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A beginner's guide to meal prep

What is meal prep, and what are the benefits of cooking this way?

Plant-based meal prep options are quick, easy and healthy. Photo courtesy Ella Olsson, Unsplash.
Plant-based meal prep options are quick, easy and healthy. Photo courtesy Ella Olsson, Unsplash.
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Be prepared.

It's the Boy Scouts' motto and a devilishly catchy song from "The Lion King," but it's also advice that many people have taken to the kitchen in the past few years. Meal prep, as the practice is known, is a trendy way of getting food ready each week. On a fundamental level, meal prep means cooking more now so you have less to do later.

To outsiders, getting started in meal prep can seem overwhelming. How do you start meal prepping? What are the best tips and tricks you need to know? Why is this such a popular movement in the first place? We have you covered. 


The appeal of meal prep

The biggest reason for people opting to meal prep is time. If you know your work schedule won't allow you much time to cook dinner each night — or if you know you'll be too tired to cook — meal prep means you don't have to do anything but reheat what you've already made.

Time is not the only reason for meal prepping, though. It also helps some people eat healthier. If you know you won't have time to cook a full meal on a given day, is it better to pick up fast food on the way home or to already have a nutritious meal ready to eat in your refrigerator?


You have options

Even though the idea behind meal prepping is basic, there are multiple ways to go about it. The most popular meal prep method is batch cooking, which means making a large amount of one recipe and either putting it in the refrigerator to eat throughout the week or putting it in the freezer to eat over a few weeks. This method is great if you don't mind eating the same meal a few times a week.

Batch cooking allows you to spent the least amount of time in the kitchen, if that is your biggest reason for meal prepping. Many people who batch cook elect to do it on the weekend, dedicating a few hours to making everything while stress free. This method is often used for dinner prep, though some people take it a step further and prepare their lunches this way, too. 

If you want more variety and have a bit more time to cook at night, you can opt for make-ahead meals, which are exactly what they sound like: full meals you make ahead of time with no leftovers expected. This method is often used for breakfast; overnight oats or muesli are common options for people who want to wake and eat something without having to use brain power on cooking. Like batch cooking, this saves time on the back end, just with more spread out time allotments on the front end. 

For meal prep on a much smaller scale, you can also opt to prepare individual ingredients of a meal ahead of time, such as sous vide cooking a few chicken breasts at once so you only have to give them a sear when you're ready to eat. 

Whichever method feels right for your schedule, you probably want to start slow. Try cooking for two or three days ahead instead of five or six. Ease yourself into the process until you feel comfortable making that much food at once. And stick to your schedule: Once you dedicate your Saturday or Sunday mornings to cooking, it becomes routine. 

Before people start diving into their method of choice, there's more to consider. 


Think about more than the final product

Food might be the thing you're preparing, but there's more to consider than ingredients when meal prepping. For instance: What are you putting all this food in?

Make sure you have enough containers to hold everything you cook, and make sure those containers can seal correctly. There's nothing worse than making a lot of food only for it to go bad quicker than you thought it would. Tupperware or other plastic containers are fine for cold items in the fridge; it might be better to use Pyrex to hold food you plan on reheating. Wide-mouthed Mason jars are great for the freezer, but make sure to leave some room at the top of the jar in case the food expands when frozen. 

Most people will also want to keep lots of mixing bowls on hand, especially for more complicated recipes; things can get messy in a hurry when making large batches of dinner, especially. 

It helps to keep a detailed list of everything you will need at the grocery store. It sounds obvious, but you don't want to get to step five of a six-step recipe you're batch cooking for the week's dinners and realize you forgot something important. Some grocery stores, including Publix and Whole Foods, have apps that include a shopping list section to help with this. There are also third-party apps, such as Yummly, that have dedicated meal prep sections, but these apps are typically paid, not free like the grocery store apps. 

Also, if you want to heavily meal prep and still maximize your efficiency in the kitchen, think about what cooking methods your recipes require. Making two or more things in the oven can lengthen your cooking time if they can't go in together. Choosing one oven recipe and one stovetop recipe (or more) can save time. 


Add variety where you can

The biggest gripe of meal prep is that it can get monotonous quickly if you're not careful. The best way to avoid this feeling is to add changes wherever you can. For example, if you are making a week's worth of salads for lunch, divide them into two categories. Put chicken in half of them and top with a honey mustard dressing before eating; in the other half, add chickpeas and top with a Greek vinaigrette before eating.

This idea can be expanded in almost limitless ways. Making overnight oats a few nights in a row? Add blueberries one day and strawberries the next. You could even make more than one recipe for dinner at one time, though this potentially requires more cooking time depending on the recipes. 


Example recipes

Note: This is already too long so I don't want to type out the recipes in full. Maybe we could create QR codes for them in print?

Breakfast: Pina Colada overnight oats, by Taylor Stinson

Lunch: Lentil salad, by Lorena Grater 

Dinner: Moroccan chicken stew with sweet potato and couscous, by Ambitious Kitchen



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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