Meal Prep 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Prepping and Portioning Meals

by Beth - Budget Bytes
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Meal prepping is the hottest food trend lately, and frankly, I couldn’t be happier! I’ve been meal prepping for years simply because it’s a great way to save time, money, and reduce waste in the kitchen, so I’m happy to see so many people getting wise to this method. But there are still so many people who haven’t had the meal prep “Aha!” moment, so I wanted to do a quick Meal Prep 101 to help people grasp the concept or get over the intimidation to give it a try. 

How to Meal Prep

Three meal prep containers in background with article title overlay

What is Meal Prepping?

Meal prepping is simply the act of preparing a meal or recipe, then portioning it out to create grab-and-go meals for later. If you’ve ever packed up your leftovers from dinner to take with you for lunch the next day, then you’ve already mini-meal prepped! Generally though, meal prepping refers to preparing 3-7 days worth of food at a time.

Think of it like packing your lunches for the week all at once instead of packing your lunch each morning. You can use this same technique for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. 

Why Meal Prep?

Meal prepping is convenient, efficient, reduces waste, and reduces temptation to eat outside your plan (whether the plan be a diet or a budget). When cooking every single day is out of the question, meal prepping can allow you to still eat home-cooked meals without having to dedicate time each day to preparation.

One rectangular glass meal prep container filled with a burrito bowl. A fork mixing the contents.

Who is Meal Prepping For?

Meal prepping is not for everyone. It is good for people who value convenience and efficiency more than variety. With meal prepping you generally eat the same thing for a few days in a row, so if you don’t like leftovers or get bored with food easily, meal prepping is not for you. If having control over what you eat, or maximizing your time or budget is more valuable to you than eating something different every single day, meal prepping is your ticket.

I’ve generally only seen people meal prep for themselves or maybe one other person, as opposed to a whole family. Meal prepping for a whole family would be quite difficult because there are more people to please and would require a million containers.

What Can I Meal Prep?

This is the golden question. As with any leftovers, the palatability of prepped meals varies from person to person.

Foods that work well for meal prepping:

  • cooked grains & pasta
  • cooked beans
  • cooked meat
  • roasted vegetables
  • hearty fresh vegetables (think celery, carrots, peas, bell peppers, kale, cabbage, radishes, etc.)
  • whole fruit (apples, oranges, stone fruit)
  • nuts & seeds
  • cheese
  • sauces and dips (like salad dressings, hummus, salsa, sour cream, etc.)

Foods that don’t usually meal prep well:

  • softer fruits and vegetables (lettuce, berries, and cut fruit)
  • crunchy items like fried food, crackers, or chips

That being said, there are sometimes ways around this, like packing ingredients individually. I tend to stay away from items that require special care just for convenience sake, but it is possible to prep these things if you don’t mind putting in the extra work.

Four rectangular glass meal prep containers with Pork and Peanut Dragon Noodles, broccoli salad, and containers of salad dressing.

How Long Do My Meal Preps Stay “Good”?

I get this question on almost every meal prep post I make and unfortunately there is no one hard rule here. As food is stored in the refrigerator it begins a slow decline in quality. In addition to this, the way food is packed or the individual nuances of your refrigerator environment can impact the quality of your refrigerated meals. So often the lifespan or acceptable changes in texture and flavor will be subject to the eater.

Always begin with the refrigeration guidelines set by the FDA, and then evaluate them against your own preferences. In general, I don’t like to prep more than four days worth at a time because I find that by that fifth day the food is usually too limp and lifeless to enjoy. By prepping four days in a row I can prep two times per week and be covered or prep once per week and reach into my stash of freezer leftovers for the remaining days (plus the option for eating out one day).

How To Start Meal Prepping

Start SMALL. I can’t emphasize this enough. Start by packing up your leftovers from dinner one night and taking them for lunch the next day. Once you’re comfortable with that and you get to know what types of food you like as leftovers (pay attention to texture changes that might bother you), you can pick one recipe to prep for the week ahead.

I suggest starting with a single recipe meal prep instead of a meal that requires two or three recipes together. Single recipe meal preps provide your protein, grain, and vegetables all in one recipe, so there is no need to make a side dish.

Once you get a hang of one recipe or meal, you can try two (like lunches and dinners) or try prepping your breakfast ahead. The most important thing is that you prep for the level that works for you. If you try to prep three meals for five days all at once and find that after day three you just won’t eat the same thing anymore, don’t risk wasting the food. Prep only three days. Personally, I like to do just lunches, or sometimes breakfast and lunch, leaving my dinner to be my variety for the day.

Three divided glass meal prep containers with Apple Dijon Kale Salad, cheddar cubes, and a dinner roll.

My Meal Prep Formulas:

An easy way to think about meal prepping is to make a formula out of it. When deciding which foods to meal prep I try to pick out one of the following formulas:

  • Basic: Protein + Grain + Vegetable
  • Low Carb: Protein + Vegetable + Vegetable
  • Vegetarian: Legume + Grain + Vegetable

You can add toppings to any of the formulas above to make it more interesting, like sauces, nuts, seeds, croutons, etc. Or just keep it simple and make life easy!

What Do I Need?

Containers. Containers of different shapes and sizes. And don’t worry, you can start small here too.

I started by buying one pack of the blue-top reusable plastic Ziploc containers per week. They’re BPA free and can go in the freezer, dishwasher, and microwave, which makes them super convenient, plus they’re very inexpensive and come in several shapes and sizes.

Once my budget allowed, I graduated to glass containers. My favorite glass containers so far are the plain, single compartment Pyrex containers (I like the 3-cup rectangle and 4-cup bowl). I do also have some divided glass containers that have separate compartments, but I find their use a little more limited because not all food can fit in the smaller compartments and the compartment dividers aren’t leak proof.

Metal bento box style containers are also great, as long as you’re packing a cold meal and won’t need to reheat it in a microwave.

Fold top sandwich bags or zip top bags can also be helpful when you need to separate ingredients. And, if you like to keep your dressing and dips separate, look for 1-2 oz. size resealable containers (I’ve seen several at grocery stores and on Amazon).

Ready to Get Started?

Check out our Meal Prep Category for lots of meal prep inspo! I create new meal prep ideas fairly regularly, so check back often and don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to stay on top of all the new recipes and ideas! Also check out our Vegetarian Meal Prep, Breakfast Meal Prep, and No-Reheat Meal Prep categories!

Share Your Meal Prep Wins

We can all learn from each other, so share your tips, tricks, and meal prep wins in the comments below! I’d love to hear what you do and what you’ve found that works and your creative meal prep hacks!

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  1. Thank you for the intro. I’m considering diving into meal prep/batch cooking so that i can stick to the Autoimmune Protocol diet and then some sort of Paleo diet (gluten, soy and dairy free, at least). It would be great if there was a category for those receipes!

  2. Thank you for this incredibly thorough, yet concise breakdown. Much appreciated!

  3. The only part that confuses me is the freezing portions part since obviously food only keeps for ~ 4 days. Does the typical rice keep and reheat good after being frozen? Do you freeze them as a whole prepped meal or do you do the ingredients individually? How do you go about reheating your meal to eat? Or do you take it out and thaw it, then microwave it?

    1. That’s the great part about freezing things! Where something might last 4 days in the fridge temps, freezing it allows time to almost stand still, so you get a lot more life out of it! Most meals freeze great as the whole prepared meal, but of course it varies recipe to recipe. Things with cream or cheese in them for example, may be a little chunky and separate when you reheat them. You can almost always scroll down to the comment section of a recipe and find out any freezing tips from us or other readers. Most meals are fine to just reheat in the microwave from frozen, but just use your best judgement there!

  4. Thank you for the post. You shared some really helpful tips and ideas. I cook for hubby and myself.
    If I make a one dish meal and it is 6 servings, we will eat the first one fresh, and I will package 2 servings for the freezer, and we will eat the other 2 servings later in the week. This way we do not eat the same meal 3 days in a row, and there are always meals ready in the freezer. I usually cook at least 4 serving of veggies as well as most meats, either steamed or sheet pan and roasted. I store the veggies separate from the meat, and then just plate and reheat when we are ready to eat.
    When making a pot of soup, I always portion and freeze some for later.

  5. Thank you…I’d like to start meal prepping for myself and my husband .

  6. I would love to prepare my breakfast and lunches. I live crunchy foods. Thanks