Meal Prep For Beginners
Whether you’re a busy mother, student, working full-time — or all three — it can be hard to eat healthy at home, especially after a long day. If finding the time or energy to prepare and cook your meals is proving challenging, meal prep can help you simplify the process and stay on track with your health and fitness goals.
Meal prep can help you avoid processed or convenience foods when you’re caught feeling hungry, or if you’re in a rush and need to reach for a quick snack to take with you. Smart meal prep can even help you beat stress when it comes to deciding what to have for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
If you’re struggling to plan meals around your schedule, here’s everything you need to know about meal prep, including what it is, how to start and how it can help you maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
What is meal prep?
Meal prep, or meal preparation, is to prepare food by grouping ingredients together in containers, or cooking and storing entire meals in the refrigerator or freezer. It should save you time in the kitchen and can make it easier to stay on track with healthy eating at home.
Some common forms of meal prep include:
- Cooking in large batches — think soups or pasta sauces you then portion out and freeze for later use
- Single-portion meals — ready-made-meals make it easy to grab on your way out the door
- Preparing ingredients for meals — such as vegetables for salads, grains, pasta or meat so you can assemble them quickly.
It might take some trial and error, but the key to meal prep is to find a routine that works for your lifestyle. For example, if you are always in a hurry in the morning and often reach for takeaway food options, then preparing a healthy breakfast is a good place to start.
What are the benefits of meal prep?
Not only is meal prep convenient, but there are a number of other benefits that can make healthy eating easier if you’re a fitness beginner.
When you spend a few hours in the kitchen preparing meals or parts of meals ahead of time, you’ll make more time for fitness and activities you enjoy.
Cuts back on food waste
Meal planning can simplify your shopping list (you’ll know exactly how you’ll be using each item), save you from making unnecessary purchases at the grocery store and help reduce food waste.
Having ready-made meals on hand means it’s less likely you’ll feel the need to go out to eat or order food, making it a more economically friendly option.
Meet your nutrition goals
Planning ahead means there’s less chance you’ll make unhealthy choices on the run.
Effective portion control
Pre-portioned meals will ensure you eat well-balanced, nutritious meals and sticking to your healthy eating goals.
You can avoid stressful last-minute decisions about what to have for dinner, or when it’s late and you’re scrambling to throw a meal together.
How to meal prep like a pro
Here are a few tools you’ll need to meal prep with ease.
Invest in good quality containers
The first step to successful meal prep is to invest in some good quality, airtight and freezer-friendly food storage containers. Sealable glass containers are the safest option for meal prep, but there are other options depending on your personal preferences.
If you are going to reheat your meals, make sure the containers are BPA-free like glassware or silicone. If your plan is to prepare several days’ worth of food at once, it’s a good idea to buy stackable or similarly shaped containers that will help to optimise storage space in your refrigerator or freezer.
Small containers and mason jars work well for refrigerator storage and are particularly good for sauces and dressings — but be cautious with storing jars in the freezer as the freezing and thawing process can cause the glass to crack. Opt for freezer-friendly glass containers where possible.
Containers with compartments also make great storage for meals that require ingredients to be combined just before you eat them.
Plan your recipes and write a list
Plan your meals in advance so you know what you'll be preparing and when. If you are just starting out with meal prep, don’t overwhelm yourself — stick to a few days’ worth of food at a time, rather than a whole week to help you get used to the process.
Research a few recipes, find some easy meal prep combinations, write them down, then break them down into a list of ingredients. This way, you’ll know how much you need over the period you are cooking for. A recipe book and a notepad or app can help you stick to your meal plan and record your shopping list.
To ensure your meals are nutritionally balanced, include at least half vegetables or salad, one-quarter carbohydrates and one-quarter protein and think about variety across the week — consider mixing up the types of protein, carbs, healthy fats and vegetables so you get a good mix.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fish two to three times a week, meals with legumes every week and a wide variety of different coloured vegetables each day, but this will vary depending on your country’s recommendations, so it’s best to familiarise yourself with them first.
Meals like stir-frys and stews are perfect for meal prep, however, dressed salads and creamy dishes don’t keep well in the fridge for long as this can alter the texture and taste of the food.
If you’re unsure, start small — preparing an element of a dish will make other meals quicker and easier. For example, you can try roasting a tray of vegetables that you can add to meals like warm salads or as a side to protein.
Allocate time to meal prep
Depending on what you’re preparing, you can choose to spend a whole day on meal prep for the next few days or spread it out nightly. For example, if there are meals or snacks you prefer to eat fresh, such as salad or vegetable sticks, you can group them in the same containers in the refrigerator and chop them up in the morning or just before you eat them.
For more complex dishes, like curries, you can chop up all the vegetables so they are ready to go when it’s time to cook.
Make space in your refrigerator or freezer
Pre-allocating space in your refrigerator or freezer can save you time trying to play Tetris after a long day.
Other tools to optimise meal prep
A slow cooker or multi-function cooker can be a great investment and can help save more time with batch cooking.
How to store your prepared food correctly
You can meal prep most foods, but some work better refrigerated rather than frozen.
All fresh fruits, vegetables and cooked meals should be kept in the refrigerator and eaten as soon as possible once you remove them. If you have made foods such as sauces or soups in bulk, allow them to cool and then freeze what you won’t eat within a couple of days.
Here are some foods you can meal prep and how they’re best stored:
If you won’t be eating all the fresh fruit in your refrigerator, consider freezing them. All fruit can be frozen — just wash and dry them thoroughly, then divide them into portions to use as you need.
If stored properly, frozen fruit can last up to a year!
Vegetables that can be frozen
Starchy vegetables like potato, sweet potato, parsnip and pumpkin freeze well, and stiff vegetables like celery, carrot, capsicum (bell peppers) or carrot when they’re cooked in a meal.
Vegetables that can be refrigerated
Stiff vegetables like celery, carrot, capsicum (bell peppers) or cabbage, and softer vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber and zucchini are best refrigerated, as well as green leaves like cos (romaine) lettuce — but dress them just before serving.
Oats, quinoa, barley, buckwheat and sorghum can all be cooked or soaked in advance.
Pasta and rice
Pasta and rice can be cooked and refrigerated as part of a meal. They can also be frozen in portions for ready-made meals.
Chickpeas, lentils, beans, peas can all be cooked in advance and freeze well as part of a dish.
Seafood, eggs, shredded cheese, tofu, lean cuts of chicken, turkey, beef, pork all work well for refrigerating or freezing.
Food safety guidelines for meal prep
No one wants to waste food or risk eating something that has gone bad, so it’s crucial you store prepared ingredients correctly. It’s also a good idea to label your meals with the date you prepared them so you can keep track of when they need to be eaten.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), NHS in the UK, and NSW Food Authority, Australia, your refrigerator should be kept at 5°C (40°F) or below and your freezer at -18°C (0°F) or below.
Here are more basic guidelines on how long prepared foods can be stored for:
- Boiled eggs — in their shell, boiled eggs can be stored for up to one week. Once the shell has been removed, they need to be eaten the same day.
- Cooked chicken or salmon — once cooked, chicken or salmon can keep for up to two days in the refrigerator.
- Grilled red meat — store in a container in the refrigerator and use within three days of cooking.
- Prepared soups or stews — freeze for up to two months, or keep in the refrigerator and use within three days.
- Make sure you allow hot foods to cool completely — until steam stops rising from them — on a kitchen bench before transferring to the refrigerator or freezer.
Ready to get started?
Eating the same dish every day doesn’t need to be boring — changing up the sides and sauces and experimenting with herbs and spices can totally transform the meal and enhance flavours!
Have you found an effective meal prep routine? Let us know what has worked for you in the comments!
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.