The moment I say “meal prep” I’m sure you’re probably getting bodybuilding vibes. Isn’t it just athletes who do that??
All budget- and time-conscious young professionals do it, too. I mean, not trying to peer pressure you or anything, but. . . oh, yeah, actually I am. Meal prepping is a no-brainer for anyone at any level of their career, but especially the first few years when you’re still working to perfect your time management habits and aren’t yet making those 6-figure checks.
It does take some practice, not only the measuring and cooking but also finding recipes that are just as delicious reheated as they are the first time. But I personally enjoy that process of discovery, and I sincerely hope you see it as a learning experience, too! Plus, you don’t have to go ‘all in’ from the start. It’s completely fine to start small with just a few meals and go from there.
Let’s start by digging deeper into why you should be meal prepping, and then we’ll get into more of the practical stuff.
Saves Hours of Cooking Overall
Meal prepping times vary by recipe, skill of the chef, and total organization of the endeavor but overall you should be able to accomplish an entire week of meal in at most 3 hours on a Sunday afternoon. From there, you’ll spend a total of 6 minutes per day heating up your food. Now, 3.5 hours might sound like a lot, but spread out over 7 days it is in fact 30 minutes per day. Most of us spend an hour per day cooking and cleaning even when we’re cereal and sandwich type people, so you can imagine how quickly this adds up!
Not to mention that clean up of the same pots and pans 7x per week at a minimum is a crying shame.
Spend Your Time Where You Have It
The few hours you do spend cooking can be put wherever in your schedule that is best for you. Taking time to cook and clean up three times per day is terribly ineffective already, and also just often inconvenient. How often do you push back meals or never eat them because you get busy and just don’t have time to make something? If you’re anything like me, you don’t keep crap food in the house because you know you’ll eat it, so when there are food emergencies they escalate quickly. Not with meal prepping!
If your schedule doesn’t allow for 20-40 minutes around noon every day to fix something, no problem! How about you find a window on the weekend instead? AND do it in a quarter of the total time of 20-40 minutes per day for 7 days. And probably fix tastier or healthier food, too. Then dinner is often an hour per day to fix and especially clean up. I don’t hate to say that you’ll likely love not doing that anymore.
Taking out most, if not all, of your cooking time throughout the week will allow you to accomplish more on those days. You might have more time to actually spend face-to-face with family, to take your pup to the dog park, to work more feverishly on a side gig or toward other goals. And for the sake of saying, if your weekends tend to end up full, you can totally meal prep on any day of the week that makes sense for you! Thursday nights tend to be great, too.
It is Cost Saving
My favorite benefit aside from all of the time it frees up is all of the cash savings! I’m the most awful ever about just grabbing something out (multiple times a day) when time is not my friend. Also, eating quick items in your kitchen like bagel bites or cereal adds up quickly. Batching things out, even when you make two types of breakfasts for the week or three kinds of dinner, still reduces your overall spend.
And that reduction in costs can allow you to channel funds into other things that will help you learn and grow as a human being. As long as you’re diligent in your budgeting and don’t just blow that same money elsewhere, you can save it toward guitar lessons, investment in your side gig, a new mastermind course, a trip to a winery, the opportunities are endless!
I’ve been known to take my spending money for the week out in cash every Monday morning, and drop what I don’t spend out in a jar at the end of every day. I saved half a plane ticket to France before the COVID-19 pandemic hit! And I was hitting my nutrition goals on the daily.
You can save anywhere from $2 to $40 a day by meal prepping on average, depending upon your current eating habits.
Pro tip: Start slow
Begin your first week with just one meal per day, the second with two, and the third week with three. Lunch is the most logical start for most, so I recommend just making lunches for the week the first go-round. Then expand to dinners, and then breakfast. I say breakfast last because, in all honesty, a meal prepped breakfast is often the least satisfying so it takes the most getting used to (definitely not always the case, though, if you commit to finding the ‘right’ recipes!).
If you have a family to cook for, too, especially with picky eaters, it may make more sense for you to tackle lunch, then breakfast, then dinner. You just do you!
The idea here is to start building habits from a strong base. Get used to blocking out time on your weekend, on planning and buying ingredients on time so it’s stress-free, on committing to eating the food you’ve pre-made, etc. And then once those main habits are formed, add more pre-made meals!
Now we can dive into how best to actual go about this process:
Find good meal prep recipes that you know you can’t not love
It is easy to want to combine all of your life goals into one and go for the healthiest of meal prep recipes from the start but the truth of the matter is that you’re more likely to fail that way. Again, you need to start building habits that last first, and then shift them bit by bit to your ultimate goal. Because you’ll already be battling finding foods that are good day after day and reheated, don’t add the healthy element on top of it unless you’re just already eating great food on the daily (in which case, please do!)
The recipes I always recommend people start with are the stuff you’ve probably had for leftovers a million times:
- Any sort of “bake” or casserole (calling all Southerners…)
And then a standard fallback is baked chicken with frozen vegetables on the side, for those who consistently eat that sort of meal anyways.
Just get used to cooking wholesome food in big batches and loving it. As you work toward healthier recipes, I recommend never trying more than one new recipe per week. This is one of those things where when you find a winner it’s FANTASTIC, but it often takes several fails to find a winner. Don’t create too much stress by exploring too much too fast. You’ll get a feel for what works and what doesn’t over time.
Order or buy containers
There are meal prep containers everywhere these days. You really can’t go wrong – just buy whichever ones speak to you – but I’ll add a few thoughts to consider.
While the glass ones are the most sustainable and best long-term investment, they’re quite expensive and also quite bulky in cabinets. I would recommend waiting until your meal prepping becomes a true habit before investing in those. Until then, I use these compartmentalized containers that are a fair price, quite convenient, and dishwasher safe. Or for some salads, pastas, or oatmeal I use Mason jars because they’re space saving in the fridge. As a last resort, you can totally use regular Rubbermaid tupperware from your local grocery store.
This is something else you can totally take slowly. You don’t need 3 x 7 days = 21+ containers all at once! You do need at least 7 of them to start out (a week of lunches), but if you already have a few then feel free to mix and match! I do recommend eventually having all one matching kind and throwing out the rest, just for the sake of minimisation and reducing subliminal stressors, but that can wait for now.
Buy the ingredients you need 1-2 days in advance
One to two days ahead is just a general recommendation and is in no way law. I say this because grocery shopping and meal prepping on the same day is quite a lot, and can easily lead to putting off the actual cooking until “later” which turns into “tomorrow” which turns into “I’ll just do it again next week…” To avoid that, if cooking on Sunday, I recommend grocery shopping on Saturday or maybe even Friday night. You don’t want any fresh items to go bad before cooking, but apart from that just get it done early!
Don’t forget to account for ingredients you already have. And I HIGHLY recommend taking a photo of your spice cabinet to keep on your phone long term… I don’t know how many times I have bought the same spices twice because I can never remember what I have once I’m in the store and grab it “just in case”.
Make an afternoon of it
On a weekend day, spend an afternoon chilling, cooking, cleaning the kitchen, and sipping something delightful. Make it an experience. Definitely wear comfy shoes because we all know those kitchen-induced back pains are fierce even for us young kids. But otherwise just plan to enjoy! Chop slowly, throw on some great jams and sing out loud, have a great conversation with your spouse or roommate, sip a great beverage or two, throw some of that beverage randomly in your recipe, taste your creation – enjoy yourself! This should be just as therapeutic as it is budget-friendly and time saving.
The temperature bit
Once your food is cooked, it is ideal for you to let it cool to room temperature before throwing it in the fridge or freezer. I don’t know the science behind this, but suffice to say you sometimes end up with extra “funk” around soups and stuff especially if you cool it too fast. That being said, if absolutely necessary, you can throw it in there hot.
Then you have to decide whether you’re putting all of your prep in the fridge or part of it in the freezer. There are a few reasons why you might choose to freeze part of it. One is if you simply don’t have enough room in the fridge. If you have a large family or roommates, or even just if you personally are meal prepping for all meals, you might not have room. Just throw several days’ worth in the freezer!
One reason you might prefer to avoid the freezer is that you have to remember to take those out later in the week and stick them in the fridge to thaw. If you forget, it makes it difficult to defrost and eat that food. Just a consideration.
If you do choose to freeze part of it, I recommend setting a reminder on your phone for two nights before you’ll start eating those portions, since it takes a while to thaw in your fridge. Twenty-four hours ahead of eating at a minimum. And worse comes to worse, certain food items will defrost and reheat fine (like chili).
Pro tips: Reheating
The biggest reason many don’t like to meal prep is because the food is “less tasty” or the texture might not be desirable after reheating. After several years of this, I have found a few tricks to mitigate this, which I will share willingly:
- Only cook meat about 70% of the way to what you consider “done” while meal prepping, because it will cook the rest of the way when you reheat. Air on the side of caution with chicken, but for example, when I cook salmon I leave about half of the middle of the piece pink.
- Sprinkle all grains (quinoa, rice, oatmeal, etc.) with water before reheating to give them a bit of steam and life. You’ll know when you’ve overdone it, but otherwise don’t be shy! This trick can make grains taste fresh again and again!
- Reheat veggies, meats, and stir fries in a pan as often as possible, because a slower reheat will leave your food less chewy. Cover the pan with a lid on medium heat for most items, and check every two minutes. Add a bit of water at the start, which will also help give life to the food.
- Reheat casseroles, chilis, and soups in the microwave because you’re busy and these aren’t worth any extra effort.
- Reheat bread, breaded foods, and pizza-style dishes in the oven because you want to keep the crisp true to self.
- Wait to add cheese until you reheat, so that it’s perfectly gooey warm and stringy when you eat!
- For smoothies, don’t blend it until you’re ready to eat or else it will take on a funky consistency.
So there you have it. I hope you give meal prepping a try, with an open mind and an attitude ready to have fun with it. I also hope you benefit from all of the time and money savings, and are able to consciously shift that time and money elsewhere on your journey to crushing it.