How to Meal Prep — A Beginner’s Guide
Meal prepping is the concept of preparing whole meals or dishes ahead of schedule.
It’s especially popular with busy people because it saves a lot of time.
Ready-to-eat meals can also reduce portion sizes and help you meet your nutritional goals. That way, you’re less likely to eat dinner or take out on the TV, especially if you’re overwhelmed or exhausted.
And since you need to decide ahead of time what to eat, meal prep allows you to choose more nutritious meals in the long run.
If you need more help creating delicious, healthy recipes and meal plans, consider signing up for a meal planning service like PlateJoy.
Despite what one might think, there are many ways to prepare meals — not all of which require spending an entire Sunday afternoon cooking dishes for the week ahead. You can choose the method that works best for you.
In the following, we’ll break down the key principles of meal prep and break down the process into a few simple steps.
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Different ways to prepare meals
You might think that cooking next week will take up most of your weekend.
You don’t have to spend an entire Sunday afternoon in the kitchen, though, because of the way meals are prepared. Everyone can find the right way to prepare.
The most popular ways to cook include:
- Make-Ahead Meals: Complete pre-prepared meals that can be refrigerated and reheated at mealtime. This is especially useful for dinner.
- Batch Cooking: Make specific recipes in large batches, then divide them into individual servings to freeze and eat over the next few months. These are popular for a hot lunch or dinner.
- Separate Meals: Prepare fresh meals and divide them into individual portions to refrigerate and eat over the next few days. This is especially useful for a quick lunch.
- Ingredients: Prepare ingredients ahead of time for certain meals to reduce cooking time in the kitchen.
The method that works best for you depends on your goals and routine.
For example, if you want to simplify your morning routine, it’s best to eat breakfast ahead of time. On the other hand, keeping cooked food in the refrigerator is especially convenient for those with limited time at night.
You can also mix and match different meal preparation methods to suit your situation. Choose the most appealing method first, then slowly try other methods to see what works best for you.
There are several ways to prepare meals depending on your goals, schedule, and food preferences. Some options include preparing large servings to freeze, whole meals to freeze, and individual portions to be combined at will.
Choose the correct meal size and selection
It can sometimes be difficult to work out how many meals to prepare and what to include in each meal.
The best way to plan ahead is to first decide which meals to focus on and which meal preparation method fits your lifestyle.
Then check your calendar to see how much breakfast, lunch, and dinner you’ll need next week.
Also remember to consider when you might eat out – such as a date, brunch with friends, or dinner with clients.
When choosing a dish to prepare, it’s best to start with a limited number of recipes you already know. This will make the transition to meal planning easy.
In addition to this, it’s also important not to choose just one recipe for the entire week. This lack of variety can lead to boredom and inability to provide your body with the nutrients it needs.
Instead, try to choose a meal with a variety of vegetables and high-protein foods, as well as a variety of complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, quinoa, or sweet potatoes. Adding vegetarian or vegan meals to the mix is another way to add variety.
The correct number of meals depends on your personal routine and needs. Variety is key to giving your body the vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds it needs.
Tips for reducing cooking time
Few people want to spend hours in the kitchen preparing meals. This is only natural since the main motivation for meal prep is to reduce cooking time.
The following methods will help optimize prep and cooking times.
Have a consistent schedule
Meal preparation works best if you stick to a regular routine. Knowing when to buy groceries and prepare meals can help you develop a good routine
For example, you can book a Sunday morning grocery shopping and meal prep. Alternatively, you can choose to cook lunch for the rest of the week on Monday night.
The schedule is up to you and should fit your weekly schedule. Remember, picking a specific time and sticking to it will simplify the decision-making process and free up mental space for other things.
Choose the right recipe combination
Choosing the right recipe combination will help you make your kitchen more efficient.
To save time, choose recipes that require different cooking methods. If you have too many recipes that require the same equipment (such as an oven), it will limit the number of dishes you can cook at the same time.
This is especially important when choosing instant or batch cooking.
A good rule of thumb is to stick to one oven meal, no more than two hotplate dishes at a time—like stuffed baked potatoes, skillets, and soups.
Then easily add dishes that don’t require cooking, such as sandwiches or salads.
Schedule your prep and cooking time
A well-thought-out workflow can save you tons of kitchen time.
To best schedule your prep and cook times, start with the recipe that takes the longest cooking time. This is usually a soup or a griddle. After you start your meal, focus on the rest.
Save cold meals for last, as they are easy to prepare while other meals are cooking.
To save extra time, please double check the ingredients of all recipes before starting. If both recipes call for diced onions or pepper strips, this is a great way to chop the whole thing at once.
Using an automated device such as a rice cooker or slow cooker can further simplify your workflow.
Create a shopping list
Buying groceries can be a waste of time.
You spend half your time at the grocery store, keeping a detailed grocery list compiled by the supermarket department.
This prevents you from returning to previously visited sections and speeds up your purchase.
Limiting grocery shopping to once a week and using grocery delivery services are two other ways to reduce shopping time.
To reduce time in the kitchen, stick to a regular schedule and use a shopping list. It’s also important to choose the right combination of dishes and organize your cooking.
Choose an appropriate storage container
Your food storage container can mean the difference between a delicious meal and an average meal.
Here are some container suggestions:
- Airtight containers for ready-to-eat ingredients: Washable, reusable silicone bags and stainless steel containers are perfect for keeping ingredients crisp and food fresh.
- BPA-Free Microwave Containers: These containers are convenient and good for your health. Pyrex glassware or collapsible silicone containers are good choices.
- Freeze-safe containers: These containers limit freezer burn and nutrient loss. Wide-mouth mason jars are ideal as long as you allow at least 1 inch of head room for food to expand as it freezes.
- Leak-Proof Divider Containers:These are great for lunches or meals that need to be mixed at the last minute. A good example is the bento lunch box.
Stackable or similarly shaped containers help optimize space in a refrigerator, freezer or work bag.
Containers are practical and space efficient. They can also help your meals taste better and contain more nutrients.
Safely cook, store and reheat food
Food safety is an important but neglected part of meal preparation.
Preparing, storing, and reheating food at the right temperature helps prevent foodborne illnesses that affect an estimated 9.4 million Americans each year.
Here are some federally approved food safety guidelines:
- Make sure the temperature is right: Make sure your refrigerator is set to 5°C (40°F) or below and your freezer is set to -18°C (0°F) or below to hold.
- Fast cooling food: Always refrigerate fresh food and meals within two hours of purchase or preparation. Divide cooked food into shallow containers for quick cooling and place in refrigerator immediately.
- Be aware of storage time: Cook within two days of purchase for fresh meat, poultry and fish, and 3-5 days for red meat. Meanwhile, keep them on the bottom of the refrigerator.
- Cook at the right temperature: Meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 75°C, as this will kill most bacteria.
- Safely Thaw Foods: Thaw frozen meals or meals in the refrigerator, not on the countertop. To thaw faster, submerge food in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes.
- Reheat food only once: The more times food is refrigerated and heated, the higher the risk of food poisoning. Therefore, thawed food can only be reheated once.
- Reheat food to the right temperature: All food should be reheated to 75°C (165°F) before serving. Frozen foods should be reheated and eaten within 24 hours of thawing.
- Use labels: Remember to label and date your container so you can eat it within the food-safe period.
- Consume food within the correct time frame: Frozen foods should be consumed within 3-4 days and frozen within 3-6 months.
Cooking, storing and reheating food at the proper temperature can reduce the risk of food poisoning. The above guidance outlines the most important food safety measures to consider.
Steps to successful meal preparation
Preparing a week’s worth of meals can sound daunting, especially for beginners. But it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Here’s a simple step-by-step guide to simplifying the meal prep process.
- Choose the preparation method of your choice: This can also be a combination of methods and should be based on your lifestyle and dietary goals.
- Create a schedule: Choose a day a week to plan your meals, grocery shopping, and cooking.
- Choose the right number of meals: Consider your calendar and restaurant meals you plan for the week.
- Choose the right recipe: Pay attention to the variety and preparation method. First, stick to recipes you already know.
- Reduce the time to buy groceries: Create a grocery list organized by the supermarket department or buy groceries online.
- Spend less time in the kitchen: Choose which dishes to cook first based on cooking time.
- Store your food: Use safe cooling methods and proper containers. Refrigerate the food you plan to eat within 3-4 days, then label and freeze the rest.
Meal preparation doesn’t have to be complicated. Simple steps can help you spend less time cooking so you can spend more time on the things that matter most.
Meal preparation is great for those who want to spend less time in the kitchen
It can also encourage nutritious, healthy meals and discourage fast food choices that are less nutritious.
Depending on your goals, schedule, and food preferences, meal prep may include preparing large frozen meals, refrigerating full meals, or combining prepared ingredients as needed.
Find a method that works for you and choose one day a week to plan, shop and cook.