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How to meal prep 101: Simple meal prep for beginners guide
This meal prep 101 beginners guide will help you get started meal prepping to save time and money!
You know the feeling you get when you open your refrigerator and you see the forgotten takeout container with leftovers from your favorite restaurant…
I know that get’s me excited for two reasons, one, I have a delicious ready-to-eat meal, and two, I don’t have to cook!
Funny enough, having meals prepped and ready to go gives me the same feeling.
If you’ve never meal prepped before, then you are in for a real treat!
Now I know that meal prep can seem intimidating, especially when you see those posts of people who prepped 42 meals in one day.
Although having that many meals in your freezer and ready to go is pretty awesome, the upfront expense and time commitment are less than desirable for most of us.
Luckily, there’s an easier way for beginners to get started meal prepping and still save time, money, and frustration in the kitchen.
What Is Meal Prepping?
Depending on where you’ve heard about meal prep, you may be a bit confused about exactly what it is.
Some people meal prep to lose weight, others do it to control portion size, and others to gain muscle.
…And although prepping meals can help you do all these things (if that’s your goal), for this meal prep 101 article, we are focusing on preparing meals to save time, money, and frustration so you never have to wonder “what’s for dinner” again.
Meal preparation involves preparing meals ahead of time for a short or extended period of time.
Meal Prep vs Meal Plan
Now you may be wondering how meal prepping is different from meal planning so let me explain.
Meal planning is when you plan out what you are going to make and eat for the entire week or month.
The advantage of meal planning is to help you save time and stress trying to figure out “what’s for dinner?”.
It also helps you to create a grocery shopping list with just items you need to buy to execute your meal plan instead of randomly adding items to your shopping cart.
This also helps to save money by controlling food waste since you have a plan on how those items will be uses.
Meal prepping is the act of getting foods ready ahead of time so you spend less time in the kitchen.
It could involve putting together full meals that are ready to go and just need to be warmed up, putting together ingredients to make a meal then freezing it for later, or just preparing certain foods ahead of time.
Although you don’t necessarily need to meal plan to reap the benefits of meal prep, it’ll definitely help to know what foods and meal preparation tasks you need to work on as well as what foods and how much to buy to make the most of your time…
For instance, if you create a monthly meal plan and have 6 – 7 meal ideas that all call for ground beef, you could buy it in bulk and brown a large portion of Hamberg all at once.
This way you don’t have to do it for each individual meal during the month which will save quite a bit of time cooking in the long run.
Types Meal Prep
There are many ways to meal prep to save time in the kitchen. You could choose to do one, two, or all depending on your needs, goals, and lifestyle.
If you are just starting out, I would suggest you start with just one type of meal prep and get into a routine. Then once you develop a system, you can add more techniques to your workflow.
Prep meal for the week
Meal prepping for the week is exactly what it sounds like. You are basically planning what to eat for a one week period and getting everything ready so you spend very little time in the kitchen during the week.
So a Sunday meal prep session could include cooking breakfasts, lunches, or dinners and storing them in the fridge so you can just grab what you need when you need it.
This could involve mixing up some chicken salad to make sandwiches to bring to work or add to your kid’s lunchbox.
Putting together ingredients for a slow cooker meal that you can start before you head off to work in the morning so you get home to a ready-to-eat meal with little else to do.
Or it could be putting together and cooking whole meals, such as casserole dishes, so all you need to do is warm it up and serve.
Meal prep foods
Another way to meal prep is by doing certain tasks that will save you time during the week to get food on the table fast. The ground beef example I shared earlier is a great example of how to prep foods ahead of time.
You could brown a large batch of hamburger and freeze it to be used later to put together some quick meals such as tacos, shepherd’s pie, or home-made spaghetti sauce.
Other food prep ideas could be to…
Cook a large chicken and freeze it for later to make chicken fajitas, chicken salads, casserole dishes, hot chicken sandwiches, etc.
Wash, chop, and freeze vegetables to use in recipes and meals you are planning to make. Or you can spiralize certain produce such as zucchini and squash to create a quick meal such as butternut squash noodles or stir fry dishes.
Cook and freeze a large batch of make-ahead bacon that could be warmed up to eat with your eggs, added to sandwiches, or crumble in salads.
Batch cooking is another meal prep technique that you can try out once you get your feet wet. Basically, it’s when you cook multiple meals all at once.
One easy way to implement batch cooking without spending an entire day meal prepping is by using the make-one freeze one method that I learned from this free webinar by My Freeze Easy.
The idea is that when you are making a meal for dinner, you would double, triple, or even 5X the recipe.
You would then serve one meal for dinner and then put the rest in your freezer to serve at a later date.
So let’s say you are making a shepherds pie casserole dish for dinner, you would put together 2 or more at once to saving time.
The best part about this meal prep method is that it doesn’t take much more time to put together 2 or more casserole dishes than if you were only making one, and clean up doesn’t take more time either!!
No-cook meal prep
No-cook meal prep is just what it sounds like, you basically put together the ingredients to make meals, then just pull them out of the freezer to thaw and cook when needed.
The most popular no-cook meal prep ideas are freezer to crockpot or instant pot meals, or also known as dump dinners.
Recipes such as slow cooker chicken pot pie, chili, pork tenderloin with roasted vegetables, and soups and stews are all good options.
Casseroles are another good option for no-cook meal prep, simply combine all ingredients as normal, then place in a glass casserole dish with a cover and pop it into the freezer for a quick dinner idea on your busy days.
How to Meal Plan and Prep
Decide what your meal prep goals are
The first thing you’ll want to consider is what your meal prep goals are. Is it to save time on your crazy busy days? To eat healthier or lose weight? How about saving money instead of turning take-out or fast food?
This will help you to create a meal plan that aligns with your goals.
Create a meal plan for the week or month
Whatever your goals are will determine your meal plan strategy. For instance, if you want to save money, you’ll want to focus on creating a plan that aligns with your grocery budget and work some cheap meals into your plan.
If you focus on eating healthier, then making sure you have healthy meals ready to go should be a priority so work those into your meal plan.
Go grocery shopping for the ingredients
Once you have your meal plan in place, it’s time to create your shopping list and go grocery shopping.
Typically you’d buy just enough groceries for the week’s menu but it’s a good idea to keep your entire month’s meal plan in mind to save both time and money.
For example, sale shopping is a great way to save money on groceries and bulk prepping foods will save you more time throughout the month.
So let’s say you know you will need a certain amount of chicken to make meals for the month and chicken is on sale for a great price. Why not take advantage of that and buy what you’ll need at the lower price to save money.
On the flip side, if you are making a chicken meal that’s on this week’s menu, why not batch cook enough chicken for all recipes that require chicken for the entire month to save time.
Pick a day that you have time
Next, you’ll want to pick a day of the week when you can dedicate some time to meal prepping without interruption.
Sunday meal prep sessions work really well for busy moms but it all depends on your schedule and what’s going on so make sure you have the time before you get started.
Decide what meal prep tasks you are going to do
Lastly, you’ll want to decide on what meal prep tasks you are going to focus on. To make things easier on you, focus on the meals that you struggle with the most.
If you work late or taxi the kids to extracurricular activities during the week, then focusing on some dinner ideas that you can get on the table quick will be a big help.
If you constantly bust your budget going out to lunch during the week, then you might want to focus your meal prep efforts on meals that you can brown bag and take to work with you.
Again, it all depends on your meal prep goals and what will make your life easier.
Easy Meal Prep Ideas for Beginners
- Create individual serving sized meals using compartmentalized containers. When you are making a meal, why not double or triple your recipe and create single servings that can be frozen.
- Chop vegetables and flash freeze them so you always have them handy and ready for whenever you need them.
- Cook a big batch of white rice and freeze what you don’t need for later use in recipes or as a quick and easy side dish.
- Batch cook bacon in your oven and freeze it for later use in salads, sandwiches, and more.
- When cooking chicken, make more than you need for that meal and freeze the rest to use to make chicken salad sandwiches, fajitas, or any other recipe on your meal plan.
- Place meats in marinades before freezing. If you have family favorite recipes that require marinading, this will save you so much time in the long run.
- Make some easy grab and go breakfast meals such as egg muffins or overnight oats with fruit for a healthy breakfast even when you are running late.
Meal Prep for Beginner Essentials
When first starting to meal plan, there are a few essential products you are going to want to have on hand to store your prepped meals and food.
Below is a list of the must-have basics to get started as a beginner.
Must-Have Meal Prep Essentials
Freezer bags (assorted sizes)
Freezer bag stands (optional)
Mason jars (pint-sized)
Clear meal prep containers
The first thing you’ll want to have when starting out meal prepping is a good set of airtight containers in various sizes.
Clear containers work best so you can easily see what you have on hand without having to open them up individually to find what you need.
And seeing the food you have prepped every time you open your fridge or freezer is a good reminder to use them before they spoil.
Of course, you’ll want to stock up on freezer bags of all sizes. Gallon sized bags are perfect for the freezer to crockpot or instant pot meals that we discussed earlier.
Smaller quart-sized bags can be used for prepped ingredients such as browned hamburger, cooked chicken, or freezing chopped and prepped veggies.
Freezer bag stands
Freezer bag stands are not a necessity but are very convenient when you need an extra set of hands in the kitchen since it can be difficult to keep a storage bag upright and opened when putting multiple ingredients into them.
They are very inexpensive and could save you so much time and frustration, plus they make a great drying rack if you want to reuse your storage bags.
Casserole dishes with lids
If you are meal prepping casserole recipes, then you’ll definitely want to invest in some good glass casserole dishes with lids so you can stack your meals on top of each other without worry while saving precious freezer space.
These can be a bit expensive when first starting out but will be well worth the cost in the long run.
If a good set of casserole dishes are not in your budget right now, then you can use foil pans with lids to store your meals in the meantime.
They are what I used when first starting out because they are so cheap, but they are pretty flimsy and can typically be only used once so there is a recurring cost.
You’ll probably also want to keep a few pint-sized mason jars at your disposal as well. Just like clear containers, mason jars are a great way to keep your food fresher and last longer since they are airtight.
These are not only perfect for storing fruit to keep them fresher in your fridge, but are also perfect for make-ahead frozen fruit smoothies, overnight oats, and pre-made salads.
Compartmentalized meal containers
Lastly, you’ll definitely want to get some compartment meal containers, especially if you are prepping lunch box meals to take to work or for school lunch.
Make sure the containers you choose are BPA free and are stackable to save space in your kitchen cabinets.
Optional Meal Prep Tools
Now that you have your meal prep essential supplies, you might want to consider using other tools to make things easier and quicker. Here are some of the go-to tools that save me hours of time prepping meals.
Optional meal prep tools
A slow cooker is not a necessity when meal prepping but if your goal is to save time cooking, then it’s definitely something you’ll want to consider purchasing.
You don’t need anything fancy when starting out, a simple 6-quart slow cooker will do. If you are going to make an investment in a new one, I suggest you get one with a timer so you can set it to start and cook for as long as needed.
You might also want to invest in a manual vegetable spiralizer which is very inexpensive. These are great for making healthy meal prep dishes such as vegetable noodles and salads and are a great alternative to pasta if you are on a low carb or keto diet.
Electric fruit/vegetable peeler
A vegetable peeler is not a necessity but it’ll save you so much time prepping food. It can peel potatoes, apples, squash, zucchini, carrots, and many other vegetables as well as a variety of fruit.
This is a real time saver since you just place your veggies in the peeler and turn it on while you do other tasks.
A salad shooter is another tool that will save you so much time chopping and slicing fruit and vegetables. What I love about this product is that it’s smaller than most vegetable processors and is handheld which makes it super convenient.
It has multiple slicing blades for just about anything you need to slice, chop, and grate and it’s super easy to clean, which is always a bonus!
Food vacuum sealer
A vacuum sealer is probably the best investment you can make when meal prepping. It’s not a need but will definitely help to keep your food fresher longer.
You don’t need a high prices sealer with all the bells and whistles, I use a small inexpensive vacuum food saver and it works perfectly for my needs.
Meal prep for beginners tips
> Make sure you let food cool to room temperature before freezing to avoid premature freezer burn.
> Find a way to organize your freezer so you can see at a glance what meals and foods you have.
> Freeze zipper bags flat so they take less freezer space.
> Place zipper bags in water to thaw faster if you forget to take your meal out the night before.
> Learn how to multitask to get more done in less time, just don’t try to do too much that you get overwhelmed.
> Start with simple meals or food prep tasks and build up your workflow slowly to prevent overwhelm.
> Flash freeze fruit and chopped vegetables for 20 minutes before placing them in freezer bags so it doesn’t all freeze together which will make it easier if you don’t need the entire supply.
> Stock up on meal prep staples when they are on sale.
> Make sure you have enough storage space in your fridge or freezer.
> Like your freeze, it’s a good idea to organize your pantry and kitchen cabinets so you don’t waste time searching for ingredients, tools, or anything else you need.
Breakfast meal prep ideas
Lunch box meal prep ideas
Chicken rice soup
Chicken salad sandwiches
Dinner meal prep ideas
Meal Prep 101 FAQ
How long do my meals stay good?
Most prepped food will stay good in your refrigerator for up to 5 days which is perfect if you are meal prepping for a week.
If you aren’t going to use the foods you’ve made within 5 days, it’s best to freeze it which can last anywhere from 3 – 6 months.
How far in advance can you meal prep?
You can meal prep foods for up to 6 months if it’s going to be frozen for later use although I wouldn’t recommend this. It’s best to prepare foods for no more than a month or two out so you can rotate your meals.
Can you meal prep rice?
Yes, you can meal prep rice. If you plan on freezing it, I suggest you don’t fully cook it and then steam it in your microwave for 30 seconds or so to fluff it up before serving or using in a recipe.
Can you lose weight by meal prepping?
You can lose weight by meal prepping if that’s your goal. You’ll need to make sure to add healthy meal ideas to your meal plan and follow through.
Meal prep will also prevent you from grabbing unhealthy takeout when you are in a rush keeping you on your diet plan.
How do beginners meal prep for a week?
You’ll need to start by creating a meal plan for the week of the dishes you plan to make for the week or month first. Then you will want to set aside some time to put together meals or prep foods to use in meals.
Can you meal prep pasta?
Yes, you can meal prep pasta but I would suggest that you don’t cook it all the way to completion and leave it al dente so it doesn’t get mushy when it’s reheated.
What should I buy for meal prepping?
What you buy all depends on your meal plan for the foods you plan to make during the week or month. Start by writing down recipes that you serve on a regular basis and then add to your recipe arsenal after you get your feet wet.
What do I need to start meal prepping?
You’ll want to have the basics when starting to meal prep. Some of the essential are freezer bags, casserole dishes with lids, foil pans, mason jars, and clear airtight containers.
Of course, you can add more tools like a good crockpot, a vegetable peeler, food vacuum seal among others to save time and energy.
Does meal prepping save money?
Meal prepping can save you money if that’s your focus. When you know what you are making for the month you can stockpile enough food when it’s on sale which could add up to a lot of money saved over time.
How much time does meal prep take?
The time it takes to meal prep really depends on what you plan to make or prep ahead of time. With that being said if you’re a beginner, it’ll probably be a little longer at first until you get into a routine.
How much does it cost to meal prep for a week?
Meal prepping food doesn’t cost any more on groceries than what you would normally spend at the supermarket. The only difference is you’ll need to buy the bulk of your food up front instead of picking items up as needed.
In fact, prepping meals will probably end up saving you more money in the long run since you have quick healthy meals ready to eat instead of opting for take-out on your busiest days.
Meal prep 101 conclusion
I know that there is a lot of information in this meal prep 101 article on how to meal prep for beginners but the key to being successful is to start slow.
Once you create a system, add a few more ideas to your Sunday meal prep sessions, and before you know it, you’ll have a freezer full of delicious meals ready to eat.
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