So what is meal prep exactly? Is it just a millennial term for batch cooking? Or is it a fancy buzzword for leftovers? And how can you get started today? You are about to find everything out in this ultimate meal prep guide.
If you ever wondered how to meal prep and where you should start, this beginner guide is just for you to understand the basics of meal preparation and how you can benefit from following a simple step-by-step guide.
The truth is, there is no right or wrong way to meal prep, and instead you can use meal prepping or some of the strategies to help benefit you. This guide covers it all but you can pick and choose what to read that is more relevant to you.
What is Meal Prep
Meal prep is simply advanced meal preparation where you invest a bulk of your time cooking meals for days, weeks, or months ahead.
Most meals can stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to 3 to 4 days, or you can freeze meals for the months ahead.
You can reheat most meals in the microwave, stove top or oven, or you can choose recipes that don’t require reheating like salads or sandwiches.
The reason why meal prepping has become popular over the years mainly relates to healthy eating and busy lifestyles.
As a result, there is no right or wrong meal prep system because you can use meal prepping ideas in various ways and work it around your schedule.
Meal prep sounds fairly simple at first but when you dig deeper you will begin to understand how this habit can help you in various ways.
Ultimately it helps you save time which consequently helps you save money and depending on the meals, can help you stay in shape and boost your productivity.
That alone is enough to call it a life hack because this one habit can help you achieve many life goals beyond eating healthy or following a diet.
Here are some benefits of meal prepping:
- Save time: think of batch tasking, you batch tasks together and do them all at once. This is essentially batch cooking which helps you save time by cooking once per week or month. Meal prep is slightly different because it focuses on individual meals and portions, but it also helps you save time. This is a big advantage if you have a busy lifestyle and have little time during the weekdays.
- Save money: if you’re looking for a money-saving strategy, meal prep is right up there because once you divide your meal into multiple servings, the cost per meal drops. Suppose you’re planning for the week ahead, your shopping list won’t be too expensive, and it can also help prevent you from eating out.
- Reach your goal: whether you’re aiming to build muscle, lose weight or stay in shape, you will need to follow a meal plan or be aware of the number of calories you’re allowed to consume. Meal prep helps tremendously in this respect because you can weigh and divide meals into multiple portions, which you can record in an app like MyFitnessPal.
- Prevent food wastage: if you have leftover ingredients in the fridge or food items soon facing expiration, rather than throwing it out, you can use them for meal prep recipes.
Although there are many advantages of meal prepping, it’s not for everyone, and even we may miss a week because it’s not always easy to stay organized.
One of the main concerns of meal prepping is how long the meals will last if they stay fresh and eating repetitive meals.
However, most recipes will keep well for 3 to 4 days, and you would need to freeze the meals if you plan to reheat them beyond.
Here are some cons of meal prep explained:
- Lack of flexibility: although it’s great to be super organized, what if you crave a specific meal during the week or fancy something different? If you have your meals already prepared, you might not look forward to it because you’re wanting a different meal. The good news is that you can freeze it, or you could limit the number of recipes you plan to prepare to give room for flexibility.
- Same meals: although you don’t need to eat the same meals every day, when you divide a meal into multiple servings, it might feel a bit too repetitive and structured.
- Microwaving: most of our readers will use meal prep recipes for work, and they will have no choice but to use the microwave. Although it’s safe to use the microwave, this isn’t everyone’s preferred method.
- Lack of fridge space: if you wanted to take meal prepping to the next level and cook an entire week’s worth of meals, you will undoubtedly need a lot of fridge space which can be problematic if you share a fridge or don’t have the room.
Although meal prep isn’t for everyone, you can still use strategies, tips and tricks to help benefit you.
The three main ways are make-ahead meals which is the most common method, prepared ingredients to speed up cooking time, and freezer meals for ultimate batch cooking.
1) Make-ahead Meals
Make-ahead meals are what you consider the most conventional style of meal preparation because it does not require too much time and your food will still taste relatively fresh within the upcoming days.
This is an efficient way to maximize the use of your ingredients and to save money because you can cook one meal in bulk, for example, a spaghetti bolognese, and evenly distribute it into several meal prep containers.
The first thought which might pop in your head is how long do these meals last for and is it safe to reheat?
Most make-ahead meals are fine to refrigerate up to 3-4 days, but it does depend on your type of ingredients and other factors.
However, you do not need to microwave everything because it depends on the meal. For example, you could opt for a regular salad, overnight oats, sandwich, or a snack box. These are all considered recipes that do not need reheating.
Another benefit of make-ahead meals is that you can calculate the number of calories you will eat for the week ahead, and examine the macronutrient and micronutrient breakdown on MyFitnessPal.
2) Prepared Ingredients
What if you enjoy cooking on weeknights but dislike the time-consuming tasks of preparing the ingredients such as chopped vegetables or salads?
The good news is that you can prepare that all in advance too which can dramatically reduce the overall preparation time for each recipe and you can enjoy a fresh meal.
For example, if you wanted to cook freshly made chicken fajitas, you can have the sliced peppers, sweet corn, and chopped tomatoes already prepared in advance.
Another example, which we find very beneficial, is the shakshuka recipe because you can reduce 25 minutes of cooking time by simply reheating the spicy tomato sauce and adding fresh poached eggs to your pan.
One of the biggest time-saving factors is preparing smoothies because you can store your fruit and ingredients in a zip lock bag, and this will allow you to form combinations for different mornings.
This allows you to wake up, chuck all the prepared ingredients into a blender, and enjoy a smoothie within minutes.
The main benefit of preparing ingredients is that you get the best of both worlds because reheating meal is not for everyone, while time management and increased productivity most certainly is.
3) Freezer Meals
Cooking your meals in bulk, in order to freeze for the months ahead, is a long-term strategy that is highly beneficial if you want to save costs and time.
This is sometimes known as once a month cooking, and this method can allow you to shop and cook everything just once per month, which I would imagine sounds appealing if you have a busy schedule.
You basically have everything ready, and your meal planning is run on autopilot.
However, this does mean a lot of defrosting and freezer meals, which is not to everyone’s taste. You will also need more room in your freezer.
Most of our readers prefer to meal prep once or twice a week because they still want to keep meals fresh as possible and they enjoy cooking.
As a result, it depends on your own preference, but all of these examples have their own pros and cons.
You do not need to freeze pre-made meals and instead, you can freeze prepared ingredients for make-ahead meals.
As we have already mentioned, this works perfectly well for smoothies, but is also good for stews, soups, minced meat and so on.
Ways To Meal Prep
There are two main ways you can meal prep today which is by subscribing to a service or doing it yourself.
1) Subscribe to a meal prep service
The demand for a meal prep service is growing fast which is ultimately convenient because you can specifically order your meals, get them delivered and cook or reheat when you want.
Subscribing to a meal prep service will save your hours per week because you don’t need to worry about shopping for quality ingredients, cooking your meals, calculating the macros, or even leaving your house.
It is the same as food delivery, except you have also ordered an effective meal plan and eliminated hours of cooking preparation.
That sounds great but what is the catch?
You will need a relatively high budget because you are paying for meals and a service that can be expensive depending on how you view it.
In our opinion, the prices are warranted and totally worth it for the service they provide, however, if you are looking to save money or not in a position to pay premium subscriptions then it will not be for you.
It depends on you and your circumstances, for example, let’s say you are a busy entrepreneur and it stops you from eating out in restaurants or high-end cafes, then it could possibly help you save money too.
Therefore, it really depends on your overall objective because meal prep services are the ultimate shortcut, but if you are looking to cut down your costs, you have an alternative.
2) Do it yourself
The most common way is to do meal prep yourself, which seriously helps you spend less, and you have the freedom to cook what you want.
This can be done in your kitchen with basic equipment, low-cost shopping lists, and some meal prep containers.
At first, it might seem overwhelming and complicated, but once you follow a process that works for you, it will feel like your diet is running on autopilot.
The main benefit of meal prep is that it encourages you to cook more healthy meals and one-pot recipes which are very straightforward by following step-by-step instructions.
Another benefit of meal planning and cooking yourself is the budget-friendly factor because you can easily buy a week’s worth of food for £20 and make enough recipes that are tasty, healthy, and quick to reheat.
Best Foods For Meal Prepping
- Lean cuts of chicken, turkey, or beef.
- Plain Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Sweet potato
- Frozen peas
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Riced vegetables
- Bell Peppers
- Leafy green salads
Grains, legumes and pulses:
- Rolled oats
- Kidney beans
Nuts and seeds:
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Nut butters
How To Meal Prep
Define your goal
Following this first step properly is actually a shortcut, and can help even a beginner, meal prep like a pro within their first few attempts.
Most of us have a personal objective which can be anything simple from eating 2000 calories per day to anything advanced from eating one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Nevertheless, many of us have a goal that can fall under the same category but will require a completely different method to follow.
Weight loss is a common example because this is a broad term and many people will have different weight loss goals such as losing skinny fat, reducing their body fat percentage, or losing 10 pounds in a week.
In fact, you can dig deeper in regards to weight loss, and find that people will often follow a specific diet that might be suitable to their lifestyles such as intermittent fasting. Even intermittent fasting can be complicated because you could either follow the 16/8 method or 5:2 diet.
The point is, define exactly what you need to do because you could be reading a generic weight loss article or book, follow that advice and wonder why you have not made any progress.
We are looking for the same outcome but will follow a different path which is why focusing on yourself is vital, and identifying this early will keep you on the right track.
Ultimately, it is all about the right nutrition for you.
It is no secret that good nutrition is the key to you achieving your goals, and outlining a meal planning strategy, can help you stay on track.
This is because the right planning and preparation can help you:
- Outline the meals you will be eating in advance.
- Identify the number of calories, with a macronutrient split, for each recipe.
- Reheat or eat food on the go.
By identifying any objective can allow you to build a list of go-to recipes for your meal prep which can be recorded on a spreadsheet, bookmarked website links, or use Pinterest.
For example, if you want to build muscle, your list of food and ingredients will likely consist of cottage cheese, eggs, chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, ground beef, broccoli, lentils, almonds, etc.
This is a filtered list of food and ingredients which are required for you, and will be the foundation to plan ahead.
Here are some more examples:
- Long-distance runner: will likely filter recipes which are high in carbohydrates for slow digestion and recovery meals to replenish your glycogen stores.
- Sprinter: will likely filter recipes which are protein-rich and recovery meals to replenish your glycogen stores.
- Intermittent Fasting (16:8): will likely filter lunch and dinner recipes which are bigger than usual.
- Intermittent Fasting (5:2): will likely filter recipes which are under 600 calories for two days per week.
This is why we have an index of recipe categories to help you because generic recipe are not for everyone.
However, it is not all about fitness goals.
The most common reason why people want to meal prep is to simply save money or free up their time.
Which are still goals because if you plan to budget your weekly grocery shop within $30, you will need to list recipes which fall within this budget.
Ultimately, once you begin getting in the habit of collecting recipes, you will find it easy to meal prep, and while websites and books help, identifying your own personal goals is what is essential.
TL;DR: Write down your objective (for example, losing weight or saving money). Record a list of foods and ingredients, or recipes, which help you achieve your goal.
With your goal defined and a selection of recipes to choose from, it will be easier to plan for the week ahead and record the list of meals to cook.
In order to plan for the week ahead you need to identify:
- What’s already in your fridge, freezer, and cupboard.
- The meals you plan to eat.
- The day you are going to cook.
- The ingredients you need to buy.
One of the most frequently asked questions about meal prep is: “don’t get you bored of eating the same meal all week?”.
This is a common misconception because you do not need to eat the same dinner four days in a row, and planning properly will help you generate enough variety.
There are many websites, books and videos where you can find recipes for your meal prep, and the information provided allows you adjust your number of servings accordingly.
This is why these tools are handy for planning your meal prep:
- Digital kitchen scale: to weigh ingredients accordingly
- Meal prep containers: to evenly distribute your portions
- Spice sets: keep your spices or herbs stored and replenished in a set.
- MyFitnessPal (or similar smartphone app): to record the information which can help you monitor your progress
Planning your meals for the week ahead depends on your goal and you need to identify the number of meals you want to eat per day.
For example, if you are following an intermittent fasting way of eating, from 12 pm to 8 pm, it is likely you will need to make ahead high-calorie lunch and dinner meals, as well as snacks in between.
This is why using MyFitnessPal is an amazing app for meal planning because it is also a killer tool for splitting your macros, analyzing ingredients, identifying hidden calories, and monitor your progress.
You can use the app to either record or create a recipe, which means you can essentially plan your week ahead by scheduling meals.
Not only does this tell you the number of calories you are eating per meal but it also a food diary to helps you track your goals.
However, if you do not want to use an app, that is fine because all you need to do for planning your meal is the following:
- Determine the number of days: do you want to cook for the entire week or within a certain number of days?
- List down the number of meals you want to eat for the week ahead: such as breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts.
This is why identifying a goal makes your planning process easier because if you already know that you must eat only 1800 calories per day, you will have target to achieve.
TL;DR: List down the meals you want to cook for the upcoming days or week. Use an app to schedule your meals.
Write a shopping list
You have scheduled your meals for the week ahead, and now all you need to do is write a shopping list and buy the ingredients.
We like to use the app AnyList because it is designed for this particular purpose which you can use on your smartphone, desktop, or tablet.
With your shopping list identified, you can either shop around for the best prices or order everything online.
We prefer the former because we like to guarantee longer best before dates, choose a particular supermarket for vegetables and fruit, and local butchers for meat.
It is more time-consuming but we save money in the long run and ensure that we have fresh ingredients.
If you are completely new to meal prep and starting fresh, then it is likely you will need to start building your pantry of essential everyday items which includes oils, herbs, spices, sugars, nuts butter, marinades, and so on.
Also, purchasing a large bag of rice, pasta, chickpeas, flour, canned tomatoes is a way to save money and time, if you will be regularly using these ingredients.
As a result, your weekly shop will most likely consist of fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats which can reduce your weekly expenditure, if you have other key items already stockpiled.
TL;DR: Write your shopping list based on your weekly recipes. Ensure you have a pantry of everyday essential items.
Most people tend to choose Sunday as their main meal prep cooking day because most people work from Monday to Friday.
However, if you work weekends or night shifts, then your cooking day can be at any time which suits you, not to mention, you can choose two days during the week if you want.
For example, choosing Sunday and Thursday is a cycle that works for most people throughout the week. You just need to find the schedule that works best for you.
When you do choose your cooking day, give yourself a specified time block, for example from 11 am to 3 pm, which is enough time to prepare and cook your meals.
Most recipes have step-by-step methods which require just basic tools which can be done in your kitchen.
If you are totally new to cooking, then begin with just one recipe at a time, and once you start to gain confidence, add in another recipe and so on.
There are many methods to cooking but a basic kitchen should have an oven and a variation of a cooking hob, which is enough to easily cook any recipe.
There are tools such as air fryers and pressure cookers, which can be beneficial, but I would recommend starting off with the basics.
TL;DR: Choose your meal prep day and give yourself enough time.
Store and reheat
One of the most frequently asked questions is regarding the food storage and how long the meals will last, which I why we have written a complete guide on food storage and reheating.
It is essential to know all about letting food cool before putting it in the fridge or freezer because you do not want bacteria to start growing.
You should follow the 2-hour rule and allow food to cool down as quickly as possible and within two hours.
By digging a little deeper, this makes sense because we need to look into the temperature zones; when we cook our food in the hot food zone, 60°C to 100°C, bacteria’s are destroyed, however, bacteria can start to grow in danger zone, which is between 5°C to 60°C.
This is where the two-hour rule comes in handy because it allows food to cool down in a safe zone before you either store the food in your fridge (the cold zone) or freezer (frozen food zone).
Meal prep containers
Meal prep containers are an ideal way to store your food because it is designed to be airtight, stackable and easily transportable.
We have listed the best meal prep containers including the pros and cons of plastic vs glass.
We have a dedicated section on the website about cooking tips for meal prep which can help you.
Here are some popular questions and answers in regards to meal prep storage.
TL;DR: Follow the two-hour rule. Use quality meal prep containers.
Meal Prep Ideas
If you are looking for meal prep ideas for the week, we have a recipe index which can help you filter through the meals ideal for you.
There’s nothing better than a grab and go breakfast on a busy workday. Here are some of our top meal prep ideas for breakfast which are healthy and easy to prepare.
- Creamy Strawberry Overnight Oats
- Frozen Breakfast Burritos
- Breakfast Sausage & Egg Scramble
- Jalapeño Popper Egg Muffins
- Tofu Bhurji (Indian Vegan Tofu Scramble)
- Protein Pancakes
- High Protein Baked Oatmeal
- Sausage and Egg McMuffin Meal Prep
Lunch & Dinner
If you’re looking for healthy meals which you can quickly reheat for lunch or dinner, here are some great meal prep ideas.
- Garlic and Herb Chicken with Sweet Potato Meal Prep
- Turkey Keema
- Peri Peri Chicken Thighs
- Healthy Chicken Burrito Meal Prep Bowl
- Quick Turkey Chili
- Low-Carb Chicken Fajitas
Meal prep helps with weight loss because these meals can help you feel full and are not too high in calories. Here are some of our popular meal prep ideas for weight loss.
- Healthy Turkey Bolognese
- Healthy Chicken Saag Curry
- Low Carb Burger Salad
- Healthy Chicken Shish Kebab Recipe
- Meatballs and Zucchini Noodles
- Shredded Buffalo Chicken Lettuce Wraps
Vegan or Vegetarian
For non-meat meal prep recipes, here are some of our popular ideas for vegan or vegetarian recipes.
- Sweet Potato and Chickpea Curry
- Spicy Tofu Fried Rice
- Chana Masala
- Easy Vegan Red Lentil Bolognese
- Vegan Tofu Katsu Curry
- Spicy Vegan BBQ Cauliflower Wings
- Best Vegan Butter Chicken Curry
Is it safe to meal prep for 5 or 7 days?
If you’re planning to meal prep and reheat your cooked meals after 4 days, you should ideally freeze it once cooled down.
Most cooked meal prep recipes will keep well in the fridge for 3 to 4 days. However, this will depend on the ingredients, airtight containers and following the correct storage methods.
Is meal prepping good for weight loss?
Meal prepping can certainly help with your weight loss goal because it can help you stay organized, use healthier ingredients, and track your progress long-term.
Weight loss is a personal journey, and therefore your approach could depend on the information you read or guidance you are following.
However, the key to meal prepping and losing weight is mastering portion control, which can help you stay on top of your caloric intake, which is the key to losing weight.
In a similar vein, if you wanted to gain weight, you can portion control accordingly to the number of calories you need.
Spicy Meal Prep is a food blog and resource for busy people and home cooks around the world. What started as a solo blog has now turned into a website of healthy recipes and home cooking tips written by home cooks, chefs and nutritionists around the world. Our mission is to make healthy cooking easy, with realistic recipes that you will actually cook and balanced meals that you can fit into your meal plan.