When you think about it, we technically waste a lot of time individually preparing meals three times a day. Between compiling ingredients, following recipe steps, waiting for dishes to cook, and the headache of cleanup, that's a lot of energy to expend on tasks that can get repetitive and tedious when you're doing them daily. And let's face it, sometimes you're just too dang busy for all of that! Of course, there are folks who enjoy cooking and love to whip up extravagant meals at a leisurely pace, but maybe you work full time, are a student on a budget, or want to try eating healthier and controlling your portions.

Studies show that planning meals ahead of time leads to more diet variety and less obesity, helps you save money, and lets you free up mental energy to devote to other tasks. Think of it this way - the markup on food at restaurants is high, and fast food is getting more expensive and is not wise to consume on a daily basis. There's a lot to be said for making use of leftovers throughout the week, but leftovers don't necessarily account for all four food groups.

So why not give meal prepping a try?

woman smiling next to containers of food
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Best Materials

The first thing you'll want to get organized after you decide to give meal prepping a try is your containers. You'll want plastic or glass containers that are BPA free, microwave safe, freezer safe, and are held together with strong, reliable seals. If you have a dishwasher at home, make sure to look for a dishwasher safe label if you want to minimize the amount of work that goes into your cleanup. You also want to make sure you have enough containers that on Sunday night you can reasonably store all your meals for the week in the fridge. If you plan on taking one lunch to work every day for the workweek, you'll obviously need at least 5 containers, and will probably want to have a few extras just in case. The other thing you'll want to consider is the sizing. Be realistic about how much food you'll be able to fit in one container, but also remember that your container needs to be able to fit in your lunchbox or whatever bag you take with you to work. Keep in mind that based on the layout of your fridge, it's a good idea to go for containers that easily stack so your meals fit in the fridge in a way that efficiently conserves space.

Depending on the types of meals you'll be making, it's also a good idea to invest in resealable plastic bags and mason jars with tops that screw tightly shut.

plastic containers in front of green wall
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Picking Ingredients

Depending on what technology you'll have available at the time of day you're planning a meal for, pick ingredients that you don't mind eating cold, or can be heated if your environment offers a microwave. Chicken, beans, and hard-boiled eggs are easy to grab from the fridge without needing to be defrosted. Grains like rice, whole wheat pastas, quinoa, and barley are versatile in that they can be used as sides or the base of a meal. If you're going for reheatable dishes, pick ingredients that are good warmed up and aren't altered too much by being thrown in the microwave. If you're keen on eating fresh every day, go for foods that can be frozen and defrosted without losing their freshness over the week - like fruits and veggies and meats. (Contrary to myth, you can totally freeze cooked meats and eat them when you're ready. Remember that you can freeze pretty much everything, but if you keep something frozen past its best before date, you only have about 24 hours to consume those items until they go bad.)

arm grabbing orange at supermarket

Breakfast Prepping

Breakfast is supposed to be the most important meal of the day, but it can also be the most hectic. Even on days when you didn't hit snooze nine times, it can be hard to wrap your mind around setting extra time aside to eat when you could be sleeping later and skipping breakfast. Breakfast prepping is a great way to introduce yourself to meal prepping if you usually (and guiltily) let breakfast slide by.

  • For easy and nutritious on-the-go smoothies, portion out all your smoothie ingredients for the week in resealable plastic bags on Sunday night and toss them in the fridge. This way, you're good to simply toss the contents of the bags in your blender in the morning and leave with a fresh smoothie. The best part? You can alter the contents of the bags slightly with different fruits and flavors so you're not drinking the same recipe every day.
  • Combine oats, nuts, seeds, berries and anything else you'd like in mason jars for easy access to healthy, pre-prepared superfoods in a compact carrying case that's easy to bring with you on the run.
  • Mason jars can also be put to great use by layering ingredients into ready-to-go customizable yogurt packs. Buy the large size of your favorite yogurt and fill jars with yogurt, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whatever other toppings you'd like, and keep refrigerated (while keeping an eye on your yogurt's best before date).
glass jars of yogurt and granola

Lunch Prepping

This will be the meal that prepping in advance will likely save you the most money! Not only is buying lunch or going out to eat expensive, but unless you're reading all the individual menu ingredients every time, you lose track of what you're putting in your body on a daily basis. Portioning out your meals with Sunday night meal prep lets you control how much you're eating, making you less vulnerable to overeating and giving you one less decision to make during the day. Not to mention that you'll get to know exactly what's in your meals instead of wondering what mystery ingredients you'll be digesting throughout the afternoon. Just bear in mind if you're taking meals to school or work that there may be restrictions as to what those around you can be exposed to, especially concerning nut allergies. So check to make sure your pre-packed lunch won't be a hazard to others.

  • Fill a container with the contents of your ideal wrap, taco, or burrito and bring the bread with you in a separate bag so it doesn't get soggy over the course of the day.
  • A lunchtime classic, make a large salad on Sunday night and divide it up into containers to take with you over the course of the week. To keep yourself from getting bored, prepare several protein options to top the salad differently on different days.
  • As with the salad, consider making a giant bowl of your favorite pasta and portioning it across weekdays while alternating the protein pairing.
  • Lettuce wraps are a genius modern solution to leftovers. Whether it's leftover chicken, turkey, or ground beef, you can either make a batch from scratch or incorporate whatever leftovers you may have from larger meals made over the weekend. You won't want to fully construct your lettuce wraps on Sunday night, since leaving them in the fridge will make your wraps soggy and unappealing after a few days. Make a large batch of the lettuce wrap contents and portion the mix separately from the leaves until the day you plan to eat them.
office lunch on desk

Dinner Prepping

Dinner is a hard meal to predict. By the end of the day, sometimes you're either too tired to make something from scratch and you don't want the hassle of cooking and cleaning up, or you're too hungry and don't want to wait hours to eat so you end up ordering takeout. As discussed earlier, ordering in from restaurants isn't a habit that's friendly to the wallet or the waistline. The solution? Set yourself up for success by stuffing your freezer or fridge with pre-made entrees and side options that can easily be cooked together in a pan or microwaved.

  • Cook as many pieces of chicken or fish as you can see yourself eating over a given span of time, and simply freeze after cooking so you can easily defrost when you get home after a tough day.
  • Making a giant stir fry on Sunday is a great idea since it incorporates various food groups and the taste is varied enough that you shouldn't get tired of it even if you have it a few nights in a row. This is a great example of a meal you can either portion off and freeze before cooking or freeze after cooking.
  • Casseroles work well for dinnertime meal prep because once one is baked, it will inevitably take days to finish. A casserole can be divided into smaller containers or left in its dish and worked away at over time.
  • Shrimp medleys with rice, pasta, quinoa (or your base of choice) and vegetables is easy to make in batch form and can be easily thrown back on the stove for warming if you're picky about microwaved heating.
slice of casserole on plate
Irina Rostokina/Shutterstock

General Tips

  • Stay away from soups, even though the impulse to make huge batches is logical. Soups can be problematic to transport, since even the most secure, reliable containers can crack and leak and make a mess.
  • Avoid having to carry a knife with you by cutting meats and larger vegetables into bite-sized pieces during prep.
  • Buy containers with separate compartments if you want to keep certain foods from touching and mixing before you get a chance to eat them.
  • Consider making two slightly smaller batches of prepped food on Sunday and alternating them throughout the week so you don't get bored. You might also want to alter hot and cold dishes to keep your meals interesting.
  • Lining your containers with paper towel can absorb excess moisture in the fridge and keep your ingredients fresher for longer.
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