Planning and prepping your lunches is a surefire way to feed yourself healthy, nutritious meals chosen by you , not a chef or catering queen. Plus, these homemade meals are guaranteed to save you tons of time and cost less than anything you'd pick up on the go. Now you have more time to watch Netflix, socialize, chill with your family, cuddle with your dog, or do some housework (ick).
Let's explore a little more about why prepping your lunches is totally worth the effort.
When you choose your own ingredients for lunch and you make your meals from scratch, you put yourself in control of your own health.
When prepping an entire week's worth of lunches in one shot, you'll have to set aside a dedicated chunk of time in the kitchen.
When it comes to feeding ourselves and our families, most of us want to stay within a budget. Prepping your lunches is a great way to minimize cost, leaving room for the occasional pizza night or dinner out. Any time you make a meal at home, you're likely to spend less than when you eat out.
No one relishes the craziness of a busy morning trying to bundle kids off to school or rush to work. And let's be real: deciding what to make for lunch amid all the chaos is exhausting. Meal prep takes that element of stress off your proverbial plate. Plus, it provides you with built-in portion control, helps balance your midday mood, and makes the question of what you should eat for lunch today obsolete.
Imagine cleaning fewer dishes, purchasing and storing fewer ingredients, and actually enjoying your time in the kitchen. Ready to opt in to all these organizational benefits? Then let's get going.
THE ANATOMY OF A BALANCED LUNCH
Despite what you may remember from the multilayered Food Pyramid of days gone by, building a balanced meal doesn't actually have to be complicated. Know just three categories: protein, fiber, and fat.
PROTEIN builds muscle, heals wounds, and creates important hormones and enzymes in the body. You're probably familiar with many sources of protein, such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, and soy foods.
FIBER is the part of a plant your body can't process, which is why it's so good for digestion. Getting enough fiber is associated with reduced risk of a number of diseases, regulating blood sugar, and maintaining a healthy weight. In these recipes, you'll take in plenty of it from whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits.
FAT isn't the enemy! Your body needs it for a number of biological processes, like nutrient absorption, hormone production, and energy production. Plus, it makes food taste better. Fatty fish, avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, certain oils, and dairy are all healthy sources. You'll find them in the recipes that follow.
KEYS TO MEAL PREP SUCCESS
If you're new to meal prep, there are some key steps you recommend for getting things started. These tips are sure to make your life easier.
CHOOSE A DEDICATED PREP DAY
Unless your schedule varies wildly from week to week, it's typically best to choose one particular day for prep and stick with it. This way you know when to shop and plan, and when to block off a bit of time in your calendar. Committing to a certain day also makes you more likely to stick with the program. Prioritize this time as a good-for-you activity that's part of your self-care—and schedule other commitments around it.
MAKE A CONTAINER INVESTMENT
Okay, it may sound weird to "invest" in a stock of food containers, but stick with me on this. Getting the right containers is totally worthwhile for several reasons. Certain containers are better than others for holding warm foods, storing meals in an organized fashion, and preventing spills and soggy lunches. Plus, purchasing a set of meal prep containers can be fun and motivating! We'll talk more about exactly which containers are best for meal prep in To-Go Storage.
START WITH AN ORGANIZED SPACE
Before anyone jumps into meal prep, you always encourage them to start with a clean slate. Wash and put away any dishes in the sink, get your containers ready, and check your list twice and verify that you have all the ingredients on hand. Most important, make sure you're in the right frame of mind. That might mean sending the kids out for a "playdate" with your spouse, playing your favorite music, or turning on the game or your favorite TV show.
The beauty of making all your meals in one concentrated burst is that multiple kitchen appliances can work at once, saving you time. Multitasking is the key to getting your meal prep done in a reasonable amount of time.
REMEMBER YOUR GOALS
Without a doubt, there may come a day when you feel like you'd rather run out for a burger than prep your lunch. And maybe occasionally you do—no biggie. But for the long haul, try to keep your goals in the forefront of your mind. What prompted you to prep your lunches? Was it convenience? Your health? Your wallet? Your appearance? Be honest, because it can help you stay the course!
COMMON MEAL PREP MISTAKES (AND HOW TO AVOID THEM)
It can take quite a bit of trial and error to figure out a meal prep routine that works for you and your family.
Here are some key tips to help you avoid the most common meal prep mistakes.
OVERCOMPLICATING THE RECIPES
The point of meal prep is simplicity. But all too often (especially when starting out) we tend to make the process and the meals themselves more complex than they need to be.
OVERSIMPLIFYING THE RECIPES
Just like it's possible to make things too complicated when meal prepping, it's also common to make them too simple—aka boring. Your lunches need variety! Keeping things interesting in your lunch box helps you stay on track with meal prep and all its benefits.
USING THE WRONG TYPE OF CONTAINER
Not all containers are created equal. As we discussed, it's extremely helpful to invest in a variety of storage containers that work better for different-size portions, help keep your foods separated, and that are more compatible with hot or cold foods.
CHOOSING CONVENIENCE OVER HEALTH
When convenience is your goal, it's way too easy to focus on fixing meals quickly instead of making them nutritious. You'll find the recipes provided here serve both purposes.
PREPPING TOO FAR AHEAD
In a perfect world, all foods would keep in the fridge or freezer indefinitely. But in reality, certain foods just won't last beyond a few days—we're looking at you, leafy lettuce salad. Cooking your meals too far in advance can leave you with soggy, unappetizing options later in the week.
TIME-SAVING SHOPPING TIPS
One of the most appealing things about meal prep is that it saves you time. Here's how to make sure you keep time spent shopping to a minimum.
KEEP A RUNNING GROCERY LIST: This is rule number one for saving time and stress and avoiding last-minute emergency grocery runs. In addition to the weekly lists provided here, keep a running tally on the contents of your fridge and pantry, adding staple items when they get low.
BUY IN BULK WHEN IT MAKES SENSE: When ingredients that you use frequently go on sale, stock up on extras. Store surplus in the pantry or the freezer, if possible, but make sure you review what's stored regularly so you don't end up with freezer-burned chicken, rancid nuts, or expired sauces.
LEAVE THE KIDS AT HOME: We love you, kids, but you sure make shopping stressful. When possible, find a way to leave little ones at home so that you can focus on getting what you actually need—not barbecue chips or sugary cereal.
SHOP DURING OFF-PEAK HOURS: If you really want to save time at the grocery store, don't join the masses on Saturday or Sunday morning. Instead, try avoiding crowds and long lines by doing your shopping during off-hours or during the workweek.
PARK NEAR THE SHOPPING CART RECEPTACLE: you learned this one from your husband, and it's such a lifesaver. Parking right next to the grocery cart receptacle kills two birds with one stone—returning your cart is easier, and it's simpler to remember where you parked!
A Well-Stocked Kitchen Fit For Healthy Meal Prep
First, let's take a look at some of the best staple ingredients to have at the ready.
GRAINS, VEGETABLES, AND MORE
Filling and full of nutrients, grains, legumes, and vegetables serve as the base for tons of healthy meals. Some to keep handy include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Regular potatoes
- Fresh garlic
- Canned beans
- Canned tomatoes
- Chicken or vegetable stock
NUTS AND SEEDS
They may be small, but nuts and seeds pack a mighty punch of protein and healthy fats. Stock up on the following:
- Pine nuts
- Hemp seeds
- Flaxseed meal
- Pumpkin seeds
- Nut and seed butters
OILS, VINEGARS, AND MORE
To make tasty sauces for drizzling and dipping, it's great to have an arsenal of oils, vinegars, and other dressings such as:
- Olive oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Canola oil
- Balsamic vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
- Red wine vinegar
- Soy sauce
SEASONINGS AND SPICES
Herbs and spices add interest to just about any dish and have virtually zero calories. Some good choices include:
- Dried basil
- Dried oregano
- Dried cumin
- Chili powder
- Curry powder
- Onion powder
- Garlic powder
- Dried rosemary
- Dried thyme
- Dried Italian seasoning
- Red pepper flakes
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Now that we've tackled your pantry, let's make your refrigerator meal prep friendly. Choosing nutrient-dense ingredients that won't expire quickly paves the way for healthy, easy cooking. You'll be given a shopping list for each week's meals, but it's also a good idea to keep your refrigerator stocked with go-to items such as:
- Cow's milk or a nondairy milk of your choice
- Unsweetened or vanilla Greek yogurt
- Cheese: bar cheese and crumbles
- Fresh fruit, such as grapes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, apples, oranges, pears, and melons
- Fresh veggies, such as carrots, broccoli, zucchini, peppers, cauliflower, celery, and asparagus
- Leafy greens
- Fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, parsley, cilantro, and basil
- Fresh meat, including chicken breasts and/or thighs, steak, ground beef or turkey, lamb, pork tenderloin or chops, and sausages
- Fresh fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, tilapia, or cod
MEAL PREP EQUIPMENT
Most of what you'll be making will require only standard kitchen equipment, such as:
- Oven and range
- Slow cooker
- Roasting and baking pans
- Pots of various sizes, with lids
- Pans of various sizes, with lids
- Mixing bowls of various sizes
- Blender or food processor
- Cutting board
- Paring knife and chef's knife
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Potato masher
- Meat thermometer
- Silicone brush
CONDIMENTS TO SPRUCE THINGS UP
When a meal needs that little something extra, it's worthwhile to have some flavor-boosting condiments on hand. Here are a few to keep around the house (or even at your desk or work refrigerator):
- Sriracha or other hot sauce
- Olive oil or balsamic vinegar
- Barbecue sauce
- Honey or maple syrup
- Soy sauce or tamari
- Mustard: Dijon, yellow, or stone-ground
- Spice blends or seasonings
- Lemon or lime juice
- Sea salt and pepper
Effective, convenient meal prep is all about containers. You'll be putting some considerable time and energy into your lunch prep journey, so you want to be sure the vessels that hold your food are also keeping up their end of the deal. When making an entire week's worth of lunches, it's vital that containers can hold various types and portions of food, won't leak, and can stack neatly to fit in your fridge and lunch box. It's also helpful for visual appeal if you find them attractive. Now, go and throw out that stained, old, cracked Tupperware.
TYPES OF CONTAINERS
Which meal prep containers should you actually purchase? If you've already started shopping, you've probably noticed that there are innumerable options to choose from. The decision is yours, of course, but here's a look at pros and cons of some more popular options.
It's the classic type you see in so many Insta-worthy meal prep photos: the clean, crisp, transparent glass food container. Glass containers get positive attention for good reason. They're dishwasher-, freezer-, and microwave-safe, and their see-through nature shows off the tasty food they hold inside. There are tons of different options, including mason jars, which are great for stackable and liquid meals. The two downsides: they're heavy and fragile.
Sleek and sophisticated, stainless steel containers make an attractive collection in your fridge or pantry. In general, they also tend to do well in the freezer and dishwasher. Many people prefer them over plastic, since they won't leach any questionable chemicals into your food. But stainless steel is not microwave-safe, and it can be heavy as well.
Reusable plastic containers are the "old reliable" of the food-storage world. They can typically go in the dishwasher, fridge, and freezer without issue. On the other hand, they stain easily and don't keep food as fresh as long as glass containers do. Furthermore, some people have concerns about the chemicals they may transfer to food, especially when heated. If you are unsure of the quality of the plastic container, it's best to opt for a different material. If plastic is your preference, look for BPA-free versions.
Don't forget to pick up an insulated lunch box or bag. Make sure it's big enough to fit your preferred style of container, along with some ice packs to keep your food stored safely. you find that the 12-can cooler bags tend to work really well.
FOOD STORAGE GUIDELINES
With all the hard work you'll be putting in on prepping crave-worthy lunches, the last thing you want is for them to go bad before you can eat them. Storing food safely is critical, so let's take a moment to review best practices.
Before storing hot foods in a cold place, be sure to let them cool slightly and always leave a little "headspace" in your containers, since foods can expand or contract depending on temperature.
We all think we'll remember exactly when we stored that lasagna or casserole, but days sometimes whiz by and blend into each other and the date they were prepared gets harder and harder to recall. So just purchase a roll of cling stickers and label your meals with the date you made them.
When lunchtime rolls around and you're ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor, you may need (or want) to reheat your meal. Simply reheat in a microwave-safe container at 30-second intervals until heated to your liking.
MAINTAINING HOT OR COLD TEMPS
Don't have a fridge at work? Pick up a few ice packs and an insulated lunch bag to keep your lunch safely chilled. Likewise, if your workplace doesn't have a microwave, you may want to invest in a thermos or insulated lunch box.
Here's how long common foods last in the fridge:
Salads: egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, pasta salad
3 TO 5 DAYS
1 TO 2 DAYS
Steaks: beef, pork, lamb (raw)
3 TO 5 DAYS
Chops: beef, lamp, pork (raw)
3 TO 5 DAYS
Roasts: beef, pork, lamb (raw)
3 TO 5 DAYS
Whole chicken or turkey
1 TO 2 DAYS
Pieces: chicken or turkey (raw)
1 TO 2 DAYS
Soups and stews with vegetables and meat
3 TO 4 DAYS
3 TO 4 DAYS
Beef, lamb, pork, or chicken (cooked)
3 TO 4 DAYS