It’s easy to forego making home-cooked meals now that ordering food for delivery and even getting ready-to-eat meals from the supermarket are viable options when you find that you don’t have time to cook for lunch or dinner. However, there’s still nothing quite like a home-cooked meal; whether it’s the hearty servings or just knowing that what you’re eating has been prepared mindfully and thoughtfully, a home-cooked dish can easily be a source of not just nutritious sustenance but also comfort after a long day.
However, cooking at home does not always need to be a big production every time you’re in need of a meal: this is where meal prepping comes in! This handy way of preparing your meals not only ensures that you can have ready-to-eat meals throughout a busy week; it also empowers you to prepare healthy, nourishing meals that can help you achieve your dietary goals.
What Is Meal Prepping?
Meal prepping is the practice of planning and organizing your meals in advance. It is typically done by setting aside time to plan, prepare, and portion out meals for the week ahead. Meal prepping is beneficial not only because it saves time for individuals by reducing day-to-day decision-making and cooking; since meals are planned out in advance, cooks can actually save money and cut down on food waste by being more efficient with their use of ingredients (for example, using different parts of one ingredient in different dishes).
Meal prepping also promotes healthier eating habits by creating the space and time for home cooks to make more conscious food choices: by preparing in advance, home cooks can have mindfully-made and portion-controlled meals readily available throughout their busy week. This is especially important for those who have specific dietary goals, as it takes out the stress of deciding what and how much to eat every time meal time rolls around, and ensures that each meal one pulls out of the refrigerator contains all the carbs, proteins, fibers, and nutrients one needs to have well-rounded meals.
Table of Contents
Meal Prepping for Beginners: How To Get Started with Meal Prepping
It may seem intimidating to meal prep, especially when you’re doing it for the first time – but here, we’ll break it down to easier, more manageable steps. Here are some things to consider before you begin meal prepping:
1 Identify your goals
Meal prepping can be done in many different ways, depending on a person’s needs, their dietary goals, and even their skill level in the kitchen. Setting clear goals can guide your approach to meal planning and help you stay motivated. Are you looking to save time during busy weekdays? Do you want to improve your eating habits and make healthier choices? Are you aiming to stick to a budget?
Once you are clear on what problem you’d like to solve with meal prepping, it will be easier to come up with a plan. For example, if your goal is to free up your weekdays from day-to-day cooking, then you can plan to only make enough pre-portioned food for 5 days. If your goal is to make healthier choices, then swapping out some ingredients for healthier ones is the way to go. If your goal is to stick to a budget, then choosing meals that will allow you to use different parts of an ingredient efficiently will help (for example, buying a whole chicken and preparing it in 2-3 different ways instead of buying specific chicken parts for different recipes can shave a lot off the receipt)!
2 Consider the logistics
Meal prepping involves planning ahead, which means that there are several logistical factors to consider before you even go to the grocery. Here are some of them:
- How many meals do you want to prep? Don’t forget to multiply the number of meals by the number of days you’ll be prepping for.
- How many people are you meal prepping for? Take the number you got in #1 and multiply it by your answer to this question.
- Do you have any dietary preferences or restrictions?
- When do you plan on going to the grocery?
- When can you dedicate time to cooking these meals?
- Are you going to eat at home all week? Don’t forget to factor in date nights or cheat days when you might want to eat out.
Remember that there are no right answers, but there right answers for you. All this means is that meal prepping is a highly personal process, and the amounts, recipes, or schedules that work for you might not be the same with anyone else’s.
Meal prepping is meant to be convenient for you, so if you feel like it’s too much pressure to cook so many dishes in one go, you can definitely break it down! For example, instead of cooking all your meals for the weekdays on Sunday, you can split it and cook on Wednesdays, too. It’s all about what works for you, your energy, and your schedule!
3 Select the right containers and kitchen tools for meal prepping
Investing in suitable containers and kitchen tools will significantly enhance your meal prepping experience. Opt for high-quality, reusable containers that are durable, leak-proof, freeze- and microwave-safe. Look for containers with multiple compartments to keep different components of your meals separate. Mason jars are excellent for salads or layered dishes, while meal prep bento boxes offer versatility and portion control.
Alongside containers, equip your kitchen with essential tools for meal prepping. These may include sharp knives for efficient ingredient preparation, cutting boards, measuring cups and spoons, food storage bags, and kitchen utensils like spatulas and tongs. Having the right tools on hand will streamline your meal prepping process and make it more enjoyable.
4 Create a schedule for grocery shopping and ingredient preparation
Again – unless you prefer it, meal prepping doesn’t need to be all done in a day. Breaking down the tasks involved in meal prepping can make it less daunting and less stressful! You can plan your meals a week in advance (or, in true Filipino fashion, while you’re enjoying this week’s meal prep) and once you’re happy with your recipes, you can create a comprehensive grocery list. Having a list when you walk into the market or grocery store can not only help you stay focused; it’s a nifty trick to stay within budget, too.
Consider buying ingredients in bulk when possible, as this can often be more cost-effective. Look for sales, discounts, and seasonal produce to stretch your budget further. Additionally, take advantage of meal prep-friendly ingredients such as grains, legumes, and versatile proteins like chicken or tofu that can be incorporated into various dishes.
Once you have your groceries, dedicate some time to ingredient preparation. Wash and chop fruits and vegetables, and marinate meats if needed. By prepping ingredients ahead of time, you’ll save valuable time during the actual cooking process.
How to Select Recipes for Meal Prepping
Best Ingredients to Use for Meal Prepping
A big part of meal prepping is cooking dishes in advance and storing them until you’re ready to eat them, so it pays to pay attention to the ingredients you’re using. Here are ingredients that keep well and are thus great for meal prepping:
- Cooked grains like rice and pasta
- Cooked beans
- Most fresh, cooked, or frozen vegetables
- Canned tomatoes, beans, and mushrooms
- Cooked meat
Ingredients that do not keep well include:
- Green, leafy vegetables
- Dairy-based cream
- Raw food
- Fried or crunchy food like potato chips
- Cut fruit
- Carrots and raw tomatoes
While it’s less stressful to use food that keep better, it doesn’t mean that you should avoid using ingredients that don’t keep well! It just means that when a recipe calls for ingredients that spoil easily, you can consider adding them in when you reheat your food. For example, cutting up green leafy vegetables and tomatoes for a salad won’t take too long, so you can put this together right before you eat (or even in the morning, before packing up your baon for the day).
Basic Meal Prepping Formulas
It takes less effort to think of what to cook when you have a general guideline of what you need to include in your meal prep. Here are some recipe combinations you can rely on when you’re planning your meals:
- For a balanced meal: Grain + Protein + Vegetable
- For a low-carb or low-sugar meal: Protein + Vegetable + Vegetable
- For a vegetarian/ vegan meal: Grain + Legumes + Vegetable
Grain dishes include rice or pasta recipes, while protein dishes feature high-protein ingredients like chicken, pork, beef, fish, or tofu. Vegetable dishes can be purely vegetarian or vegan, but they can also have some meat mixed in for those who don’t have dietary restrictions. Meanwhile, legumes largely refer to beans, and are a great substitute for fat and carbohydrates in vegan recipes.
Time-saving Cooking Methods
Cooking many meals in one go sounds like a herculean task, but with the help of some nifty kitchen equipment and savvy cooking techniques, there’s really not much to it!
Slow cooking is a method that involves cooking food at a low temperature for an extended period. It utilizes a slow cooker or crockpot, which cooks food slowly and evenly. The low and slow cooking process tenderizes tough cuts of meat, allowing flavors to develop and ingredients to become infused. Slow cooking is convenient, as it requires minimal monitoring and allows for batch cooking. It yields flavorful and tender results while retaining nutrients.
Sheet Pan Meals
Cooking meals on sheet pans is a convenient cooking method that involves preparing and cooking an entire meal on a single sheet pan in the oven. It simplifies the cooking process by allowing you to combine ingredients and cook them together, resulting in easy preparation and minimal cleanup. To make a sheet pan meal, you arrange a variety of ingredients, such as proteins, vegetables, and seasonings, on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil. The sheet pan is then placed in the oven, where the ingredients cook simultaneously, utilizing the oven’s heat distribution. This cooking technique is efficient, time-saving, and offers endless flavor combinations.
Don’t have an oven? You can use the same concept with your air fryer! Air fryers might have less space, though, so this might mean making the meal in several batches.
One-pot dishes are a convenient cooking method that involves preparing and cooking an entire meal using just a single pot or pan. It simplifies the cooking process by allowing you to combine all the ingredients and cook them together, minimizing both preparation and cleanup time. To make a one-pot dish, you typically start by sautéing aromatics like onions and garlic, then add proteins, vegetables, grains, and liquids to the pot. The ingredients simmer or cook together, allowing flavors to meld and develop. This cooking technique is efficient, time-saving, and perfect for busy individuals or those who prefer minimal cleanup. It offers a wide range of options, from hearty stews to flavorful pasta dishes, providing a satisfying and delicious meal with less effort and fewer dishes to wash.
Yummy Tip for Multi-tasking When Meal Prepping
We don’t normally promote multi-tasking in the kitchen because we are firm believers that the best way to cook is by doing things one at a time, but for meal prepping, there’s one exception: you can cook two dishes at the same time!
This is made possible by choosing one high-maintenance dish and a low maintenance one. That is, start by prepping a low-maintenance dish – one that you can set up in a slow cooker, oven, air fryer, or even a stew that takes a while to tenderize – and while waiting for these to cook in the slow cooker or oven, you’ll find that you’re now free to cook the high maintenance dish! High maintenance dishes are ones that need your attention; for example, stir-fries, quick-cooking stews, and fried food require your focus. When timed right, by the time your alarm rings for your low maintenance dish, you’ll probably be done with your high maintenance one, too.
Storage and Food Safety Guidelines for Meal Prepping
How to Decide Whether Meals Should be Refrigerated or Frozen
- Consider the ingredients in the dish: Dishes with cream-based or cornstarch-thickened sauces, and dishes containing fresh vegetables generally do not keep well in the freezer as their textures get ruined when thawed.
- For short storage, use the refrigerator: When storing dishes for up to 4 days, the refrigerator is a great option. Not only will it prolong the shelf life of your dish; refrigerated dishes are easier to reheat.
- For longer storage, use the freezer: If you are looking to store dishes for 5 days or more, the freezer is a better option as it will keep your dishes fresher for longer.
Tips for Storing Your Meals in the Refrigerator or Freezer
- Always get your food down to room temperature before refrigerating or freezing: Putting hot food in the refrigerator or freezer can cause the internal temperature to rise, which can cause food spoilage – not just for your freshly cooked food but for the others that are already stored in the refrigerator.
- When storing food in the freezer, make sure to use freezer-safe containers: Not all containers are meant for the freezer! Plastic containers that are not freezer friendly can become brittle and crack easily when pried open after being frozen.
- Pre-portion your meals: This step is not just to help you control how much you eat; it also helps cool down the food much faster and makes it easier for you to reheat the right amount of food as you go through your week.
Tips for Organizing Your Meals
- First In, First Out: This is a common food safety policy which means that you should prioritize consuming food that was stored first! In the case of meal planning, because you’ll probably cook all the dishes at the same time, you can choose to prioritize eating the dishes that are more likely to spoil faster.
- Arrange containers in the order you’ll consume them: Put the meals you’ll eat later in the back, and the ones you’re going to consume first up front.
- Label pre-prepped ingredients or unportioned meals: It can be easy to mistake some ingredients or food for others, so labelling your containers is an easy way to be able to tell them apart with just one glance.
- Use removable tapes like masking tape to label your containers: Masking tape is the perfect kind to use when labelling: not only are they cheap; they also don’t leave sticky marks when you remove them!
How to Reheat Meals
- With a microwave: A microwave works by agitating the liquid in your meals, and this can create a lot of steam buildup that can be dangerous when food is covered too tightly. When reheating with a microwave, always put in the container partially open, so that there is a vent for the steam and the food won’t splatter all over the inside of your microwave. If you’re using a microwave regularly to heat up food, make sure not to use aluminum foil when wrapping your meals as this can catch fire in a microwave.
- With an air fryer: Make sure to remove any plastic containers when reheating with an air fryer. To save on cleanup, you can actually heat your food with the in an oven-safe glass container! These usually have a wooden or plastic cover though, which should not be heated with the food. Instead, you can cover it with aluminum foil – this prevents your food from crisping up or burning too much on top!
- With an oven: It’s best to use the convection function of an oven if you have it, or simply letting the normal oven function heat up your food. We don’t recommend using the broil function as this usually ends up burning the top of your food without heating it up all the way through.
- Over a stove: While this option might need the most cleanup, it’s an old reliable way of heating up food. Make sure to watch your food when reheating over a stove as smaller portions will heat up faster!