Americans are eating more meals at home and are facing new meal prep challenges. According to Supermarket News, 55% of shoppers polled in a study called “Covid-19: Reinventing How America Eats” said they’re eating at home more frequently because of the pandemic. As we head into a new year, we spoke to four meal prep experts to gather these meal prep tips and tricks that can help you shop smarter, make your money go farther, save time and eat healthier.
All of the experts we spoke to agree that the most important part of meal prep is the planning.
Allyson Spungin, a certified personal trainer, nutrition coach and nationally qualified NPC competitor, says, “Have a plan! Map out your meals and snack ideas before grocery shopping or ordering online.” Jessica Woo, who calls herself the Bento Box Lunch Queen, agrees. “Routine is everything,” she says.
Apps like MealPrepPro and Prepear can help you get meal plans, recipes and shopping lists organized; if you’re a person who prefers handwritten lists, a meal planner with a built-in section for a corresponding shopping list can help you keep track of what you plan to cook and what you need to buy on your next grocery store run.
This planning pad makes meal prep simple. Featuring a tear-off shopping list and space for weekly meal planning, this pad sticks right onto your fridge to keep you on track.
While all the experts agree on the importance of planning, there are different approaches to meal prep, and they stressed that meal prep isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition — and that it’s not all about dieting. “I encourage people to think of meal prep as an act of self-care versus a means of sticking to rigid food rules,” Cara Harbstreet, a registered dietitian who focuses on intuitive eating, says. “If you approach it like this, your motivations for sticking to it shift to something that eases stress or eliminates chaos, and that can be very empowering.”
Spungin designates one day for cooking and, to make it less stressful, suggests scheduling meal prep for a day when you don’t have several other things to do. “Not a leftovers person? Pick two prep days,” she says. “For instance, Sunday for the first part of the week and Wednesday for the second half.”
Woo builds her meal prep into her existing schedule. “I like to meal prep when I am already cooking dinner or lunch,” she says. “Cook as if you are cooking for seven people and you can freeze individual meals,” which can be defrosted for a quick lunch or dinner.
These three-compartment plastic containers are great for someone who is getting into meal prepping because you can portion out your meals, microwave them, then throw the container in the dishwasher once you’re done.
A stainless steel bento box like this one is good for your wallet and the environment. It comes with three removable compartments that you can swap around to plan your meal exactly how you want it.
Having a variety of different-sized containers is always convenient. Opt for this set of 38 from Rubbermaid, made with lids that snap onto the base so that you won’t lose them.
Keeping meal-size portions in the freezer can also help to keep boredom at bay. Kevin Curry, the founder of FitMenCook, says, “The No. 1 tip I have for people who are new to meal prepping is that it does NOT have to be boring. Boring recipes make it much more challenging to stick to a meal prepping routine.”
Spungin offers one last piece of advice for those who are new to meal prepping: “Don’t. Get. Hungry!” She stresses the importance of keeping nutritious snacks on hand, which can help to prevent poor food choices made out of hunger. The healthy snacks will also help you avoid digging right into the meals you’re storing away. Individually packaged snacks are a convenient choice, but buying snacks in bulk and storing individual portions in reusable silicone storage bags will save money and cut down on packaging waste.
For someone who wants a savory snack, give Mission Meats Grass Fed Beef Sticks a try. They’re sugar-free and high in protein to keep you satisfied til your next meal.
Nuts are an ideal healthy snack because they contain healthy fats and a good amount of protein. This variety pack of almonds, walnuts and cashews is sure to become a household favorite.
If you’re one to take snacks on the go, ditch your traditional plastic bags now. The Stasher silicone storage bags are a game-changer to keep your food fresh without the waste.
The experts we spoke to offered some of their favorite tips, tricks and products for successful meal prep. They also advise that you start small and stay flexible as you incorporate this new habit, since you’ll learn as you go. “Take note of what works and keep at it,” Spungin says of learning how to prepare meals in a way that works for you.
1. Take stock: All of the experts stressed the importance of keeping your kitchen stocked with the essentials of successful cooking. Spungin suggests investing in basic cookware, storage containers, measuring tools, spices and cooking oils. “That way all you need is the food,” Curry adds. “And don’t forget a quality cutting board and chef’s knife!” Check out our picks for the best kitchen knife sets here if you’re in the market for a new set.
2. Keep it simple: Woo encourages new meal preppers to start small. When you’re just starting, she says it’s a good idea to plan one a week at a time “so you don’t overwhelm yourself.” Likewise, she says that new cooks should stick with easy recipes. “Get comfortable doing the basics,” she says. “Start with easy recipes you’re comfortable cooking, and it will get easier with time.”
Timing can be a struggle for those who are newer to cooking or who aren’t used to prepping many items at once, but a kitchen timer can solve both problems.
3. Small appliances, big payoff: The experts we spoke with all love small appliances to make meal prep easier on them. One way Woo makes things easy for herself is using a food chopper to cut up a lot of vegetables at once, which can be cooked or stored raw.
Curry also relies on small appliances. “I couldn’t live without my Instant Pot Duo Plus and my Breville Smart Oven.” Spungin, too, swears by the Instant Pot as well as her air fryer, both of which she says are major time-savers. “The Instant Pot is great for cooking foods in bulk like soup, chili, stew, etc. and you can slow cook while tackling other parts of your prep.” An air fryer might also be a good option if you’re looking to make your favorite foods without the excess oils or calories, as opposed to other cooking methods like deep-frying.
4. Get active: Curry stresses the importance of learning to multitask in the kitchen. “When I’m meal prepping, I’ve got three, four or sometimes five things on the go. I’m sweating. I’m hopping around the kitchen like I’m Remy from ‘Ratatouille.’” Prepping in this way, he says, not only saves him a lot of time, but it also makes meal prep a more engaging and enjoyable activity. Turning on music or a favorite podcast while you prep can help to make the time go faster and turn it into fun.
5. Think of the fridge as a buffet: “One helpful trick I learned was to think of my meals as an assembly line rather than individual, fully prepared meals,” Harbstreet says. The assembly line approach provides more options and flexibility. When storing prepared foods, Woo says you should “keep your warm items and cold items in separate containers so it’s easier to reheat your warm items.”
6. Bulk up: Cooking in bulk — and using those small appliances like an extra pair of hands — will allow you to assemble meals throughout the week with ease. “I pick a couple of protein sources like chicken and shrimp, carb sources like rice and sweet potatoes [and] have fats on hand like olive oil and avocados to combine for meals,” Spungin says.
7. Master the most important meal of the day: “Breakfast meal prep can sometimes feel the most challenging,” Harbstreet says, “but silicone baking cups allow you to make baked oatmeal, muffins, mini frittatas and more.” Woo swears by Mason jars for overnight oats — and, she notes, they’re also great for storing salads and soups.
8. Cut corners with abandon: Meal prep doesn’t mean cooking every single thing from scratch — and, in fact, the experts agree that you should look for shortcuts to save time and money. “Just because you didn’t personally cook the food yourself doesn’t mean it can’t have a place in your meal prep routine,” Harbstreet says. Canned goods like beans, corn and diced tomatoes; frozen vegetables; and rotisserie chicken were items that the experts pointed to as time-savers.
“Just practice good label literacy and look out for added salt or sugar,” Curry says. Small acts like opening, draining and rinsing canned beans to toss in a salad or rice bowl can save time and energy when you need to pull lunch or dinner together quickly.
9. Give leftovers new life: Curry has another suggestion for combating meal prep boredom and saving some time: “Don’t be afraid of leftovers. Get creative with them! One of my favorite things is experimenting with a batch of leftover rice to see what kind of quick, cheap and tasty dish I can put together.” To prevent food waste, Harbstreet says to label your prepped meals clearly so you know how long you have to enjoy them.
10. Dress it up: Finally, don’t forget a sauce or dressing! They can play a huge role in added flavor to a meal and will help to keep boredom at bay. “Experiment with a different sauce or dressing each round of meal prep,” Harbstreet suggests, noting that even if the basics of the meal don’t change, “you’ll be surprised how novel and exciting your meals can be with that simple change.” Storing dressings and sauces separately will also help to keep salad greens and fresh veggies from getting soggy.
Check out our picks below for a variety of meal prep containers that’ll help you incorporate those tips into your daily routine and keep your food fresh.
We can’t wait to get our hands on this versatile bento box by Lovina. It features four compartments and even a sauce cup to carry our full meal in one handy container.
This insulated lunch container can keep liquids hot and cold for up to 12 hours. Have this ready to meal prep a hearty soup this winter.
We have our eyes on this set from Bentgo, not only because the containers are adorable, but they also include an optional divider to create a fourth compartment. Customization is key for meal prep containers that will last you from week to week.
Glass containers like these are helpful if you prefer to quickly see what’s inside. However, these aren’t partitioned so they’re best suited for things like pasta or casseroles that are served individually.
The white and bamboo finish of this bento box caught our eye, but luckily it’s as functional as it is stylish. It contains a sauce cup, reusable utensils and two movable dividers for your smartest meal prep yet.
This set of storage containers features a built-in lid vent to avoid excessive splatter in the microwave while warming your food up. Reviewers believe this set is a great value for 42 pieces total.
Salads can be a pain to meal prep, since you typically don’t want to combine all the ingredients until you’re ready to eat. Try out this round container for your next meal prep, that even features a plate and dressing cup for a takeout worthy salad.
Collapsible meal prep containers are helpful for when you finish your food but don’t want the bowl to take up too much space on the way home or in your cabinets.