Plastic vs. glass, bento boxes vs. single-compartment containers, and more.

By Julia Malacoff
Updated: August 30, 2018
Photo: fortyforks/Getty Images

So you're going to start meal prepping (maybe with the help of this 30-day meal-prep guide for beginners). Go you! But now you need meal-prep containers-and you may not know where to start. Should you get those expensive glass ones you saw recently? Or is it okay to use leftover takeout containers? And how many do you *actually* need to buy?

We chatted with a meal-prep pro to find out answers to these questions, and more-because your meal prep is only as good as the containers it's in, right?

The Plastic vs. Glass Debate

One of the biggest debates in meal prep is whether it matters what material your containers are made from. Plastic and glass are the most common choices. The answer? It depends on your priorities.

"Glass is obviously better for the environment, but when it comes to our bodies, both are safe if you know what to look for," explains Talia Koren, founder of Workweek Lunch.

"Plastic containers that are BPA-free and made for food storage are totally safe to use and put in the microwave," she says. Food-safe containers will have the number 1, 2, 4, or 5 on the bottom. This indicates the type of plastic used to make the container. If a container has 3, 6, or 7 on the bottom, it's not safe to use.

BPA-free plastic containers only become unsafe when they're cracked; then it's time to throw them out, says Koren. Personally, Koren says she prefers plastic because they're more budget-friendly, lighter, and easier to carry around. "They're also easier to store and if you drop them, they won't break!"

However, glass is ideal if you're frequently reheating meals in the oven, she adds. You don't need to transfer your food to a new container to reheat it, the way you need to with plastic. Bonus: They're also less likely than plastic to stain, says Koren.

Stainless steel is also an option (it's actually Kourtney Kardashian's meal-prep container material of choice), but it can be a pricier (and non-microwave-friendly) choice.

How Many Meal Prep Containers Do You Need?

Many people are unsure of exactly how many meal prep containers they need when they're first getting started. Ultimately, it depends on how many meals you plan to make ahead of time. Try starting with six containers, says Koren. That should be plenty to work with if you're not prepping every single meal.

"With six containers, you can do five lunches or a couple lunches and dinners for the week," she explains. If you're planning to prep three meals a day for five days, though, you might want to consider grabbing a few more. (Heads up: Here's how to pick the perfect meal-prep recipe.)

Meal-Prep Container Layouts and Sizes

There are many different size and shape options out there for meal-prep containers, but what's most important is that they fit the meals you want to prepare and fit into your fridge or freezer easily.

"Start with cheaper containers because it might take some time to figure out which size is best," suggests Koren. "I started with 40-oz containers, which were way too big. Now I use 25-oz (about 3 cups) containers and they're perfect. You have to experiment to find the best size for you!" (If you're just getting started, read up on these meal-prep mistakes to avoid for faster, healthier, and better food.)

And while single-compartment containers work just fine for most people, bento-style boxes do have their advantages. "If you're someone that likes to keep veggies separate from your protein, the containers with compartments are great. They're also good for the times you want to reheat part of a meal, but not the whole thing, or want to keep salad ingredients separate to avoid sogginess."

Reheating, Freezing, and Washing

Not all containers have the same rules for reheating, washing, and freezing. "When you're buying containers, it will say on the package how to wash them properly and if they can be frozen," says Koren. The package should also explain which heat methods are safe.

In general, most glass and plastic containers can be put in the dishwasher and microwave. "The only time it's not safe to do that is with plastic containers you get from takeout places; they're not microwave- or dishwasher-friendly and they shouldn't be reused to store food." (These types of containers aren't meant for reuse, so they aren't made according to the same safety standards as reusable plastic containers.)

Brands to Check Out

Ready to make your purchases? Here are the brands Koren recommends looking to for your meal-prep container needs (BTW, they're all BPA-free).

Lock and Lock: "I am obsessed with plastic BPA-free Lock and Lock containers," says Koren. "They come in so many different sizes, are easy to clean, and don't leak! I feel comfortable putting a Lock and Lock container full of soup right in my bag with my laptop." Check out their 14-piece set (seven containers with seven lids), which comes with a bunch of different sizes. ($33; amazon.com)

Meal Prep Society: For a glass option, Meal Prep Society's three-compartment containers ($35 for 3; mealprepsociety.com) are a crowd favorite. They're microwave-, oven-, dishwasher-, and freezer-safe.

FitPacker: For a budget-friendly option, these microwave-, oven-, and freezer-friendly plastic containers ($20 for 16; amazon.com) are sized to help with portion control.

Pyrex: Always a classic, glass Pyrex containers might be worth investing in once you know your meal-prep container sizing needs. Or snag nine containers of different sizes to get started. ($37; amazon.com)

Yumbox: If you're committed to the bento-box-style container ($30; amazon.com), this is one of the best on the market. It's on the pricier side, but it's completely leak-proof and features four compartments of different sizes.

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