Meal prepping: Is it for you?

Rice, broccoli and sesame chicken.

If there’s ever a month when it’s good to be prepared, it’s September. Between back to school, back to work and extracurricular activities, life gets hectic—especially at mealtimes. Enter the concept of meal prepping: planning and preparing meals for the week ahead. It can mean the difference between relaxed and healthier meals during the week and keeping your local pizza joint on speed-dial.

Meal prepping is so popular now that a quick online search will bring up thousands of results, from the basics of meal prep to recipes to Instagram-worthy photos. Like so many other things, however, the value of meal prepping depends on the individual and the situation. That’s why we’re taking a look at the basics, so you can decide if it’s right for you.

What is meal prepping?

At its essence, meal prepping is cooking a meal (or meals) in advance and dividing it up into smaller portions for the week. The general goal is to prep anywhere from three to seven days’ worth of meals at a time (more on this later).

The meal prepper carves out a few hours during the week for a cook-and-portion-fest. The most efficient preppers set up an assembly line of food and the containers to hold the portioned meals (the most popular tend to be glass containers with locking lids, but you can use any food- and microwave-safe storage containers that are BPA-free). Once they’re done, the containers go into the refrigerator, and voilà, you’ve got one less thing to worry about during the week.

What kinds of foods work best?

Many of the recipes you’ll find for meal prep will be either bowl-type meals (taco bowls; fried rice with a protein; salads) or meals you can assemble just before eating (chicken lettuce wraps; oatmeal topped with fruit; food in divided containers to keep foods from becoming soggy).

Foods that work well in prepped meals include:

  • Cooked meat

  • Cooked pasta and grains (e.g., rice, quinoa, farro)

  • Cooked beans

  • Sturdy fresh vegetables (e.g., celery, carrots, bell peppers, radishes, cabbage, kale)

  • Roasted vegetables

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Cheese

  • Dips and sauces (e.g., salad dressing, salsa, sour cream, hummus)

EatingWell magazine has a good guide for those new to meal prep if you’d like to get a feel for the process.

Will meal prep work for me?

Meal prep fans swear by the efficiency and convenience of meal prepping, while others like the idea of reducing waste or being able to stick to an eating plan. On the flip side, some people don’t want to cook—and still others aren’t fond of the lack of variety or the idea of eating leftovers so often.

If you’re trying to meal prep for a large family, the process can become more labor-intensive due to the number of meals you’ll need to cook and how many containers you’ll need to use. However, it can be a quick and economical way to plan menus for the week for singles and couples.

How long will prepped meals stay fresh?

This will depend on your individual situation, your level of caution and the laws of food physics. Like any leftover, food quality starts to deteriorate after a day, especially if you’re not always faithful about following the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) refrigerator and freezer storage guidelines.

How you pack your food, the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer, and the delicacy of the foods you choose can affect food safety. Plus, not everyone has the same tolerance for wilted lettuce or bruised berries. That’s especially true if you or someone you prepare meals for are immune-compromised. In that case, “off” food can cause serious health issues. For all these reasons, you might feel more confident prepping no more than two to four days of meals at a time.

Summing it up

Depending on who you talk to, meal planning and prepping is either the greatest thing since sliced bread or just another task they don’t have the time or patience to take on. Neither opinion is wrong; it truly is just a matter of what works for each person.

The good thing is, if you want to see what’s involved, there are literally (yes, literally) thousands of useful resources online to help you get started. A quick Google of “meal prep for beginners” will get you everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about meal planning and prepping.

Whatever you decide, happy prepping—or happy pizza-ing!