Eating out can get expensive, not to mention those restaurant meals aren’t helping your quest for a six pack.
Lots of busy people feel there’s just no time to cook. Instead, they’d rather hit Starbucks for a “light” breakfast muffin, then a quick run to the local sub shop for lunch, and maybe even Chinese takeout for dinner since the grocery store is excessively busy past 5:30.
All of the excess expenses and caloric intake may leave you feeling a little guilty, but what can you do about it?
If you’re ready to get serious about your health and physique, then it’s time to meal prep.
If you’re willing to spend hours each week in the gym, then why not commit some time to planning and prepping your meals too? What’s the sense in crushing some weights and then hitting the drive-thru on the way home?
What is "Meal Prep"?
Lucky for you, meal prep isn’t as tedious or time consuming as you’d think. In just a few hours (or less!) each week, you can take charge of your macros, grocery budget, and health.
Meal prep includes the planning, shopping, preparation, cooking, and storage of your weekly meals.
Meal prepping will be different for everyone and depends on your lifestyle and goals. At the end of the day, meal prep should simplify your meals, saving you both time and money.
Why Prep Meals?
Having healthy food prepared and waiting in your fridge makes it easier to stick to your goals.
What happens when you’re hungry at work and didn’t bring any food with you? You’re forced to default to fast food or succumb to waistline wrath of the vending machine. All of a sudden, that 30 minute lunch break takes much more time (and money) than anticipated and you could save yourself the hassle by prepping a couple days of food.
The same thing happens when you’ve had a long day and come home to an empty fridge. Those are the nights where you end up ordering pizza. Imagine coming home to a fridge full of already cooked, ready-to-eat meals that fit your health and aesthetic goals!
Meal Prep Doesn't Have to be Boring!
Meal prep is simple and efficient, but it doesn’t have to be boring! Although you may see many bodybuilders who choose to eat the same food day in and day out, there’s no reason to do it that way if it doesn’t work for your goals. Meal prep can mean cooking 2-4 different meals per week instead of 14 portions of the same thing.
As I’ll cover in greater detail, meal prep can involve mixing and matching as many ingredients as you want or finding gourmet recipes in books or online and preparing them in advance.
Don’t let a fear of boring food keep you from meal prepping. Feel free to vary your meals as much and as often as you’d like!
To make things easy for you, I’m going to give you the ultimate beginner’s guide to meal prep. I’ll cover everything you need to start your first round of meal prep from helpful tools to food portioning.
Before you Start
- Good knives
- Food scale
- Storage containers
- Freezer/Storage bags
- Meat thermometer (optional but helpful)
- Insulated lunch box or bag
Before you jump into planning your first shopping list, you’ll want to make sure your pantry is in order.
It’s good to keep a few staples, or go-to ingredients, on hand and to replenish them when you run out. There’s nothing worse in meal prep than starting a recipe and realizing you don’t have a basic ingredient like olive oil or rice.
Having plenty of basics on hand means you should be able to throw something together in a pinch even if you’re running low on other ingredients.
Don’t panic if you don’t have these items on hand yet. They’re not essential, but as you start to acquire the basics, you’ll see that your weekly grocery list gets shorter.
Here are a few items that are part of a well-stocked meal prep pantry. Of course, this list may vary depending on your specific dietary needs, but it’s a good starting point.
- Rice, dried pasta, and quinoa
- Peanut butter
- Cooking oils (Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, etc.)
- Spices & Seasoning blends
- Condiments (Mustard, Soy Sauce, Hot Sauces)
- Protein powder
- Freezer Staples: Frozen fruit, frozen vegetables
Don’t overlook the importance of spices, seasonings, and condiments in keeping your meal prep interesting. You can transform a bowl of chicken and rice from bland to Asian-inspired to Mexican with the right flavor additions!
Step 1 - Planning & Shopping
In the planning stages, you’ll want to make sure you’re covering your need for protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and starches. A simple way to start meal prep is to simply mix and match one item from each category as it fits your macros.
When prepping this way, your grocery list simply needs to include enough options from each category. There’s no need to pick out recipes and list ingredients here.
For your first meal prep, you could purchase Chicken + Asparagus + Sweet Potatoes and adjust the quantities to fit your macros and calorie goals.
Choose how many days you want to prep for (it’s fine to start with 3-4 if you’re not ready to tackle a full week yet) and make sure your ingredients will last. If you want 6oz of chicken breast for 4 meals, you’ll need to buy at least 1.5lbs at the store. If you have too much, you can always freeze the excess for later.
If you’re meal prepping by following recipes, be sure to read through all of your recipes and write down everything you’ll need at the store. This process will get faster once you have a well-stocked pantry.
What Foods Prep Well?
To help with your first grocery list, here are some sample foods that prep well and are found in most meal prep recipes.
Chicken (breasts or ground), turkey (ground or breast meat), lean beef (ground or sirloin), pork tenderloin, chicken sausages, canned tuna & salmon, eggs.
Carbohydrates (Starches & Vegetables)
Rice (brown or white), potatoes (sweet or white), grains (oats, farro, bulgar), quinoa, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts), dark leafy greens (romaine lettuce, kale, spinach, swiss chard), asparagus, peppers, legumes (all variety of beans and lentils).
Avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, nut butters.
Don’t forget to load up on healthy snacks while you’re shopping. Throwing a few snacks in your lunch box should keep you from raiding the vending machine or gas station on your lunch break. I recommend Greek yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese, boiled eggs, protein bars, rice cakes, nuts, or fresh fruit and vegetables.
What Foods Don't Prep Well?
While you can generally be flexible about which foods to prep, there are a few that aren’t as good for meal prepping.
Fresh fish loses a lot of texture once it’s been stored in the refrigerator and it often doesn’t reheat well. You can probably get away with reheating fish in a sauce at home, but do your coworkers the courtesy of not reheating fish in the break room microwave! If you’re looking to get in your omega-3s at the office, it might be best to stick to canned tuna and salmon.
Saucy pasta dishes can also be tricky to store. If you store the components separately, you may end up with dry pasta. If you store the pasta already sauced, the pasta ends up absorbing all of the sauce. For meal prep purposes, it’s probably best to stick to recipes for pasta salad that are meant to make leftovers. Otherwise, you can try coating your plain pasta in olive oil and storing it separately from your sauce.
Always Start with Quality Ingredients
If you find yourself running out of meal prep ideas, or are unimpressed by nutritious options at the supermarket, you might want to try shopping at a local farmer’s market.
Shopping at a local market ensures that you’re eating seasonal, varied ingredients. Most markets offer a good selection of local produce, high quality meat, eggs, and dairy. You’ll usually end up paying less for a vegetable that was grown in your own town than one that has to be packaged and shipped cross-country.
If you really want to mix up your meal prep, see if any farms in your area offer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). In this arrangement, you prepay to receive a different box of produce each week. You’ll be able to add these new ingredients to your weekly meal prep!
Using fresh, high-quality ingredients can make a big difference in the flavor of your meals as well as providing a health benefit. Whether you’re at the store or the market, it’s best to purchase the highest quality ingredients you can afford.
Money Saving Tips
When I’m discussing meal prep or even just admiring some of the epic meal prep photos on Instagram, I often hear people complaining about how expensive meal prep must be. To be quite honest, meal prep is not more expensive than the alternative - eating lunch off the dollar menu every day.
Not only is meal prep inherently affordable, there are ways to make it even cheaper. The best way is to start browsing your local grocery stores’ sales flyers. Start planning your grocery list around items that are on sale and you’ll see how much food you can get for your weekly budget. Once you start reading them, you’ll see that there are lots of items each week that are on sale for as much as 50% off – no coupons required!
Shopping the bulk bins, even at pricey stores like Whole Foods, can also help you save money. Bulk oats are often a huge savings when compared to name brand oats, where you’re typically just paying for the packaging.
Buying small quantities of spices from the bulk section is another great way to save. If you’re interested in trying something new or have a recipe that only calls for a teaspoon, there’s no reason to buy a 2oz jar from the spice aisle. Simply scoop what you need into a small bag and you’re walking out with high quality spices for pocket change!
Step 2 - Preparation & Cooking
How Long should Meal Prep Take?
Meal prepping for the week shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours. Once you’re in the habit of prepping and know your favorite meals, you’ll find that it likely takes less than an hour of active prep time.
Cooking a large batch of meals all at once is faster than cooking those same meals separately during the week. You’ll end up with overlapping ingredients, and only having to process those once per week will save you a lot of time.
Optimize your Time
When it’s time to start prepping, you’ll want to embrace your inner Top Chef and utilize the efficient and organized elements of mise-en-place. Go ahead and grab all of the tools and ingredients you’ll need and group them together. It’s generally easiest to complete one stage of prep before moving on to the next.
So, you’ll want to do all of your chopping at once and just set ingredients aside as you finish. Then you can weigh your raw components (as needed) and then begin cooking.
Before you start cooking, it’s helpful to go ahead and read all the way through any recipes you have and make a cooking plan. You’ll want to start with whatever component takes the longest.
If you have something that bakes for an hour, go ahead and get that going. While that’s in the oven, you can prepare and assemble salads, cook rice on the stove, and sauté your vegetables.
Don’t lose time by waiting for one food to fully cook before tackling the next ingredient. If you optimize your time wisely, you’ll be done with your weekly meal prep in no time!
Using your oven is a great way to keep your cooking hands free. With multiple pans and oven racks, you can easily cook your protein and vegetables at the same time. Just cross check cooking temperatures and find food combinations that can share the oven.
Roasting adds a lot of flavor to vegetables, and it’s quick to chop up a wide assortment of vegetables, toss them in a little olive or coconut oil, add seasoning, and roast at 375-425F until they begin to soften and brown. Check out these Easy Oven Fajitas for a simple, healthy oven meal.
Crock Pots are versatile tools that aren’t just for stews. You can’t beat the ease and convenience of fully cooked dinners that didn't require any prep work during the day. Crock pots make batch cooking protein simple. This easy Crock Pot Chicken recipe makes 8 servings and requires very little prep work in the kitchen. Serve over rice and with avocado slices for a complete meal.
This is a great way to have a one pot meal while you mix and match foods. You can quickly stir-fry a protein of your choice and then add lots of veggies. With a non-stick skillet, it’s easy enough to stir-fry 3-4 meals worth of food, give the pan a quick wipe down, toss in a healthy cooking oil, and then cook up another batch of meals with different ingredients and flavors. Check out this quick take on stir-fry basics from NerdFitness.
When the weather’s nice, loading up your grill with protein and veggies is a great way to enjoy meal prep. The whole family can be together as you grill up chicken, steaks, lean burgers, eggplant, squash, corn on the cob, and more.
Recommended Meal Prep Recipes
If you want to take a break from typical meal prep combos, you can always turn to more traditional recipes. Keep an eye out for recipes that make larger portions (6+) or that could be scaled up easily. I tend to browse through a few food blogs and cooking websites on the weekend and take note of recipes that use shared ingredients.
Related: 43 Easy High Protein Recipes
For extra convenience here, I’m going to highlight a few easy recipes that make plenty of portions and freeze well. Almost all recipes should keep well for a couple of days in the refrigerator, but “freezer meals” are delicious months later. If you keep your freezer stocked with a couple of these options, you’ll always have food ready to go, even if you’ve just come back from vacation or had an extra busy week at work.
- Make Ahead Frozen Meatballs
- Quick Turkey Meatballs
- Roasted Vegetable Burritos
- Three Cheese Zucchini Stuffed Lasagna
- Crustless Quiche
Step 3 - Meal Prep Storage
All that’s left is packing up your food and storing it in the fridge and freezer!
This is also a good time to do any calorie counting while you still remember the quantities you used. For calculating calories and macros, I find it most accurate to take the measurements raw. If you enter cooked measurements into an online database like MyFitnessPal, you’ll find a large (and confusing) assortment of nutritional info. The raw weights and nutritional info are typically listed on the packaging.
Although you’ll be tracking the raw weight, it’s still helpful to reweigh portions before packing them up. If your 1.5lbs of raw chicken breast has cooked down to 1lb, then you know that you need to put 4oz of cooked chicken in each container.
If you’re new to meal prep, you might find that you don’t have enough containers to store all of your food in. Here are a few different types of containers that work for different budgets and lifestyle needs.
- LunchBots Trio Stainless Steel Food Container — These stainless steel lunch boxes come with 3 compartments and are a good lunch option. They're not completely leak proof so steer clear of soups and too much dressing. If you're looking to avoid plastic and the weight of glass, this is a good, easy to clean option.
- Bentgo All-in-One Stackable Lunch/Bento Box — This lunch box set is BPA-free, stackable, and comes with a small plastic cutlery set. A variety of compartments offer good meal prep options.
- Rubbermaid 42-Piece Easy Find Lid Food Storage Set — A great budget set if you’re looking to load up on high-quality plastic storage containers. The lids snap to the bottom of their respective containers which makes storage easy. The containers in this set are all BPA free and come in a wide variety of sizes.
- Glasslock 18-Piece Assorted Oven Safe Container Set — This glass set is airtight, leak-proof, oven-safe, and microwave safe.
- Snapware Total Solution 10-Piece Glass Food Storage Set — This 5-piece glass set features oven-safe glass and latch-on lids. This is a good sized kit to supplement a plastic collection.
- Reditainer 2 Compartment Microwave Safe Food Container with Lid/Divided Plate/Lunch Tray with Cover, 10 Pack — Look like a meal prep pro with these restaurant style food containers. Seal tight plastic lids come with 2 or 3 compartment plastic rectangular containers. They’re dishwasher and microwave safe, but not as long lasting as some other options.
- Zojirushi Mr. Bento Stainless Steel Lunch Jar — If you need the option to keep cold foods cold or hot foods hot, this Stainless Bento Jar is the way to go. You’ll have the option to keep 2 compartments hot OR cold and then keep another 2 containers room temperature. A good choice for someone who doesn’t have access to a fridge or microwave during the day.
- Fitmark Bags — All Fitmark bags come with seal-tight containers and lots of storage options for accessories, shaker cups, and snacks. Check out the full line for a variety of shapes and sizes to fit different lifestyle needs.
- Core150 Stack Pack — Meal prep on the go? This fitness travel system holds 4 days’ worth of meals, a shaker bottle, and even your laptop.
You can go ahead and assemble your food into meals, especially if you have storage containers with multiple compartments. Or you can store each cooked component separately and assemble the meals later.
The majority of your meals will go straight into the refrigerator, but it’s important to let food cool down at room temperature first. Most cooked food should be fine in the fridge for 3-4 days, but you might want to consider freezing portions for the end of the week. You can check this list of guidelines as a reference
For any food that’s going into the freezer, be sure to label the storage container with the contents and the date you cooked it. It’s best to use bags and containers that are specifically marked “freezer safe” to minimize freezer damage to your food.
How does the food taste after a few days?
I’ve noticed very little loss of flavor in foods that are stored properly. If you’re the type who gets tired of eating the same thing, be sure to prep a few different meals for the week. You can rotate between them and store some in the freezer for a later week if needed.
What if I don't have a way to reheat lunch?
If you don’t have access to a microwave during the day, you still have good options for meal prep. First, you could purchase a storage container that is meant to keep hot foods hot, like the Zojirushi Mr. Bento Lunch Jar. Or you can make sure that your lunches are meals that taste good cold. Salads, sandwiches, many pasta dishes, and certain chicken recipes can all be enjoyed cold.
How many days should I prep for?
It’s up to you! It’s good to aim for a typical 5-day work week, but feel free to do less or more. If you’re utilizing freezer-friendly meals, you can make as much as you want and freeze it for later. If you’d rather just eat from the fridge, you could try doing a Sunday and mid-week meal prep.
How much should I buy and how much do I eat?
This will vary depending on your health goals. You might want to start with a calorie calculator to get a target number. Or if you’re more of an IIFYM person, you can plan your meals around macros instead.
It’s time to get out there and start prepping. If you have any questions about getting started, just ask in the comments below.