Everything you need to know about meal prep for beginners, starting with the fact that it's much easier (and more delicious!) than you think. We'll set you up for easier nights, faster mornings, and healthier meals all month.
Meal prepping: It's one of those things that you know you should do. (Healthy food that also saves you money? Yes!) But actually doing it (and learning how to meal prep in the first place) is another story.
Maybe you tried it for a week or two and have since sworn off anything resembling chicken, brown rice, and broccoli ever again. Or maybe you know a few healthy friends who are religious about their #MealPrepSundays, and you think, "Ah, I wish I actually committed to doing that, too." Regardless, we're going to come out and say it—meal prep can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you're a meal prep beginner. Life can get in the way of even the best of intentions. But here's the thing: Meal prep will always include some level of, well, prepping and planning. But it doesn't need to be difficult, it doesn't need to take an entire day (ack, Sunday Scaries!), and it certainly doesn't need to suck.
To prove it, we teamed up with healthy chef, YouTube foodie, and meal-prep pro Alyssa Gagarin to challenge you to make meal prep a priority this month. Don't know how to even start? Don't worry. This is the complete guide for how to meal prep for beginners...like, total beginners. Gagarin is here to show you how to set up your kitchen (and your grocery list) for success with the proper tools, food, and cooking plan. Along the way, you'll learn some genius hacks like what to prep now and what should wait, mistakes you never want to make, how to put together the perfectly balanced meal, what you can quickly do the night before for easier and healthier mornings, and even how to turn your freezer into your meal-prep BFF.
Below you'll find useful videos, easy-to-understand tips and strategies, and healthy recipe ideas for easy dinners, healthy lunches, and quick and nutritious breakfasts—just consider this your complete guide to how to meal prep the healthy and efficient way.
By the end of the month, you'll feel like a slicing, cooking, and packing pro and you'll probably save some money and eat healthier, too. Before you know it, meal prep will go from something intimidating to something that's actually pretty fun. (Once you've conquered all the basics this month, challenge yourself to a clean-eating 30-day meal-prep challenge that will open your eyes to how delicious this can actually be.)
How to Get Started Meal Prepping
First thing, Gagarin says, is to have a look at your stockpile of containers and on-hand kitchen tools. What good is all that meal prepping if you don't have containers to put your meal in? A variety of glass or BPA-free plastic meal-prep containers in different shapes and sizes is crucial (don't forget tiny ones for dressing and sauces, freezer-friendly options, and mason jars). And check to make sure you have the usual kitchen suspects such as aluminum foil, plastic wrap, cutting boards, mixing bowls, measuring cups, spatulas, and sharp knives. A blender and mandoline will make your life a whole lot easier, too.
Next up, consider your schedule for the upcoming week and plan accordingly. For example, are you meeting friends for dinner one night? Did you just join a healthy lunch club at work? How much time do you have in the morning for breakfast? This will determine the number of meals you'll need. (Beginners, feel free to start small with ready-to-go breakfasts, a lunch or two, and a few dinners.) When deciding on recipes, think about A. how long they take to make; B. what pots and pans you'll be using (avoid recipes that require the same pot for faster prepping); and C. if the ingredients in the meals can be mixed and matched so you aren't eating the same thing every day.
Finally, make a shopping list and plot your meal-prep strategy. Review what you already have in your pantry and fridge and jot down what you'll need to buy. (You should always have staples such as healthy cooking oils and vinegar, eggs, almond meal or breadcrumbs, chia seeds, onions, and garlic—plus, lemons and limes and your favorite fresh herbs and dried spices for easy seasoning.) When you get home, map out your meal-prep timeline, so you can get the longest-cooking meal going first (maybe a big pot of chili), while you're roasting sweet potatoes in the oven, and chopping veggies for salads, soups, and stir-fries on the counter. And check out the graphic below for an easy way visualize your day-to-night meal-prep timeline.
Okay, you're officially ready to learn how to meal prep. Go on, and conquer that kitchen.
30-Day How-to-Meal-Prep Challenge
Photo: Michael Marquand
What to Do Now vs. What to Do Later
The first step in learning how to meal prep for beginners? Knowing what your priorities are. See some quick tips below, then keep reading to learn more about what to do now, what to save for later, and why it matters.
- Do later: Cook zucchini noodles. Spiralize now, but cook later. Zucchinis hold a lot of water and if cooked in advance can become very soggy.
- Do now: Massage kale. Kale is really tough and fibrous. Massaging kale in a bit of olive oil and salt helps break down its dense texture.
- Do now: Hard-boil eggs. You'll want them on hand for a quick breakfast or snack, and you aren't going to want to wait for a large pot of water to boil when you're hangry.
- Do later: Cut avocado. Avocado turns brown quickly, so slice your avocado for toast, salads, and tacos at the last minute.
- Do later: Blend smoothies. You can gather smoothie ingredients for individual servings into ziplock bags now, but toss with liquid and add-ins when ready to eat. (Learn how to make the perfect smoothie pack every time.)
Meal-Prep Mistakes to Avoid
Learn more about the meal-prep mistakes you never want to make, so you can save time, effort, and sanity.
- Mistake: Using same pot or pan for every recipe. You'll save precious time by avoiding having to wash the same dish after every use. So plan accordingly and you'll be able to multitask.
- Mistake: Dressing your salad. Avoid soggy greens by keeping your salad dry until you're ready to eat. Use a separate tiny container for dressing or pour it into the bottom of mason jar and stack salad ingredients from dense to delicate. (Discover different ways to pack complete meals inside mason jars.)
- Mistake: Trying to track cooking times in your head. When you're cooking multiple things at once, it can be easy to lose track of the time. Avoid overcooking or burning something by using a multi-timer app.
- Mistake: Leaving the longest recipe for last. Get chili on the stove or a whole chicken in the oven as soon as you begin prepping. It can cook while you're busy prepping other meals. (Check out these 15 awesome chili recipes for next-level comfort-food meals.)
- Mistake: Attempting to cook eggs with a runny yolk, such as sunny-side up or poached, in advance. Just stick with the hard-boiled ones for meal prep. Besides, frying an egg takes practically zero time and is the perfect addition to a prepped grain bowl.
Photo: Michael Marquand
The Anatomy of a Good Meal-Prep Recipe
A major part of learning how to meal prep is understanding what makes a really good meal-prep recipe and what you should probably leave for a night when you have more time to prep, cook, and immediately eat.
- Choose ingredients that all work well together. Mix and match your macros, toppings, and preparation, so you aren't stuck eating the same thing on repeat.
- Think about items that can be cooked in bulk, such as chili or soup for dinners, quinoa for grain bowls at lunch, and for breakfast, oatmeal for overnight oats, a big veggie frittata, chia seed pudding, or egg-and-cheese muffins will change your mornings routine for the better.
- Use what you already have in the fridge and pantry. You'll cut down on waste and cost, and this forces you to get creative with your meal prep and what you have on hand.
Photo: Michael Marquand
How and When to Use the Freezer for Meal Prep
Learn more about how the freezer can come in handy when meal prepping.
- Freeze: Sauces, soups, chili, beans, herbs, smoothies, meatballs, and casseroles.
- Don't freeze: Potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, and dairy (anything with milk or cheese in it).
- To freeze oatmeal: Add cooked oatmeal and toppings to a muffin tin, freeze until set, then wrap individually for easy access in the mornings.
- To freeze sauce or soup: Double the recipe, but freeze in individual portions.
- To freeze fresh herbs: Chop leftover fresh herbs such as dill or cilantro and store in freezer-friendly ziplock bags.
- To freeze smoothies: Prep and place solid ingredients in ziplock bag. Toss in blender with liquid and Greek yogurt when you're ready to eat.
What You Can Do Tonight to Make Tomorrow Even Easier
- Before you go to bed, fill several mason jars with overnight oat ingredients (oats, chia seeds, cinnamon, almonds, walnuts, raisins or dried fruit). Just add 1/2 cup of almond milk to the jar at night, and in the morning, it'll be ready. (Try one of these insanely good overnight oats recipes.)
- Pull out your single serving of soup, chili, or meatballs from the freezer and place it in the fridge so it'll be perfectly defrosted and ready to reheat when you get home for dinner.
- Fill a mason jar with chia seeds and almond milk, seal, and refrigerate for chia seed pudding for breakfast. (Wash berries and dice fruit and leave out nuts and seeds on the counter for easy toppings the next morning.)
- Make single-serving oatmeal cups: Cook oatmeal, spoon into a muffin tin, add toppings, and freeze until set. Remove frozen oatmeal cups from tin and wrap individually before returning to freezer. In the morning, just unwrap and microwave for 2 minutes.
- If taking a meal-prepped lunch to work, pack up everything that doesn't need to be refrigerated the night before. That way you won't leave behind those whole-grain crackers or your apple.