Meal prep is essentially making a handful of recipes ahead of time to have on hand for packed or home breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks throughout the week. I think of it as creating a salad bar or hot bar in your very own kitchen, adjusting the recipes with the season and my mood. Today, I’m going to focus on the meal that most meal prep lovers like to make: lunch.
When you’ve planned and prepped ahead, it’s easier to eat healthfully, save money and have more time during the week outside of the kitchen. It’s about investing a relatively small amount of time for a big return. If you’re busy, which I’m guessing you are, meal prep is calling your name.
Every week, I usually take 2 to 3 hours on Sunday morning or afternoon to prepare the recipes I’ll use to build my meals. In my house, there are just two adults, which means I rarely have to replenish the prepped food or make something new. However, if you have a larger family, you may have to do this. Make sure you get groceries on Friday or Saturday so you can get started when you need to on Sunday.
It’s all about simultaneously cooking and chopping a few things at once, using your time effectively. I use my meal prep Sundays to catch up on podcasts or listen to music or an audio book, which makes it more fun.
Make a Winning Meal Prep Team
I prefer not to grocery shop and meal prep on the same day. I will make a list the day before and give it to my partner, who is happy to get groceries for me, or I’ll order groceries online. And get someone else on dish duty in exchange for your awesome packed lunches!
Why Meal Prep?
There are several benefits of doing meal prep:
- Adaptable for every taste and family member
- You can try those exciting new recipes you’ve bookmarked or pinned
- You can sleep in because lunch is already made
- You have something delicious to look forward at noon
How to Meal Prep Like a Pro
To be successful at meal prep, start with a list of recipes you’d like to make. Most weeks, I keep it classic with a grain bowl or salad bar style meal with roasted and fresh veggies, a cooked whole grain, healthy protein, dip or dressing and a few snacks. Another way to approach meal prep is batch cooking a large pot of soup, stew or chili, cooking up a grain and making sure the fridge is stocked with fruit and nuts.
Don’t feel like you have to make everything from scratch. Nut butter and hummus are fine options to buy ready-made, for example, and canned fish is a portable, healthy protein option that you can stock up on for grab and go moments.
Make a Themed Container or Jar Meal
For your meal prep lunch, build your flavour choices around a theme. I love the fresh flavours found in poke bowls, and they’re easy to DIY with sushi-grade tuna or tofu, citrus, brown rice, ginger, crunchy vegetables and a bright sesame oil dressing. Homemade bento boxes and Southern BBQ lunch boxes are also fun. Embrace versatility!
The Meal Prep Formula
Choose one or two options from each category below to get started. Store each component separately in a BPA-free container in the fridge, or build the single serving containers or jars for the week (more on that later).
Grains or grain salads (choose 1 to 2)
- Basmati rice
- Brown rice
- Spelt pasta or brown rice pasta
- Whole wheat couscous
- Wheat berries
Protein (choose 1 to 2)
- Marinated tofu or smoked tofu
- Cooked chicken (grilled, poached, roasted, rotisserie)
- Hardboiled eggs
- Canned fish (tuna, sardines, mackerel, salmon)
- Pan-fried halloumi
- Pulled pork or pulled chicken (use your Instant Pot or slow cooker here)
- Greek yogurt or goat cheese
- Leftover cooked meat or fish (beef, pork, chicken, salmon)
- Canned beans and legumes
Cooked Vegetables (choose 1 to 2)
- Roasted squash or sweet potatoes
- Roasted mixed seasonal vegetables
- Roasted or steamed broccoli
- Grilled mixed seasonal vegetables
- Sautéed kale or spinach
Raw Vegetables and Make-Ahead Salads (choose 1 to 2)
- Cucumber coins (store in water to retain freshness)
- Cut up carrots (store in water to retain freshness)
- Cut up fennel or celery
- Raw or frozen corn and green peas
- Kale salad
- Cauliflower rice
- Fennel and apple salad
- Thai slaw or yogurt-based cabbage slaw
Dressing and Dip (choose 1 to 2)
- Balsamic vinaigrette
- Green goddess dressing
- Caesar dressing
- Tahini-based dressing
- Spicy peanut sauce
- White bean dip
- Peanut butter or almond butter
Seasonings (to taste)
- Lemon or lime wedges
- Flaky salt (pack in a little tin to bring or keep at your desk)
- Hot sauce (available in tiny lunchbox-sized bottles)
- Olive oil
- Fruit (apples, banana) with peanut butter or almond butter
- Hard-boiled eggs (plain or spice them up with cayenne)
- Yogurt with prepared or homemade granola
- Prepared or homemade energy bars or bites
- Homemade fruit and nut granola bars
- Dark chocolate, clementines and walnuts
- Avocado chocolate pudding
- Crushed avocado on rye crackers
- Homemade healthy muffins (keep in the freezer to grab each day)
- Seasonal fruit and nuts
- Homemade trail mix: roasted almonds, chocolate chips and dried cherries
Packing Your Meal Prep To Go
In containers or jars, which I like for building salads, arrange your prepared components grain bowl style, just like you would if you were at home, packing dressing on the side or adding it to the bottom of the container before loading in the ingredients. If you have enough containers, you can do this all at once, but I usually keep the components separated until the night before when I pack up tomorrow’s meal (I find it keeps it fresher). Keeping components separate also means more people will enjoy it, as they can build their own lunch to suit their taste.
I usually make 4 to 5 days’ worth of lunch recipes for two people, as one day we may have a larger dinner with leftovers or choose to eat out at lunch.
Meal Prep Any Meal
While that’s my main focus, I do also meal prep my breakfasts. I make overnight oats (muesli) for the week or granola, which I can quickly portion into a small mason jar. I also find that breakfast recipes, like overnight oats and yogurt and granola, double as healthy, packable snacks.
Meal Prep Recap
Here are my final key points to make Sunday meal prep lunches happen:
- Plan the meals you want to meal prep each week
- Make a list from your recipes and grocery shop
- Devote Sunday (or the day of the week that works for your schedule) morning or afternoon to preparing the bulk of your recipes
- Keep a stash of large, small and personal-sized containers, as well as large and small glass jars to store your prepped components and meals in
- Make 4 to 5 days of lunches, upping the quantities based on your family size
- Choose 1 or 2 themed cuisines (Southern, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Greek, etc.) to avoid dietary boredom and jazz up your every day
- Keep snacks on hand and in the freezer for fast bites
- Double up a make-ahead breakfast, like granola and yogurt, for weekday snacks
- Batch-cook soups, stews and roasts to store in the freezer for weekends when you don’t have time to do meal prep
- Divide and conquer; get your partner or family members in on the meal prep game. Even someone getting the groceries will make this way easier to stick to
- Head outside with a pal to enjoy your meal or go into your workplace’s common room and grab a place at the table. A packed lunch doesn’t mean you have to eat alone al desko, unless you prefer it
Check out our Love Your Lunch series to keep your meal prep game strong.