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A Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Meal Prep

Set yourself up for success by carefully choosing your recipes, storage containers and prepping day

Display of various types of foods prepped in individual containers

If your plan to churn out healthy homemade dinners all week tends to come completely unraveled by Thursday, you’re not alone. Healthy eating can easily fall by the wayside when you’re juggling a busy schedule and lots of responsibilities.

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Meal prepping is a tried-and-true trick that many healthy eaters swear by to save time and keep them on track.

“Meal prepping is a great way to save yourself both time and money, and it goes a long way toward reducing the stress of not knowing what to eat,” says registered dietitian Elyse Homan, MS, RD, LD.

Health benefits of meal prepping

Meal prepping means preparing or batch-cooking meals, snacks or ingredients ahead of time, to make healthy eating easier during your busier days.

“You can quickly make multiple days’ worth of food and then not worry about meals the rest of the week,” Homan explains.

Plus, knowing you have something waiting in the fridge might make you less likely to swing through the drive-thru for lunch or order takeout for dinner.

Meal prepping also:

  • Reduces decision fatigue: No more staring at the fridge asking, “What should I eat?” Having meals prepped and ready to go eases decision fatigue by lessening the number of decisions you have to make each day.
  • Saves time: Spending a little bit of time prepping a batch of meals gives you time back during the week that you don’t have to spend cooking. That allows you more time to focus on other tasks and pursuits.
  • Leads to more thoughtful meals: When you meal prep, you give yourself time to think through and create balanced meals that provide a variety of nutrients. “Meal prep prevents you from choosing the first thing you see in the pantry, which may not be the healthiest option,” Homan says.
  • Saves money: Meal prepping can help you be sure you’re only buying the food you need and actually plan to eat, which helps your wallet and prevents food waste.

All of this can make meals more enjoyable and less stressful. And meal prepping may even help you lose weight, if that’s one of your health goals.

“Meal prepping and planning helps you to eat more consistently throughout the day,” Homan says. “Knowing you have something already prepared can help you to eat at a similar time each day, which helps control hunger levels and prevents overeating.”

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How to start meal prepping

Does the term ”meal prepping” make you think about bland chicken breast, rice and green beans perfectly portioned out into a week’s worth of containers? Let’s first back up and rework that mental imagery.

There’s no one way to master the art of meal prep — and that’s part of the beauty of it. It’s a strategy that can be adapted to your unique schedule and lifestyle to help you become more efficient in the kitchen.

For one person that might mean making a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches that they can reheat at work. For another, it might mean just chopping up some extra veggies and making a homemade salad dressing to use throughout the week. Meal prepping can include:

  • Making individual portions is probably what you think of when you consider meal prepping. This is when you create entire meals in advance, dividing them up into their own containers so you can easily grab one out of the fridge to slip it into your work bag or throw into the microwave.
  • Cooking in batches means making one big dish that you eat throughout the week, like a pot of chili or a big casserole.
  • Ingredient prepping is when you do one or two big things in advance, like roasting a chicken that you’ll use in dinners every other night of the rest of the week or chopping up all of your veggies to put in your lunchtime salads later.
  • Creating freezer meals is an offshoot of all of the other types of meal prepping, allowing you to store ready-made ingredients or entire meals to be used at a later date.

All of these are totally valid ways to meal prep, and when you’re getting started, you may want to experiment with one or all of them to see what you like best. Whatever your meal prep style or reason, here’s how to get started.

Step 1: Think about storage

Before you even begin considering what you’re going to make, it’s important to think through how you’ll keep everything fresh and organized.

“I recommend choosing containers that are microwave-safe for hot lunches,” Homan says. “Mason jar salads are also a good way to help ingredients stay fresh for several days in the fridge.”

Just be sure that you also have some small containers on hand to store sauces and dressing separately. No one likes a soggy salad!

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Oh, and don’t forget about what will go in your freezer.

“You can freeze soups and chilis in smaller containers so you only have to heat up what you’ll eat for the week,” Homan shares, “and you can also portion out ingredients for smoothies ahead of time.”

Step 2: Decide on a prep day

One of the big ideas behind meal prep is making it a habit, so you want to identify a day when you can consistently set aside time for it. And because meal prep takes time, it’s important to pick a day when you actually have time.

“Make sure it’s a day where you have a few hours to spend,” Homan advises. Sunday and Wednesday are popular meal prep days, but choose whichever day works best for your schedule.

Step 3: Make a game plan

Now that you’ve picked a day and time, you’ll want to ask yourself (and answer!) these questions:

  • “What meals will I prep?” Homan says that one of the biggest meal prep mistakes people make is thinking that they need to prep every meal for the week. Instead, take it slow: “Choose one meal you struggle to eat healthy the most,” she recommends. “If you’re always on the go in the morning, save time by having breakfasts prepped for the week. If evenings are hectic with after work or school activities, have several dinners ready in advance.”
  • “How much food do I need to prep?” Again, ease into it. You want to begin by prepping just two or three meals instead of five or six, giving yourself time to get used to the process. And be sure to sync up your meal prep plans with your rest-of-life plans: If you have a work event on Tuesday night and a lunchtime meeting on Thursday, you’ll want to be sure not to prep meals for those days.
  • “What recipes am I going to make?” Glad you asked! Let’s get into it...

Step 4: Choose your recipes

It’s time for the fun part: Deciding what to make! Homan shares her best tips for figuring out what you’ll prep for the week.

  • Pick simple recipes. Begin with meals that are easy to prepare and don’t contain a ton of ingredients. Now’s not the time to attempt boeuf bourguignon! You can also look for recipes that can be made in a slow cooker, which will make things even easier.
  • Consider recipes that reuse ingredients. “Think about how you can prep different foods that can be used with multiple meals,” Homan suggests. For example, if you make a batch of baked chicken, you can serve it one day with steamed broccoli and a sweet potato, and another day over greens with some whole-grain crackers.
  • Vary your ingredients. Well-rounded meals should include a variety of colors and textures, which keeps things interesting and provides a mix of micronutrients. “Make meals satisfying by including a balance of protein, produce and complex carbohydrates,” Homan says.

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Still can’t quite figure out where to start? There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Start with our list of 75 healthy meal prep ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then browse food blogs, thumb through cookbooks and ask friends for their favorite recipes.

“Keep a list or create a Pinterest Board of recipes that sound good to find inspiration before you go grocery shopping,” she adds.

Step 5: Make your grocery list

Before you head to the grocery store, you’ll have to make a grocery list. This is a great time to figure out which ingredients you’ll make yourself and which you’ll buy ready-made — because not every element of a homemade meal has to be made at home.

“You don’t have to make everything from scratch,” Homan says. “Buying a rotisserie chicken, tuna packets or a veggie tray can cut down on time.” Keep frozen berries and frozen vegetables on hand, too. They’re pre-washed, pre-chopped and can be microwave-steamed in a pinch.

But there are some ready-made ingredients that are definitely worth skipping — like individually packaged foods.

“You can save money by portioning things out yourself instead,” Homan points out. “Make sure you have small, condiment- and snack-sized containers on hand to store things like salad dressing, trail mix and dips, like hummus and guac.”

Once you’ve made your list (and checked it twice), head to the grocery store to grab everything you need for your first foray into meal prepping.

Step 6: Get to work!

Ready to get down to business? Make your time in the kitchen as enjoyable as possible by cranking up some tunes or turning on an audiobook or podcast.

“Prep food individually, like washing and chopping veggies for the week that can be used in a variety of recipes or as a snack with dip,” Homan says.

Once your food is made, cooled and transferred into airtight containers, it should last about three to four days in the refrigerator.

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Bonus step: Freeze the extras

If a recipe yields more food than you can eat in a week (or if you just want to give yourself some padding for the future), pop any remaining servings into the freezer.

“That will give you a quick option for a day when you don’t feel like cooking,” she notes.

How to meal prep without getting bored

If you’re groaning at the idea of eating the same thing for a week, don’t worry: There are ways to fend off boredom when it comes to meal planning.

For starters, Homan says to be sure to choose foods you actually like — which may sound like a no-brainer but is so important that it’s worth emphasizing. When you’re brand new to meal prep, this isn’t the time to decide that you also need to revamp your entire palate — at least not to start.

“Think of meals you enjoy when dining,” Homan says, “and then see what you can do to try to recreate them at home.”

Just don’t go back to that same favorite over and over and over. Even your most beloved recipe will get old and stale if you eat it too often!

“Challenge yourself to choose one new recipe each week to keep it exciting,” Homan suggests. “You can also try sticking to weekly themes, like Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday or Sunday brunch.”

Finally, although meal prep is a great way to help you eat healthier, don’t feel like you have to withhold or deprive yourself of little treats — especially if the meals you’re making are otherwise healthy and well-balanced.

“Include indulgent foods you enjoy as part of your meal planning to help make them enjoyable,” Homan continues. “You can still add a few chocolate chips to a Greek yogurt and berry parfait, or pack a snack-size bag of pretzels to go with chicken salad and baby carrots.”

Remember: Meal prep isn’t all-or-nothing, and there’s no definitive right or wrong way to do it. Experiment a little to find what works for you, and don’t worry about being perfect. Doing just a few steps in advance can go a long way!

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