How to meal prep

Meal Prep 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Prepping and Portioning Meals

Check out our Meal Prep Category for lots of meal prep inspo! I create new meal prep ideas fairly regularly, so check back often and don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to stay on top of all the new recipes and ideas! Also check out our Vegetarian Meal Prep, Breakfast Meal Prep, and No-Reheat Meal Prep categories!

Meal Prep Guide

Chopped vegetables on a cutting board for meal preparation, including acorn squash, Brussels sprouts, carrots, and kale, as well as white beans and dried farro.

Who hasn’t left work late with a growling stomach but little energy to shop and cook? A busy schedule is one of the top reasons why people choose quick takeout meals, which are often calorie-laden and a contributor to expanding waistlines. [1-3]

Now, imagine a different scenario where within a few minutes of walking through the door you have a delicious home-cooked dinner, and perhaps even lunch packed-up for the next day. Amidst hectic weekday schedules, meal prep or meal planning is a great tool to help keep us on a healthy eating track. Although any type of meal prep requires planning, there is no one correct method, as it can differ based on food preferences, cooking ability, schedules, and personal goals. Here are some examples:

  • If you now eat fast food or takeout several nights of the week, your goal may be to choose a specific day of the week to create a food shopping list and hit the grocery store.
  • If you already food shop once a week and have basic cooking skills, your goal may be to choose one day a week to do most of the cooking, or try a new recipe.
  • If you already cook some weekday meals for your family, you might decide to create a schedule so that you are not deciding last minute what to make and to ensure you have the needed ingredients on hand.

Some benefits of meal prep:

  • Can help save money
  • Can ultimately save time
  • Can help with weight control, as you decide the ingredients and portions served
  • Can contribute to an overall more nutritionally balanced diet
  • Can reduce stress as you avoid last minute decisions about what to eat, or rushed preparation

How to meal prep

Tips for supermarket savings

Planning your meals ahead of the trip to the grocery store is a key strategy for eating well on a budget. From the supermarket to the kitchen, here are some other strategies to get the biggest nutrition bang for your buck.

Prepping for Meal Prep

  • Discuss with your family what types of foods and favorite meals they like to eat.
  • Start a monthly calendar or spreadsheet to record your meal ideas, favorite recipe sites, and food shopping lists.
  • Collect healthy recipes. Clip recipes from print magazines and newspapers and save in a binder, or copy links of recipes onto an online spreadsheet.
  • Consider specific meals or foods for different days of the week. Remember Wednesday as Prince Spaghetti Day? Some families enjoy the consistency of knowing what to expect, and it can help to ease your meal planning. Examples are Meatless Mondays, Whole Grain Wednesdays, Stir-Fry Fridays, etc.
  • Start small: Aim to create enough dinners for 2-3 days of the week.

Getting Started

Example of a meal preparation calendar

  1. Choose a specific day of the week to: 1) plan the menu, whether week by week or for the whole month, and write out your grocery list 2) food shop, 3) do meal prep, or most of your cooking. Some of these days may overlap if you choose, but breaking up these tasks may help keep meal planning manageable.
  2. As you find favorite ‘prep-able’ meals, or your menus become more familiar and consistent, watch for sales and coupons to stock up on frequently used shelf-stable ingredients like pasta, rice, and other whole grains, lentils, beans (canned or dried), jarred sauces, healthy oils, and spices.
  3. On your meal prep day, focus first on foods that take the longest to cook: proteins like chicken and fish; whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and farro; dried beans and legumes; and, roasted vegetables.
  4. Also consider preparing staple foods that everyone in the family enjoys and which you can easily add to a weekday meal or grab for a snack: washed greens for a salad, hardboiled eggs, a bowl of chopped fruit, cooked beans.
  5. If you prefer not to pre-cook proteins, consider marinating poultry, fish, or even tofu on your prep day so that you can quickly pop them into the oven or stir-fry later in the week.
  6. Multi-task! While foods are baking or bubbling on the stovetop, chop vegetables and fresh fruit, or wash and dry salad greens for later in the week.
  7. When you cook a recipe, make extra portions for another day or two of meals, or to freeze for a different week. Be sure to date and label what goes in the freezer so you know what you have on hand.
  8. For lunches, get a head-start and use individual meal containers. Divide cooked food into the containers on prep day.


Meal prep can save time and money if you are preparing just enough for what is needed the following week. Refrigeration and freezing are an important step to successful meal planning. However, forgotten food such as produce hiding in a drawer or a stew stored on a back shelf in an opaque container for too long can spoil and lead to food waste. Label all prepped items with a date so that you can track when to use them by. Rotate stored items so that the oldest foods/meals are kept up front. Store highly perishable items like greens, herbs, and chopped fruits front-and-center at eye-level so you remember to use them.

When it comes to freezing, some foods work better than others. Cooked meals tend to freeze well in airtight containers. Foods with high moisture content, such as salad greens, tomatoes, or watermelon, are not recommended as they tend to become mushy when frozen and thawed. Blanching vegetables for a few minutes before freezing can help. However, if the texture of a frozen food becomes undesirable after thawing, they might still be used in cooked recipes such as soups and stews.

The following are recommended times for various cooked foods that offer the best flavors, maximum nutrients, and food safety.

Refrigeration at 40°F or lower
1-2 days: Cooked ground poultry or ground beef
3-4 days: Cooked whole meats, fish and poultry; soups and stews
5 days: Cooked beans; hummus
1 week: Hard boiled eggs; chopped vegetables if stored in air-tight container
2 weeks: Soft cheese, opened
5-6 weeks: Hard cheese, opened

Freezing at 0°F or lower
2-3 months: Soups and stews; cooked beans
3-6 months: Cooked or ground meat and poultry
6-8 months: Berries and chopped fruit (banana, apples, pears, plums, mango) stored in a freezer bag
8-12 months: Vegetables, if blanched first for about 3-5 minutes (depending on the vegetable)

Ready to get started? Below are some recipes that lend well to bigger batches—and don’t forget that the Healthy Eating Plate can serve as a helpful menu planning guide. Happy prepping!

  • Farro with Confetti Vegetables
  • Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
  • Cauliflower Tomato Soup with Indian Spices
  • Mixed-Up Grains
  • White Beans, Wild Rice, and Mushrooms
  • Vegetable Stock (great for making use of leftover veggie trimmings)
  1. Fryar CD, Ervin RB. Caloric intake from fast food among adults: United States, 2007–2010. NCHS data brief, no 114. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2013.
  2. Lachat C, Nago E, Verstraeten R, Roberfroid D, Van Camp J, Kolsteren P. Eating out of home and its association with dietary intake: a systematic review of the evidence. Obes Rev. 2012 Apr;13(4):329-46.
  3. Nago ES, Lachat CK, Dossa RA, Kolsteren PW. Association of out-of-home eating with anthropometric changes: a systematic review of prospective studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2014;54(9):1103-16.

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The contents of this website are for educational purposes and are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The Nutrition Source does not recommend or endorse any products.


Use healthy oils (like olive and canola oil) for cooking, on salad, and at the table. Limit butter. Avoid trans fat.

Meal Prep 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Prepping and Portioning Meals

This post contains some affiliate links, which means that we make a small commission off items you purchase at no additional cost to you.

Overhead view of meal prep containers with title text overlay.

Meal prepping is the hottest food trend lately, and frankly, I couldn’t be happier! I’ve been meal prepping for years simply because it’s a great way to save time, money, and reduce waste in the kitchen, so I’m happy to see so many people getting wise to this method. But there are still so many people who haven’t had the meal prep “Aha!” moment, so I wanted to do a quick Meal Prep 101 to help people grasp the concept or get over the intimidation to give it a try.

How to Meal Prep

Three meal prep containers in background with article title overlay

What is Meal Prepping?

Meal prepping is simply the act of preparing a meal or recipe, then portioning it out to create grab-and-go meals for later. If you’ve ever packed up your leftovers from dinner to take with you for lunch the next day, then you’ve already mini-meal prepped! Generally though, meal prepping refers to preparing 3-7 days worth of food at a time.

Think of it like packing your lunches for the week all at once instead of packing your lunch each morning. You can use this same technique for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.

Why Meal Prep?

Meal prepping is convenient, efficient, reduces waste, and reduces temptation to eat outside your plan (whether the plan be a diet or a budget). When cooking every single day is out of the question, meal prepping can allow you to still eat home-cooked meals without having to dedicate time each day to preparation.

One rectangular glass meal prep container filled with a burrito bowl. A fork mixing the contents.

Who is Meal Prepping For?

Meal prepping is not for everyone. It is good for people who value convenience and efficiency more than variety. With meal prepping you generally eat the same thing for a few days in a row, so if you don’t like leftovers or get bored with food easily, meal prepping is not for you. If having control over what you eat, or maximizing your time or budget is more valuable to you than eating something different every single day, meal prepping is your ticket.

I’ve generally only seen people meal prep for themselves or maybe one other person, as opposed to a whole family. Meal prepping for a whole family would be quite difficult because there are more people to please and would require a million containers.

What Can I Meal Prep?

This is the golden question. As with any leftovers, the palatability of prepped meals varies from person to person.

Foods that work well for meal prepping:

  • cooked grains and pasta
  • cooked beans
  • cooked meat
  • roasted vegetables
  • hearty fresh vegetables (think celery, carrots, peas, bell peppers, kale, cabbage, radishes, etc.)
  • whole fruit (apples, oranges, stone fruit)
  • nuts and seeds
  • cheese
  • sauces and dips (like salad dressings, hummus, salsa, sour cream, etc.)

Foods that don’t usually meal prep well:

  • softer fruits and vegetables (lettuce, berries, and cut fruit)
  • crunchy items like fried food, crackers, or chips

That being said, there are sometimes ways around this, like packing ingredients individually. I tend to stay away from items that require special care just for convenience sake, but it is possible to prep these things if you don’t mind putting in the extra work.

Four rectangular glass meal prep containers with Pork and Peanut Dragon Noodles, broccoli salad, and containers of salad dressing.

How Long Do My Meal Preps Stay “Good”?

I get this question on almost every meal prep post I make and unfortunately there is no one hard rule here. As food is stored in the refrigerator it begins a slow decline in quality. In addition to this, the way food is packed or the individual nuances of your refrigerator environment can impact the quality of your refrigerated meals. So often the lifespan or acceptable changes in texture and flavor will be subject to the eater.

Always begin with the refrigeration guidelines set by the FDA, and then evaluate them against your own preferences. In general, I don’t like to prep more than four days worth at a time because I find that by that fifth day the food is usually too limp and lifeless to enjoy. By prepping four days in a row I can prep two times per week and be covered or prep once per week and reach into my stash of freezer leftovers for the remaining days (plus the option for eating out one day).

How To Start Meal Prepping

Start SMALL. I can’t emphasize this enough. Start by packing up your leftovers from dinner one night and taking them for lunch the next day. Once you’re comfortable with that and you get to know what types of food you like as leftovers (pay attention to texture changes that might bother you), you can pick one recipe to prep for the week ahead.

I suggest starting with a single recipe meal prep instead of a meal that requires two or three recipes together. Single recipe meal preps provide your protein, grain, and vegetables all in one recipe, so there is no need to make a side dish.

Once you get a hang of one recipe or meal, you can try two (like lunches and dinners) or try prepping your breakfast ahead. The most important thing is that you prep for the level that works for you. If you try to prep three meals for five days all at once and find that after day three you just won’t eat the same thing anymore, don’t risk wasting the food. Prep only three days. Personally, I like to do just lunches, or sometimes breakfast and lunch, leaving my dinner to be my variety for the day.

Three divided glass meal prep containers with Apple Dijon Kale Salad, cheddar cubes, and a dinner roll.

My Meal Prep Formulas:

An easy way to think about meal prepping is to make a formula out of it. When deciding which foods to meal prep I try to pick out one of the following formulas:

  • Basic: Protein + Grain + Vegetable
  • Low Carb: Protein + Vegetable + Vegetable
  • Vegetarian: Legume + Grain + Vegetable

You can add toppings to any of the formulas above to make it more interesting, like sauces, nuts, seeds, croutons, etc. Or just keep it simple and make life easy!

What Do I Need?

Containers. Containers of different shapes and sizes. And don’t worry, you can start small here too.

I started by buying one pack of the blue-top reusable plastic Ziploc containers per week. They’re BPA free and can go in the freezer, dishwasher, and microwave, which makes them super convenient, plus they’re very inexpensive and come in several shapes and sizes.

Once my budget allowed, I graduated to glass containers. My favorite glass containers so far are the plain, single compartment Pyrex containers (I like the 3-cup rectangle and 4-cup bowl). I do also have some divided glass containers that have separate compartments, but I find their use a little more limited because not all food can fit in the smaller compartments and the compartment dividers aren’t leak proof.

Metal bento box style containers are also great, as long as you’re packing a cold meal and won’t need to reheat it in a microwave.

Fold top sandwich bags or zip top bags can also be helpful when you need to separate ingredients. And, if you like to keep your dressing and dips separate, look for 1-2 oz. size resealable containers (I’ve seen several at grocery stores and on Amazon).

Ready to Get Started?

Check out our Meal Prep Category for lots of meal prep inspo! I create new meal prep ideas fairly regularly, so check back often and don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to stay on top of all the new recipes and ideas! Also check out our Vegetarian Meal Prep, Breakfast Meal Prep, and No-Reheat Meal Prep categories!

Share Your Meal Prep Wins

We can all learn from each other, so share your tips, tricks, and meal prep wins in the comments below! I’d love to hear what you do and what you’ve found that works and your creative meal prep hacks!

Beth Moncel I’m a food lover, number cruncher, and meticulous budgeter. I love science and art, and the way they come together when I cook. I love to create, problem solve, and learn new things. Making great food is my passion, my purpose, and my favorite thing to share with others. More About Beth

Overhead view of meal prep containers with title text overlay.

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