Open Instagram on your phone and you’re bound to see photos of containers with pre-portioned grilled chicken and rice, #mealprep. It’s a trend that’s blown up in recent years and, as someone who considers herself a relatively healthy person who stays up on what’s in, I decided to give it a try.
For those not keeping up on hashtags, meal prep (short for meal preparation) is exactly what it sounds like: You pick a day when you prepare all of the week’s meals (typically lunch or dinner, but breakfast works, too) and put them in individual containers. The goal? To make your week healthier and less stressful. That sounded like something I could definitely get behind.
Is a meal prep service more your thing? We tried that, too.
Prepping for the First Time
The night before the big day, I perused the internet for the perfect recipes. I needed something that could be made in bulk, that wasn’t too complicated and that I would want to eat day after day for lunch. I landed on an Asian chicken rice bowl (yum!) and breakfast burritos.
Now it was time to roll up my sleeves and start cooking. I gathered my ingredients and my materials (i.e. a gazillion plastic containers—it might be time to invest in some new products) and got down to business. When all was said and done, it took me probably about three hours to complete my task. It wasn’t hard but it was very time-consuming, and I found myself envious of my boyfriend, who was lounging on the couch watching football while I worked away in the kitchen.
After a major time commitment like that, you might be wondering if it was worth it. Well, I definitely think so! Here’s why:
- Meal prepping made my morning routine much easier. I was no longer rushing around trying to pack a lunch; I simply grabbed a container out of the fridge.
- It improved my workday. Having a filling lunch made me way more energized and productive all day.
- Relying less on takeout and snacks was not only healthier, it was more budget-friendly.
In fact, after this first week, I continued to do major meal preps like this time and time again. After a few months, I’ve learned a few lessons to pass along to other potential meal preppers. (Consider these meal planning tips from the pros, too.)
As I quickly learned, the prepping process is long, especially if you’re making more than one option. After that first time-consuming week, I had my boyfriend help me, which cut the time in half. Also, having him to keep me accountable and actually bring these meals every day—even when takeout sounded more appealing—was a lifesaver. So this is a smart project for friends and co-workers too! (And if you’re really craving your favorite Chinese takeout, you can prep some of these great copycat recipes.)
Pick something you actually like.
Yes, meal prepping is supposed to be a healthy eating solution, but it should still be delicious. That means making a meal you will enjoy. In the past when I meal-prepped, I focused too much on what I thought was healthy and not what I actually wanted to eat. For example, that time I made a handful of salads: I’m not a huge fan of salad, but I thought that by having them prepped and ready, I’d sort of force myself to be healthier. Well, the plan backfired. That week, I ordered carryout because the pre-made salads didn’t fill me up or didn’t seem appealing day after day. To stick to it, you have to make food you will eat. (Plus, there are plenty of healthy non-salad options out there.)
Give yourself options.
Even if you love a warming bowl of chili, chances are you’ll get bored of eating it time and time again. If you make more than one recipe while you’re prepping, you can change it up so you aren’t stuck with the same menu.
Keep our top meal planning secrets in mind, too!
"This recipe is so quick and easy, and I always receive a ton of compliments. It quickly becomes a favorite of friends whenever I share the recipe. Modify the spiciness with the intensity of the salsa and the green chilis to suit your taste." -Kristi Black, Harrison Township, Michigan
"Facebook fans of my blog, Chef in Training, inspired me to make this creamy pasta casserole out of ingredients I had on hand. Success! I took the dish for another flavorful spin and added a bit of smoky bacon and toasted bread crumbs." -Nikki Barton, Providence, Utah
"This delicious twist on chicken divan came from an old boss, who gave the recipe to me when I got married. It's quick, satisfying comfort food." -Jennifer Schlachter, Big Rock, Illinois
"Here's a different take on traditional stuffed peppers. I substituted chicken for the beef and used Cubanelle peppers in place of the green peppers that are usually featured in such a dish." -Ron Burlingame of Canton, Ohio
"Chock-full of chicken, potatoes, peas and corn, this autumn favorite makes two golden pies, so you can serve one at supper and save the other for a busy night. These potpies are perfect for company or a potluck." -Karen Johnson, Bakersfield, California
Do you eat the recommended amount of seafood per week?
"No matter how you toss 'em up, shrimp and thyme play nicely with any spring-fresh vegetable." -Taste of Home Test Kitchen
"If you're looking for a great seafood recipe for your slow cooker, this classic fish stew is just the ticket. It's brimming with clams, crab, fish and shrimp, and is fancy enough to be an elegant meal." -Lisa Moriarty, Wilton, New Hampshire
"During chilly months, I fix this jambalaya at least once a month. It's so easy?just chop the vegetables, dump everything in the slow cooker and forget it! Even my sons, who are picky about spicy things, like this dish."-Cindi Coss, Coppell, Texas
"For a cool salad on a hot summer day, I combine shrimp, corn, tomatoes and nectarines with a drizzle of tarragon dressing. We love it chilled, but it's great warm, too." -Mary Ann Lee, Clifton Park, New York
"Tender, hearty and flavorful, this recipe is one of my favorites! Garlic and a splash of lemon add to the fresh taste and heart-healthy benefits of shrimp." -Sarah Hummel, Moon Township, Pennsylvania
"This is the best shepherd's pie I've ever tasted. It's very quick to make, and I usually have most-if not all-of the ingredients already on hand." -Tirzah Sandt, San Diego, California
"When I had hungry children in the kitchen and nothing but leftovers, I invented Pierogi Quesadillas. Now it's how we always use up our potatoes, meats and sometimes veggies." -Andrea Dibble, Solon, IA
"Instead of throwing out leftover mashed potatoes, use them to make croquettes. The little baked balls are yummy with ranch dressing, barbecue sauce or Dijon mayonnaise for dipping." -Pamela Shank, Parkersburg, West Virginia
"Guests always comment on the presentation and flavor of this delightfully different dish." -Julie Sterchi, Flora, Illinois
"I love this recipe because it is great to use up leftover mashed potatoes and vegetables, especially the day after a big meal. You can substitute sweet Italian sausage for the bacon if you want a heartier quiche." -Heather King, Frostburg, Maryland
"This is a different way to use up leftover mashed potatoes. It was an instant hit with our teenagers. Serve with steamed green beans, cauliflower or broccoli." -Brad Eichelberger, York, Pennsylvania
"I always keep meatballs and pizza crusts in the freezer to make this specialty at the spur of the moment. Add a tossed salad, and you have a delicious dinner." -Mary Humeniuk-Smith, Perry Hall, Maryland
"I use my slow cooker so much-unless my husband decides to grill for me-and these mouthwatering meatballs are just one reason why. They're a guaranteed crowd-pleaser when I serve them as party appetizers?or a yummy, filling sandwich spooned over crusty rolls and topped with cheese." -Peggy Rios, Mechanicsville, Virginia
"Frozen meatballs and a jar of sweet-and-sour sauce make this microwave meal a last-minute lifesaver when racing against the clock. The flavorful sauce is dressed up with a hint of garlic and nicely coats the colorful mixture of meatballs, carrots, green pepper and onion." -Ivy Eresmas, Dade City, Florida
"I put this recipe together one day when we had unexpected guests. It was an immediate hit and is now a family favorite. Get the kids involved when putting together this simple, savory dish." -Dolores Betchner, Cudahy, Wisconsin
"How do you make a dinner of turkey and vegetables really appealing to kids? You turn it into a pie, of course! My version tastes classic, but won't take any time at all." -Daniela Essman, Perham, Minnesota
"The blend of flavors and colors in this hearty soup will bring everyone at the table back for more." -Charlotte Welch, Utica, New York
"This recipe is definitely a must-try, and all you do is bundle up creamy turkey filling in crescent dough. I usually double the recipe so I have extra for lunch the next day." -Lydia Garrod, Tacoma, Washington
"This chunky stew makes a hearty supper, especially in the fall and winter. Plus, it's a great way to use extra turkey during the holidays." -Lori Schlecht, Wimbledon, North Dakota
"Your clan will love these wonderful, stick-to-the-ribs potpies featuring a unique flavor twist. I always use the leftovers from our big holiday turkey to prepare this recipe. I think my family enjoys the potpies more than the original feast!" -Marie Rizzio, Interlochen, Michigan
"While living away from Texas for awhile, my boyfriend and I grew homesick for the spicy flavors of home. We've made this recipe a few times now, and it goes really well with homemade flour tortillas. We love it over rice, too." -Kelly Evans, Denton, Texas
"At a truck stand in Hawaii, we tasted pork and pineapple tacos. My husband is a high school football referee and gives my version a thumb's up." -Lori McLain, Denton, Texas
"Pork slowly stews with jalapenos, onion, green enchilada sauce and spices in this flavor-packed Mexican dish. It's great on its own or stuffed in a warm tortilla with sour cream, grated cheese or olives on the side." -Kimberly Burke, Chico, California
"Here's an Asian-inspired stir-fry that pairs nicely with a cucumber salad in vinaigrette dressing." -Marlene Kroll, Chicago, Illinois
Once you get the hang of prepping the food, you can start playing around more with recipes. One thing I’ve learned after doing meal prep for a few months is that it pays to use a few ingredients in several ways to make a handful of meals. That means when I’m prepping boneless skinless chicken breasts, I can easily repurpose that ingredient in a stir-fry, a pasta dish and salads. Repurposing ingredients is one of the best shortcuts.
Remember that your freezer is your friend.
Picking meals that can be easily frozen is a smart idea when it comes to meal prep. That way you can make large batches without worrying that you’ll end up wasting some. Whatever you don’t eat, you can stick in the freezer for a quick meal later on.
In the end, the #mealprep trend is one I’m happy to embrace. It just takes a little extra planning (and an armload of food containers!).