Beginner Meal Prep Ideas, Recipes & Tips

Learning how to meal prep will save you time, money and make it easier to cook healthy dinners — even when you’re busy. But you may be wondering how to keep your meal-prepped food fresh and tasty throughout the week or if there are any food safety guidelines to consider when cooking meals ahead of time. The culinary pros in the Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen have years of experience in efficient, well-planned cooking (they have to fly through dozens of recipes per week, after all), so they dished out their best meal prep tips. Your guide to easy, organized (and delicious!) cooking ahead.

What is meal prepping?

Meal prep is the practice of preparing key elements of a dish like grains, roasted veggies or cooked protein, or even the entire recipe (make-ahead meals FTW!), before you plan to eat it. This smart meal planning method gives you a head start on the week, often leading to faster, healthier, stress-free eating.

What are the benefits of meal prepping?

Meal prepping can save you time on busy weeknights by making food available to heat and eat right when you get home. It can also save you money: Meal planning helps ensure that you don’t buy things at the grocery store you don’t need, and pre-prepped food is more likely to get eaten so it reduces food waste. It’s also easier to eat healthy meals since the menu gets set in advance. You’re less likely to choose a not-so-great option when you already have a healthy dinner at home, ready to go.

Is there any downside to meal prepping?

Since meal prepping can involve eating the same dish or types of food a few days in a row, it’s not for people who prize variety and freshness above all else. Getting kids on board with eating “leftovers” can also pose a challenge, especially if you’re making accommodations for different dietary restrictions or palettes. To avoid monotony, use different spices, dressings or condiments in your dishes or freeze some of your prepped food to feature in meals for a future week.

Or skip pre-made meals and focus on prepping your ingredients instead: Washed celery and carrots can be diced for a tomato sauce or sliced for snacking, cooked quinoa can be paired with any protein or turned into a grain salad and roast chicken can be shredded and stirred into different meals all week (soups, wraps, tostadas, etc.) to name just a few ways your prepped ingredients can be transformed.

How do I prep my meals for the week?

There are a few different ways to meal prep, but all the food preparation methods involve organizing the food in your fridge in a way that makes for easy breakfasts, lunches and dinners — whether that’s just chopping or slicing foods or actually cooking it. There’s no one way to do it, but three common techniques include:

chili soup in a dutch oven pot

Batch Cooking

Make big recipes at once (like on the weekends) to freeze or save for use later on.

portioned out meals in containers

Individually Portioned Meals

Divvy up portions into containers ahead of time so you can grab and go.

red peppers being sliced on a cutting board

Prepped Ingredients

Do a bunch of chopping, peeling, slicing or roasting beforehand and use those components in recipes later on.

Okay! I am ready — how do I start meal prepping?

Stock up on reusable, airtight food storage containers that will help your prepared ingredients or meals stay fresh by locking bacteria and odors out.

Best for Salad

Brilliance Salad and Snack Lunch Combo Kit

Rubbermaid Brilliance Salad and Snack Lunch Combo Kit
Credit: amazon

We love these crystal clear containers with removable dividers that allow you to customize your lunch. The salad box comes with portions you can remove and microwave, plus a separate cup for dressing to keep greens fresh.

Best for Batch Cooking

12-Piece Multicolored Food Storage Container Set

Joseph Joseph 12-Piece Multicolored Food Storage Container Set

Now 33% Off

Storage space is a nightmare for most people. These containers from Joseph Joseph nest, so while the set includes a wide variety of large sizes, they won’t take up a lot of space in your cabinet.

Best With Dividers

Flex Bento Food Storage Container

PackIt Flex Bento Food Storage Container
Credit: PackIt

One size does not always fit all, and PackIt knows that. Their bento boxes have removable dividers so you can adjust the sections exactly how you’d like.

Best for Snacks

GoStak Twist n' Lock Storage Jars

Blender Bottle GoStak Twist n’ Lock Storage Jars

Snack prepping is just as important as meal prepping, and these Twist n’ Lock storage jars make it super easy. We love their narrow, stacking design that easily fits into our bags.

Best for Reheating

Simply Store Glass 18-Piece Food Container Set

Pyrex Simply Store Glass 18-Piece Food Container Set
Credit: Pyrex

Pyrex is known for its long-lasting durability. The glass containers can be frozen, refrigerated, microwaved and put in the oven and dishwasher. This variety set includes a size for just about everything. Plus, they stack and transport easily.

Once you have your meal-prepping gear, you may want to download a grocery list app that will help keep your plan organized and make shopping and cooking a snap by curating recipes and grocery lists for you. Don’t fret if you’re not into the tech-based solution: A pen and paper also work for planning out your week.

anylist grocery shopping app

Anylist

AnyList’s Autocomplete feature suggests common items as you type, and then intuitively organizes them into categories. Share lists easily via email with as many people as you want — any changes will sync instantly.

Get it for free for iOS or Android.

Anylist
mealime grocery and meal planning app

Mealime

Use personalized recipe suggestions based on dietary restrictions and even food preferences to build your menu for the week. Then just tap to add all the ingredients at once to an organized grocery list.

Get it for free for iOS or Android.

Mealime
yummly recipe and cooking tools app

Yummly

Just snap a pic of the ingredients you have on hand to get new recipe ideas, or browse dishes from your favorite food sites. Anything you need gets added to an automatically organized list.

Get it for free for iOS or Android.

Yummly

All set? The next step is picking your recipes. Before you do, consider these five things:

  1. Choose just one mealtime you’d like to prepare for — Either quick breakfasts, healthy lunches or dinners. Keep it simple by starting with one you usually eat out or skip altogether.
  2. Pick a day to do your meal prepping. Sunday and Wednesday are two common choices.
  3. Determine how much you want to prep. Experiment with prepping for two or three days before attempting five. You may not like eating the same or similar things the whole week.
  4. Invest in a cookbook. Good Housekeeping’s Easy Meal Prep: The Ultimate Playbook for Make-Ahead Meals comes with over 100 healthy make-ahead recipes, as well as tips and techniques to make meal prepping a breeze.
  5. Pick up a meal prep planner. Our Weekly Planner includes space for your to-do lists plus daily inspiration like quotes, recipes and our best tips and tricks for all facets of life.

If you’re looking to ramp up your nutrient intake, make veggies or fruit at least 50% of whatever you’re prepping. They don’t necessarily have to come from the actual produce section: Frozen or canned varieties will last almost forever and work in nearly every meal.

The best foods for meal prepping:

Freezer finds are already washed, chopped and ready to be roasted, steamed or sautéed.

Save this list for your next grocery shopping trip:

infographic of the best foods for meal prepping

The best foods for meal prepping: frozen vegetables, stiff fresh vegetables, pulses, whole fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts and seeds.

Need help with recipe inspiration? We’ve got you covered:

Best meal prep recipes for breakfast:

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so it’s a good one to pick when you’re choosing which meals to prep. You want to make sure your meal is light, but also has good carbs, fiber and protein.

egg and cheese sandwich wrapped in foil

Best meal prep recipes for lunch:

Salads and soups are anything but boring when you take the time to customize them to your liking. Regardless of what you pick, focus on lean protein, healthy carbs and veggies.

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clicl for recipe
green goddess sandwiches

Green Goddess Sandwiches

This vegetarian sandwich puts one of our favorite meal-prep players — hard-boiled eggs — to delicious use.

Get Sandwiches Recipe

Mike Garten
mason jar instant noodle soup

Mason Jar Instant Noodle Soup

When lunchtime rolls around, pour boiling water on top of this veggie-noodle soup and give everything a stir before slurping.

Get Soup Recipe

mike garten
vegetarian antipasto salad

Vegetarian Antipasto Salad

Marinate everything except the greens and parsley and toss it all together once your hunger strikes.

Get Salad Recipe

mike garten

Best meal prep recipes for dinner:

Add lots of color to your plate by loading up on all sorts of vegetables, including broccoli, peppers and tomatoes, but go lighter on the carbs and grains.

pork and veggie stir fry in a pan with white rice on the side
grilled vegetable lasagna with ricotta tomato sauce

Grilled Vegetable Lasagna With Ricotta-Tomato Sauce
Danielle Daly
air fryer falafel salad

Air Fryer Falafel Salad
mike garten
balsamic glazed mini meatloaves

Balsamic-Glazed Mini Meatloaves

You can form these little loaves ahead of time and refrigerate up to 3 days.

Get Meatloaf Recipe

mike garten

Best meal prep recipes for snacks:

Put a healthy spin on your childhood favorites when the afternoon slump hits. Trade peanut butter for almond butter and cheesy popcorn for sweet matcha.

yogurt dip with cucumber and radishes for dipping
almond buckwheat granola with yogurt and berries

Almond-Buckwheat Granola with Yogurt and Berries
mike garten
sriracha mixed nuts

Sriracha Mixed Nuts
Mike Garten
nut butter ritz sandwiches

Nut Butter Ritz Sandwiches
Mike Garten

How long will meal prepped food last?

Prepared foods can remain refrigerated for 2–5 days or frozen for 3–4 months, depending on the ingredients. To play it safe and avoid foodborne illness, keep food out of the “danger zone” — temperatures between 40°F and 140°F. Sealing food in airtight packaging or storage containers will not only keep bacteria out, but also protect the flavor, lock moisture in and help prevent freezer burn.