Your complete guide to meal-prepping (AKA meal-prep for dummies)

    Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    If the words “meal-prep” cause your brain to boil more than a pot of water pre-pasta, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome to the page that is going to be your go-to resource for all things meal-prep. If you don’t know what meal-prep is, that’s okay too, because that’s going to be explained right here. Scroll through to learn why you should care about meal-prep and how to approach the shopping, preparing and cooking that goes into it.

    Meal-Prep: What and Why

    What is Meal-Prep?

    If you search the hashtag #mealprep on Instagram, you’ll likely see more containers than you’d find in The Container Store itself. Many think meal-prep means cooking full meals in advance for the week to come, but it doesn’t have to be defined that way.

    Rice with lentils, roasted Brussel sprouts and sweet potatoes, balsamic-glazed salmon and banana almond butter cookies / Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    Doing anything in advance with the intention of making your meal-assembly process easier later on – such as chopping vegetables ahead of the moment you need them or making components of certain dishes ahead of time – can be considered meal-prep, too. You don’t have to prepare a full meal – or even a complete dish – to be meal-prepping! Your food doesn’t have to look “Instagram-worthy,” either.

    That’s not to say the make-everything-on-Sunday method is “bad.” It’s just that some, especially those who are new to cooking, may find it overwhelming to prepare meals for the entire week in one go.

    Why You Should Meal Prep

    Between school, work, family commitments and other obligations, life can become extremely busy. If you don’t put thought into what you want to be eating, it can be difficult to make healthy choices while trying to balance everything that life brings.

    Planning and preparing your meals in advance can save time, money, energy and improve your nutritional status. Practicing meal planning behaviors, cooking more frequently and cooking with greater skills are associated with a lower body mass index and a greater fruit and vegetable intake in first-year college students, according to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 

    Make a Plan

    The MyPlate Model

    Before you shop or cook, you have to decide how you want your meals to look. Most dietitians will encourage you to refer to the MyPlate model established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when structuring your meals.

    This quick and easy meal meets the MyPlate recommendations / Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    According to the MyPlate model, at every meal, half of your plate should be fruit or vegetables, a quarter of your plate should be carbohydrates and one quarter should be protein. Healthy fats, such as oils, nuts, avocado, dressings, hummus, tahini and other condiments, are usually incorporated into meals during or after the cooking process. Dairy, the fifth food group, can also be added to meals, though many find it easier to consume milk or yogurt as part of a snack to meet this requirement.

    Your Plate as MyPlate

    Many of the meals you know and love are likely already in line with the MyPlate model. Here are some more meal ideas that fit the MyPlate criteria:

    • Whole wheat wrap + chicken + lettuce and tomato
    • Brown rice + beans + fire-roasted tomatoes
    • Farro + salmon + roasted broccoli
    • Brown rice + tofu stir fry + vegetables
    • Whole grain waffle or pancake + yogurt + berries
    • Whole wheat bagel + tuna + lettuce
    • Whole grain pasta + meat sauce/meatballs + tossed garden salad
    • Whole wheat bun + veggie burger + spinach leaves and avocado

    Just because you’re following the same model for all of your meals doesn’t mean that your meals should all look the same. Plan to make a few staples with different colors, flavors and textures, and mix and match throughout the week. More colors mean more nutrients!

    It can be nice to prepare something fun as part of your meal-prep, like this whole wheat zucchini bread / Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    How Meal-Prep Looks in My Life

    If you’re new to meal-prep and are unsure where to start, I would recommend preparing one or two grains, two or three different vegetables and one or two different protein options over the course of the week. I also like to make something fun like cookies or muffins if I have time. You don’t have to prepare this all at once, but make sure you have what you need so that you can prepare it at a time that’s best for you.

    I also like to keep a bag of spinach on hand, as well as tomatoes, avocados, eggs and Greek yogurt. These easy additions can be added to meals to help you meet the MyPlate recommendations.

    Conquer the Grocery Store

    Michelle Slowey, a registered dietitian and food blogger, remembers her early cooking days well.

    Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    “My biggest mistake in my first apartment was overbuying,” Slowey said of when she started meal-prepping in college.

    Slowey said that she often threw out food because it went bad before she got around to cooking with it. However, eventually, she figured out the right amount to purchase.

    “I did find that the more I did it, the easier it got,” Slowey said. “I would use recipes. I would use recipes for everything.”

    Slowey’s struggle is a common one. It also took me some time to figure out exactly how much to purchase, but eventually, I got the hang of it.

    Plan Then Shop

    The key to avoiding food waste is having a detailed meal-prep plan. After you make a plan, you can take inventory and compile a list of ingredients you need to purchase. Once you have a good list, grocery shopping becomes a lot easier.

    Being familiar with where to find the items you need can also be helpful. The perimeter of grocery stores generally contain items like fresh produce, dairy, eggs, meat, poultry and bakery items; the center aisles contain things like rice, pasta, lentils, beans, canned and jarred items, crackers, cereal and frozen items. The more you shop, the more familiar you will become with your local grocery store and the easier grocery shopping will become.

    Timing is Everything

    If you can, try going to the grocery store at an off-peak time / Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    If you think that Sunday afternoon is a good time to hit the grocery store, you have the same mindset as many other shoppers, and will likely run into lots of grocery store traffic. The same is generally true for the first hour or two after the typical workday ends.

    To avoid lines and crowded aisles, try to go grocery shopping at an off-peak time, such as first thing in the morning or later in the evening. Online grocery deliveries are also a great option if you are unable to get to the store. If you are new to food shopping, you may find the online experience less overwhelming than a brick-and-mortar grocery store.

    See this article for more tips on how to conquer your grocery runs.

    Let’s Get Cooking!

    Photo: Dena Gershkovich

    You’ve made a plan, made a list and purchased your groceries. Now it’s time to cook!

    If you’ve never cooked before, no worries – Slowey said that the more you cook, the better you will get at it and the easier it will become.

    “It’s almost like driving. The only way you know how to drive is by driving,” Slowey said.

    Follow Recipes

    Again, if you are just starting out in the kitchen, it’s a good idea to follow recipes closely. Search for “easy healthy recipes” online and/or follow food bloggers on Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. It won’t be too long before you’re putting your own spin on things.

    “Now what I do is that I will look at a recipe once, and then that’s it. Then I’m on my own and then I tweak it and I make it healthier, and I’ll add avocado and sesame seeds… I can be super creative with it,” Slowey said. “But it takes time. I did not start out right away becoming a great cook in the kitchen.”

    If you’re following a recipe and are unsure what something means, there are plenty of resources that can help. Google will always be there for you, or you can call a friend who is good in the kitchen.

    Dena Gershkovich
    Dena Gershkovich is a writer, recipe developer and future dietitian. She holds a BS in Dietetics and a BA in Journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow Dena on her blog (The Artsy Palate) and on Instagram (@theartsypalate) to see more of her work!