If you’re a newbie meal prepper, these tips can save you time, money, and a great deal of mental effort.

By Kimberly Holland
January 15, 2019
Photo: Karen Rankin; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland; Food Styling: Karen Rankin

We don’t have to tell you that meal prep is all the rage. But honestly, we have to ask: what took us so long?

The idea of batch cooking meals on the weekend or a slow weeknight for the days ahead is genius. It cuts down on kitchen time, frees you up for other pursuits (anybody else watching The Bachelor this season?), and helps you eat better. When you have ready-made meals sitting in the fridge or freezer at home, the temptation to pick up fast food or order in slips away. That equals big savings, too.

If you’ve been meal prep curious for some time, this is the beginner’s guide you need for getting started. We’ve road-tested each and every one of these strategies, and we practice what we preach with these tips. 

WATCH: How to Make the Best Baked Oatmeal

 

1. Don’t overcomplicate your plans.

If your meal prep menu requires color coding, elaborate calendars, or even a bulletin board and thumbtacks, you’ve gone too far.

Meal prep is simple:

  1. Find a few recipes.
  2. Make the recipes, and store them.
  3. Use non-recipe dishes to round out the week.
  4. Repeat.

What do I mean by non-recipe dishes? In a phrase: kitchen-sink meals. Those are the dishes that let you use up the remaining black beans from the burritos and the rotisserie chicken from the tetrazzini. 

By mixing recipes with non-recipe dishes, you get to find meals you can keep in your repertoire for the future, and you sharpen your skills as a scrappy cook by thinking of creative means to prevent food waste. (Truthfully, a grain bowl or a good soup is all that’s needed.)

2. Make ingredients genre neutral.

Another approach to batch cooking calls on you to largely ignore recipes and instead rely on ingredient ratios, such as one part protein, one part carb, and one part fresh vegetable. If you make those ingredients with few seasonings or marinades, you get to be creative with toppings.

Let’s take this example: Roast diced sweet potato with salt and pepper. Combine with cooked quinoa and rotisserie chicken. These are all fairly neutral and play well with a variety of other flavors.

Where your culinary creativity can shine is in how you top those foods. For Mexican flair, add fresh salsa, cotija cheese, and a lime wedge. For something a bit more Mediterranean, use feta cheese, a thick balsamic vinaigrette, and a sprinkle of leftover basil. A green goddess dressing marries these ingredients beautifully, too. The options are endless, and it only required cooking three original ingredients.

3. Cook extra and freeze.

Meal prep isn’t just setting aside one day to cook. It’s a way of thinking that helps you find cheats for future meals every time you turn on your stove.

One such cheat is cooking extra and freezing it for the future. After all, if you’re already dirtying up pots and pans, you might as well get a reward beyond just your next meal.

Double or a triple a recipe, or cook double the grains, beans, or sauce you need. Freeze the extra for the future. You can pull out those foods down the road and save yourself a bit of effort when your meal prep time is cut short by a busy schedule.

Foods that freeze well include grains like rice and quinoa, sauces, meatballs, meat loafs, soups, chilis, beans, legumes, muffins, breads, casseroles, and more. Foods that don’t need to go into the freezer include potatoes, greens or lettuce, dishes with mayonnaise or cream cheese. You also don’t want to freeze any soups that have cream in them.

4. Kill multiple “birds” with one pot.

You can also cook extra and use it elsewhere in your weekly meal plan. For example, if you’re cooking quinoa for Broccoli-Quinoa Casserole with Chicken and Cheddar, you can double up the quinoa and use it for a breakfast grain bowl. If you’re making hard-boiled eggs for egg salad sandwiches, boil a few extra for protein-packed snacks. Browning hamburger meat for chili? Cook an extra pound for a quick spaghetti sauce while you’re at it.

Once you learn to identify potential meal prep moments in the dishes you have scheduled, you’ll soon find yourself stocking your freezer with lots of great meal prep ingredients for future weeks.

5. Make single servings where you can.

Even if you’re cooking for a family of four, there are benefits to making single servings when you can. On busy weeks, when you don’t have time to cook, your family can pull out one serving of something they like, heat it up, and be self sufficient.

Look for recipes that are made in muffin tins or smaller casserole dishes so you can shrink the serving. Oatmeal, soups, and meatloaf can all be made in single servings easily.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cook casseroles. They’re the original batch cooked meal. Casseroles are great for nights when you know you’ll have the whole family at the table and need one big meal to serve everyone.

6. Consider the temperature.

If we didn’t tell you this tip, you’d probably learn in the hard way: not everything in a meal prep recipe reheats well. You have to think ahead.

It might seem like a great idea to finish off your farro burrito bowl with the fresh cheese and cubed avocado. But unless you plan to scoop those foods off the dish before you reheat it, you’ll have warm and goopy avocado. And maybe you’re totally OK with that. To each their avocado own. But as for me and my house, we’ll put the avocado in a separate container (and the cheese and salsa too for that matter), and sprinkle them on after the dish is gently reheated in the microwave.

7. Rely on convenience foods where you can.

You don’t have to make every element of your meal prep recipes from scratch.

Let me say that again for those in the back.

You don’t have to make every element of your meal prep recipes from scratch.

For example, if you like using frozen brown rice, rotisserie chicken, bottled pesto, and pre-chopped bell peppers, you can have delicious, healthy meals prepped in a matter of minutes with these four convenience foods alone.

Don’t try to be a hero and make every ingredient in your meal prep plan. Use convenience foods where you can and where they make the most sense. You’ll save yourself time and likely get more meals made because you were wise about how you shopped.

8. Avoid foods that wilt or turn slimy quickly.

Salads seem like the quintessential meal prep dish, but they aren’t—or at least they shouldn’t be. That’s because leafy greens often turn slimy and wet when they’re buried under a collection of roasted vegetables and cold steak.

You could take the salad-in-a-jar approach and put the frilly leaves on top of the heavier ingredients. That might work for a day-ahead prep approach, but don’t attempt this with anything beyond that timeframe. 

If you want salads in your week, prep all the other ingredients in a dish, and save room for the lettuce. Before you leave home or sit down to dine, toss in a handful of the greens. Add your salad dressing right before eating.

9. Start with a specific meal challenge.

If the idea of meal prepping three meals for four people for five days is overwhelming (and it is!), start small. Pick a specific trouble spot in your family’s meal plans, and hone in on that for your first meal prep initiatives.

If your family is excellent at eating breakfast every morning but struggles to eat anything that doesn’t come through a window for dinner, you know that batch cooking dinners is what’s right for you.

But if your family’s idea of a healthy breakfast is a sugary pastry from a vending machine before school or work, you know what you need to do: make meal prep breakfasts everyone can grab and take with them.

Not only will you feel better about tackling an issue that’s troubled you and your family, but you’ll also learn some valuable lessons when you decide to branch out to the other meals.

10. Use your gadgets.

Just like you shouldn’t be ashamed to use convenience foods to make meal prep faster and easier, you shouldn’t avoid using all the gadgets you have at your disposal. Break out your slow cooker to make big batches of soup, oatmeal, or chili. Use your stick blender to make quick work of pureeing soups or sauces. Need to shred a lot of chicken? Use your stand mixer to shred chicken. Use a mini chop to chop onions, peppers, and carrots.

There’s no gadget too small to be recruited for weekly meal prep sessions, and you can earn back a great deal of time when you let them simplify tasks for you.

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