Meal prep is more than a food trend: It’s a handy approach you can use to make delicious, homemade food you’ll want to eat every day—without the wait. And while the end results look impressive, meal prep doesn’t require complicated planning or tools. All you really need is time and elbow grease.
This beginner’s guide on how to meal prep teaches you everything you need to know about make-ahead, healthy meals—plus Bulletproof-friendly approaches you can take to ensure your food stays fresh and nutritious.
Why Meal Prep?
Everyone will have their own reason for why they would like to start meal prepping. I think when most people think about meal prep they relate it to dieting and it is a great way to maintain a diet but it can be so much more. Meal prepping can be used for dieting, convenience, to save money, to save time, and to promote healthier eating to name a few of its utilities.
Having prepared meals in your refrigerator will do wonders for your nutrition. Humans are creatures of convenience. We are hardwired to take the easy route and our nutrition is no exception. Many of us struggle to eat healthy because many nutritious foods require some form of preparation in order for them to be edible. People resort to snack foods because they are ready to eat right from the bag. Increasing the availability of healthy, ready to eat food in your house will make the decision of what to eat an easier choice. If you keep healthy meals in your fridge, you will eat them. Reducing the amount of friction surrounding eating healthier should be your number one goal if you want to see success. This means that making smart choices should be made easier and vice versa. Prepping your meals in advance so they only need a short trip in the microwave to be ready is much easier than having to cut and cook some meat and vegetables each night. Meal prep makes it easy for you to succeed.
Meal prepping makes calorie counting exponentially easier. Because you are making the same food for multiple meals you only need to calculate calories and macronutrients one time. There are hundreds of dieting strategies you can use to lose or gain weight but all of them lead to success in the same way once you pull back the layers….they operate within the parameters of energy balance. Energy balance is the relationship of the energy (calories) you take in from food and the energy you burn to live and move around. If the amount of calories you eat and absorb is less than you burn, you will lose weight. If the amount of calories you eat and absorb is more than you burn, you will gain weight. Energy balance is the fundamental principle surrounding all body composition changes. Meal prep can help you to control the energy in portion of the energy balance equation in a way that is easy to measure.
Meal prepping is a fantastic way to save money. Meal prepping makes it possible for you to have prepared meals on the ready while only cooking once or twice a week. Eating out is obviously expensive. The last two meals I have had out have totaled just shy of $25 each after tip and I don’t get appetizers or drinks. That’s a lot. Clearly fast casual places like Chipotle or fast food would be cheaper but even still a burrito bowl from Chipotle will run you 10+ dollars. When I worked an office job I had coworkers that would go out for lunch every single day of the workweek. This was mind boggling to me. I recently did the math on what it would cost to go to the Chipotle by my office every day for the week. It is $10.91 for a burrito bowl from that store. Multiply that by 5 days in the workweek and you get $54.55. Take that one step farther and you’ve got $2836.60. Now I’m sure that’s nothing to some of you but to me that is a lot of money to spend on lunch. My recipes from this website average between $3-$4 per dish but we’ll use $5 just to be conservative. That would be $25 a week and $1300 a year for lunch if you were to meal prep. That’s a $1500 savings.
Cooking only a couple of times a week drastically cuts down on your time spent in the kitchen. Meal prep allows you to only cook once or twice a week and that also means you only need to do dishes once or twice as well. Let’s face it, many of us don’t want to stand in front of a stove for 30 minutes when we get home from work or school and meal prep can save you from that. A common complaint among non-meal preppers is that it takes too long to complete. Meal prep does require a bit of an upfront time investment. It may take a few hours on your Sunday to set yourself up for the week but it will safe yourself time across those 7 days. Cooking every night may take less time than a larger prep but the cumulative time you will spend over the course of the week cooking and cleaning each night will surely add to a greater value than what it would take you to meal prep.
IS MEAL PREP FOR EVERYONE?
Meal prepping is useful for all sorts of people, from those trying to cut down their cook time to bodybuilders on the keto diet. However, some forms of meal prep may not be for everyone.
Some foods, such as dressed salads or cut avocados, don’t hold up well to a week in the fridge. Most meal preppers solve this issue by cooking a main ingredient, such as chicken breast, and portioning out ingredients to go with it. Others keep salad dressing and salads separate and only make meals such as salads one or two days ahead of time.
Another completely legitimate way to look at meal prepping is preparing a variety of ingredients that makes cooking easier and faster. Prepping fruit and portioning out yogurt and Collagen Protein for your morning smoothie or chopping veggies to make stir fry during the week are both time-saving and take the mental load off getting breakfast, lunch or dinner ready.
Worried about fridge fermentation and a possible histamine response? Avoid high-histamine foods when you cook and see if the process works for you. Consider meal prepping for a shorter time frame, or prepping single ingredients instead of full meals.
Pro tip: Meal prep looks a little different for everyone. Some people cook individual portions of meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the week. Others cook just enough for two to three days of lunches. Experiment and find what works for you.
WHAT FOODS CAN I USE WHEN MEAL PLANNING?
You can meal prep any food that holds up well in storage and tastes palatable to you after a few days in the refrigerator.
Cooked meat, roasted vegetables, soups, sauces, nuts and sturdy raw vegetables make good bases for meal prep recipes. Think Paleo Steak Bowls, Roasted Butternut Squash Soup and this Rainbow Mason Jar Salad.
But you can’t meal prep everything. Soft vegetables, cut fruit and crunchy food like crackers will only get softer in your refrigerator, making them less ideal choices as main ingredients for meal prepping.
If you’re new to meal prep, think about how you’ll reheat food. Will you only have access to a microwave at mealtime, or can you use a stovetop or oven? Consider recipes that you can enjoy cold or gently reheat so you don’t risk damaging fats and proteins in your food. If you do throw your prepared meal into a microwave, consider if the ingredients will stand up to more aggressive reheating.
Most importantly, choose favorite meals that you already enjoy leftover and can cook with ease. Then you can branch out with new recipes and food pairings. Keep it simple to start so you don’t find yourself wasting food.
Where to Start.
Before you begin any meal prepping it is important that you have high quality containers for you to store your food in. You want your food to stay fresh as long as possible while it is being stored in the refrigerator. Your container of choice should follow these guidelines:
- Microwave safe
- Dishwasher safe
- Freezer safe
We recommend avoiding reusable plastic containers and plastic bags whenever possible. Aside from carcinogenic BPA, even BPA-free plastics can contain estrogenic chemicals that leach into your food and mess with your hormones. And if you heat these plastics in the microwave, they may leach compounds into your food. So it’s good to be informed about what you’re storing and heating your food in.
In addition, the more items that can safely go into your dishwasher will help streamline things after you’ve eaten your prepped meals and quickly get things clean and ready for the next week.
Cooking multiple meals at once will take a bit of cookware if you want to use time and kitchen space as efficiently as possible. The absolute essentials for meal prep are the following:
- 1 large skillet
- 1 chef’s knife
- 1 cutting board
- 1 large pot
- 1 roasting pan or cookie sheet
- Spatula/large spoon
- Measurement utensils
Ideally you will have a collection of cookware of different sizes but you can make do with the list above. It is nice to have a separate cutting board for vegetables and meat or multiple skillets to cook more than one thing at once but it is not mandatory. Having a high quality, sharp knife will make your chopping, slicing, and dicing easier and safer. If you are interested in cooking and will continue to prepare meals, I highly suggest making a small investment in a well crafted chef’s knife. Your knife is your best friend in the kitchen and a good one will stay with you for years. I also recommend purchasing a small kitchen scale.
CHOOSE RECIPES AND BUILD YOUR MENU
With simple recipes in hand, decide what you’ll cook for the week and schedule the days of the week when you want to enjoy your meals.
Take stock of what you need for those recipes, plus any missing essentials you need (like spices or Grass-Fed Ghee), and make your grocery list. (A shopping list also has the added bonus of making your online order or trip to the grocery store faster and more efficient.)
SCHEDULE TIME FOR MEAL PREP
You can’t meal prep without prep time. Schedule one to two days per week to prep your meals. If you can multitask a little (use your oven and stovetop to prep more than one food at once, for example), you’ll cut down on time even more. Using a sheet pan to roast big batches of food can also cut down on prep time.
AVOIDING COMMON MISTAKES
KEEP MEAL PREP SIMPLE
The key to easy meal prep is start simple. Make one-pot recipes or focus on one main dish. Avoid the temptation to spend a whole day cooking elaborate meals. Too many recipes can complicate your meal prep fast, and you may not want to do it again if it was too hard the first time. Try making just one recipe ahead of time, then meal prep additional dishes when you get comfortable.
PREP BALANCED MEALS
Depending on your diet and health goals, plan meals that will keep you satisfied. It’s easy to make a big bowl of chili for lunch, but it wouldn’t serve as a complete meal.
Make sure you get enough of the right food groups to fill out your macros. A balanced meal for keto and other low-carb diets should feature quality fats, some protein and very few carbohydrates.
COOK RECIPES YOU’LL ACTUALLY EAT
As long as your meal prep dishes are balanced, you don’t need to branch out of your comfort zone. For beginners, make recipes you know you’ll love—anything less could result in wasted food (and wasted time).
Once meal prepping becomes second nature, you’ll have at least a few go-to recipes you can turn to in a pinch.
MAKE ENOUGH FOOD
It sounds straightforward, but make sure you prep enough food to fit your plan. Keep your schedule in mind: Events like work lunches and happy hours can interfere with mealtime. Do you truly need to prep a week’s worth of meals, or just enough for a few days at a time?
A large batch of cooked grass-fed ground beef can provide quality fats and protein for at least several meals. At the same time, though, you don’t want to run into the issue of wasting uneaten food. So, make sure to have your schedule and portion sizes in mind when meal prepping.
As with everything, practice makes perfect. The more you meal prep the more in tune you will become with different foods and how they act throughout the process. A lot of meal prepping is trial and error. Take time to plan out your meals each time you prep so that you are giving yourself the best opportunity at success.