Meal Prep Tips: A Beginner's Guide to Meal Prepping
“Be prepared.” It’s a slogan that’s stood the test of time because the relationship between looking ahead and successfully meeting one’s goals is undeniable. When it comes to what you eat and how you eat, preparation matters.
This meal prep guide for beginners will help you get a handle on how to begin, how to choose your meals, how to make a meal prep grocery list, and much more.
What is Meal Prepping?
Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., and founder and director of Real Nutrition, defines meal prepping as preparing, cooking, or packaging food for three to four days in advance so you know exactly what and how much you are eating.
Why Meal Prep?
Having a healthy meal ready to enjoy can help you say no to unhealthy food choices. Taco truck pull up in front of the office again? No sweat — you’ve already packed a hearty lunch you’re looking forward to.
Someone brought donuts to the office? Nope, you’ve brought one of these snack boxes.
Tempted to go through the drive-thru on the way home? No point when you’ve already got a healthy, delicious meal at home waiting for you.
“I think of meal prepping as a way to put lunch, breakfast, or even dinner on autopilot for the week,” says Atlanta-based registered dietitian nutritionist Marisa Moore, M.B.A., R.D.N., L.D. “You do all of the major chopping, cooking and cleaning on one day.” And then, when you get home from work, tired and starving, you don’t have to think about it. Dinner is served.
How to Start Meal Prepping
1. Start Small
If you’re not used to batch cooking, start with prepping one or two days’ worth of meals at a time.
“I recommend starting small with meal prep for a couple reasons,” says Moore. “It can take a couple hours to get through the chopping, cooking, and cleaning [for a week’s worth of meals]. If you try to do too much too soon, you may be overwhelmed and not want to do it again.”
Moore adds that starting small will allow you test one or two recipes to see how you like them — and just how much you actually eat. “You wouldn’t want to make too much food and end up wasting it,” she says.
2. Stock Up on Kitchen Essentials
You don’t need a ton of fancy kitchen equipment to make healthy meals at home. Here are some basic kitchen tools you might find helpful if you don’t have them already:
- Bento-Style meal prep containers
- Pyrex meal prep containers
- Mason jars
- Chef’s knife
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Cutting board
- Sauté pan, small saucepan, baking sheet
- Mixing bowls
- Slow cooker or Instant Pot (optional)
- Blender or food processor (optional)
3. Pick a Day to Meal Prep
Moore recommends starting on a Sunday or Monday. Sundays often work well since most people have a little extra time.
She adds that people also tend to be more motivated to engage in healthy behaviors at the beginning of the week. “Meal prep is a great way to carry that enthusiasm throughout the week with just a little effort upfront,” she says.
4. Come Up With Meal Prep Ideas
Planning your meals for the week doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s surprising how many different meals you can make with a limited number of ingredients.
So if you’re not ready to commit to a fully gourmet meal prep just yet, keep it simple. Seth Santoro, L.A. life coach and founder of The Life Chef, suggests no-fuss combinations like salmon, roasted carrots, and spinach for lunch, and chicken, brown rice, and broccoli for dinner. To add flavor without calories, stock up on herbs and spices.
Of course, if you’re on an intense exercise plan, you’ll need to plan for your dietary needs.
Once you have your meal-prep recipe list, check your pantry and fridge for the ingredients you’ve already got, make a list, and then you can head to the store prepared. Don’t be afraid of the bulk aisle: you’ll save money.
If you come home to find you’re almost too stocked up, here are 12 tips on storing all that food.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll want to keep mixing up the menu so you don’t get bored.
5. Batch Cook Staples to Use Later
Once you’re comfortable meal prepping, Santoro recommends preparing staples — like rice, oats, lentils, and yams — in bulk. “You can make a pot of rice, use some now for a meal, refrigerate a portion, and freeze a portion to be used later,” he says.
6. Make It Easy on Yourself
- Include some no-cook recipes in your meal prep. These snacks and throw-together meals like salads can help you save time and energy in the prep process.
- When prepping, use the oven to cook several things at once. Veggies can generally roast together.
- Don’t shy away from the Crockpot or the Instant Pot. They’re super time-savers — just add ingredients, set, and forget. While it’s doing the work on one recipe, you have time to focus on another.