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Meal prepping has become increasingly popular in recent years, with more people wanting to eat more healthily and save time and money on cooking.
The additional time that many people spent at home during the Covid-19 pandemic increased the amount of home cooking that many people did. In fact, 51% of people said they cooked more meals at home during the pandemic and 82% of those people expect to continue cooking healthier meals at home long after the lockdown eased.
There are many reasons why meal prepping has become so popular in the UK, with 73% of people meal prepping to save time and 60% of people meal prepping to eat more healthily.
Today, we are going to look at meal prepping in more detail, including what it is and how you can begin meal prepping.
What is meal prepping?
Meal prepping involves preparing entire meals or dishes ahead of schedule and often in bulk. You may prepare and put together key elements of the dish or recipe or prepare the entire dish at one time. All preparation and cooking will be done in advance and the meal will be portioned out and ready to be eaten at another time. You may prepare food for later that day or prepare food for the rest of the week or month. The meals will be stored in airtight containers and either kept in the refrigerator or the freezer until they are ready to be eaten.
Meal prepping can be beneficial for a number of reasons, including:
- It can save time on daily cooking.
- It gives you access to healthy, homemade meals every day.
- It allows you to ensure all your meals are nutritious and enables you to monitor your portion control.
- It allows you to prepare and cook a lot of food in advance.
- It can improve the variety and quality of your diet.
- It can save you money.
- It can reduce food waste.
- It can reduce impulse eating or impulsive takeaways or meals out.
You can meal prep breakfasts, lunches, dinners and even snacks. Some people meal prep for the whole week or month in one day or meal prep two or three times a week. Meal prepping can be a more convenient and efficient way of preparing and cooking your food. It allows you to purchase, prepare and cook a lot of food at one time, saving you time and effort and helping you to ensure your meals are healthy and nutritious.
How does meal prepping work?
Different people choose to meal prep in different ways. For example, you may prepare all your meals for the week in advance, or you may prepare only your lunches. Some people meal prep and then freeze the portions, to be eaten at a time when they don’t want to cook. As the majority of foods can be safely frozen for three months, some people meal prep for the whole month, although it is important to always label your containers stating the food or ingredients and the date.
How frequently you choose to meal prep can depend on multiple factors, such as:
- The meals you want to prepare in advance (for example, breakfast, lunch or dinner).
- How much time you can dedicate to meal prepping each week.
- How many people you are cooking for.
- How much storage space you have.
- The types of foods you are preparing.
There are different types of meal preparation methods, depending on your preferences, your time limitations and your daily routines.
The most common ways of food prepping are:
Batch cooking is a popular meal preparation method that involves making a large amount of a specific food at one time and storing some or all of it in the fridge or freezer for later use. The food is cooked in batch by multiplying the recipe or ingredients by the number of portions you want. For example, if you want three portions of a specific meal, you will triple the recipe.
You can batch cook meals, for example, by making multiple portions of the same meal. You will then split the meal into individual portions to be reheated at a later date. Alternatively, you can batch cook ingredients that make up the elements of a meal, which can be incorporated into future meals, for example, by batch cooking sauces. Batch cooking often doesn’t involve preparing and storing the whole meal, for example, you may batch cook Bolognese and then cook the spaghetti fresh on the day you plan to eat it.
This is where the full meal is cooked in advance and then refrigerated or frozen in individual portions. When it comes to eating it, you simply need to defrost and reheat it, with no other preparation involved.
You may make several different meals, rather than batch cooking where you have the same meal multiple times. Make-ahead meals are particularly useful at lunchtime, as they can be taken to work and reheated, or for dinner if you have a busy schedule.
Ready to cook ingredients:
This is where you prep only the ingredients as a way of reducing your cooking time. For example, you may peel and chop your vegetables, soak your pulses, and chop, prepare and marinate your meat. This method involves only preparing the ingredients in advance, not cooking them.
What foods can you meal prep?
The majority of foods can be meal prepped. The type of foods you will choose to prepare will likely depend on the type of foods you like and your health and nutritional goals. When determining which meals to prepare ahead of time, keep in mind that some foods maintain their quality better than others when being frozen or reheated. Not all foods can be reheated, and some foods have a short shelf life once cooked.
Some of the best meal prep ideas are:
- Overnight oats.
- Breakfast muffins.
- Quiches and pies, including both potato and pastry-topped pies.
- Bolognese, ragu, ratatouille, chilli and curry.
- Soups, casseroles, stews and ramens.
- Burrito bowls.
- Homemade meatballs and burgers.
- Lasagne, pasta bakes and cannelloni (only part cook the pasta).
- Baked goods, such as cookies, muffins, cakes, brownies and bread.
- Spring rolls, samosas and gyozas.
- Yorkshire puddings and pancakes.
- Rice-based dishes, including risotto and paella.
If you don’t want to meal prep whole meals, you may instead want to prepare component meals, which is when you prepare individual parts of meals and store them separately, allowing you to create different meals throughout the week. This allows for more variety and options in your meals.
Some ingredients that work well for component meal prepping are:
- Grains, such as quinoa, couscous, rice and pasta.
- Eggs, including hard-boiled, fried and scrambled.
- Animal proteins, including meat, chicken, fish and seafood.
- Beans and pulses, including lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and pinto beans.
- Sauces, such as black bean sauce, Schezwan sauce, Bolognese, pesto, salad dressings and gravy.
- Vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin and butternut squash (some types of vegetables should only be partly cooked).
- Naan bread and garlic bread.
What foods should you not meal prep?
The types of foods that you shouldn’t meal prep depend on how you are storing the meal, how long you will be storing it for and how you plan to reheat it. There are certain foods that do not freeze well, have a short shelf life when refrigerated (such as cooked meat) or may lose their quality when reheated.
Some of the foods that aren’t recommended for meal prepping are:
|Fried or cooked rice||Rice is more problematic to reheat than other foods and it may contain Bacillus Cereus – a type of bacteria that can survive the cooking process. This bacteria can result in food poisoning.|
|Cooked pasta||Although cooked pasta is safe to eat when reheated, it can become soggy or mushy when defrosted. If you are preparing a meal involving pasta, it is best not to cook the pasta or to cook it al dente.|
|Some fried and crispy foods, such as crispy chicken, crispy tofu or tempura||The oil from fried food may seep through the food, meaning it will lose its crispiness and crunchiness and become soggy.|
|Salad greens, fruits and roasted vegetables with high water content, such as watermelon, lettuce, mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, courgette, cabbage and celery||When defrosted, these foods can become limp or soggy or lose their colour or flavour as a result of oxidisation.
|Raw fruits, such as apples, pears, bananas and avocados||Fruits that are likely to brown quickly or become mushy can ruin the taste and texture of your meals, particularly if you store them in the fridge.|
|Milk-based sauces||The milk may separate from other ingredients when defrosted or it may curdle when reheated.|
|Egg-based sauces and mayonnaise||The ingredients may separate or curdle when defrosted or reheated.|
|Cream-based products, such as custard and yoghurt||The ingredients will separate when frozen and the texture will change.|
|Soft cheeses, such as cream cheese, goat’s cheese and cottage cheese||The texture of soft cheeses will likely change, and they will become grainy and crumbly.|
|Foods containing gelatine, such as jelly, cheesecake and panna cotta||Gelatine cannot be frozen as it doesn’t set in the freezer and remains liquid and the food often turns to mush.|
|Fresh leafy herbs, such as basil and parsley||The herbs become limp and soggy when frozen and then defrosted.|
It is extremely important to ensure that any food you meal prep is stored correctly in airtight containers and is stored at the correct temperature. Food should never be reheated more than once and any meals that you freeze should be defrosted correctly.
What is the point of meal prepping?
There are many reasons why meal prepping can be beneficial. The benefits can be far-reaching, including financial and health-related benefits.
Some of the main reasons why people meal prep are:
- Less time spent preparing and cooking – Preparing and cooking each meal individually can be time-consuming, especially if you are doing it three times a day, seven days a week. Not meal prepping means that every day you have to cut, chop, prepare, marinade, boil, cook… the list is endless! Preparing multiple meals at once can save you a huge amount of time, particularly if some of the meals use the same ingredients or can be cooked at the same time. You will also save time every day that you usually spend aimlessly looking through your cupboards and trying to decide what to eat.
- Less food waste – The average UK household throws away nearly 2kg of food every single day, which equates to eight full meals every week. Not only is food waste bad for the environment, but it is also a waste of money. The biggest contributors to food wastage are vegetables, meat, fruit, bread, eggs and cheese – all of which can be incorporated into your meal prepping and frozen for a longer shelf life. Meal prepping means you are more likely to plan your meals ahead of time and only purchase the ingredients you will need. Any excess ingredients can be batch cooked and frozen to be used in the future, rather than being thrown away because they exceed their expiration date. Because meal prepping also involves portioning out your meals for storage, you are less likely to overfill your plate and waste food that way.
- It can save you money – Being organised and planning your meals in advance means you are less likely to spend unnecessary money. You can also save money by buying in bulk, taking advantage of deals and discounts and shopping seasonally. By cooking food in advance, you are less likely to waste money on excessive food and you will also save money by reducing your food waste.
- Healthier eating – Planning your meals in advance allows you to plan healthier, more nutritious and well-balanced meals. If you go to the gym or exercise, you can meal prep based on your health and fitness goals, for example, by including more protein in your diet. People who meal prep are also more likely to portion their meals correctly, preventing overeating. People who meal prep are more likely to stick to their nutrition plan. Meal prepping reduces the number of takeaways, ready meals and snacks that you eat, which often means you are consuming less sodium, sugar and saturated fat. Having greater control over ingredients and your nutrition can result in a healthier diet.
- You are less likely to buy or eat impulsively – Finding the motivation to cook and clean after a busy day at work or socialising can be difficult. People who don’t plan and prepare their meals in advance are more likely to pop into the local supermarket to pick up a ready meal or order a takeaway on a whim. This can be bad for both your finances and your nutrition. Meal prepping means you always have healthy, home-cooked meals ready for you based on foods and recipes you love. This can reduce food impulsivity, even after a long day.
- It can make cooking less stressful – Many people find it stressful to come home from work every day and plan what to cook, especially if they are trying to eat more healthily or reduce their spending. Cooking meals every day can be even more stressful if you are cooking for your family and need to think about what each person wants to eat. It can even be stressful to do your weekly shop if you don’t plan your meals in advance, as you try to avoid all the enticing deals and decide what to buy. Having your meals planned and not needing to prepare and cook food every day can reduce your stress levels.
- You can perfect your recipes – People who meal prep often are more likely to find meals and recipes that they love and learn how to perfect them. This can bring you greater enjoyment of food and mean that you are more likely to enjoy eating healthily. Perfecting your recipes can also mean that you learn how to prepare and cook the food faster, reducing your meal preparation times.
- You can develop a routine – Developing a successful routine means you are significantly more likely to stick to it. This makes it more feasible that you will achieve your goals, whether they are health-related, financial or life goals. A routine can also make things seem less daunting and routines can quickly develop into habits.
What are the cons of meal prepping?
Although meal prepping has many advantages, there are some cons that can make meal prepping difficult or not beneficial to some people.
Meal prepping can save you time and money and make it easier for you to achieve your health and nutrition goals; however, it is not for everyone.
Some of the potential cons of meal prepping are:
- It requires a lot of storage space – Meal prepping, particularly if you batch cook or prepare several meals at one time, requires you to have a lot of storage space in your fridge or freezer. If you have small appliances or share your fridge and freezer with your family or your roommates, this can make it more difficult to meal prep effectively.
- You need a larger kitchen and more counter space – When you meal prep, you are usually preparing many different ingredients at one time and cooking them in different ways. For example, you could be chopping vegetables, marinating meat, cooking rice and boiling potatoes all at the same time. This can be difficult if you have a small kitchen or not a lot of counter space. People with a smaller kitchen may only be able to food prep in stages or prepare a small number of meals at one time.
- Some foods don’t freeze well – As the list above demonstrates, there are different types of food that don’t freeze well, or their quality, texture and flavour reduce when frozen, defrosted and reheated. This means you may not be able to prepare some of your favourite recipes or may have to compromise on quality.
- Food waste can still be a problem – Pre-cooked and pre-prepared meals are one of the biggest contributors to food waste in the UK. Cooked food can usually only be kept in the fridge for three to four days, although it can be kept in the freezer for two to three months. Even if you meal prep with the best of intentions, it is easy to waste food; for example, if impromptu dinner plans are arranged, you don’t feel like eating the food you cook, you become ill or your simply forget about the food. Food wastage is a waste of your time, money and effort.
- Meal prepping can be time-consuming – Although you will save time overall, spending an entire day meal prepping can be time-consuming. Some people prefer to cook every day, rather than use up one of their weekend days just to prepare and cook food.
- It is a lot of cleaning – Imagine using every pot, pan, chopping board and utensil in your kitchen, as well as every food preparation surface, all at one time. Now imagine the cleaning time that entails. Although you won’t have to clean as much during the week, the cleaning time involved on the food prepping day can be overwhelming to some people, particularly if you don’t have a dishwasher.
Does meal prepping save money?
There are many different ways that meal prepping can help to save you money. Some estimates suggest that meal prepping can save between £1,000 and £3,000 a year.
Here are some of the ways that meal prepping can save you money:
- Save money on your food shop – Planning your meals in advance, reducing impulsive supermarket spending and only buying the food and ingredients you really need are great ways to save money on your supermarket shop. People who meal prep usually plan their meals ahead of time and go to the supermarket armed with a list. You are less likely to succumb to supermarket offers or to buy food you don’t really need. This can save you money overall.
- Save money on food wastage – As we have already looked at, people who plan and prepare their meals are significantly less likely to waste food. Studies have shown that the average family in the UK throws away approximately £800 a year of edible food. By reducing your food waste and being more mindful of the foods you buy, you can significantly reduce your food waste and save money.
- Save on your utility bills – With the rapidly rising energy and utility bills in the UK, most households are looking to reduce their usage. Preparing your meals ahead of time means you are not in your kitchen every day using gas, electricity and water. Instead of using your oven every day, you may use it once or twice a week. This can help you to save on your energy bills.
- You can bulk purchase ingredients – Buying ingredients in bulk or basing your meal prepping on what foods are in season or on special offer can help you to save money. For example, if your supermarket has a special offer discount on chicken, you can buy more than usual, batch cook it and then freeze it for a later date.
- Save money on impulse buying – How often have you popped into the supermarket to pick something up for dinner and come out £50 lighter? Or how often have you come home from a long day at work and ordered a takeaway because you’re too tired to cook? Meal prepping reduces impulsive buying and can help you to save money every week.
Steps to a successful meal prep
Meal prepping can be life-changing, helping you to reduce the time you spend cooking and cleaning and helping you to ensure your diet is healthy, nutritious, well-balanced and interesting.
Beginning meal prepping for the first time can seem daunting. However, there are some steps you can follow to ensure a successful meal prep.
Planning your meals in advance is key to successful meal prepping. Plan meals that are going to be easy to prepare and cook and are nutritious and enjoyable. Plan your meals around your calendar, to ensure you have enough meals to last you the week but that you won’t waste food if you have arrangements that mean you won’t be eating at home on certain days. Picking meals that allow you to use some of the same ingredients could help you to save money and time, as you can batch cook some of the ingredients and take advantage of bulk buying deals. For example, you could take advantage of a special offer on minced meat and make chilli and homemade burgers. Planning your meals also means you know exactly what to buy when you go to the supermarket.
2. Choose which days you are going to shop, and to meal prep
You may choose to meal prep once a week, or more frequently. Once you have decided which day you will prep your meals, this determines when you will go to the supermarket, as some of your ingredients may need to be fresh. You may do your meal prepping on the same day every week or on a different day, depending on your schedule.
3. Shop with a list
Once you have planned your meals for the week or month, your next step will be to shop for the ingredients. To ensure you get everything you need and to prevent you from buying unnecessary items, always go shopping armed with your list. This helps you to keep focused and prevents you from buying things you don’t need. Supermarkets try to entice people with alleged special offers and discounts that often encourage you to buy things you don’t actually need. Shopping with a list is a great way to minimise your spending. However, there may be certain foods or special deals which can make buying in bulk more beneficial, particularly if the food you are buying has a long shelf life or can be frozen. For example, if there is a special offer on pantry staples, such as rice, or meat that regularly features in your recipes and can be frozen, this can help to save you money in the long run.
4. Ensure you have the right containers
Meal prepping a big selection of foods and then discovering you have nothing to store it in can be extremely annoying. Before you begin your meal prepping journey, purchase some reusable, airtight food containers that can help your food stay fresh for longer. If you are taking your meals to work every day and can’t bring your containers home to be washed, you could invest in sustainable food packaging which can be recycled or composted. Before you pack up each meal, consider the storage container you are using and what you plan to do with the food, as some containers and packaging are not suitable for freezing or microwaving. You should also ensure you have enough storage space in your fridge or freezer before you begin prepping.
5. Ensure you have all the ingredients you need
There’s nothing more frustrating than getting most of the way through preparing and cooking your food before realising you’ve run out of a key ingredient that you can’t continue without. Before you begin your meal prepping, consult your recipe or list and double-check your ingredients to make sure you have everything you need. This includes your pantry items and any herbs and spices.
6. Organise your preparation and cooking times
To improve your workflow and reduce the amount of time you spend on food prepping, you should organise your prep and cook times to maximise your time. For example, start with the part of the meals you are cooking that takes the longest time and once that is underway and the food is cooking, you can begin another part of your prep. For example, if you are making cottage pie and roasted pork, you will begin by preparing and marinating the pork and while it is roasting, you can start chopping the vegetables and potatoes for your pie. If a couple of your recipes use the same ingredients, organising in advance means you can prepare the ingredients at the same time, reducing your overall preparation time.
7. Decide which foods should be cooked now and which foods should be cooked later
As mentioned earlier, certain foods, such as cooked pasta, are much better cooked fresh rather than frozen and reheated. Look at your recipes and your meal plans to see if any of the ingredients should be prepared fresh on the day of eating rather than cooking in advance.
8. Be mindful of different cooking times and temperatures
If you are cooking multiple meals at once, this can impact on your cooking time. If you are cooking multiple recipes that require different cooking temperatures, you will need to adjust your cooking times to ensure all the food is cooked thoroughly. To do this, work out the percentage difference in the temperatures and adjust the expected cooking time by the same percentage. For example, if you are reducing the temperature by 15%, you will need to increase the cooking time by 15%. To ensure there is no risk of food poisoning, add a safety margin and check the temperature of your food using a food probe, particularly if you are cooking meat.
9. Use a slow cooker where possible
A slow cooker can help to save a significant amount of time when food prepping, as you can put all of the ingredients in one pot and cook them all at the same time. The slow cooker can then cook the food over several hours, allowing you to get on with other things. Recipes such as soups, casseroles, curries, lasagne, pulled meat, chilli and ratatouille can be cooked in a slow cooker.
10. Cool foods quickly and safely
To reduce the likelihood of food poisoning or of your food spoiling, ensure the meals are cooled quickly and safely. Stir the food regularly while it is cooling and transfer it into shallow containers to help it cool quickly. Liquid foods such as soups can be put into a heat-resistant bowl and cooled in an ice bath. All food should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of cooking. Food that is left at room temperature for more than two hours may not be safe to eat. Any foods or meals that you will not eat within four days should be frozen as soon as possible. The quicker you freeze the meal, the longer it is likely to last. However, it is essential that you don’t freeze your meals until they have completely cooled.
11. Portion the meals
It is much easier to store the meals if they are already portioned. Portioning the meals in advance saves room in your fridge and freezer, makes it easier to grab your meals and go and ensures you aren’t overeating. If you cook and then freeze an entire lasagne or a pot of curry, you can’t get a portion of the meal without defrosting the entire container. As food should be eaten within 24 hours of defrosting, this can result in food wastage. Portioning your meals in advance can save you time and money.
12. Get rid of any excess air before freezing
Contact with air can result in freezer burn which means that moisture will be lost from the food, and it will become dehydrated and begin to shrivel or lose flavour, texture or colour. To prevent freezer burn, you should get rid of any excess air when freezing your meals. One way to do this is by vacuum sealing your food or ensuring food is packaged properly to reduce exposure to oxygen.
13. Store the food correctly
Ensure all the meals are covered and the lids are closed securely. Write the date and the ingredients on the container before you put them in the fridge or freezer. Labelling your meals will remind you what is inside each container and when it was cooked. This will mean you won’t have to open every container when looking for a particular food and will be aware of when the food needs to be consumed by. You should also follow the FIFO (First In First Out) method to put the newest food at the back of your fridge or freezer. This ensures you will eat the food that is less fresh first.
14. Defrost the meals safely and correctly
Already cooked food should be defrosted overnight in the fridge, in cold water or in the microwave using the ‘defrost’ setting. Ensure the food is defrosted correctly otherwise the suggested cooking or microwaving time may not be enough to destroy bacteria. Once you have defrosted a meal, it must be eaten within 24 hours.
15. Reheat the meals to the correct temperature
All of the meals should be reheated until they are piping hot all the way through. This means the food should be above 75°C for at least 30 seconds. Cooked food can only be reheated once, so keep this in mind to prevent food poisoning.
How to make sure you are prepping healthy meals
As well as to save time on a daily basis, one of the most common reasons why people begin meal prepping is to ensure they are eating a healthy, balanced diet. People who attend the gym, are trying to lose weight or gain muscle, are an athlete, are training for a sporting event or simply want to make sure they are eating more healthily often turn to meal prepping to help them achieve their health and fitness goals.
Whether you are just embarking on your meal prepping journey or are a seasoned meal prepper, below are some tips you can follow to try to improve how healthy your meals are:
1. Meal plan
Planning your meals ahead of time, before you go to the supermarket, can help to ensure the meals you plan are healthy and nutritious. Planning in advance can also give you time to think about how to make the recipe more healthy, for example, by adding additional vegetables, grilling instead of frying and replacing unhealthy ingredients. When you create your meal plan, ensure your meals are varied and include foods you enjoy to reduce the likelihood that you will reach for the takeaway menu.
2. Ensure your meals are balanced
Try to include foods from all the main food groups to help you ensure your meals are nutritious and balanced. Try and include protein, vegetables, whole grains, carbohydrates and healthy fats in every meal. The Eatwell Guide has replaced the traditional food pyramid and shows how much of what you eat should come from each food group. Use this guide as a reference when planning your meals.
3. Ensure your meals are varied
Nothing will persuade you to reach for a ready meal or a takeaway faster than an unvaried diet. Many people start meal prepping with the best of intentions but begin to feel bored or unsatisfied with their food and begin to add unhealthy snacks to their diet or quit altogether. Many people think of meal prepping as batch cooking chicken and rice, but no matter how much you love this dish, cooking the same meal over and over again will quickly cause your diet to become tedious. Ensure you cook different meals and try not to repeat the same recipe too often.
4. Reduce the amount of salt, sugar and fat in your food
Reducing the amount of salt, sugar and unhealthy fats in your recipe can help to make your diet much healthier. Although some sodium, sugar and fat are required in your diet, your food should have a low percentage of these ingredients. Replace these in your recipes where possible, for example, by using olive oil or coconut oil for cooking instead of butter or lard. You should also consider foods that have healthy fats, such as avocado, fish, eggs and nuts, compared to unhealthy fats, such as fatty meat, butter, cream and lard. You should also try to include foods that have natural sugar rather than added sugar.
5. Portion your meals correctly
Overeating is one of the easiest ways to exceed your daily calories. You may think you are eating a healthy diet but because you have incorrectly portioned your food, you may be consuming too many calories or too much sugar. Pay attention to recipes, weigh your ingredients and portion your meals carefully to prevent overeating.
6. Diversify your ingredients
Even foods from the same food group can differ significantly in the number of nutrients, calories, vitamins and minerals they have. By diversifying your meals, you can ensure your diet is balanced. Diversifying the ingredients, flavours and textures of the foods you eat can also make your meals more interesting.
7. Consider your health and nutrition goals
Although it is important to ensure your diet is well-balanced, you may have specific health or nutrition goals that result in you needing to meal prep slightly differently. For example, if you are trying to gain muscle, you may need a high protein, low-fat diet and will likely need to eat more frequently. If you are training intensely for a marathon, you will need a diet rich in complex carbohydrates and macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats). Consider your health and nutrition goals carefully when planning your diet.