In a nutshell, “Meal Prep” is preparing food in advance so you don’t have to constantly stress about what to eat next. I’m sure you’ve heard this before – “you are what you eat.” Meal prepping gives you the ability to make healthy decisions when it come to your food choices. It also saves a TON of time, mental energy, and money so you can focus on other more important tasks. Why not take control of your life at its most basic level?
There are a lot of ways to meal prep, so the important thing is to be flexible. Some people do huge meal preps that last last them a month or more while some prefer to prep only several days worth of meals at a time. (Like me!) You decide what works best for you. Meal prepping is all about simplifying your life and saving precious time while enjoying delicious, healthy meals, planned and mostly made in advance.
It is easy to get started. Just follow these five simple steps.
Step #1: Make a Menu and a Shopping List.
Meal prep is all about planning. It’s about taking some time to make some informed choices about what to eat in the next few days and then… implementing them.
Start off with a menu of your favorites so that you will look forward to making and eating them. If you need ideas, check out my delicious, healthy, and easy recipes and read through my complete meal prep walkthrough guides. In those guides are step by step photo instructions to preparing a week’s worth of delicious and healthy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners in around 2 hours.
Adapt my meal prep menus and recipes to suit your needs. The important thing is to NOT OVERWHELM YOURSELF, especially at the beginning. Start small, say prep three lunches for the week. It will be a positive, rewarding experience that will fuel you for the next meal prep. And when making that shopping list, I suggest doing so on your phone so that you won’t forget to bring it with you to the store.
Step #2: Shop when the stores are less busy.
I’ve been meal prepping for nearly 5 years, and if there’s one thing I learned that discourages me, it’s fighting my way through the crowds and waiting on long lines at the market. If you’re exhausted just from shopping, meal prepping will not be as much fun and excitement as it seemed in the beginning. So plan to shop on off-peak times/days. If you live in a major city, you can have fresh ingredients delivered to you (Freshdirect, Peapod, AmazonFresh, etc.)
Step #3: Familiarize your self with Food Safety Rules before you start cooking.
Here’s an uncomfortable secret – a lot of people don’t understand basic food safety!
I always cringe when I see newbie cooks preparing food – using the same cutting board they just used to chop chicken to chop lettuce for a salad. Thawing meat on the counter in the summer overnight. Leaving mayonnaise based food on the counter for hours. I could go on and on.
Years ago, when I toyed around with the idea of opening my own restaurant, I took a food safety course and got my food protection certificate from the NYC Health Academy*. That was probably one of the most valuable courses I’ve ever taken. I remember the lessons taught and have NEVER gotten food poisoning from my own cooking. In addition, I have learned to spot questionable food safety from restaurants I go to (or used to go to).
* I actually met Mario Batali in my food safety class, though he wasn’t nearly as famous then as he is now. He was just a strange guy who wore orange crocs, contradicted the instructor often, and started most sentences with “Well, in my kitchen…” I didn’t even know who he was until the last day of class, when I realized oh, he’s that guy on the Food Network!
Step #4: Budget extra time.
For your first meal prep budget yourself an hour more time than needed. Whether it is to sit down and relax for a bit. Or to not feel anxious about finishing up because you are running late. This way you won’t feel rushed and end up sacrificing a finger for your meal prep like this person did on reddit. Also wear some comfortable shoes and invest in this anti-fatigue kitchen mat. Your knees and feet will thank you.
Step #5 Storing your meal prep.
Plastic or glass containers? That is the question. There are pros and cons of both. I started out using plastic containers but I now use glass because they’re easier to clean, longer lasting, and safer for food storage than plastic. I currently use Snapwear Pyrex and Glasslock. Both are great and have held up through near constant use.
Plastic has its benefits too, it’s lighter and won’t shatter if you happen to drop it on the floor. The important thing is to make sure that the plastic container is meant for food storage (on the bottom of your container, you will find a tiny triangle with a number – generally, 1, 2, 4 and 5 are the safest), go BPA free, and make sure it is microwave safe. I recommend these plastic containers or rubbermaid if you are just looking to get started with meal prepping as it is cheaper.
Above all remember to be flexible. Do What Works for You.
Everyone has different needs. It will also depend on your schedule, your habits, and your health goals.
I love variety and I like to eat as fresh as possible. Mostly I prep twice a week, usually on Sundays and Wednesdays. I make about 15 meals total enough for 5 full days worth of meal. For the remaining 6 meals, I splurge and eat whatever I want for 3 of those meals. The remaining 3, I do a semi-fast of vegetables and fruit juices or broth.
Meal prepping is a journey to be undertaken slowly. If you’re just starting out, dip a toe in and try it on a small scale. There’s no need to throw yourself into the deep end and prep enough meals for an entire month because someone else did it and you want to show the same pretty pictures on Instagram.
If cooking everything all in one days seems a bit overwhelming, do it in two days or even three. Don’t have time this week to meal prep? Then skip a week. Remember, meal prepping is about lessening stress, not increasing it. What made my meal preps successful (and the fact that I’m still prepping years later) is the fact that I gave myself flexibility. I usually prep 3 days’ worth of meals so that I don’t burn myself out.
Additionally, if I don’t feel like eating a prepared lunch one day, I eat out and toss it in the freezer to eat at a later date. It is OK. Meal prepping means having a backup plan, so you don’t always default to the worst choice possible at your most vulnerable state (when you’re hungry).
Still not sure if meal prepping is for you? Check out my Top 5 Reasons to Meal Prep.