It is particularly popular with busy people because it saves you a lot of time.
Meal prep is the concept of preparing complete meals and dishes ahead of schedule.
Having prepared meals on hand can also reduce portion sizes and help you meet your nutrition goals.
This way, you avoid unhealthy options like TV dinners or takeout, especially when you’re overwhelmed or exhausted.
And since it requires you to determine what to eat ahead of time, meal preparation can lead to more nutritious meal choices in the long run.
Despite what people may think, there are several ways to prepare meals, not all of which involve spending an entire Sunday cooking dishes for the coming week. You can choose the methods that suit you best.
This article explores the most important principles of food preparation and breaks the process down into a few simple steps.
Different ways of preparing meals
You may think that cooking meals for the next week will consume a large part of your weekend.
However, because there are multiple ways to prepare meals, you don’t have to stay in the kitchen all Sunday afternoon. Anyone can find a suitable style of meal preparation.
The most popular ways to prepare meals include:
- Ready Meals – Complete meals cooked ahead of time that can be refrigerated and reheated at meal times. This is particularly useful for dinner time meals.
- Batch Cooking – Make large batches of a specific recipe, then divide into individual servings to freeze and eat for months to come. These make for popular hot lunch or dinner options.
- Individual Served Meals : Prepare fresh and individually portioned meals to be refrigerated and consumed within the next few days. This is particularly useful for quick lunches.
- Ready-to-Cook Ingredients – Prep ingredients needed for specific meals in advance as a way to reduce cooking time in the kitchen.
Which method works best for you depends on your goals and your daily routine.
For example, early breakfasts might work better if you’re looking to optimize your morning routine.
On the other hand, keeping batch meals in your freezer is particularly helpful for those who have limited time in the evenings.
The different food preparation methods can also be mixed and matched according to your own circumstances.
Start by choosing the most attractive method, then slowly experiment with the others to determine which one best suits your needs.
There are many ways to prepare meals, depending on your goals, schedules, and preferences.
Some options include making large batches to freeze, complete meals to refrigerate, and separate servings to combine as you see fit.
Choose the correct number and variety of foods
Determining how many meals to make and what to include at each meal can sometimes be tricky.
The best way to plan ahead is to first decide which meals you would like to focus on and which method of meal preparation fits your lifestyle.
Then review your calendar to decide how many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you will need for the next week.
Also, remember to take into account the times when you are likely to eat out, for example, on dates, at a lunch with friends or at dinners with clients.
When selecting which meals to prepare, it is best to start with a limited number of recipes that you already know. This will ease your transition to meal planning.
With that said, it’s also important to avoid choosing just one recipe for the entire week. This lack of variety can lead to boredom and will not provide your body with the nutrients it needs.
Instead, try to choose foods that contain different vegetables and protein-rich foods, as well as a variety of complex carbohydrates, such as:
- The brown rice.
- Sweet potatoes.
Integrating a vegetarian or vegan meal into the mix is another way to add variety.
The correct number of meals depends on your individual routine and needs. Variety is key to providing your body with the vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds it needs.
Tips to reduce cooking time
Few people expect to spend hours in the kitchen while preparing meals. This is natural since the key incentive for preparing meals is to reduce cooking time.
The following methods will help speed up prep and cook times:
Stick to a consistent schedule
Meal preparation works best when you stick to a regular schedule. Knowing exactly when you are shopping for groceries and preparing your meals will help you form a good routine.
For example, you can reserve Sunday mornings for grocery shopping and meal prep. Or you can select Monday nights to pack lunches for the rest of the week.
The schedule is up to you and should fit into your weekly routine. Keep in mind that choosing specific times and sticking to them will simplify the decision-making process, freeing up mental space for other things.
Choose the right combination of recipes
Choosing the correct combination of recipes will help you be more effective in the kitchen.
To save time, select recipes that call for different cooking methods. Having too many recipes that call for the same appliance, like the oven, will limit the number of dishes you can make at one time.
This is especially important when selecting ready meals or for batch cooking.
A good rule of thumb is to stick to one oven meal and a maximum of two stovetop meals at a time – for example, loaded baked potatoes, a stir fry, and a soup.
Then just add no-cook foods to the mix, like sandwiches or salads.
Organize your preparation and cooking times
A well thought out workflow will save you a lot of time in the kitchen.
To better organize prep and cook times, start with the recipe that requires the longest cook time. This is usually soup or oven food. Once the meal is underway, focus on the rest.
Save cold meals for last, as they can be easily prepared while other meals cook.
To save extra time, review the ingredients in all recipes before you begin. This way, if two recipes call for diced onions or diced bell peppers, you will be able to cut the entire amount at once.
Using automated devices like a rice cooker or slow cooker can further streamline your workflow.
Make a shopping list
Grocery shopping can be a huge waste of time.
In the middle of the time you spend at the grocery store, keep a detailed shopping list organized by the supermarket departments.
This will avoid duplication to a previously visited section and speed up your purchases.
Limiting grocery shopping to once a week and using a grocery delivery service are two additional ways to spend less time shopping.
To cut down on time in the kitchen, keep a consistent schedule and make use of a shopping list. Choosing the right combination of meals and organizing your kitchen is also important.
Choosing the right storage containers
Your food storage containers can make the difference between a great or mediocre meal.
Here are some container recommendations:
- Airtight Containers for Ready-to-Cook Ingredients : Reusable and washable silicone bags and stainless steel containers are great for keeping ingredients crisp and food fresh.
- BPA Free Microwave Containers – These are convenient and better for your health. Pyrex glassware or collapsible silicone containers are good options.
- Freezer Safe Containers – Will limit freezer burns and nutrient losses. Wide-mouth mason jars are ideal, as long as you leave at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) of headspace for the food to expand as it freezes.
- Leak Proof Compartment Containers – Ideal for lunches or meals that require ingredients to be mixed at the last minute. A good example is bento lunch boxes.
Stackable or similarly shaped containers will help optimize space in your refrigerator, freezer, or work bag.
Containers are convenient and space saving. They can also help your food taste better and retain more nutrients.
Cooking, storing, and reheating food safely
Food safety is an important but overlooked component of meal preparation.
Cooking, storing, and reheating food to the proper temperature can prevent food poisoning, which affects approximately 9.4 million Americans each year.
Here are some government-approved food safety guidelines:
- Be aware of proper temperatures: Make sure you keep your refrigerator at 40 ° F (5 ° C) or below and that your freezer is at 0 ° F (-18 ° C) or below.
- Chill Food Quickly – Always refrigerate fresh food and meals within two hours of purchase or cooking. For quick cooling, spread cooked food in shallow containers and immediately place in your refrigerator.
- Keep storage times in mind : cook fresh meat, poultry, and fish within two days of purchase and red meat within 3-5 days. In the meantime, keep them on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator.
- Cook to the right temperature – Meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 ° F (75 ° C), as this kills most bacteria.
- Thaw Food Safely – Thaw food or frozen meals in your refrigerator instead of on your counter. For faster defrosting, immerse food in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes.
- Reheat food only once: the more times you cool and reheat a food, the greater the risk of poisoning. That is why defrosted food only needs to be reheated once.
- Reheat food to proper temperature – All foods should be reheated to 165 ° F (75 ° C) before eating. Frozen foods must be reheated and eaten within 24 hours of thawing.
- Use Labels – Remember to label and date your containers so that you can consume food within the food safety period.
- Eat food within the correct time frame : Refrigerated meals should be eaten within 3-4 days and frozen meals within 3-6 months.
Cooking, storing, and reheating food to the correct temperatures can reduce your risk of food poisoning. The guidelines above give you an overview of the main food safety measures that you should be aware of.
Steps to a successful meal
Preparing a week’s worth of meals can sound daunting, especially for newbies. But it doesn’t have to be difficult.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to simplify your meal prep process:
- Select Meal Prep Method of Choice – This can also be a combination of methods and should be based on your lifestyle and nutrition goals.
- Stick to a schedule – Pick a day of the week to plan your meal, shop for food, and cook.
- Pick the Right Number of Meals – Keep in mind your calendar and the restaurant meals you have planned for the week.
- Select the right recipes – keep an eye out for variety and preparation methods. When starting out, stick to the recipes you already know.
- Reduce the time you spend shopping for groceries : make a shopping list organized by supermarket departments or shop for groceries online.
- Spend less time in the kitchen – choose which meals to cook first based on cook times.
- Store your food – use safe cooling methods and appropriate containers. Refrigerate the foods you plan to eat in 3 to 4 days, then label and freeze the rest.
Food preparation doesn’t have to be complex. The basic steps can help you cut down on cooking time, freeing you up for the activities that matter most to you.
The bottom line
- Meal prep is ideal for people who want to spend less time in the kitchen.
- It can also promote healthy, nutrient-dense meals and discourage less nutritious fast food options.
- Depending on your goals, schedules, and meal preferences, meal prep may involve making large quantities to freeze, complete meals to refrigerate, or ready-to-mix ingredients as needed.
- Find a method that works for you and choose one day per week to plan meals, shop, and cook.