Meal prepping makes my life so much easier, but until recently, I have been firmly anti-meal prep. Why? I quickly became overwhelmed with the time and expense I believed it took to meal prep properly. Once I realized that there is a surplus of cheap, easy, and nutritious meal prep recipes available, I was able to fully convert to a meal prep fan.
By spending a couple of hours a week (we usually meal prep on Sundays and Wednesdays) preparing and storing meals, my family and I are able to spend more quality time together in the evenings. Most importantly we don’t have to worry about the dreaded question: "What’s for dinner (or breakfast or lunch)?"
What Are the Benefits of Meal Prepping?
The benefits of meal prepping are plentiful. On a personal level, meal prepping gives me less stress, but that’s not all.
Let’s face it, life is hectic. And, although we may have the best intentions of preparing nutritious, balanced meals every day, that simply doesn’t happen for a lot of us. If the kiddos soccer practice runs long or you get called into a last-minute meeting or the afternoon commute is a bear, the last thing that my husband or I want to think about is grilling, roasting, or chopping. On these nights, we often reach for delivery or cereal. Meal prepping eliminates this stress because we know there’s already food ready for us.
Meal prep can seem expensive, but it actually saves you money. How? In order to successfully meal prep, you have to buy food in bulk. Although you may pay more upfront, bulk buying breaks down to be cheaper over time rather than buying a handful of ingredients per meal. Even if you can’t eat it all during the week, many meal prep recipes freeze nicely, allowing you to enjoy them in the future. foods with long shelf life are also great for snacks in between meals. Plus, you’ll save a small fortune by not eating out or ordering delivery every time you’re at a loss for what to cook.
One of the main reasons that I started meal prepping was because I wanted to get more fruits and vegetables into my daily diet. By having them readily available for both meals and snacks, I reach for those rather than rummaging around for chips or cookies.
Pre-portioning my meals also helps prevent overeating. If my dinner is packaged into one single container, I already have a healthy serving size portioned out.
Meal prepping also prevents me from ordering takeout or eating out where the food is often laden with salt, oil, and butter, not to mention the super-sized portions.
Who Should Meal Prep?
Take it from a previous meal prep naysayer—everyone should get on that prep train. I thought that the only way to do it was to sacrifice every Sunday to prepare and package 63 meals (three meals a day x three people x seven days), which was my main reason for resistance. That is the exact opposite of Sunday Funday. However, I eventually started taking a more measured approach, and, not to be hyperbolic, it has changed my life.
Two of the biggest issues that prepping has helped me solve are snacks and lunch. Before I started prepping, I could have yogurt and berries in separate containers in the fridge every day. Could I combine them for a healthy and nutritious snack? Well, of course. Did I? Nope. I would usually just stare at the refrigerator light while absentmindedly eating shredded cheese. However, by packaging up containers of yogurt and berries and stacking them neatly in the fridge, I reach for those every day instead.
Also, by keeping simple, ready-to-make meals on hand, I have stopped Door Dashing lunch. By keeping items like taco meat or rotisserie chicken and roasted vegetables or pre-packaged salads, I can put together a well-balanced, satisfying meal in less than 5 minutes.
Meal prepping doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing mentality. Rather, identify a couple of areas where you could benefit from meals on hand and start there.
Meal Prep Containers
Having the right meal prep containers can make the process a lot easier. But with so many choices, it can be overwhelming to know which ones to buy. If you’re just starting out, opt for glass and BPA-free food-grade plastic meal prep containers.
Also, consider size and shape and whether the containers are dishwasher, microwave, and freezer-safe. You’ll want to stock your kitchen with various sizes ranging from small, snack-sized containers that also work for salad dressings and dips, to large storage containers that can hold a meal with several servings.
A bento box is another great container to have on hand, especially if you bring lunch to work or school. Finally, a good set of disposable meal prep containers can come in handy when traveling or on the go.
Easy Meal Prep Ideas
We often seem to think of easy meals as those that are overly processed or ones that arrive in a grease-soaked bag. However, that’s not usually the case. There are tons of easy meals that are affordable, delicious, and healthier than drive-thru fare. Here are a few to mix into your repertoire:
Breakfast Meal Prep
Both kids and adults can enjoy this warm and hearty apple-cinnamon steel-cut oatmeal. Made with apples, milk, brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, flax seed, and other ingredients, this budget-friendly meal prep breakfast is easy to make and only requires a few fresh ingredients.
Or, if you want a higher protein meal, try these hash brown bowls. Made with only three ingredients—eggs, shredded potatoes, and butter—this homemade alternative to a fast food favorite tastes good and is easy on your budget.
Lunch Meal Prep
The Crock Pot is a meal prepper’s best friend. This appliance makes cooking in bulk a breeze. And, once you’ve gotten the ingredients in, you aren’t confined to the kitchen. This slow-cooker Mexican oat chili uses steel-cut oats (they’re not just for breakfast, folks) and black beans to bring you an easy, inexpensive and satiating meal.
If you're like me and are also trying to up your veggie intake, one way to get more in is to "hide" them in comfort food like mac and cheese. By adding carrot puree to the pasta and then mixing in the cheese, you may not even realize that you’re eating healthier. Additionally, this meal is easy to make in bulk, and pasta and canned carrots can be bought on the cheap.
Dinner Meal Prep
Is there anything more welcoming than hot chicken pot pie? Other than the sheer deliciousness of these childhood favorites, this chicken pot freezes beautifully. You could make several at a time and then freeze a couple so you’re all set whenever you have a hectic week.
This meatless sweet potato black bean chili is easy on the grocery budget while being yummy and nutritious. It is also a freezer-hall-of-famer. Make a big pot of this and then freeze a portion of it for a welcome return visit.
Vegan Meal Prep
Although I am very much a carnivore, there is no denying that this ginger apple carrot soup recipe hits the spot. It combines two of my favorites—sweet and spicy. Furthermore, it’s rich in vitamin C. It’s also a great way to use up the poor baby carrots that are often abandoned in the vegetable crisper.
Homemade date balls are a great way to replace expensive and processed protein bars. I also like that this recipe is easily adjustable based on your taste preferences and nutritional guidelines. These are great for the days that you’re rushing out the door (you’ll need a food processor for these)
Vegetarian Meal Prep
If you’re a strict vegetarian or if you just want to start incorporating some meatless meals into your diet, you can’t go wrong with this vegetarian chili and quinoa corn chowder. This recipe is also easy on the wallet because it doesn’t include what’s often the most expensive item of any recipe—meat.
The fast and easy vegetarian chili is aptly named, but they forgot one adjective that I would use for it—yummy! And, the quinoa corn chowder not only incorporates a host of vegetables but also packs a powerful protein punch.
High-Protein Meal Prep
Salsa chicken is an example of easy, affordable meal prep at its most delicious. The recipe calls for four chicken breasts, but that can easily be doubled or tripled so that you can have this savory dish readily available throughout the week.
The roasted shrimp rice bowls are a great way to serve a quick but healthy meal. You can cook a large pot of rice (or quinoa if you prefer) and then add various vegetables. While I don’t recommend keeping shrimp in the fridge for more than a couple of days, shrimp cook furiously fast which makes it an easy meal to prep.
Salad Meal Prep
Mason jar salads are one of my meal prep rides or dies. And, these salads are as versatile as they are convenient. You can mix or match various vegetables, fruits, grains, and even protein by using the eye-catching (after all, you eat with your eyes first) stacking method.
We are a house divided when it comes to peas. They are one of the few foods that I truly loathe. However, the rest of the family is all about them. Therefore, I try to work them in for them when possible, and this sesame sweet potato and pea salad is the way to go.
As someone who avoided meal prepping for years, I understand if you have some aversion to it. However, pinpoint some areas where pre-packaged food choices would make your life better and start there. You don’t have to go all in. In fact, I’d tell you not to because it can lead you to feel overwhelmed. If you start small, I think that you’ll quickly see the benefits of food prep starting to stack up.