Meal Prepping 101: A Beginners Guide to Weekly Meal Prep
Even if you’re not a Pinterest fanatic or foodie blog follower, chances are you’ve heard of weekly meal prep. This super structured food fad sweeping the nation has plenty of loyal devotees and those who partake in the weekly ritual can’t find enough good things to say about it.
Meal preppers tend to be less stressed when it comes to figuring out what to eat for lunch on a quick break from their desks (and tend to eat healthier), or what to fix their hungry families for dinner. A meal prep plan for the week not only takes away the stress and all the guesswork off your shoulders, it also keeps you ridiculously organized.
If you’ve never prepped a meal in your life and don’t know where to begin, don’t worry. We’ve set up this guide to help out even the most novice meal preppers. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about weekly meal prep, how to do it, ingredients, weekly meal prep ideas, and more. In no time flat you’ll be prepping like a pro!
What is Meal Prepping?
Meal prep plans are like snow flakes- each one is unique and beautiful in its own way. There is no “one size fits all” meal prep, one person’s routine may not be the best routine for another person. The trick is to find the perfect meal prep routine for you and your family.
Generally, weekly meal planning and shopping may take place on one day each week, whereas the meal prep part takes place on another. Meal prepping is all about taking the ingredients you bought for each meal you planned for the week and preparing them for an easy, convenient, grab-and-go menu.
Although it seems like meal prepping takes a long time (and it does, even after you’ve settled into a routine) spending a little more time up front saves time in the long run. Consider how much time you are already spending with cooking each day- washing, chopping, stirring and cleaning. Now imagine all that rolled into one day. You’ve already got the cutting board out and dirty, why not chop a few more carrots? Chopping a few more carrots today means not having to get that cutting board back out later this week. That’s a win in my book!
For those with busy families, especially, a meal prep plan for the week can free up time by clumping most of the work together in one day. Here are a few of the other awesome benefits of weekly meal prep:
- It’s a money saver. Meal planning and prepping can save a ridiculous amount of money each week at the grocery store! Rather than blindly shopping for ingredients to hopefully throw together in a meal, your grocery list will include everything you need for each planned meal for the week, which keeps you from buying unnecessary items.
- Meal planning gives you more variety. When you spend time planning your meals, you’re likely not sticking to the same old, tried-and-true meals. You search for new, interesting recipes for your family to try each week.
- Stick to your weight loss or fitness goals more easily. Meal prep reduces the temptation to eat less than healthy foods. If it’s not on your grocery list, don’t buy it! And, if it’s not already prepped for you to eat, don’t eat it! It simplifies the whole process of eating healthy, leaving you to focus on more important things.
How to Get Started
Figuring out where to begin when you’re new to meal prepping can be the most difficult part of the whole process. But, rest assured that, once you get into a steady routine, all of this will begin to come naturally to you.
When it comes to weekly meal prep, planning is key. This is what can make- or break- your whole process (but don’t panic! We’ll walk you through it!). In order to have a successfully-prepped week, your planning needs to be organized in a way that works for you.
Your first step should be figuring out the best day to plan and prep. Again, make this work for you- if you want to do it all in one day, great! If you want to or split planning and prepping between two days, that’s just dandy as well!
What do we mean by “planning”? Planning means drafting up your actual meal plan, creating a shopping list and shopping for the ingredients. If you have a particularly large shopping list, you may feel it’s best to split your planning and prepping into two days. But, if you’re a go-getter, feel free to squeeze it all into one day.
Plus, you’ll need to consider your work schedule, if applicable. Do you have two days off in a row? If so, spending one day planning and shopping, and the next day prepping, could work well for you.
Do you only get one day off per week, or have non-consecutive days off? If so, it may be best to use one day, if possible, to plan and prep. Doing each step on non-consecutive days may make it a little more difficult for you to plan out each day’s meals.
Next, identify WHY you want to start meal prepping (this will help you find weekly meal prep ideas and help make sure they meet whatever goals you are trying to achieve).
Some of the most common reasons for people to want to start prepping meals are:
- Weight loss
- Save time
- Eat healthy
- Easy to prepare
- Build muscle
Weight loss meal preps, for example, will help you keep portion sizes correct, ensure you are getting plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber, lean protein and the right amount of fats for your weight loss goals. If you exercise regularly or are trying to put on weight in a healthy way, you may opt for a muscle building plan, which will hone in on muscle building ingredients, like proteins, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.
Plan the Menu
Ok, you’ve identified your goals and pinned some new recipes, now comes the really fun part- putting it all together and designing your weekly menu! When you first start out, you may want to refrain from choosing a ton of new recipes all at once. This can come later. To start out, stick to a few family favorites to help ease you into learning how to plan your meals for the week and create a grocery list.
Once you gain more experience in planning and start feeling comfortable, it’s time to get creative! Head on over to Pinterest and start pinning to your heart’s content- breakfast! lunch! dinner! snacks! And, of course, check out your favorite food blogs and recipe sites, raid your grandmother’s cookbooks, beg the secret family recipe for spaghetti sauce from your great aunt, or wherever you get your best ideas and recipes.
A quick hint on organization: You may want to consider using a basic spreadsheet on your computer to help keep you organized. Include the days of the week, your breakfast, lunches, and dinners for each day with a link to the recipe, if desired, and the list of ingredients needed for each meal.
When you’re done planning, print it out, and you can use the blank template to create a new one next week!
Remember that, for the healthiest meals, you should add the proper ingredients to each meal you’re planning. According to Heart.org, a person on a 2000-calorie diet should have the following number servings from each food group:
- Whole Grains: 6-8 servings (What that looks like: 1 slice bread or 1 tortilla, 1/2 cup cooked grains like quinoa or rice, or pasta)
- Vegetables: 4-5 servings
- Fruits: 4-5 servings
- Dairy: 2-3 servings
- Meats: 6 oz. or less
- Fats and oils: 2-3 servings
When planning your meals, take into consideration the portion sizes of the recipes, and how they relate to the recommended food group servings. Each of your meals, ideally, should have some of the following components included, to help you reach your daily food goals. Below are some examples of each component:
- Protein: chicken, fish (choose fatty fish, like salmon 2-3 times per week), seafood, eggs, yogurt, lean red meat, tofu, beans, lentils, nuts, tempeh.
- What a serving looks like: 3 oz is approximately the size of your palm.
- Carbs: sweet potatoes, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa and other whole grains, beans, lentils, wheat breads, fruits, veggies, nuts.
- Fruits: apples, oranges, raspberries, kiwi, fig, bananas, pineapples, mango, grapes, cherries, grapefruit, watermelon.
- What a serving looks like: 1 medium whole fruit, 1/2 cup cut up fruit or 1/4 cup dried fruit.
- Veggies: cabbage, cucumbers, kale, collard greens, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, celery, onions, lettuce, mushrooms.
- What a serving looks like: 1 cup raw leafy greens, 1/2 cup cooked veggies or beans
- Dairy: Milk, yogurt, kefir and cheese. If you choose non-dairy products look for vitamin D fortified products.
- What a serving looks like: 1 cup of milk, 1 cup of yogurt or 1.5oz cheese.
- Healthy fat: avocado, nuts, nut butters, olive oil, flax & chia seeds, olives, fatty fish like salmon or sardines.
- What a serving looks like: 1 TBSP oil, mayo, butter, dressing, avocado, nut butter.
Create the Grocery List
If you decided to use a spreadsheet to help plan your meals, you’re already one step ahead of the game. The easiest thing to do now is print your spreadsheet, with ingredient lists included. If you’re not using a spreadsheet, list all ingredients needed for each recipe, including the amounts, on one paper.
Next, you might want to group like ingredients together so you know exactly how much you need for the week. For example, one recipe needs one cup of shredded cheddar cheese, and another needs ½ cup. Group it together as one list item, like 1 ½ cups shredded cheddar.
Now, go through your cabinets and refrigerator to see what you have and what you still need to purchase for your meal prep plan for the week. Draw a line through anything you have already, but make sure you have the right quantity for all recipes!
Once you’ve narrowed down the list to what you need to buy, according to your meal prep plans, try to group the ingredients together. For example, group milk and eggs with other dairy or refrigerated products. If you can group them together according to your store’s layout, it will save you even more time.
You have your meals figured out and ingredients purchased, so now it’s time to prep. The good news is, there is no wrong way to prep your meals. Just like the rest of your meal plan, prepping boils down to what works best for you.
When it comes to meal prep, the important thing to remember is not to cook too much ahead of time. Sure, it can save time, but it will also sacrifice taste. Pasta and meats, for example, may be better left for cooking when you’re ready to make that meal.
However, feel free to chop your veggies ahead of time and you can always marinate meats a few days ahead, if you’d like. By the time you’re ready to use them, they’ll be tender, juicy, and full of flavor!
During the prep phase, cut up some raw vegetables, like celery, carrots, or onions, measure spices and cook quinoa, rice or other hearty grains so there’s less work on the day of the meal. Remember to keep strongly flavored ingredients separated, rather than putting all prepped ingredients into the same containers to prevent foods from taking on each others flavors. For example, some vegetables (onions, we’re looking at you!) are rather strongly flavored and can end up tainting the other veggies they hang out with all week. That’s not always a good thing.
If your veggies or proteins are more mild, feel free to group your ingredients together in containers for each meal. When you’re ready to use them, pull the container from the fridge, finish preparing whatever still needs to be cooked- this should be minimal- and get cooking. You’ll save time searching for what you need, and can quickly get started with cooking!
Just because you’re trying to save time by meal prepping, doesn’t mean you need to cook all your food ahead of time. In fact, it’s best that you don’t do this! But, you can still get creative with prepping your meals to save you some time through the week.
For sauces, dressings, or marinades you can use for different recipes, you can cook a large batch of it and store it in smaller batches in the refrigerator for a week, or even the freezer for up to 3 months.
If you’re planning on using chicken breasts for tonight’s meal, but also need shredded chicken for tomorrow’s dinner, cook it all at once, and shred it to prepare for tomorrow night. Store it in the refrigerator in an airtight container, and half your work for tomorrow’s dinner is already done!
Here are a few more helpful suggestions for cooking your meals in time-saving ways:
- As you’re cooking tonight’s meal, consider what’s on the menu for tomorrow. If there’s anything you can prepare as you’re waiting for tonight’s to cook, get started on it!
- You can cook several grains, like brown rice or oatmeal, for a few days at a time, so consider making larger batches if you need them for more than one meal.
- Consider putting a lot of focus on breakfast, since it’s a super-important meal. Make muffins for the week, cook an omelette for the next morning as you’re making dinner, or make a large batch of pancakes to refrigerate for each morning.
- Utilize your crock pot, if you have one. Separate ingredients into bags or containers for each meal, so that you can easily add them to the crock pot and let it do the cooking for you.
Food Storage/Prepping Containers
If you’re going to be prepping food for the week, you don’t want it going to waste! Before you begin prepping, you should take time to invest in the perfect containers that will keep your week’s food as fresh as possible.
Look for plastic containers with an excellent seal, such as ones that have closures on all four sides for an airtight seal. Containers with a label area are extra handy, too, so you can write the meal’s name and date you’re using it.
Lastly, find containers that are microwave, refrigerator, freezer, and dishwasher-safe. If so, they’ll be able to go wherever you need them, which can be a lot of places when you’re meal-prepping!
Don’t forget to recycle other containers that can come in handy, like mason jars or sauce jars. They can make the perfect storage for fruit salads, garden salads, or even your batches of sauce and marinades.