Hand stacking containers with prepped meals

How to meal prep for a busy week

With day-to-day tasks and responsibilities, it can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day–especially when we want to spend those hours with family and friends doing things we love. Meal prepping–the process of preparing whole meals or dishes ahead of time–is an excellent way to get back some of those hours during the week. If you’re not sure how to meal prep, use this guide to learn everything from which containers to use, to how to store your food.

Woman in kitchen reading recipe on her phone

What is meal prep?

Meal prepping looks a little different to everyone, but in essence, meal prepping is cooking meals or preparing ingredients ahead to either eat or cook at a later time. There is no set way to meal prep, but you can adopt or adapt a couple of different methods of meal prepping like batch cooking, cooking complete meals ahead of time and storing in the fridge or freezer, or chopping veggies based on the recipes you’ll cook for the week.

Why should you meal prep?

If you’re trying to decide if you should meal prep, there are a number of benefits to prepping your food ahead of time.

  • Portion control
    If you’re looking to control your food intake, meal prepping can help with tracking what you’re eating and how much you eat because you’re portioning out your daily meals and planning recipes based on your nutritional needs.  

  • Saving money
    We’ve all spent money on food we don’t end up cooking. With meal prep, you’re picking your recipes before heading to the grocery store, so you’ll only buy what you need, saving you money in the long run.

  • Time saver 
    Since part of meal prepping is having designated shopping and cooking days, those hours that you would’ve spent in the kitchen cooking are now free for you to do more of the things you enjoy. So you don't have to feel guilty hitting the snooze button!

  • Focus on fresh, homemade foods
    Learning how to meal prep can also give you the opportunity to experiment with several different diets like keto, vegetarian, and vegan diets among others. If you’re looking to be more disciplined with your food intake, meal prepping is a great way to do this, since having food prepared ahead of time can also help curb your likelihood of eating out.

Close up of a sheet pan with chicken breasts and vegetables

How to meal prep safely & properly

Like with any style of cooking, you should follow the usual FDA guidelines to avoid foodborne bacteria and food poisoning. Familiarize yourself with food that keeps well in the fridge after a few days, and plan for meals that can be easily stored in the freezer.

Things to keep in mind as you meal prep for the week:

  • Use containers that have dividers to avoid cross contamination and to keep wet food from mixing with dry ingredients. 

  • Defrost your proteins in the fridge overnight instead of on the countertop, but if you’re short on time, place frozen protein in a bowl with cold water.

  • If you’re going to meal prep for the week, only keep a couple days-worth of meals in the fridge. Anything that will be eaten later on in the week should be frozen. 

  • Keep your fridge and freezer temperatures set to ensure food freshness.
Hand storing meal prep container into fridge

Basic meal prep for beginners

Meal prep is meant to make your life easier, so approach it as such and you’ll succeed. When first starting out, keeping things simple is best. Whether you’re tackling breakfast, lunch or dinner, start with meal prepping for part of the week (2-3 days). Pick recipes that you know you’ll want to eat, and don’t be afraid to make changes from week to week as you get more comfortable.

Plate and cutlery

Pick your recipes

You know yourself and your eating habits best, so if you prescribe to the notion that variety is the spice of life, don’t make a large batch of the same food for the whole week. Include recipes that are well-balanced with protein, veggies and carbs and that can be tweaked for varying flavors during the week. Using a tool like the Yummly meal planner can help you design your recipes ahead of time based on what you have in your pantry or by sparking inspiration for your meal prep.

Clock and calendar

Choose how many days you’ll meal prep

You’ll have an easier time sticking to a meal prep routine if you gradually work your way up instead of immediately jumping into prepping for all five days. Starting out 2-3 days a week will let you experiment with recipes, techniques, and whether you prefer doing meal prep for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Calendar

Pick your designated prepping days

The day of the week you pick to be your food prep day will depend on your schedule, but typically, Sunday is a good time as the new week approaches. Have your ingredients list ready to go based on the recipes you choose so shopping is fast and easy, and create a bank of recipes you want to try so you’re not struggling to find inspiration.

Stacked bowls

Have your meal prep supplies ready to go

Make sure your containers are clean and ready to store your prepped meal and that there is ample storage space in your fridge and freezer as well. You should have the right containers for the right purposes. For instance, stainless steel containers are great for storing freshly chopped ingredients that you plan on using during the week, but you should avoid using them as to-go containers if you intend on reheating your food in the microwave.

Icon of measuring cup and cutlery

Control your portions

Consider how many people you’re doing meal prep for as well as eating habits when portioning out meals. If you’re only meal prepping for yourself, think about how many days you’re preparing ahead of time so that you don’t end up with a bunch of leftover food or with less food than you need. 

Refrigerator

Store your ingredients and meals properly

While the main reason that you’ll want to store your food properly is to avoid cross contamination, you’ll also want to do it to keep the quality of your meal intact. For instance, if salad is on the menu for the week, store your ingredients like leafy greens, toppings and veggies separately from wet ingredients like vinaigrette and proteins.

Piece of paper

Keep track of what works and adjust accordingly

As you get comfortable with meal prepping, monitor your behavior and your intake. Are your portions too big or too little? Did you eat all your meals or did you grow bored halfway through the week? Make adjustments as you discover what your preferences are: if variety is important to you, pick a base protein (like chicken) and change what it’s paired with day to day. Use an Asian chicken marinade and roast some veggies with teriyaki sauce for easy teriyaki rice bowls one day, and switch it up the next day using fresh veggies and corn tortillas for some Asian chicken tacos.

Hand placing food container into lunchbag

Meal prep: best practices

While it’s true that there is no one specific way to meal prep, there are certain precautions you can take for some peace of mind. The freshness of your ingredients is just as important as how and where you store your prepared meals and/or ingredients.

celery and onion icon

Use fresh food and ingredients

You’re making food to eat up to several days later, or even weeks if storing in the freezer. Since this is the case, use fresh ingredients–especially produce, protein or anything that will be eaten raw–when meal prepping.

Hand and sparkles representing cleanness

Clean all your surfaces before, during and after you meal prep

Follow basic FDA guidelines for food prep. Clean surfaces and wash your hands often and don’t cross-contaminate. As well as wiping counters with a surface cleaner, use separate cutting boards and knives for raw meats and produce, or wash thoroughly in between uses.

Label tag

Label all containers with date and contents

A good rule of thumb is whatever comes in first, should be the first thing out. Adopt the same rule by labeling all your containers with the contents and use-by date. While a prep date is nice to include, the use-by date is essential since it’s also the discard date.

Thermostat

Keep proper food temperatures

Your fridge and freezer temperatures should remain within the food safe zone. Ideal temperatures for your fridge are below 40ºF and a freezer temperature of 0ºF, but may vary based on food items and environment.

Snowflake

Defrost food properly

If time isn’t a constraint: 

Defrost your meals in the refrigerator. While refrigerator thawing takes time–at least overnight, but often 24 hours or longer depending on what you’re defrosting. Food shouldn’t be warmer than 40ºF to avoid the growth of bacteria, so when you defrost in your fridge, you can help prevent bacteria growth that could lead to food poisoning.

If time is a constraint:

If you forgot to take your food out of the freezer and now you’re short on time, defrosting food in cold water cuts down thawing time dramatically. Make sure that the package or bag is completely sealed to avoid bacteria growth and to prevent water from seeping into the food, and change the water every 30 minutes. 

Note: The FDA does not recommend countertop thawing, since if food thaws and reaches room temperature, bacteria can grow and cause food poisoning. If you’re particularly short on time, you can use the microwave to defrost your food.

Jar and stacked bowls

Rotate your meals

Now that you know how to meal prep for the week like a pro, you label all your meal containers with use-by date and contents. And because you label all your meals and ingredients, you know what needs to be eaten or cooked first to avoid wasting food. Stack containers at eye level so you can see them easily and organize your fridge for when the next round of meals hit the fridge.

Checklist

Limit your recipes

While you definitely want variety for your meal prep, you should limit your recipes to two or three per week, and for five days ahead of time max. Being prepared is great, but you also want to make sure you’re eating meals with fresh ingredients even if prepared ahead of time. 

Stacked bowls

One last note on containers

Not all containers are created equal, so to make sure your food stays fresh and delicious, you’ll want to pick good quality containers with airtight lids for safe storage and to avoid freezer burn.

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