Eating healthy in today’s fast-paced times can be difficult. Especially with the whole eating-out culture nowadays, it can be hard to find healthier food options around us. However, there is an up-and-coming trend that can help you be in better control of your diet: meal prepping. We share all the meal prep tips that you need to know to get started as a beginner.
What Is Meal Prepping?
Meal prepping is the act of preparing and cooking meals ahead of time and storing them. Instead of those processed frozen TV dinners, you can eat a homemade meal made with healthier ingredients and cooked to your taste.
When it comes to meal prepping, there is no one fixed way to do it. You should take into consideration your schedule, flavor preferences, and dietary needs to create a strategy that works best for you and your lifestyle. Some common meal prep strategies include:
Full Meal: Cook a single entire meal at once and store it for later consumption.
Batch Cooking: Prepare several meals and store them in ready-to-eat portions or making a certain type of food in bulk to eat over a period of time.
Single-serving: Prepare and store food in single-serving containers so you can take your meal for the day and go.
Ingredient Prep: Prepare the ingredients and store them in advance, so you can simply cook everything at one go when you’re ready.
Meal prep tips for beginners
Meal prepping doesn’t have to be a pain. Here are 30 meal prep tips to make your experience easier.
1. Find out how long you can store food
There are no hard-and-fast rules on how long you can store food. It depends on a few factors, such as how you packed it and freshness of the ingredients. Study the FDA guidelines on food storage and this will help you figure out how long you can store ingredients in the fridge or freezer. On average, most meals last three to five days in the refrigerator before it spoils.
2. Avoid cross-contamination
Cross-contamination can cause your food to spoil faster or worse, cause food poisoning so hygiene is always key. Store dry foods above wet foods so the juices and liquids don’t contaminate the dry food or cause mold. Keep raw meat and cooked food separate.
Most importantly, wash your hands before handling your food for preparation and packing. Remember to keep your cooking space, cooking utensils and storage containers clean as well.
3. Choose the right containers for your meals
Use high-quality containers for your food, preferably those with an airtight lid, to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Some good meal prep containers you can consider are stainless steel containers or glass containers as they’re great for keeping hot and cold food, are stain-resistant and don’t absorb strong tastes or odors. Mason jars are also good meal prep containers for salads and soups; plus their small sizes are good for portion control.
Be careful with reusable plastic containers. Some plastic containers may release harmful chemicals into your food when heated. Always check if your plastic container is safe for microwaving or handling hot food. Check out some good microwave-safe plastic container options here.
4. Schedule a meal prep day
Meal prepping requires time and these meal prep tips are meant to help you make it more time-efficient. Schedule a day or two in the week as your meal prep days to cook your food. Coming up with a meal prep calendar is a good way for you to map out your meal prep schedule week by week or as a monthly overview. Of course, feel free to edit your meal prep calendar accordingly to accommodate any changes to your daily schedule.
Preparing several dishes can be bothersome, we know. Smart multitasking can help you get meals faster and more efficiently. You can prepare several meals on your stovetop at a time or prepare ingredients for several dishes at once. Get creative with your cooking tactics to help you save precious prep time in the kitchen. Just remember to keep your eye on the ball and practice safe cooking!
6. Count how many meals you need to make
How many breakfasts, lunches, snacks and dinners will you need? Count how many days you will be cooking for and what meals you’ll be eating. This is where your meal prep calendar comes in useful. You need not prepare too many meals; instead, prepare a few big batches of meat and vegetables you can use over the week.
7. Make a meal plan
Incorporate a meal plan into your meal prep calendar. Planning meals ahead save on time and can even help reduce stress. Write down what recipes you plan on making and what ingredients you need to buy. Make the necessary preparations beforehand so that on your scheduled meal prep day, you’ll have everything ready.
8. Keep your menu simple
Try to cook simple meals and avoid recipes that have too many ingredients. Simple meals are easier to prepare and store. You can even consider making recipes that don’t require cooking or need minimal cooking, like salads or sandwiches. Of course, simple meals don’t have to mean boring; you can still experiment with simple recipes to make them just as tasty and healthy.
9. Use easy cooking methods
Another way to keep meal prepping easy is to avoid cooking methods that take too much time and effort. Use the oven or a slow cooker, since all you need to do is put the food in and keep an eye on their cooking progress from time to time. These cooking methods let you prepare bigger batches of food faster, allowing you to focus on preparing other meals.
10. Write what you need before you shop
Once you have decided on your menu, it’s time to go shopping for the ingredients you need. Try to get your food shopping done the day before your chosen meal prep day; once again, schedule this into your meal prep calendar. Another useful tip to remember: categorize your grocery list by meals (ie: breakfast, lunch dinner) or by food group/type (ie: meat, fruits/vegetables, carbs etc). This allows you to easily see at a glance what you need to buy and how much you need.
11. Get creative with your food
Prepping the same recipe every meal might help you save time and energy coming up with new recipes every day but why make your mealtimes boring? Jazz up your meal prep by making small tweaks to your meals. Add different ingredients to your main meal or try different sauces or garnishes. This keeps your food interesting even if you recycle your recipes.
12. Set themes for your meal prep meals
Another great way to break the monotony and get creative with your meal prepping is by setting a meal “theme”. Get foods with the same taste profiles and mix and match these meals for some great combinations! You can even create themes around a single food or ingredient and then work your recipes around that. Work these themes into your meal planning by assigning one theme to each day of the week (ie: Taco Tuesday).
13. Use frozen food
It’s difficult to get your ingredients fresh — and even harder keeping them fresh in storage. An easy alternative is to use frozen foods. Frozen fruits and vegetables retain their vitamins and minerals for longer and are also cheaper than fresh foods. When you’re ready to cook them, just take them out and thaw them. However, do take note that a lot of frozen store-bought food can be quite processed and full of preservatives so make sure to read the labels well. Alternatively, you can freeze the fresh ingredients yourself.
14. Keep your breakfast simple and easy
The start of the day can be very hectic. Instead of going for a complicated breakfast, use your meal prep time to come up with a simple meal. A fruit smoothie is a good choice as you can simply put everything in a blender and blend. You can even prepare your breakfast the night before and take them along to the office on your way out; overnight oats are a good breakfast idea for this.
15. Get snacks ready
Keep yourself away from vending machines snacks or candy by incorporating some simple healthy snacks in your meal planning. A small container of nuts, some chopped fruit, a boiled egg or two help keep the munchies away in between meals. Meal prepping doesn’t mean you have to strictly stick to three meals a day, a few snacks here and there are fine!
16. Use budget-friendly staple foods
Sure, that 100% grass-fed beef sounds delicious, but it might be expensive. There are more affordable options available that are as filling and nutritious. You can also opt to buy seasonal food items, which can sometimes be cheaper when in season. Meal prepping doesn’t always have to be costly, you just need to make smart purchases with your food.
17. Buy food in the bulk section
The bulk section of your local supermarket is a great place to stock up on cheap pantry staples. Dried foods, legumes, nuts and grains are available here at low prices. Take advantage of these prices to buy what you need. Remember to get only what you need to reduce unnecessary food wastage.
18. Keep your pantry well-stocked
A well-stocked pantry is a must for meal prep. Always make sure you have food staples in stock; these include spices/seasonings and your carbs or grains. This simplifies recipe making and your meal planning process. Having staples on hand means you only need to shop for fresh items during your weekly shopping trip.
19. Prepare staple ingredients ahead of time
To help save time, prepare your ingredients ahead of time. You can also buy pre-cut vegetables and store them in containers for easy access when you need them later. If you have any foods that you tend to eat a lot of, you can prepare them in bulk so that you can use them in your cooking over the week.
20. Prep balanced meals
Always make sure that your meal prep plans include balanced meals to ensure you’re getting the most nutritional value out of your meal prepping. Choose foods that cover all the important food groups and portion them appropriately in your meals. If you have any additional dietary requirements (ie: vegan, vegetarian, keto etc), adjust your ratios accordingly. If you’re tracking the caloric intake of your meals, make sure that you proportion your meals to fit your required calorie count.
21. Cook foods that you like
If you’re a beginner to meal prep, don’t stray too far from your comfort zone. Use recipes you know you love. Prepping food you don’t like is a waste of time and food, and it’ll only make you less motivated. You can also prepare your favorite recipes that you are comfortable with cooking. There’s always time to experiment down the road so go easy on yourself at the start!
22. Use your leftovers
Prepping large batches of food often means you also get leftovers. Make use of these leftovers to add to your meals or to create new meals over the week. Recycling these leftovers can be easier than prepping a new meal every day, plus no food goes to waste.
23. Pre-portion your meals
As mentioned earlier, there are different ways to meal prep and pre-portioning your meals is one such good meal prep strategy. A meal prep method used by athletes, pre-portioning lets you control your food intake so you don’t overeat or eat too little. Cook your meals in bulk and portion out the servings beforehand.
24. Assemble ingredients beforehand
This tip is in line with the Ingredient Prep meal prep strategy. You can portion out the raw ingredients, all measured out and stored in containers or Ziploc bags. Once you’re ready to eat, you can cook everything at one go. These work well if you have a little extra time and want your meal freshly prepared.
25. Consider using a meal prep app
There are several meal prep and meal planning apps available for both Android and iOS. Get meal planning tips, meal prep tips and recipes using these apps. These apps can come in very handy when planning out your meals or coming up with a grocery list for ingredients. For some of our recommendations, check out our list of health apps you need to download.
26. Get your kitchen organized
Make your meal prep easier and less stressful by organizing your kitchen before meal prep. Clean your kitchen tools and place them in easy-to-access areas. Get your ingredients and storage containers ready and in place before you start cooking. You don’t want to get distracted from your cooking by rushing around looking for things while cooking.
27. Food temperature matters
Spoiled food is the last thing you want when you’re meal prepping; you don’t want all your effort and time spent cooking gone to waste. After cooking your food, put it in its container and leave the lid slightly open to let it cool down to room temperature. Storing food before it cools down can cause the food to go bad fast.
28. Label your containers
Always make sure to label your food containers. This lets you know at one glance what’s inside them when stored in your fridge. This is especially important if you’re using opaque containers. Don’t forget to add the date the meal was prepared as well so you can determine whether the food is still fresh or it’s time to throw it out.
29. Keep your recipes handy
It’s hard to remember recipes off the top of your head. A better solution is to keep copies of your recipes in a spot that’s easy to remember. This makes referencing the recipes a piece of cake. Want to keep your recipes paperless? Save PDF copies or scans of your favorite recipes and keep them on your mobile device. Tablets are another way to store your recipes for easy recall and their wider screens make the recipes easier to view.
30. Prepare sauces and condiments in advance
Sauces and condiments add a lot of flavor to your meals and can help spice up your recipes when they start to get boring. If you prefer to make your sauces and dressings yourself, save yourself the hassle by preparing them beforehand and store them in your fridge until needed. That way, you don’t have to spend time making them from scratch every time you cook.
Why should I meal prep?
Now that you have the meal prep tips to get you started, the question now is: why should I even start meal prepping in the first place? Meal prepping has a few benefits that line up with a fast-paced, modern lifestyle. Here are some pros to meal prepping your meals:
You save on money
Meal prepping means fewer trips to the supermarket for food as you usually buy everything you need at one go. This saves up not only on food costs but also transportation costs.
You save on time
Preparing meals daily can cost time and effort. Meal prepping helps free up that time by giving you the flexibility on when you want to prepare your meals so you can use that time for other things.
You make less waste
Meal prepping encourages the use of leftovers for later meals so you make the most out of your food. Furthermore, by buying what you need for the week, you can ensure you have just enough to cook your meals.
You stay on track with your health goals
Meal prepping your daily meals lets you have greater control over what you eat so it’s a great way to tailor your meals to your diet. You can determine how much or little you want to eat and the nutritional value of your meals.
What food can I meal prep?
Food that stores well in your fridge is essential in meal prepping so they at least last you the whole week. The storage duration can vary depending on different factors so just check on your food if they’re going bad. One of the good meal prep tips to help your food last longer is to freeze them; use airtight containers to avoid freezer burn. Here are some meal prep tips for some food that you can use in your meals.
If you choose to freeze your cooked meats and fish, you can easily add them to your stews and gravies while cooking and let them heat up on their own. If you’re planning to eat them within the next few days, you can put them in the fridge and heat them up when needed.
Freezing roasted vegetables can help retain their flavor and nutrients better. Portion them out in Ziploc bags before freezing so you have ready-to-cook servings.
Soups and sauces
One useful tip for freezing your soups and sauces is to put them in ice cube trays. This helps with portion control as you now have small portions and you can easily determine how much you want to cook.
Nuts and stiff, raw vegetables
The good thing about nuts is that you can keep them at room temperature safely. Keep in mind that nuts tend to go soft when exposed to moisture and absorb the smell of whatever is around them, so keep nuts in an airtight container.
Raw vegetables have a longer lifespan in your refrigerator and stiff vegetables like carrots can be stored for longer due to their hardiness. Another tip: blanch your vegetables, cool in ice water immediately, drain well and then freeze them. This helps retain the vegetables’ flavor, color, nutrients, and freshness for longer.
What food can I not meal prep?
While some foods are good for meal prep, there are some that you should avoid. If you do use these foods for meal prep, make sure to eat them immediately or as soon as possible.
Most fruits oxidize minutes after cutting them, leading to discoloration and loss of nutrients. Cut fruit also has a shorter shelf life than fresh fruit.
Soft vegetables get softer in the fridge so unless you like mushy vegetables, don’t keep these for too long.
Crunchy foods lose their snap and crunch when stored in the fridge for a long time. If you want your food to stay crunchy and crisp, it’s best to store them in an airtight container at room temperature.
Meal prepping takes a little time and effort, but the rewards are worth it. These meal prep tips are meant to help the process be more efficient and easier for you so find out what works best for your meal prep strategy. Meal prepping can be tedious at first but hopefully, our meal prep tips help make the task less daunting.
So what are you waiting for? Try your hand at meal prepping today and get started on your health journey. For some healthy recipe ideas, check out our article on easy plant-based recipes.