every morning, meal prep breakfast. If you love going out to lunch with your coworkers, don’t worry about prepping lunch. If dinner is almost impossible to get done between shuttling kids to sports practices, then prep your dinner. Use meal prep to make your life easier—YOUR life.
Next Up: Decide How You Want to Meal Prep
The key to making meal prep a regular part of your life is to figure out how to make it work with your schedule, your family’s needs, and your budget. There is no one right or wrong way to meal prep. I recommend using your first few weeks of meal prepping as trial-and-error time. What works? What doesn’t? The first thing you need to play around with is picking which meal prep “system” works best for you.
Full Meal Prepping
The first kind of meal prepping is what you see soooo many Instagram photos about, and that is prepping full meals. This is where you pack a full meal into a divided container and stash it in the fridge for easy grab-and-go-meals all week long. (By the way, I have a great run-down of my favorite glass divided containers in this post.)
The advantages to going this way are:
- All the work is upfront, so when it’s meal time, all you have to do is heat and eat. This is particularly helpful if you have a chaotic schedule that leaves little time for cooking during the work week.
- It’s easy to individualize servings—smaller servings for kids, bigger for adults, etc.
- If you are under a healthcare provider’s prescribed diet, it simplifies things and makes it easier to ensure you have the required portions.
The disadvantages of full meal prepping are:
- It’s easy to get bored because the meals are often exactly the same (there are ways around this, though—like cooking multiple full meals in a week and sharing with family or friends).
- It doesn’t allow for the natural fluctuations in our bodies’ hunger from day-to-day—it’s totally normal to be more hungry one day and less the next.
- Since all the prep work is done ahead of time, meal prep time can be laborious.
Prepping Meal Elements
If full meal prepping doesn’t seem up your alley, you might find success with prepping meal elements. This is where you take the items that you frequently use throughout the week—say, cooked chicken breast—and instead of cooking them on the fly each time you need to cook a meal, you bulk cook the elements on your meal prep day, and then have it available for you to build meals from all week long.
The advantages to prepping elements are:
- Tons of flexibility! You can mix, match, and combine elements to create almost endless possibilities.
- A much shorter meal prep time, because you are just cooking individual foods instead of full meals.
- Since nothing is pre-portioned, you can listen to the intuitive hunger cues in your body to determine how much food you should eat—not the size of what’s in the container.
- Many prepped elements can be frozen for later use if you end up cooking too much.
The disadvantages are:
- It doesn’t completely strip away your cook time—you still gotta get in the kitchen.
- It can be hard to estimate exactly how much food you need, so you might have too much or too little at the end of the week.
A Combo of Both
Again, meal prepping is all about customizing what works for you, and what I’ve found is that a combo of prepping both full meals and meal elements works beautifully for me!
I like to do a few full meals (like say, my Meal Prep Pad Thai or my Overnight Oats), but then I also supplement it with a few elements that can be used everywhere: roasted sweet potatoes, cooked chicken, cooked grains. It works well for me! That way I always have food ready to grab-and-go, but if I do have a little more time (or if I’m feeling bored), I can cook something quickly with the elements I have ready.
Make Your Prep List
Once you have figured out what (breakfast? lunch? dinner? snacks?) and how (full meals? elements? combo?) you can start to formulate your first prep list! Browse your favorite blogs (ahem, ahem) and check Pinterest for ideas that fit within your plan. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably super excited and ready to dive in with a list of 40 different preps. STOP RIGHT THERE. I don’t want you to get overwhelmed.
Starting off, I recommend picking one item to help with each of your pain point meals. For me, this usually means picking one item for breakfast (Healthy Meal Prep Breakfast Sandwiches), one for lunches (Meal Prep Steak Fajita Bowls), and one for snacks (Hard Boiled Eggs). Does this cover all my food in the week? Heck no. But it does give me a nice buffer to fall back on when days get busy. And most importantly, my meal prep time doesn’t take over my entire weekend. Dipping your toes in the meal prep waters is way more sustainable than diving head-first into the deep end.
Go ahead and write out those items you want to prep and make your grocery shopping list. Again, KEEP YOUR LIST SHORT, friends!
Pick Your Grocery Shopping and Prep Days
Now that you’ve got your prep list, it’s time to go shopping and pick your prep day. I usually recommend doing them on two separate dates—shopping on Saturday and prepping on Sunday, for example, but if you’re doing a small prep (WHICH YOU ARE, RIGHT?) you can probably get away with doing them both in the same day.
Once your preps get a bit more robust, I recommend splitting up the shopping and prepping days—it’s just a recipe for exhaustion to try to do them on the same day! You can also get around this with grocery delivery or grocery pickup. Curbside pickup has made my prep days SO much easier!
I recommend scheduling your prep day when you have little else going on. Actually pull out your calendar and circle the date! It’s a date with yourself and your health—don’t stand yourself up.
Ready, Set, Prep!
When prep day comes, put on some comfy clothes and some good tunes, and then set yourself a timer. Yes, a timer! Again, the key to meal prep being sustainable is for it to not take over your life. So before you prep each time, I highly recommend sitting with yourself for a few minutes and asking this question, “How much am I willing to devote to this today?” Some days, the answer might be three hours—COOL, go at it! Other days, it might be 30 minutes. Also cool! Even 30 minutes will save you so much time during the week (I can make hard boiled eggs, overnight oats, and a few mason jar salads in 30 minutes!).
Whatever answer you get from yourself, set your timer and work that long. When the timer goes off, finish the task at hand, clean up, and move on with your day. Trust me, this has been the key to keeping meal prep sustainable in my life for the past 5+ years—giving myself the flexibility to do as much or as little as I want on a prep day.
If meal prep constantly feels like a burden, you can also consider splitting up your preps into multiple mini sessions throughout the week. Maybe you make a salad for lunch and just slice some extra veggies and put them into jars for mason jar salads. Maybe you put sweet potato chunks in the oven to roast while you’re cooking dinner one night. Meal prep can be done in one big session, but it can also be done in spurts throughout the week. Again, experiment and figure out what works for your family and your schedule (and remember that this might shift from week to week!).
Streamline Your Meal Prepping
Once you’ve got your timer going, make the most of your time by streamlining your prepping! To make the most out of my time, I try to start with the things that have an element of inactive work, like making bread or cooking hard boiled eggs. I can move on to other tasks while the water is coming to a boil and the dough is rising.
I also try to chop all my veggies at once—this saves a ton of time! If I need one onion for each of two recipes, I’ll just chop two onions from the get-go. I also try to combine tasks so I don’t have to wash or get out new kitchen utensils—I can use the same cutting board and knife to cut lettuce for mason jar salads as I can for cutting veggies for snacking.
Store Your Preps and USE THEM
I like to store my preps pretty exclusively in glass containers. Make sure to label them with both the contents (this is especially important if other people are going to eat your preps) and a “best by” date on them. I just do this with either masking tape and a Sharpie, or write directly on glass with a Sharpie. It wipes right off with a cotton ball dipped in a little rubbing alcohol!
And then USE THOSE PREPS! A lot of people seem to have this mindset to “stockpile” food preps for a busy day, but then end up realizing their food has gone bad in the fridge 7-10 days later. You made that food to eat, so eat it! Even if your day isn’t particularly busy, go for it. You can always prep more food, but you can never get back food that’s gone bad. Eat your preps, friends!
Still Need Help? Try Specialized Meal Prep Menus!
If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, I totally hear you! A good place to start might be to use some meal prep menus for a few weeks. These are great because you get a full menu for the week already planned out for you, plus a meal prep schedule/checklist that you can follow on meal prep day, plus a premade printable grocery list. You just have to do the actual cooking—all the planning work is done for you!
All the weekly menus in Resprout are meal prep focused, which means you’ll have lifetime access to six weeks worth of fully planned prep sheets, grocery lists, menus, and recipes. You could easily just cycle through the six menus and never have to think about what you’re going to eat ever again! These menus and recipes are included with the full Resprout program—which also has six weeks of body positive yoga, meditation, and journaling work.