How to Meal Prep for the Week
Ready to get started meal prepping? We’ve got you covered! Here we share our 15 best meal prep ideas to save time and money (not to mention energy!). These healthy meal prep ideas will make meal prep easy, whether you’re looking to prep a week of meals or just a couple of side dishes.
It’s amazing what meal prepping can do to get us through a tough week. Not only does it reduce stress by making meals fast and easy to put together, it makes us much more likely to cook in those moments when we start to think about ordering pizza instead. (After all, we don’t want all our hard prep work to go to waste, do we?!)
But it’s not always obvious how to prep a week of meals. That’s why we wanted to share our best tips for weekly meal prep to make the process a little easier and more straightforward.
What is meal prep?
But first, what does it mean to meal prep? What is meal prep good for?
Some people use “meal prep” to mean preparing whole meals or dishes ahead of time. We typically use it to mean preparing ingredients or parts of meals in advance so that cooking or assembling your meals is much faster.
In other words, meal prep is washing, peeling, and chopping vegetables you’ll need later in the week. It’s making vinaigrettes or marinades. It’s cooking rice or other grains so they’re ready to go when you need them. And yes, sometimes it may include preparing whole dishes or meals that reheat well.
Doing as much as you can in advance means that putting together a home-cooked meal can take just a few minutes. It’s a lifesaver when you get to a busy night and know that all you have to do is sear some meat and assemble a salad, or reheat a pre-made soup with some wild rice that’s already made. Not only that, but prepping in advance means you spend less time cooking in a week since you can be more organized and strategic with your tasks, waste less food and therefore spend less on groceries, and it becomes much easier to eat a healthy diet.
Are you sold yet? Then let’s get into the tips!
Before you meal prep . . .
Believe it or not, most of the work of meal prepping happens before you actually start chopping and mixing. By being prepared to meal prep each week, you can make the task much more efficient and effective — and reduce the chances of wasting food that you already put in the effort to prep!
1. Learn how to make a meal plan
First things first: You can’t meal prep for the week until you know what you’re going to eat that week. That’s why meal planning is an essential first step. Read this post to learn how to plan a week of meals, then come back for tips on prepping.
Of course, some people like to live on the wild side and just wing it. While you can certainly prep enough veggies to last a week and figure out how to use them later, we strongly recommend meal planning as a way to spend less on groceries and reduce food waste.
2. Don’t “go big or go home”
Okay, so if you’re meal prepping, you’re probably already home. But the point is this: It’s okay to start small. If you really want to make meal prepping a habit, don’t expect to prep every single thing you’ll need all week, every week. Even prepping a single meal, chopping a couple of vegetables, or cooking a pot of noodles will give you a head start for the week, and you’ll be grateful for it. Once you establish the habit, you can build from there — but all habits take time, and meal prep is no exception.
3. Get plenty of meal prep containers
When you prep, you need extra fridge space and extra meal prep containers. We love these glass meal prep containers for their ability to keep odors from stinking up the fridge and for their tight seal, which keeps liquids from spilling. Plastic is lighter-weight but not as sturdy, and metal makes it harder to remember what’s inside (learn more about how to choose the best meal prep containers for your needs here). Regardless of what type you choose, be sure to buy a variety of sizes of containers. You’ll need large ones for chopped root vegetables, tiny ones for minced garlic, and everything in between for sauces, spice mixes, marinating proteins, and more.
4. Decide on a consistent time each week
Meal prep only happens if you make time for it. Decide now when you’re going to do your prep, and put it on your calendar or in your reminder system to repeat each week. This way, you’ll be much more likely to follow through with your plan, and it’ll be that much easier to turn weekly meal prep into a habit.
5. Learn how to chop efficiently
Knife skills are a huge time-saver when it comes to meal prep, and so is knowing exactly how to prep and chop each fruit or vegetable you’re working with. Investing time up front to learn and practice these skills will pay off in the long run. After all, you may just be prepping for this week, but you’ll still need to eat again next week, next month, and next year. Do your future self a favor by improving your skills now!
6. Keep your knives sharp
Working with the proper tools and making sure they’re in good condition will make your prep faster. We recommend getting knives professionally sharpened every six months to a year if you can — or at the very least, sharpen them at home every few months. Some people are afraid of sharp knives, but you’re actually a lot safer with properly sharpened ones. By needing less pressure on whatever you’re chopping, you’re less likely to injure yourself if the knife slips — and the knife is less likely to slip in the first place if it’s sharp!
7. Know how long ingredients last
Cucumber goes soft within a day or two after being chopped. Tomatoes turn mushy in the fridge. Most marinades, however, can be made a full week in advance. Don’t let your hard work go to waste by prepping ingredients that will turn moldy, mushy, or sour before you get a chance to use them. Know how long your ingredients will last, both prepped and whole (see our produce shelf life guide for more), and know when you plan to cook with them. Some ingredients just aren’t worth prepping in advance!
Produce Shelf Life Guide
Reduce food waste when you learn how to care for fresh produce.
8. Write out a prep list
The Cook Smarts meal plan service gives you optional weekend prep steps each week (start your free trial here), as well as telling you how far in advance you can prep ingredients. But if you’re using recipes that don’t list prep steps separately, it’s helpful to stay organized with a list. This saves you time transitioning between tasks, since you’re not searching through your recipes for the next thing to do. Create your prep list by consulting this chart to see how far in advance you can prep various ingredients:
As you’re meal prepping . . .
Now that you have a plan, it’s time to start your prep! Here are some tips for making the actual prepwork go quickly and smoothly — so you can get on to the rest of your day.
1. Batch your tasks
Writing out a list also helps you to see where you can batch tasks — for instance, if you’re chopping sweet potatoes for one meal, chop bell pepper and broccoli right after so you don’t have to wash the cutting board more than once. Similarly, make any vinaigrettes or sauces around the same time so that you’re not taking out and putting away the same bottles of vinegar, soy sauce, and oil over and over, or washing measuring spoons before you’re done with them.
2. Chop from firmest to messiest
Speaking of chopping veggies, start with firm veggies that don’t have much juice. Then move on to veggies that are a little messier, and finally finish up with ones like tomatoes, that will make a mess of the cutting board. This prevents you from having to rinse and dry the board and knife between veggies, which saves you time. Chop raw proteins last so that you can sanitize your cutting board and/or run it through the dishwasher when you’re done, reducing the risk of cross-contamination between raw meat and vegetables.
3. Keep a waste bowl handy
Have a designated spot to put compostable waste as you’re working. This will save you trips to the compost bucket or trash, and will keep your work space clear so you have enough space to prep without knocking anything over. (Plus it’ll keep stems and produce stickers out of your food!)
4. Consider what can be cooked together
Baking some fish for tonight’s dinner? Maybe you could bake the chicken thighs for tomorrow’s salad at the same time. This will save you from having to heat the oven up more than once, and won’t take a lot of extra effort. This also works well when roasting veggies; one side of the sheet pan can be used for today’s veggies, and the other side for later.
5. Double your grains
If you have one recipe that calls for rice and another that calls for barley, it’s totally fine to use the same grain for both! Make a double batch now so that you’ll be prepared later in the week, or just make extras to have on hand for lunches. Extra cooked grains also freeze well, which can help you out when you’re in a pinch in the future.
6. Use dry erase markers to label containers
One of the worst frustrations of meal prep is not remembering what’s what! Label your containers with the date and contents to be sure you don’t use the wrong sauce in a dish, or wait a little too long to cook a meal you prepped. Our favorite way to label is with thin dry erase markers, which can be used on glass, metal, or plastic, and rub off easily once you’ve used the contents. Just be sure to wipe the outside of the container very dry before labeling! If dry erase markers don’t work for the type of meal prep containers you have, another option is keeping masking tape and a permanent marker in the drawer with your containers for easy labeling (and easy removal!).
7. Make it fun!
Put on a podcast, grab a glass of wine or cup of tea, invite a friend over (or do a meal prep Zoom). If you do something enjoyable at the same time as prepping, the time will fly and you’ll actually look forward to all the slicing, dicing, and mixing. Plus, unlike with normal dinner preparations, you’re typically not meal prepping while hungry or needing to stick to a strict schedule, which automatically makes the task more relaxed and less stressful. Think of meal prep as something you get to do, not something you have to do, and you may actually start to look forward to it!
Get a head start on your weekly meal prep by letting someone else do the meal planning for you! Sign up for a free 14-day trial of our meal plan service. You’ll get full access to weekly dinner recipes that include our best tips for weekly meal prep, as well as thousands of additional recipes from the archives that can be added or swapped, a one-click grocery list, and full optional Instacart integration!