In this easy meal prep guide, you’ll learn what techniques work best for you and how to get started.
Meal prep has a different meaning for everyone. For one person, it may mean preparing a few recipes over the weekend to bring to work and reheat for breakfast and lunch. But another person may think of meal prep as cooking several meal components at once and then using them in a variety of ways throughout the week.
Regardless of how someone does it, preparing food in advance makes it easy to put together balanced meals in a flash. One of the best things you can do for your health is eat more meals at home, and meal prep can help make that a reality. In fact, the connection between meal planning and maintaining a healthy diet is even backed by research (1, 2).
In this guide, I break down the different styles of prepping food, how you can decide which one works best for you, and how to get started.
Different Meal Prep Techniques
When you think of “meal prep,” you might imagine those extremely organized and symmetric photos that show up on social media. But in reality, meal prep has many different forms.
As someone who cooks a lot and helps other people learn how to cook, I think of meal prep as a general practice that can be divided into three categories.
Whole Recipe Meal Prep
Whole Recipe Meal Prep involves choosing three or four recipes for any given week and then preparing them over the weekend. Recipes on this site or other blogs with “meal prep” in the title are typically complete breakfast or lunch meals that can be made in advance and eaten at a later time.
This style of preparing food works well for people who:
- want to have complete meals at their fingertips
- do not mind eating the same recipe a few days in a row
- would rather spend more time on the weekend prepping food than during the week
Buffet Meal Prep and Batch Cooking
Buffet Meal Prep involves preparing components of meals (a “buffet” of foods) and then using them in different ways throughout the week. This is also referred to as batch cooking. In other words, that means making foods in batches and storing them in the fridge or freezer for later use.
For example, you can prep brown rice, shredded chicken, roasted veggies, and two dressings over the weekend. While those are cooking, you can wash salad greens and slice carrots or bell peppers.
When it’s time to pack lunch or make dinner, you can use your stash of components to put something together. One meal might consist of burrito bowls made with the rice, chicken, veggies, and a Mexican dressing. Another meal might include the chicken tossed with salad greens and the other dressing you made, with a side of carrot sticks, an apple, and a Greek yogurt.
If you have a stocked freezer and pantry, you can really stretch your prepped foods throughout the week. For instance, you can make a pasta dish with the roasted veggies, a jar of tomato sauce, and can of white beans from the pantry.
Buffet Meal Prep is great for people who:
- prefer to decide what they eat closer to meal time
- do not like eating the same recipe a few days in a row
- do not mind spending some time on food prep both during the week and on the weekend
Nextover Meal Prep
When you make enough food at dinner to have leftovers for lunch, you are setting yourself up with “nextovers.” Believe it or not, intentionally choosing recipes that yield nextovers can be a really effective way to meal prep.
Chilis, soups, pasta dishes, and slow cooker meals usually yield more servings than you need and typically reheat well. If you prepare a few of these recipes for dinner every week, you can take care of your lunches at the same time.
Keep your kitchen stocked with veggies, fruit, yogurt, nuts, and other nutritious snacks to supplement your nextovers if needed.
Prepping nextovers is ideal for people who:
- have limited time to prep foods on the weekend
- like to cook during the week (like me!)
- do not mind reheated leftovers
Can You Use a Combination of Meal Prep Techniques?
Absolutely! The best meal prep techniques for you will depend on your schedule, comfort in the kitchen, and food preferences. I incorporate Whole Recipe, Buffet, and Nextover Meal Prep into my routine almost every week.
Since I work from home, I don’t mind throwing together lunch using foods in my fridge. Since I love cooking, I like to unwind after staring at a computer screen all day by playing around in the kitchen. I try to make at least a few nextover dinner recipes on weeknights. Lastly, I like to make a breakfast recipe over the weekend so Will and I can have quick options in the mornings.
How To Get Started
First, it’s important to note that meal prep and meal planning are different (but related) skills. It all starts with a plan.
To give you a more specific example, I start by planning my dinners. Here’s a glimpse at what we had this week. Note: these are not my recipes, hence why I didn’t link them.
- Monday: Thai Chopped Salad with Chicken (nextovers)
- Tuesday: Salmon, Brussels, Sweet Potatoes (just a quick recipe to mix it up)
- Wednesday: Slow Cooker Lentil Minestrone (nextovers)
- Thursday: Scallops, Cauliflower Rice Stir Fry, Grapefruit (relied on foods I already had in the fridge/freezer)
For lunch, we ate the Thai Chopped Salad and Slow Cooker Lentil Minestrone (great reheated!). And for breakfast, we ate my Make Ahead Veggie Breakfast Burritos that I prepped over the weekend.
Depending on your preferences, you can make a plan that resembles mine or you can commit to a single meal prep technique. If you want to try Whole Recipe Meal Prep, check out my Sweet Potato Black Bean Meal Prep Bowls. For Buffet Meal Prep, take a look at my Veggie Slow Cooker Chicken and Savory Roasted Root Vegetables. And to whip up a dinner recipe that yields nextovers, try my One Pot Pumpkin Tomato Pasta.
The Best Food Containers
Of course, we can’t forget to talk about how to store all of your yummy food! Since a lot of the recipes I prep need to be reheated, I like to use these glass Pyrex containers. For freezing foods, I prefer these reusable, silicone Stasher bags.
Have a question? Let me know in the comments!