There’s no denying that mealtimes can be some of the most stressful times of the day. Dinner at our house feels like a circus when we don’t plan meals as a mom ahead of time. Choosing what to make, cooking in a hurry, and doing the dishes requires mental energy that’s tough to muster up after a fun-filled day, especially when everyone is tired and hungry. As someone who’s always looking for ways to organize and simplify my schedule, meal prepping just makes sense.
If you’re contemplating meal prepping, keep reading to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of making meals ahead of time. You might find that it makes sense for you too!
What Is Meal Prepping?
Meal prepping means preparing meals ahead of time. It involves planning out meals, shopping for ingredients, and cooking meals to be stored in the fridge or freezer. You decide the type and number of meals to make. For example, you might prep breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a few days or prep only dinners.
The purpose of meal prepping is to eat nutrient-dense meals and save time and energy throughout the week. No more deciding what to make for dinner last minute or going through the drive-through because there’s nothing to eat at home. Instead, your fridge is stocked with pre-made meals that help you stay on track with your health goals with less fuss in the kitchen.
What are the Different Types of Meal Prepping?
Meal prepping doesn’t come with a rule book, so you can make it your own. If you only need lunches pre-made, then only make lunches. If mornings are the most chaotic, then prep breakfasts - I shared my healthy breakfast burrito meal prep recipe for those who need ideas. If you don't want to touch a single pot or pan for days, make all your meals ahead of time. Every schedule is different, so find what works for you. Here are a few different ways to meal prep that may inspire you.
- Prepare and assemble your meals for 3-4 days ahead. Meals can be portioned out in individual pre-portioned containers, or you might leave them in a larger container until it’s time to plate your food. This option saves you time throughout the week but requires more time upfront to make the food.
- Cook large batches of foods like soup or casserole (like this turkey sausage breakfast casserole), then separate food into smaller containers and freeze to eat at a later date.
- Cut down on cooking time by preparing ingredients in advance. For example, you might chop up all veggies ahead of time if you know you're cooking a meal with them soon.
Is Meal Prepping Healthy?
In addition to saving time, you might find that meal prepping helps you stay on track with your health goals. Planning your meals in advance means you’re more likely to make meals with nutrient-rich ingredients rather than grabbing fast food or packaged snack foods high in salt and sugar.
However, prepping nutritious meals involves some forethought. If you are trying to eat more healthfully, you must know how to create balanced meals. This starts with thinking about your meals in terms of macronutrients. Aspire to build more meals with lean protein sources, complex carbs, and healthy fats. Include colorful vegetables and fruit for essential vitamins and minerals.
Create flavorful, nutrient-rich meals that you will look forward to. These meals should leave you feeling fueled and satisfied. I used to think meal prepping only involved cooking chicken, sweet potatoes, and asparagus. I ate so many sweet potatoes I couldn’t even look at them for months. Of course, that way of eating wasn’t sustainable long term, nor appetizing.
Don't be afraid to make mixed foods when meal prepping. I’m talking about tacos, burgers, pasta, soups, and pizza. Just because it's not tilapia, brown rice, and broccoli doesn't make it a less nutritious meal. Prepping your favorite mixed foods using nutritious ingredients will open up more meal opportunities, so you don’t get stuck eating the same foods all the time.
Is It Safe?
Food safety practices should consistently be implemented when meal prepping to avoid foodborne illness. Taking specific precautions while preparing, cooking, storing, and warming foods reduces your chances of becoming sick from harmful bacteria. Keep the following food safety guidelines in mind when meal prepping.
- Wash your hands and cooking surfaces before meal prepping food.
- Keep your refrigerator at 40°F or below and your freezer at 0°F or below.
- Cool down foods quickly after cooking by dividing hot foods into shallow and small containers before placing them in the fridge.
- Use separate cutting boards and knives for produce and raw meat to avoid cross-contamination.
- Always rinse produce thoroughly with water before chopping or cooking.
- Cook meat to the appropriate internal temperature.
- Reheat food to 165°F when you're ready to eat a refrigerated meal.
- Eat refrigerated meals within 3-4 days. Freezer meals can be kept for 3-4 months.
- Thaw frozen meals in the refrigerator instead of on the countertop.
Check out the USDA food safety guidelines for more information.
Benefits of Meal Prepping
Meal prepping takes some work upfront, but the benefits can last for days. Meal prepping benefits include:
- Reduced time spent in the kitchen cooking on busy weekdays
- Less mental stress associated with deciding what to eat for each meal, so you can give your energy to more important things
- Allows you to plan out more nutritious meals instead of eating fast food or ultra-processed foods
- Fewer dishes left to be washed after a meal
- Likely reduces the number of times you visit the grocery store
- May lower your grocery bill
Does It Help With Weight Loss?
Meal prepping could help you eat smaller portions, more nutrient-dense foods, and less energy-dense foods, all of which could result in weight loss. Eating meals full of protein and fiber promotes satiety, so you’ll feel fuller for longer after eating. This could lead to eating less throughout the day and may be enough to put you into a calorie deficit needed for weight loss.
If you tend to eat past the point of fullness, portioning your meals out ahead of time could prevent you from overeating to the point of physical discomfort. When your meals are pre-portioned, you can eat the portion you prepped, assess your fullness level, and decide if you want more.
What Are the Drawbacks?
Although meal prepping can save you time throughout the week and help you eat more nourishing meals, there are some potential drawbacks to consider before deciding if meal prepping is ideal.
- Prepping food could potentially take 2-4 hours to cook
- Lots of pots, pans, and cooking utensils will need to be washed after meal prepping
- Will require time to plan out meals for the week
- If you don’t prep a variety of meals, you may get bored eating the same foods over and over again
- You will need plenty of food containers with lids to refrigerate your meals in
Who Should Consider Meal Prepping?
Anyone can benefit from meal prepping if they implement it on their own terms. Everyone has different commitments and responsibilities, and for meal prepping to be sustainable, it needs to mesh with your schedule.
Consider meal prepping if:
- You’re a parent or spouse who’s tired of deciding what to eat for dinner every night
- Your afternoons are typically packed with after-school activities
- You tend to go through the drive-through because there’s nothing to eat at home
- You go out to eat during your lunch break because you didn’t pack a lunch
- You skip breakfast because you didn’t have time to cook anything before leaving the house
- You visit the grocery store several times a week because you don’t plan your meals in advance
5 Healthy Meal Prepping Tips & Tricks From an RD
- Make a plan: Write down the meals you plan to prep and create a grocery list. Consider which day you will shop and meal prep and the time it will take to cook several meals.
- Choose simple meals: Reduce the time it takes to meal prep by following recipes without tons of steps or ingredients.
- Cook balanced meals: Include lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. Add vibrant colors and essential vitamins to your meals with fruits and vegetables.
- Create appetizing meals: Nutritious meals should taste good too! If you don’t want it, you won’t eat it.
- Prep a variety of meals: Even the most delicious meal will get old after a couple days.
Wrapping Up Meal Prep As Part of Your Healthy Lifestyle
Meal prepping is an excellent option for individuals or families who want balanced meals ready to eat without the hassle of cooking and washing loads of dirty dishes. While meal prepping does require some planning and work at the start, the benefits of having pre-made meals last for days.
When you plan meals ahead of time, you’re more likely to make nutrient-dense meals instead of reaching for TV dinners or fast food. Portioning out your meals before refrigerating them could keep you from eating past the point of fullness, which may result in weight loss. Give meal prepping a shot if you’re ready to spend more time enjoying nutritious meals and less time stressing in the kitchen.