How to meal prep for your entire week so you can have a life

Meal prep, for many, is a recurring weekend task, while for others, it’s a consistent new year’s resolution. Participating in a weekly meal prep– preparing your food for the week in advance— has numerous benefits including saving you time during the week, ensuring you have access to healthy, nutritious meals, saving you money, and preventing environmental waste (like all those salad containers you throw away at work). It will leave you more time to focus on work, your family and friends.

Yet, for many, it’s a habit that’s hard to nail. I chatted with Erica Adler, Health Supportive Personal Chef and Recipe Developer, and author of The Beginner’s Guide to Meal Prep to learn her tips, ideas, and motivation for meal prep. Here is what she had to say about some of my most pressing questions and concerns.

How long does it actually take?

One common complaint about meal prep is that it takes too long— who wants to spend their entire Sunday in the kitchen? Adler suggests that you only need one to two hours for a proper meal prep session, though, ensuring you can do it on the weekend or any night of the week after work. “Meal prep is great because you can adjust it to suit your lifestyle and needs. I work hours outside of a typical 9-5 and usually want to have food prepped for breakfast and lunch for myself and my partner for a few days at a time. So most often, I’ll spend one to two hours meal prepping on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday—wherever I can fit it in,” she shared.

Don’t forget to add in an hour or so for grocery shopping as well, she cautioned, and then find a time to focus on prepping for the week. “Many people find it easiest to find a large chunk of time like this on a Saturday or Sunday. It’s also perfectly acceptable to do your shopping a day-or-two in advance of your cooking if that’s what works best for your schedule,” explained Adler.

How do I organize my meal prep?

There’s also a strategy on how to approach organizing your meal prep to reduce your time in the kitchen, Adler suggested. “Multitasking, while you’re cooking, is the best way to save time while you meal prep. Instead of cooking one dish start to finish then moving onto the second, work so you have aspects of each in progress at the same time. For example, have the rice for your fried rice on the stove while at the same time you peel and chop carrots for your ginger-glazed carrot side dish and you’re going to save a lot of time.

“Think about simultaneously having something in your oven, on your stove, and on your cutting board most of the time while you work. This will take practice, but writing out an order of operations before you start cooking to guide you is a good way to get used to this method,” she advised. You can also listen to a podcast or an audiobook while meal prepping to be extra productive during your time in the kitchen.”

How do I decide what to make?

This is probably my biggest sticking point, so I turned to Adler for answers on how to determine what to make during your meal prep. “First and foremost, you want to select dishes you’re excited about and that are going to hold up well in the fridge for as long as you plan to eat them.

Start with tried-and-true recipes from your own kitchen, or recipes from sources with test kitchens and user reviews (The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Food52 are sites I frequent),” she explained regarding sourcing recipes. Next, avoid food that’s meant to be crunchy or fried (like grilled cheese) and very delicate vegetables (like soft lettuces). Lean into saucy, soupy, stewy foods, which only get better the longer they spend in the fridge. If you’re looking to meal prep a salad, work with sturdy greens like kale, cabbage, and other cruciferous vegetables like shredded brussels sprouts.” She also shared that it’s best to leave sauces and dressings on the side until you’re ready to assemble and enjoy your meal. She lays out a handful of her favorite meal prep friendly recipes in her ebook as well.

I am meal prepping to save money. How can I make sure this is affordable?

As for saving money, Adler recommends cutting back on meat— which also has an environmental bonus as well. “While I’m an omnivore myself, some of my very favorite items to meal prep are vegetarian dishes. Lentil stews, pureed veggie soups, and grain salads all make fabulous meal prep dishes,” she shared while explaining that vegetarian dishes often last longer
in the fridge (avoiding spoiled food, which also saves money).

Help! I don’t have time to meal prep this week.

Alder cautions against thinking of meal prep as an all-or-nothing affair, but rather incorporating it into your lifestyle when timing permits. “People meal prep once and enjoy it, but can’t find the time to do it the following week, then decide that meal prep isn’t for them and give up the practice altogether. Meal prep is like any tool in your cooking arsenal: utilize it when it makes sense and don’t when it doesn’t,” she emphasized. The point of meal prep is to reduce stress, Adler reminded me, so make sure you aren’t putting undue stress on yourself to prep your food in advance. Perhaps just make a sauce or two that you can add to pasta or easy dinners during the week to make your life easier if you only have a few minutes.

How do I make sure my food lasts?

It’s important to check the  FDA guidelines on how long food lasts in the fridge— Adler shares that it’s generally three to five days for most cooked food. Adler also recommends being smart about your meal prep containers, suggesting to “avoid investing in expensive containers before you’ve worked meal prep into your routine. A thoroughly washed jar or sealable dish from your latest takeout order will suffice and cuts back on waste. If you’re ready to purchase a container specifically for meal prep, prioritize a glass or BPA-free plastic container that won’t leak.” You can cook extra batches of your meal prep to throw in the freezer for the weeks when you can’t
get to meal prep, or any leftovers you may not get to.