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 out everything in this packed meal prep guide.
If you ever wondered how to meal prep and where you should start, I have written this guide just for you to understand the fundamentals of meal preparation and how you can benefit from following a simple step by step guide.
What is meal prep?
Before you begin, it is worth understanding how meal prep works and why this is a popular trend today.
To cut a long story short, meal prep is simply advanced meal preparation where you invest a bulk of your time cooking meals for the week or month ahead.
For example, on Sunday you can cook and prepare your meals for Monday to Thursday, and reheat them on the go.
It sounds fairly simple at first but when you dig deeper you will begin to understand how this habit can help you in various ways which ultimately 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 is how to get started..
1) Define Your Goal
Meal preparation will be so much easier if you sit down and define your goal, which will allow you to build a solid framework for going forward.
Your goal does not need to specifically be health or fitness related either because it can be just a lifestyle choice that will benefit you in many ways.
For example, if you wanted to save money, you can use meal prep to reduce your shopping budget, limit your spending on takeaway meals, and prevent food wastage.
If you wanted to free up time, meal prep can help you eliminate the time it takes to prep and cook food, which means you can maximize the most of your day.
However, when it comes to health and fitness related goals, meal prep can seriously be the game changer.
Losing weight, building muscle, or improving your running times are all different goals, however what they all have in common and what will play a major role to help achieve these goals, is a solid nutritious meal plan.
Meal prep is simply a way to automate and maintain your meal plan which is why it is important to define exactly what is it you are hoping to achieve.
For example, weight loss is a term which is commonly thrown about, but it is not specific enough to be just a goal.
People in all shapes and sizes will have different weight loss goals such as losing skinny fat, reducing their body fat percentage from 7% to 5%, or aiming for a major weight loss transformation.
The meal plan for each of those scenarios will all be different, but they could be searching on Google, “how to lose weight” and read information which does not relate to them.
As a result, by defining your health and fitness related goal this early, will help you determine how many calories you need per day, which includes the correct ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
This will allow you to make a list of the food and ingredients you need such as chicken breasts, eggs, cottage cheese, sweet potatoes, broccoli and so on.
When you plan-ahead and write down the choices on paper, you are most likely making a rational choice which is aligned to your goal.
Therefore, you will have a defined shopping list and meal plan, which is so much better than going to the supermarket unprepared or not knowing what to cook for the weekdays ahead.
This can lead to you making decisions and choices when you are hungry, which most of the time, may be irrational.
The main benefit of going down this route is that you can build a more balanced and sustainable diet which will benefit you in the long run opposed to going on a complete crash diet and hating life.
Even if you get it right 80% of the time, over the course of the next 6 to 12 months, you will start to notice results.
If you need more help in defining your goal, I advise you seek a professional personal trainer, and they will tell you exactly what to do.
2) Write a meal plan
Before you begin to meal prep, it is best to start off with a plan which is the framework that you can automate and maintain.
If you are new to meal prep and feel uneasy about cooking and storing loads of meals, it is best to keep your plan short and simple.
To keep it simple, list down your breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the week-ahead.
The benefit of batch cooking these meals is that you can reduce the number of recipes and split the portions into several containers.
If you are not sure what to cook or how to long to keep your food stored, you can browse the recipe index which will explain it all.
If you have a health and fitness related goal, you can use a macro calculator which determines the correct ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats you need per day/week.
By using an app, such as MyFitnessPal, makes this whole process a lot easier because you can set your goal and add your recipes, which will show the breakdown of the macronutrients.
This means, before you even cook or eat, you will know the number of calories you will be eating per day/week, which you can adjust accordingly to your goal or target.
I highly recommend using a meal planning app because this will be your diary going forward and it gives you an insight to what you are doing right and wrong.
It will give you, or your personal trainer, a chance to dig deeper and see where you can make any amendments too.
Once you know what you are going to cook, you have pretty much jumped the biggest hurdle, and the rest of these steps will be so much easier.
In addition to meal planning, it will be a good opportunity to choose your ‘meal prep system’ which will make the next step a lot easier.
3) Shop your ingredients
Regardless of whether it is big or small, you now have a meal plan, and therefore you also have a defined shopping list.
If you are new to meal prep or even cooking homemade meals, you will most likely need to do a bulk shop first of pantry items you will regularly use such as herbs, spices, dried foods, frozen foods and so on.
Your weekly shop will most likely consist of fresh food, or food items which needs to be replenished.
The bulk shop will seem expensive as first, but you will be saving money in the long run because it will largely contribute to the meal prep recipes you will be cooking each week, and your ‘cost per meal prep’ will be very low.
Of course, it depends on what is on your shopping list, but your weekly shop will be so much cheaper because you are only buying what you need, which can help you save money, prevent food wastage and give you the chance to look for the best prices.
There are a few ways to shop ingredients whether it is online, at your local supermarket or food market.
Before you shop your ingredients, you need to decide your cooking day because you want to choose fresh ingredients, with longer best before dates.
4) Start cooking
Once you decide on your cooking day and set a few hours aside, it is that time to meal prep!
If you are following a specific meal plan, where you are focusing on a macronutrient split, then a handy tool to use is digital food scales, which can help you distribute the portions accordingly.
This is why I like to record everything on MyFitnessPal before cooking, because it becomes easier to manage and track calories throughout the week and using these food scales becomes less complicated.
I often get asked, should you cook one meal prep recipe at a time or is it fine to multitask?
Personally, I like to focus on one recipe at a time, but you can be flexible with this approach and diversify your cooking methods.
For example, you can prep all your rice and vegetables at once, which can be used for various recipes, and ultimately is more productive depending on what you are cooking.
Also, by diversifying your options, you can prepare a sheet-pan dinner, which can be left in the oven, whilst cooking another meal on the go.
Generally, I try to avoid multitasking, however some aspects of it can work in your favour for meal prep, providing you know what you are doing and keeping a track of the cooking time.
5) Store and reheat
One of the most frequently asked questions is how long will the meals last and are they safe to reheat? This complete guide was born to simply this complex stage of meal prep.
The first key step is to allow the food to cool down before storing it in the fridge or freezer, which ultimately prevents bacteria growing on your food.
To put it simply, you should follow the 2-hour / 4-hour rule, which you can time on your cooking day.
By digging a little deeper, this works 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 the 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).
As a result, storing food is simple and easy, but where it can be tricky is understanding when and how to reheat your meals.
Although majority of meal prep recipes will last up to 3-4 days in the fridge, it does also depend on the ingredients you are using, which is why the chart below is very handy if you are ever unsure.
You need to ensure that the ingredients you are purchasing are fresh and that you are following the best before date on the packages of the fresh items, which is why it can be handy to label your meals, especially if you are going to freeze them.
On average, it can take around 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic, and once meal prep becomes second nature, you will start to reap the rewards in the long run.
I started to cook this way because I had a busy lifestyle and wanted an alternative to buying readymade food.
Over the years, I have discovered that meal prep is more than just cooking meals in advance and it is indeed a life hack.
It allows you to enjoy eating good food without putting on weight. It gives you free time to spend with your family or do your hobbies. It helps you save money that can help contribute towards a holiday. It helps improve your productivity.