Meal Prep 101: Batch Cooking Proteins

Christine Byrne
by Christine Byrne
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When planning your weekly meal prep grocery list, one of the first things you should think about is protein. The macronutrient is important for satiety and recovery, and can also help with weight loss and muscle-building efforts. Some people like to make a huge batch of a single protein they can use in different meals throughout the week, while others prefer the variety of two or three different options.

Either way, to efficiently (and deliciously) cook protein in bulk, it helps to take a slightly different approach than you would if you were just pan-searing a single chicken breast or scrambling a few eggs. The methods below fit seamlessly into any meal prep plan, and they yield proteins that can be stored for days without losing flavor or totally drying out.

One thing to note: The FDA recommends storing cooked proteins and other foods in the fridge for no longer than four days. Any longer than that and you should portion individual servings into bags or containers, freeze them, and thaw them in the fridge overnight as you need them.

Read more on how to batch cook grains and veggies, make marinades and use leftovers.

EGGS

Hard-boiled eggs are a classic for a reason. They’re easy to make, simple to store and great for anyone counting macros (one large egg has 70 calories and 6 grams of protein). You can make them in an Instant Pot or just go with the classic stovetop method.

How to prep: To hard-boil eggs on the stovetop, fill a large pot with at least 5 inches of water, bring it to a boil, then carefully drop in one egg at a time (you can boil 12 at once, just make sure they’re in a single layer). Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot and let the eggs cook for 12 minutes. Remove from heat and cool in an ice bath before storing in the fridge or peeling.

Recipes: Instant Pot Hard-Boiled Eggs, Stovetop Hard-Boiled Eggs

How to eat: Slice hard-boiled eggs over toast for breakfast; toss them into a salad for lunch or pack a few to eat as a snack with some salt, pepper and a dash of hot sauce.

Making an egg cup is along the same lines as a mini frittata or as an omelet in baked, pre-portioned form. We love them because you can add whatever veggies, meats or cheeses you want, and they’re easy to freeze and thaw later.

How to prep: For easy egg cups, whisk 6 large eggs and 6 egg whites together then stir in your fillings of choice. Pour the mixture into greased or lined muffin cups, then bake at 350°F (177°C) for about 20 minutes.

Recipe: Healthy Baked Egg Cups

How to eat them: Reheat a couple of egg cups in an oven, toaster oven or microwave as you get ready in the morning, then sit down for a quick breakfast or take them to go. They also make a great post-workout snack.

CHICKEN

Roasting a chicken might feel like a special occasion thing, but it’s actually perfect for meal prep. You can add your favorite herbs and spices or just keep things simple with salt and pepper. Pro tip: Store the cooked chicken with the bones and skin still attached (quarter it if you want, or leave it whole) and you’ll protect the meat from drying out in the fridge.

How to prep: As a general rule of thumb, a 4-pound (64-ounce) chicken takes about an hour in a 425°F (218°C) oven. Season it all over with salt and pepper, then roast it in a cast-iron skillet, on a sheet pan or in a roasting pan.

Recipe: Easy Whole Roasted Chicken

How to eat: Use chicken thigh meat as a flavorful salad topper or sandwich filling, and reheat the breast meat for quick dinners alongside some cooked veggies and grains.

If you’re an avid meal prepper, you’re likely familiar with this one. Cook boneless, skinless chicken (breasts or thighs work) in a slow cooker, then use two forks or a hand mixer to easily shred the meat without getting your hands dirty.

How to prep: Three to four pounds (48–64 ounces) of boneless, skinless chicken breast takes about 5 hours in a slow cooker set to low. Season with salt, pepper and any other desired seasonings, and add a few tablespoons of water or oil to prevent the meat from sticking.

Recipe: Easy Shredded Chicken

How to eat: Meal prep some chicken and black bean burrito bowls, throw together chicken and toppings for a weeknight taco buffet or use the shredded meat as a topper for these easy chicken taco salads.

BEEF

Everyone loves a good steak, but it’s not your best choice for meal prep. Lean ground beef is far less expensive, and easier to repurpose into several meals throughout the week. Turning it into meatloaf adds flavor and moisture, and leftovers are easy to portion out and freeze.

How to prep: If you’re using a regular rectangular loaf pan, you’ll need 2–3 pounds (32–48 ounces) of lean ground beef. Mix it with salt, pepper, seasonings and about 1/2-cup (75g) of breadcrumbs, then press it into the loaf pan and bake it in a 350°F (177°C) oven for about an hour or until cooked throughout.

Recipe: Cheesy Meatloaf Minis

How to eat: Roast potatoes to go alongside your meatloaf, then portion individual slices and a scoop of potatoes into meal prep containers, along with some steamed broccoli or greens. Or, reheat a slice and serve it in a sandwich with whole-grain bread, lettuce, tomato and onion.

It almost sounds too easy, but lean ground beef cooked with onions, garlic, salt, pepper and your favorite seasoning is a great building block for a number of meals.

How to prep: Ground beef is also super easy to prepare. Get out the biggest skillet you have, put it on the stove over medium heat, and add a thin layer of oil. You can add minced onion and garlic and let them cook for a minute or two, or just add the ground beef right away. Season with salt, pepper and spices, and stir everything so it cooks evenly. Once your meat is opaque, you’re set.

Recipe: Make-Ahead Italian Ground Beef

How to eat: Stuff it into lettuce wraps or pack it into a baked potato, which you can reheat for an easy lunch, or toss with cooked rice and veggies for a quick, filling bowl.

PORK

Pork butt (also sold as Boston butt or pork shoulder) is a great budget-friendly protein that is easy to prep in a slow cooker or Instant Pot. As a bonus, a single batch generally yields around a dozen servings, making it family-friendly.

How to prep: For the simplest pulled pork, put a 4-pound (64-ounce) pork butt in your slow cooker with a generous amount of salt and pepper. No need to add oil or liquid, because the fat from the pork shoulder renders out and keep things from sticking. Cook everything on low for 8 hours, then shred it with two forks.

Recipes: Slow Cooker Pulled Pork Butt, Instant Pot Pulled Pork

How to eat: Because pork butt is relatively high in fat, it’s tender enough to eat on a bed of greens or reheated and served alongside some grains and veggies.

The process of making a pulled pork loin is similar to making a pulled pork butt, but the cut of meat is lower in fat and therefore makes for a slightly less tender end product. Still, it’s a great healthy choice and easy to dress up in a delicious meal.

How to prep: To slow-cook a 2–3 pound (32–48 ounce) pork loin, place it in a slow cooker with about 1 cup of liquid (stock, tea or beer all work well), season with salt and pepper, and then cook on low for 6 hours. Remove the meat from the liquid before you shred it, so you’re not accidentally left with pork soup.

Recipe: Chai Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork

How to eat: Tossing the cooked pork in a tangy vinaigrette (shaking olive oil with citrus juice or vinegar works just fine) helps add back any flavor and moisture that may have been lost after a few days in the fridge. Then, serve the pork in a sandwich or rolled into a whole-wheat tortilla with veggies as a wrap.

TURKEY

Choose lean turkey to make meatballs, and fill them with onions, garlic, herbs and spices. It takes a little time to roll and bake the meatballs, but having pre-portioned balls of protein (that are also easy to freeze and defrost) is well worth it.

How to prep: To make easy meatballs, use your hands to mix lean ground turkey with chopped onion, garlic, salt, pepper, chopped herbs and spices. Roll the mixture into 2-inch balls, then bake on a sheet pan in a 350°F (177°C) oven for 30 minutes.

Recipes: Easy Baked Turkey MeatballsThai Turkey Meatballs With Spicy Cilantro Dip

How to eat: For a classic, serve them over your favorite whole-wheat or alternative pasta with a hefty pour of tomato sauce. They’re also great on top of veggie-packed grain bowls, or you can smash one onto an egg sandwich in place of bacon or sausage.

You may only think of turkey breast as something that comes sliced at the deli counter, but it’s also possible to cook one at home. Unlike chicken, a single turkey breast lasts several meals. To prevent the low-fat meat from drying out in the fridge, leave it whole and slice only what you need for each meal.

How to prep: Turkey breasts can really vary in size, but a 3-pound (48-ounce) bone-in, skin-on breast takes about 90 minutes in a 350°F (177°C) oven. To make sure your meat is cooked through, insert a meat thermometer into the center of the breast and make sure it reads at least 165°F (74°C)

Recipe: Perfectly Juicy Roasted Turkey Breast

How to eat: Add thinly sliced pieces of turkey breast to a sandwich, or dice turkey breast and make a yogurt-based turkey salad (the same way you would with chicken).

SEAFOOD

When it comes to meal prep, seafood isn’t the most ideal choice. Leftovers start to smell fishy in just a couple of days, and the strong seafood flavor doesn’t pair well with everything. That said, sautéed shrimp is super quick to make and easy to freeze, so you can eat it for a few days and then store whatever is left in the freezer for another week.

How to prep: It’s important not to overcook shrimp, especially if you’re planning on using it for meal prep. Place a skillet on the stovetop over medium heat, add a layer of oil, and cook seasoned shrimp for about 2 minutes per side, until it’s opaque on both sides.

Recipe: Saucy Shrimp Sauté

How to eat: Reheat shrimp and toss with pasta, rice or zucchini noodles. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, pack a few slices of whole-wheat baguette along with shrimp and some sliced cucumbers for lunch and have makeshift crostini for your midday meal.

Roasted salmon doesn’t freeze particularly well, so this one is best if you’re meal prepping for a few people and don’t mind eating salmon for two or three days in a row. That said, the omega-3-rich fish won’t dry out in the fridge, and cooking a whole side instead of individual fillets also helps keep things tender.

How to prep: A 2-pound (32-ounce) side of salmon cooks in about 90 minutes in a slow cooker set to low.

Recipe: Slow Cooker Salmon

How to eat: Hot or cold, cooked salmon makes an excellent salad topper. Because it has such a bold flavor, you can serve it over heartier greens like kale or shredded cabbage.

TOFU

If you’re in the market for plant-based protein that’s inexpensive and actually fills you up, tofu is the way to go. For meal prep, always choose extra-firm tofu, which won’t fall apart when you cook or store it. Baked tofu is hearty and really soaks up the flavors of whatever spice mix or marinade you choose to cook it with.

How to prep: Before you bake tofu, be sure to dry it thoroughly with paper towels. If you’re really dedicated, you can cut it into slices, wrap it in paper towels, then set a heavy book on top for an hour or so, to press out even more moisture. Tofu squares or rectangles that are about a 1/2-inch thick cook in about 30 minutes in a 400°F (204°C) oven. Be sure to coat them in oil before cooking, so that they can really crisp up.

Recipe: Baked Tofu

How to eat: Toss it into soups and salads or reheat them and enjoy with your favorite dipping sauce like a yogurt-based tahini or savory peanut sauce.

Pan-seared tofu is similar to baked, except it crisps more as you let it brown in a skillet. It’s a little more hands-on, but a great alternative for when your oven is full of roasted veggies, or it’s hot outside and you don’t want to mess with the oven at all.

How to prep: Once you’ve pressed the moisture out of your tofu with paper towels, cut it into cubes no thicker than 1/2-inch. Cook them in a skillet over medium-high heat, being sure to add enough oil so the tofu crisps and doesn’t stick.

Recipe: Pan-Seared Tofu

How to eat: Like baked tofu, pan-seared tofu is great for salads and fun to dip into sauce. Use plenty of seasoning and it’ll also taste good enough to eat alongside a pile of rice and some stir-fried veggies.

About the Author

Christine Byrne
Christine Byrne

Christine is a trained chef and recipe developer who recently relocated from New York City to Durham, North Carolina. She started her career as a restaurant line cook, then became a food editor at BuzzFeed, and later the features editor at SELF. Follow her on Twitter @christinejbyrne and on Instagram @xtinebyrne for lots of breakfast photos, outdoorsy things, and really cute videos of her dog, Boss.

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