Chef Jenny Woodberry shares her top 5 meal prep tips for beginners, to take the mystery out of meal planning.
Whether you’re trying to stick to a healthier eating pattern or you’re just sick of grabbing a sandwich on the go, meal prep can really help you to eat better, save money and regain a little control over the foods you’re eating.
Although it might seem overwhelming at first – especially when you see stacks of perfectly prepared food on Instagram – meal prep is as simple as making a few packed lunches ahead of time and discovering the art of batch-cooking.
This series is all about how to become a meal prep pro. To kick it all off, I’ve put together my top five tips for beginners, so you can get busy in the kitchen and cook up some delicious meals for the week ahead!
1. Get organised
Allocate a few hours of the week to your meal prep. Sunday afternoons, for example, are a great time to get everything ready for a new week and means you’ll have one less thing to think about when mealtimes roll around.
Before you start cooking, prep your kitchen with a few simple essentials. Here, I’ve compiled my go-to list to get you started:
- Foil/baking parchment – I always have a roll of either of these. They’re great space-savers if you want to cook different foods on one tray.
- Large saucepan/stockpot – a big pan is your best friend when it comes to batch-cooking. If you’ve got the budget, a slow-cooker makes a brilliant investment too.
- Scales – these aren’t necessary for everyone but, if you’re looking to track your food or follow more complex recipes, a set of scales will likely come in handy.
- A sharp knife – honestly, a good knife will revolutionise your cooking experience.
- Storage containers – make sure you’ve got plenty of reusable storage containers to store your prepped food in. Plastic may be convenient, but for the sake of the planet, I would recommend investing in bamboo or glass dishes that you can reuse over and over again.
- A sharpie/labels – make sure to label your container so you know what’s inside! If you’re freezing meals, it’s useful to record the date they were made, too.
Summary: Set aside a few hours each weekend and arm yourself with the kitchen essentials for batch cooking.
2. Get inspired
Now for the fun part – what to cook?
If you’re struggling with inspiration for what to make, spend a little time researching recipes – either online or in recipe books. A simple Google search for ‘meal prep recipes’ or ‘batch cooking recipes’ will yield lots of exciting results. Or check out Healthy Food Guide‘s lunch recipes for lots of healthy ideas.
Be realistic and don’t overcomplicate things. You want to find recipes that you know you will like and will actually make. For example, if a recipe takes over an hour to prepare, you’re much less likely to give it a go and it might deter you from prepping meals altogether.
Find some simple ideas for marinades and flavours. A delicious and balanced meal can be as simple as a marinated source of protein paired with your favourite carbs and veggies. One of my favourites is garlic and herb marinated chicken, served with spicy rice and green beans – it doesn’t require a strict recipe, just a few staple ingredients.
Summary: explore some recipes online and make a list of the meals you’re going to make for the week ahead.
3. Get shopping
Once you’ve decided on the meals you want to make, write a shopping list. I always break it down into four groups – meat/fish (or vegetarian equivalent), dairy, pantry and groceries – so it’s easier to shop when in the supermarket.
Make life super simple for yourself and set up an account with an online supermarket. Most have a shopping list functionality which you can then use again, once you’re happy with your prepped meals.
Don’t forget essentials like olive oil, salt and pepper and try to add one or two new herbs and spices to your repertoire each week. Once you have them, you’ll use them again and again.
Summary: make an organised shopping list and remember the essentials.
4. Get prepped
Once your shopping has arrived, it’s time to get cooking.
Begin by organising your ingredients into groups. For example, vegetables, herbs, protein, dairy and carbohydrates is a good place to start. You don’t want to tackle a jumbled pile of ingredients so clear some space in your kitchen and start prepping.
This stage isn’t essential but makes a massive difference to the flavour of your meal. Whether you’re using meat, tofu, halloumi or tempeh, they all benefit greatly from some time spent marinating in herbs, oils and spices. The idea is to do this first so that the flavours develop while you prep the rest of your meal. If you’re vegetarian, legume-based foods (such as bean burgers or falafel) make a great protein source too, that don’t require marination.
Whether it’s boiling a pan for rice or chopping up sweet potatoes for roasting (try to opt for complex carbohydrates to give you extra fibre and nutrition), always prep the ingredients that will take the longest to cook, first. This is most likely to be the carb-based element of the meal. Leave the foods that take less time to cook until last, like veggies and salad. You can prep these straight into containers while leaving space to dish up the rest of your meal.
Summary: get your prep done in sections, starting with the foods that take the longest to cook.
5. Get Stocked
It’s really important to store your food safely. Let your meals cool down properly before you pop the lids on, to avoid food spoilage, and ensure everything is refrigerated within two hours of cooking. Leaving food out at room temperature for longer than this isn’t safe.
Most foods can be stored for approximately three days in the fridge before they start to go off so anything you’re going to eat after that should be frozen. Remember to take meals out of the freezer to defrost in the fridge the night before you want to eat them.
Finally, label your meals with the name of the dish and the date it was made.
Summary: make sure you store food safely in the fridge or freezer and label everything for future reference.
And that’s it! There’s something so satisfying about seeing all of your meals laid out for the week ahead and it really does save you a lot of time. I hope this guide inspires you to give meal prep a go yourself.