How to Successfully Meal Prep as A Complete Beginner (Meal Prep 101)
There are countless guides available online that talk about meal prep for beginners and the different ways to start and be successful at meal prepping.
I’m definitely not the first to write on the subject and for sure won’t be the last to write on it either.
I say all of that because I’m sure some of the information you’ll find on here may not be (completely) new to you and I certainly won’t be reinventing the wheel here.
Not to completely derail from the topic but I also want to share another thought that crossed my mind as I decided to write this post.
Why bother writing on a subject so many other experts have covered and how do I break through the noise to write something that may be of benefit to you?
Basically why even bother writing about a beginner’s guide to meal prep?
Since you’re reading this there’s no need to tell you I ultimately felt compelled to write about it nonetheless.
I did so for a couple of reasons:
- I was as much a beginner myself and I needed to continue to hold myself accountable.
As much as I’d read about meal prep it seemed like for one reason or another it still wasn’t my stronghold. I’d get started then give up too easily.
I believe doing more research on the subject and writing about it is an excellent way to get better at meal prepping going into the new year.
- This might be the perspective you or someone else needs to get better at meal prepping.
Sometimes we need to hear a different voice and opinion from someone else in order to better understand and apply something.
The information I know is because I learned from others and I’m appreciative of them sharing their knowledge.
I’m certainly hoping I can pass on what I’ve learned to someone else i.e. you.
The whole purpose of this blog in general is to provide valuable information and I think not talking about the subject may be of disservice to you or someone else who needs it.
My goal is to simplify the process and make it easier for you to understand (while giving you as much detail as you need).
Alright, with that let’s get into Meal Prep 101.
What is Meal Prep?
If you’d asked me a few years ago what meal prep was I’d have probably responded with “It’s simply prepping your meals.”
At face value that is a true statement because it reflects what meal prepping really is about but when you take a deeper look at what you can actually accomplish you’ll realize meal prep is a lot more than just that.
Here’s a better definition I found courtesy of Fit & Fresh:
“Meal prep is the act of planning, preparing and packaging your meals and snacks in advance, typically with the intention of clean eating or portion control.”
I love that definition because it makes specific mention of the purpose – clean eating and portion control.
As most people will rightfully tell you, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to meal prep.
What matters most is YOUR purpose.
The idea of prepping your meals ahead of time is great but at the end of the day the reason why you’re doing it is very important.
I’ll be the first to admit committing to any kind of meal prep is difficult whether it’s your first time or not.
With busy schedules and so many other things fighting for your attention it can be really tough.
Purpose is what helps keep us on track.
If you’re meal prepping just because it “seems” like the right thing to do then you’ll easily lose steam and willpower when things don’t go your way.
So whether it’s just one meal or meal prepping for an entire week, you should understand why you’re doing it and why it is important to you.
For that reason I think here’s an even better definition of meal prep:
“Meal prep is the act of planning, preparing and packaging your meals and snacks in advance, specifically with the intention of (insert your purpose/reason here).”
This leads me to the next topic…
Why is Meal Prep Important?
We all have our different reasons but here are some of the benefits of meal prepping.
1 - Saves You Time
This is almost a given and by far one of the top reasons why anyone would choose to meal prep in the first place.
When you have a hectic schedule it’s easy to go through your day without any time to sit down for a proper meal.
Eating adequately and healthy shouldn’t be hindsight and that’s where meal prep comes in handy.
You spend some time upfront to prepare your meals, store them appropriately and you’re all set for the week and even possibly a few months.
2 - Saves You Money
This post was written in December so that means I was able to look back at an entire year’s worth of expenses on cafeteria food.
Add that to what I spent on carry-outs and I definitely could’ve saved myself some money.
There’s no better feeling than eating food you’ve prepared yourself and even better when you save money in the process.
Last minute shopping and takeout food can add up really quickly.
Meal prep helps you plan and shop in advance – ultimately saving you time and money down the road.
3 - It Helps You Be (More) Aware of What You Eat
Planning your meals ahead of time makes you a lot more conscious about the foods you eat.
Allowing yourself that time helps you develop the awareness you need to make healthier food choices.
It puts you in complete control of what you eat and you can make sure that it’s all good for you.
This is also great if you’re counting your macros or keeping track of your calorie intake.
4 - It'll Help You Achieve Your Weight Goals
Meal prepping is an excellent way to hold yourself accountable and ensure you stay on track to achieve any particular weight goals.
A lot of attention is given primarily to weight loss but meal prep is truly perfect for both weight loss and gain.
It ultimately comes down to what you want to achieve, understanding your intake requirements (more or less calories), prepping your meals and keeping track of what you eat.
5 - Meal Prep Encourages Variety in Your Meals (Balanced Diet)
The more time you have on your hands the more food types you can begin to incorporate into your meals.
Meal prep allows you to do that.
Variety isn’t important just for different tastes or recipes but for all the different macronutrients your body needs (Proteins, Carbs and Fats).
Carbs and fats for example get a lot of bad rep but when eaten in appropriate amounts they’re absolutely essential for your body.
Having a balanced diet is great because it lets you get more of the nutrients your body needs.
6 - It Helps Prevent Food Waste
Think about how much food you’ve had to throw away without even getting a chance to eat any of it.
As a matter fact glance through your refrigerator and see how much food you have sitting in there waiting to get thrown out.
With meal prep you can portion your food accordingly which helps reduce a lot of food waste.
According to FoodPrint, households are responsible for the largest portion of all food waste (approximately 40-50% of all food waste).
Some of the culprits of all this waste include food spoilage, over-preparing, date label confusion, overbuying, and poor planning.
Those are all things which can be prevented with proper meal prep.
7 - It Reduces Stress
How many times have you opened your “full” fridge, stared it up and down only to shut it because you couldn’t find anything to eat?
Or had to drive in to work or back home wondering what you were going to eat once you got there?
I know I’ve been in both situations often.
Constantly worrying about your next meal can be quite stressful especially when you have a lot on your plate. (pun intended 🙂 )
Preparing your meals ahead of time makes that one less thing you need to worry about.
8 - It's Great for Your Overall Health
This sums up all the previous points but my point is meal prep could possibly be the solution you need if you want to improve your eating habits and overall lifestyle.
Here are a few examples how:
– Getting to a particular weight goal can be done not just through exercise alone but with the help of a proper diet.
– There are numerous diseases and illnesses that are linked to lack of a balanced diet.
– We’ve already seen that meal prep can reduce stress and improve your overall mood.
– It sets a good precedent for others to follow.
The list could go on and on but the point is meal prep can help lead to a healthier lifestyle.
Please remember what works for someone else may not necessarily be applicable to you.
The most important benefit is the one that matters to you and gets you the best results.
Is Meal Prep For Everyone and Is It Really Worth It?
I know meal prep is one of the trendiest topics around and with some of the benefits we just saw, why shouldn’t it be something everyone does?
It seems like a win-win situation for everyone.
So is meal prep really worth it? Short answer is Yes.
Is it for everyone? That depends.
I know you’re not looking for a technical answer but truth is everyone’s situation is different.
There are plenty of people out there who’ve lived and continue to live a healthy lifestyle without ever prepping a single meal.
I’m not here to tell you that you absolutely need to meal prep.
If you’re otherwise healthy and perfectly okay with the way things are going then by all means keep doing what’s best for you.
If you feel like you need to make a change then this could be your answer.
Please avoid doing it just because everyone else is.
Meal prepping isn’t a competition and you certainly shouldn’t be doing it just to impress others.
If you decide to meal prep then your reasoning should be one that matters to you even if it’s something just as simple as making sure you have breakfast every morning.
So while meal prep might be a good idea for everyone, it’s really only worth it to you if you believe it will help you achieve whatever goal you have in mind.
P.S. If you’re ever unsure there’s nothing wrong with seeking professional or medical advice.
How to Get Started and Be Successful at Meal Prepping
I wish it were as simple as telling you to go to the store buy some groceries, find some time to prep and you’re all set.
Technically I could tell you to do that but that’s not how it works.
If you’ve ever tried to meal prep before you know it’s not quite that easy to commit even with the best of intentions.
Here are a few tips and strategies to help you get started and be successful at meal prep.
1 - Know Why You're Doing It
I’ve mentioned this before and I’m sure I will again but meal prep is only beneficial when it works for you and the goals you have.
It’s a simple concept but also one that can be easily neglected.
Find your reason why.
2 - Start Simple
As a beginner it can seem like there’s too much to do and that could eventually lead to it feeling like another chore.
If you take on too much then it could easily become overwhelming.
One of the best ways to avoid a lot of the intimidation associated with meal prep is by managing your time wisely and my recommendation is start small and simple.
Start with a single meal at first and see how that goes before you try to scale.
You’re NOT obligated to go for a 30 day meal prep on your first attempt.
3 - Plan Accordingly
Failing to plan is planning to fail.
You might have this great idea in mind but if you’re not strategic about your approach it’ll just be another idea.
The planning process may vary from individual to individual but it’s one that needs to happen.
You need to plan for your meals, the different recipes you want to try, time to shop, time to prep, days you may be dining out, etc.
Now before you go stressing out about any of this just know there is no such thing as a perfect plan either.
As life happens your plan may need some adjustments here and there and that’s totally okay.
Planning is meant to guide and help you stay on track. If you don’t have one then you have nothing to fall back on if you go astray.
You need to plan accordingly.
4 - Set Aside Enough Time
This is a separate point on its own because we all know how difficult it can be to find time with a busy schedule.
But if I’m being completely honest there’s no way to sugarcoat this.
If you’re serious about meal prep then you need to find the time. It’s a must.
I don’t know what your schedule looks like so I’m not going to suggest what days work best. You know when you have some free time.
What I can tell you though is to pick the day and time that works best for you, schedule it and block it off for nothing but meal prep.
It makes the process so much easier when you have ample time set aside.
5 - Take Stock and Shop
Before you go splurging on more grocery items take a look at what you currently have in stock.
It prevents you from buying things you already have which saves you time and money.
Important Note: Make sure you always have a shopping list and avoid shopping when hungry.
It’s a waste of time and effort to go to the grocery store and end up without the items you needed in the first place or even more junk food.
6 - Make Your Meals
Believe me, it’s really not as obvious as it sounds.
Here are a few things you can do to make the process a lot easier for yourself:
- Chop veggies and spices ahead of time and save them for later use.
- Start with recipes you’re already familiar with.
- Focus on your hardest meals first and get it (or them) out of the way first.
- Make appropriate portion sizes – more on this later
- Be mindful of how long your foods can be stored.
The key to meal prep is setting yourself up for success.
You also don’t need to have everything perfectly aligned before you start.
It’s better to begin and learn along the way than to procrastinate because you feel like everything isn’t up to par.
If you feel like it is for you then Just Start.
Meal Prep and Macros (Portion Sizes)
For most people meal prep isn’t just about having meals readily available but also about changing their eating habits i.e. eating healthier.
I’ve already mentioned the importance of having a balanced diet but you need to take that a step further which means adequate portion sizes.
I’m well aware that the average person isn’t obsessed with counting their macros but this is something that should matter for anyone who’s keeping track of what they eat or maybe trying to gain or lose weight.
Do not confuse your portion size for serving size.
Your Serving size is the amount of each food recommended you eat during your meals. (What you see on nutrition or food labels)
Portion size is the amount of food you actually eat. (Could be more or less than a serving)
The biggest problem with portion sizes is the items you need to measure your food aren’t always readily available.
You probably feel like this is just another extra step which I really can’t blame you for because how many times does the average person actually read any food labels?
But it is something you need to be conscious about especially if you’re someone who still feels hungry after a meal.
As I stated above, portion size plays an important role in gaining or losing weight.
So to make the process easier for you, all you need is your hands.
That’s much easier than trying to find measuring cups or scales and so on.
It’s also efficient because your hand size is relative to your body size.
Here’s an excellent graphic courtesy of Gold’s Gym to help give you an idea of what your portion size should look like.
Please remember that those are all just estimates and should serve more as a starting point than something set in stone.
You may or may not need more than your “ideal” portion size and that’s totally okay.
We all have different goals we’re trying to achieve with meal prep so allowing some flexibility isn’t a bad idea.
Most of us aren’t prepping for a competition either so there’s no need to fret too much about it. It’s still a good thing to be aware of though.
The most important thing you need to do is listen to your body and as always talk to your doctor or nutritionist if you need to.
For more help with portion sizes see: Best Apps To Help You Count Macros
The Proper Way To Grocery Shop for Meal Prep
These are just a few tips to help make sure you get your shopping done right and avoid spending unnecessarily at the store.
I’ve hinted at a few of these already.
1 – Get your shopping list ready ahead of time and always keep it handy. That means knowing your recipes in advance so you know what to get.
2 – As a beginner you should shop for foods you’re familiar with first. Once you have a few go-to meals then you can begin to experiment.
3 – Shop for deals. You get more value for your money and can buy in bulk if you need to.
4 – Opt for the healthier options. May not necessarily be the cheapest but quality is better than quantity.
5 – Check the dates on the food you’re buying. Especially for perishable items.
6 – Read the ingredients not just the labels. This is important for people on strict diets. Sometimes that item labeled as “vegan” or “vegetarian” may not be exactly that. It’s all part of being aware of what you eat.
7 – Stock up on veggies and fruits. They’re essential for a balanced diet. Don’t be scared of frozen veggies and fruits either. They can be highly nutritious and also cut down on prep time.
8 – Be mindful of your budget. Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. (See point #3 above)
9 – Pick up healthy snacks for something in between meals.
10 – Avoid going to the store hungry. It’s just common sense to give yourself a fighting chance to make healthier and better decisions while there. There’s even some scientific evidence to back this claim.
11 – Storage containers are a must. Click here for my list of recommendations.
Different Meal Prep Methods
There are several methods you can use to meal prep and selecting one or more really comes down to your preference and how much time you have available.
You don’t to excel at each one.
Just pick the best option that works for your schedule.
1 - Batch Cooking
It is exactly as the name suggests – You cook your food in batches.
Basically you cook a lot of food at once then split it into several portions and save for later.
It could be a single specific recipe or multiple recipes if you choose to do so.
You can also prepare enough for a few weeks or even months in advance depending on how much time you have and the type of meal you’re making.
2 - Individual Portions
This is sort of a step-down from batch cooking.
Individual portions are typically your quick grab-and-go meals that will last you a couple of days.
Perfect if you’re just meal prepping for a few days or just need something handy in a moment’s notice.
3 - Pre-made Meals
These are complete meals made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator to be rewarmed for later use.
Since you’ll be making complete meals, storage time is a very important factor here.
4 - Prep and Store
Here you just prep your ingredients ahead of time then store them for when you’re actually ready to make your meals.
Few tips to keep in mind…
- No matter which method you go with, allow yourself enough time to prepare your meals.
- If you have any appliances like an instant pot, please make use of them. Saves you a lot of time in the kitchen.
- Keep enough containers and storage bags handy (more on this below).
- Freeze your extras and try to label them if possible so it’s easier to remember.
How Long Can Your Prepped Food Last?
(Storage & Reheating)
There’s no point meal prepping if you can’t store your food for relatively long periods of time but food safety is also very important.
You are still susceptible to food poisoning even with home cooked meals.
I would assume you know to cook in a clean environment, sanitize and hand wash often, cook your food thoroughly & properly and keep everything organized.
Those things should be a given.
My specific focus here is on the storage and reheating times.
As far as storage goes, it ultimately comes down to the type of ingredients or foods you’ve prepared.
As a rule of thumb you can keep your prepped meals in the refrigerator for about 2-5 days and frozen for about 3-6 months.
The key is making sure they are stored properly i.e. sealed air-tight and using containers that are leakproof and durable.
For reheating you’ll probably be using a microwave the majority of the time and that works just fine but it is recommended you reheat your foods just once.
For frozen food make sure you allow enough time for it to thaw completely and then reheat or prepare them once they’re completely defrosted.
What Containers Are Best for Meal Prep?
Prepping your meals is only half the story. Having the appropriate storage containers is the other vital half.
No meal prep is complete without containers. In fact you shouldn’t even begin prepping without the right set of storage containers.
There are so many different options to choose from and variety isn’t a bad thing at all in this situation.
Ideally you want to get containers that are durable, freezer-safe, oven & microwave safe, BPA-Free and leak-proof.
I’m sure your preference and different needs will come into play so you may not necessarily tick all the boxes and that’s still okay.
My suggestion is you mix and match for different situations so you can have a variety of options.
Glass: Perfect for microwaving and reheating in the oven. Most are dishwasher safe.
Plastic: Great for work meals and are easier to carry around.
Salad containers: Keep everything separated and prevent all the sogginess.
Mason jars: Very versatile and can be used for almost anything.
Freezer bags: Make your life so much easier in the kitchen.
Meal prep is great for anyone who has a busy schedule and needs to have healthier meals readily available.
If done consistently it could really lead to an overall healthy diet and promote a much healthier lifestyle.
It may seem intimidating at first especially if you are a beginner but it really shouldn’t be because there’s no such thing as a “perfect” way to meal prep.
The entire process is as much of a learning journey as just about any new thing you’ll take on in life.
Take it one step at a time or one day at a time and always remember the reason why you decided to begin in the first place.