After a long day at work, probably the last thing you want to do is take on yet another task of cooking, serving meals, and cleaning up the kitchen. Yet, you want to feed yourself and your family healthy meals and end the vicious cycle of takeout or eating cereal for dinner. If you’ve been wondering whether you should start meal prepping, this guide will give you all the details of what meal prepping is, the various meal prepping styles (yes, there are more than one), some of the drawbacks of meal prepping, what supplies you need to start meal prepping, and how to create a meal prep routine to get healthy meals on the table in less time.
What is Meal Prepping?
Meal prepping can take many forms, but in general it is the idea that you prepare meals ahead of time. This can be fully prepped and cooked meals or partially prepped meals. Meal prep can include breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and even beverages.
The idea is that you’re preparing dishes in advance of when you and your family will eat them to prevent a last-minute scramble to throw dinner together on busy nights or figure out what to pack for lunches in the morning.
Meal prepping saves me hours of precious time each week and it is a system that many busy families use to ensure they can provide healthy meals for their families. Planning, shopping, and cooking some or all of your meals ahead of time can also help support your other family goals of eating healthy, saving money, and more.
Benefits of Meal Prepping
Let’s look at some of the top benefits that you might enjoy when you start meal prepping and see if any of these could apply to you and your family.
Portion sizes. If you are looking to be more mindful of portion size, meal prepping is a perfect tool to aid your efforts.
More nutritious meals. Spending time to meal prep encourages you to make a meal plan and think about your food choices. This can lead to selecting healthier meals for you and the family and establishing healthier eating habits.
Time-saving. Meal prepping can save you loads of time in the kitchen throughout the week. Rather than being interrupted on a daily basis to plan, shop, prep, and cook, you are doing this thinking and planning ahead of time and getting things organized to save precious time.
Budget-friendly. When you’re planning and prepping meals on a regular basis, you can better anticipate how much you will spend on groceries. Since your meals and menu are planned in advance, you’re likely creating a grocery list that follows your plan and avoiding impulsive purchases at the grocery store. You’re also less likely to grab food on the way home when a nice, healthy dinner is waiting for you at home.
Nurtures healthy eating habits. Meal prepping can help everyone in the family to develop healthier eating habits. When you’re consciously planning meals and putting healthier options on your grocery list, this encourages a healthier way of eating across the board.
Supports family time. With meal prepping, you and your family can slow down and enjoy your meals together. Rather than a rushed weeknight dinner, you can reheat meals and have more time to connect after everyone’s busy day.
Reduce temptation at the office. With meal prep, there’s no need to rush out to the nearest drive thru or snatch a donut from the break room.
Better snacking. You’re less likely to make random decisions about what you’re eating and snacking on each day.
Meal Prepping Might Not Be for You If…
Meal prepping is a wonderful tool to help you saved time in the kitchen, have healthier meals on-hand for you and your family, and reduce your cooking related stress level. But meal prepping does contain some drawbacks and might not be for everyone.
Either you or some of your family members may not enjoy eating the same foods multiple days in a row. And if you enjoy your meals being fresh, this is something you will lose with meal prepping. Meal prepping must be approached with caution when you’re cooking for a family. Getting kids excited about having leftovers, again, can post a challenge. Also, meal prepping can get tricky if there are family members that have different food preferences or dietary restrictions.
Find Your Meal Prepping Strategy
If you’re new to meal prepping, the idea of preparing multiple meals at once might overwhelm you. You may think that meal prep involves cooking on the weekend from sunup to sundown in order to make meals for the next 7 or 30 days. However, meal prep doesn’t have to eat up your entire weekend. There are many variations of meal prep and even a newbie meal prepper can find a style that works for them.
4 Ways to Start Meal Prepping
Finding your meal prep style or stystem will take time. And there’s no one proven system that works for everyone as we all have different needs and family sizes. But generally, meal prep strategies fall into four categories. These are the most common ways to meal prep.
1. Ingredient preparation
This involves identifying and preparing ingredients for meals that you will use in the upcoming days or week. This means that you have created a meal plan and identified the specific meals that you and your family will eat during the week. This is a time-saving technique as it cuts down on how much planning you have to do during the week. Since your ingredients have already been identified, rinsed, washed, chopped, or seasoned, you will have an easier time getting meals on the table. You merely have to quickly assemble and cook everything.
2. Make-ahead meals
This method involves simply cooking ahead of time. You will cook full meals and store them in the refrigerator for the week. So, you might cook a large batch of one of your family’s favorite recipes and store it in the refrigerator for lunch and dinner throughout the week. This can be done for breakfast and snacks too.
3. Batch cooking
The basis of batch cooking is this: if you’re going to cook anyway, why not make multiple dishes or larger portions of the same dish. When you batch cook, you’re making a larger than usual portion of a dish or dishes in order to have leftovers for the following days. Or, in other cases you might batch cook with the intention of freezing dishes for the future.
4. Individually portioned meals
This next level of meal preparation can be combined with make-ahead meals or batch cooking. Creating indifidually portioned meals involves not only batch-cooking or making meals ahead of time, but then taking those meals and portioning them out into individual containers. These can be containers that remain in the refrigerator for meals at home, or portable, leakproof containers that can travel to work, school, or elsewhere. Taking this extra step to portion meals into individual containers can not only sae on cooking time throughout the week but also encourage family members to have “fast food” options that can easily be warmed up when everyone gets home after a busy day. They also come in handy if you’re trying to develop healthy eating habits and need healthy options for lunch during the day at work.
Choose the meal prep method or combination of methods that will work best for you based on your family’s needs and routines. For instance, if you are a stay-at-home mom with a large, busy family it may be most important for you to ensure everyone has lunches ready to go in the morning. If you work outside of the home, you might find it more beneficial and stress-relieving to have make ahead meals waiting for you and the family after a long day of working and commuting.
And still, you might find that a combination of cooking one make-ahead meal and prepping some ingredients works well for you, or some other combination of the meal prepping methods mentioned above.
As you get started with meal prepping, choose one method that feels manageable and slowly explore the others until you find a meal prep sweetspot.
What Will I Need to Start Meal Prepping?
Okay, so you’ve decided that you want to start meal prepping but you’re not sure what you need. At a minimum, you’ll want to have meal prep friendly containers. This is the most important meal prep supply needed to safely and efficiently store all of your meal prepped dishes. Not sure how to choose the right containers. Not to worry. I’ve put together a list of criteria for choosing the right meal prep containers for you and your family with my recommendations below:
Airtight. You will want your containers to be airtight with proper fitting lids to prevent bacteria from creeping in. When you prep ingredients ahead of time, you want them to be stored in a way that will preserve them for as long as possible until they are ready to be cooked or eaten.
BPA-free. Choosing containers that are BPA free and free of other harmful chemicals is a good choice for prepping and storing food for your family.
Oven-safe. Choose containers that can safely store food as well as be placed in the oven for cooking or reheating.
Freezer-safe. Avoid freezer burn by choosing the right containers. And remember to leave a one inch gap at the top of your freezer containers for expansion as food freezes.
Easy-to-transport and leak-proof. Will your prepped meals be traveling to school, work, or anywher else? Be sure to choose containers that are easy to transport and leakproof to avoid spills in the refrigerator or the lunch box.
Stackable and space-saving. Using the same brand or style of containers will help them to stack better in the refrigerator or freezer. I find that rectangular containers are a great shape for food storage and helps conserve space in the refrigerator after a meal prepping session.
Appropriate size. You’ll want a variety of different size containers, some that can store your entire batch-cooked dishes and others that can be used for individually portioned meals or snacks. Having both options allows you to be flexible with your meal prepping and allows family members to pull out meals or snacks as needed.
Pantry-friendly. Be sure to consider the storage needs of your dry ingredients, too. Items like brown rice, quinoa, lentils, whole grain pasta, dried beans and more will stay fresh longer when stored in airtight containers.
Extend the life of your ingredients and meal-prepped dishes by choosing the right food storage containers.
6 Steps for a Successful Meal Prepping Routine
Being successful with meal prepping begins with identifying your goal. As you start meal prepping for the first time, it’s important to know what results you are after. Being clear on your end-result means you are more likely to succeed at meal prepping. With your goal in mind, follow this simple, step-by-step routine for meal prepping.
1. Choose your meal prepping method.
The first step is to decide which meal prepping method you will use. Will you aim to make an entire week’s worth of meals for your family that you can reheat throughout the week, or will you create your meal plan and prep ingredients so that cooking meals during the week takes less time? Or will you do a combination of the different methods?
2. Write up a meal plan.
Decide on the types of meals, recipes, and number of meals that you are going to make. Then determine what ingredients are needed for each meal.
3. Create your shopping list.
With your meal plan in hand, create your shopping list and head to the supermarket to get your ingredients and supplies. To save time, create a template for your grocer list and consider using a grocery delivery service.
4. Prepare your storage containers.
Be sure to have the appropriate number and sizes of storage containers ready so that you can put your prepped meals away once you’re finished cooking.
Determine the order of cooking meals by starting with the ones that take the most time. For instance you may have one dish that is going in the slow cooker, another that will be cooking in the oven, and a third that you are cooking on the stovetop. Start with the one(s) that will take the most amount of time and then work on the faster dishes while those are cooking.
6. Store your meals.
Allow your meals to cool and store them safely. Some meals can be stored in the Refrigerator if they will be eaten within a few days. However, others may need to be frozen , thawed comma and reheat it. Label meals that are going in the freezer for easy identification When they’re ready to be used.
The Botton Line on How to Start Meal Prepping
Meal prepping is a great tool for people who want to spend less time cooking meals each week. But it also has many other benefits such as helping to save money on food and supporting healthy eating habits.
Choose the meal prepping strategy that aligns with your goals. Get the right tools and storage containers to start meal prepping with a routine that works best for you and your family.
Alicia Hyatte is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Family Wellness Advocate, Health Educator, and a Diabetes Prevention Lifestyle Coach. She helps parents to build healthier habits and routines to better balance home and work life. Her website, WholeFamilyLiving.com, provides motivation and simple strategies for handling everyday challenges like managing stress, being active, eating healthier, losing weight, and more. Alicia is a beach lover and gardening geek in her spare time.