If you’re already an experienced meal prepper, you know putting the time in upfront saves even more time and headache later in the week, not to mention makes weight-loss even easier. If you’re just starting out on your meal planning journey, you’re probably doing so because you hope it’ll make your life a little easier.
Meal prep doesn’t have to be complicated — in fact, it’s easy to customize depending on your budget, lifestyle and dietary preferences. At its most basic level, you could just cook a protein, a grain and a vegetable in bulk and eat the same meal on repeat for a week. Or, you could learn easy ways to level-up your ingredients, your process and your meals — it’s possible to make food tastier and more interesting without a whole lot of extra effort.
To help you do so, we asked registered dietitians to share their best meal prep tips. From batch-cooking vegetables to pre-marinating your proteins, here are some tips for beginner, intermediate and advanced meal preppers.
MAKE USE OF FROZEN PRODUCE
“Don’t overlook frozen fruits and veggies, especially if you’re trying to eat healthy on a budget. Frozen often costs less than fresh fruits and veggies, and because they last much longer, it also helps reduce food waste. The trick is to look for varieties with no additives, like extra sodium or sugar. I love frozen peppers for easy fajitas, frozen mixed veggies for pasta primavera and frozen cherries to mix into yogurt or smoothies.”
— Kim Yawitz, RD, owner of Two Six Fitness in St. Louis, Missouri
PICK A WHOLE GRAIN FOR THE WEEK
“Bulk cook a whole grain at the beginning of the week like quinoa, farro, barley or wheat berries. Then, you can add 1/2 cup to salads at lunch to boost fiber, keeping you full longer and preventing afternoon crashes and carb cravings. You can also reheat and add [the grains] to dinner, mix into a soup or make a grain bowl.”
— Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, weight-loss dietitian at Lainey Younkin Nutrition
USE BEANS FOR A PLANT-BASED, BUDGET-FRIENDLY PROTEIN
“I use beans as a budget-friendly way to stretch the portions of every day recipes, while giving them a plant-based protein and fiber boost. This trick can also help reduce your intake of animal protein. For example, stir drained black beans into taco filling, cannellini beans into pasta sauce or red kidney beans into soup.”
— Beth Stark, RDN, dietitian and nutrition consultant in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
COOK VEGGIES IN VEGETABLE BROTH
“I love to saute a big batch of veggies like onions and green peppers. Instead of cooking them in oil or butter, I use low-sodium vegetable broth. This adds a ton of taste without many calories at all. I save the oil in my meal for cooking my protein or to use as a salad dressing.”
— Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian in Stamford, Connecticut
STOCK YOUR PANTRY
“Make sure your kitchen is stocked with staple ingredients you can use to toss together simple nutritious meals. Keep canned foods, like beans, tomatoes, and fish (like tuna and salmon), boxed vegetable/chicken stock and quick-cooking grains on hand, and keep your freezer stocked up too with frozen veggies and proteins. From just a few ingredients, you can make a bean chili or a quick dinner of rice and beans with a veggie and protein from your freezer.
— Jennifer Lease, RD, culinary dietitian and owner of ChefGirl Nutrition in Denver, Colorado
MAKE A MENU
“Plan your weekly menu before you go shopping. If that feels too cumbersome, start with planning at least three dinner meals (make a double portion if your family is more than four people), and that way, you will have leftovers available on the other days. Once your dinners are planned, you will be able to purchase all the ingredients necessary for the week. As an added food budget bonus, plan your meals based on the grocery store sale ads and buy foods that are in season.”
— Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, a diabetes lifestyle expert with Diabetes EveryDay
SHOP THE BULK BINS
“Keep your wallet happy and buy dried beans and grains in bulk instead of canned or boxed. It’s not only cheaper, but 1 cup of dried beans or grains (like rice, quinoa or barley) yields almost triple the amount when cooked. I like to batch cook a few pounds at a time and freeze a portion for later use. Then, I mix-and-match the rest throughout the week in soup or chili, taco bowls, burritos or grain salads.
— Erin Hendrickson, RDN, dietitian and owner of No Waste Nutrition
UNDERCOOK YOUR VEGGIES
“The easiest way to avoid soggy vegetables when meal prepping is to slightly undercook them, whether you saute, stir-fry, steam or blanch and shock them. That way, they retain more of their nutrients, and they’ll be perfect when you reheat them for a quick meal. This works well with all kinds of dishes, including fried rice packed with vegetables, grain bowls, soups and side dishes.
— Cindy Chou, a Santa Monica, California-based chef and culinary nutritionist at Healthy Feels and The Sound of Cooking
PREP POWER BOWLS
“Take the guesswork out of meal prepping and make your own power bowl for lunch or dinner. Mix and match 4 ounces of protein, 1/2 cup (75g) of grains, 1–2 cups (150–300g) of veggies, 1/4 cup (75g) of toppings like nuts or seeds and a couple tablespoons of your desired dressing. This healthy balance of ingredients keeps you fuller longer.”
— Mackenzie Burgess, RDN, dietitian and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices in Fort Collins, Colorado
“Essentials in my kitchen include a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie pen. I label everything with what the product is, if I loved it or if it needed something else added to ‘doctor it up’ and the date. Sometimes my label will say ‘add more jalapeno.’ (I might be willing to pull out a container of frozen chili for guests, but if it was a leftover/planned over that wasn’t a favorite dish, I wouldn’t remember unless I labeled it accordingly. ”
— Rebecca Clyde, MS, RD, a dietitian based in Salt Lake City, Utah
DIY QUICK OATMEAL PACKETS
“Skip the instant oatmeal packets and make your own. I combine a 1/2 (75g) cup old-fashioned rolled oats with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, 1 tablespoon almond slivers and 1 tablespoon raisins or chopped dried cherries. You can make single-serve packs ahead of time and store each one in a reusable bag, so there’s no measuring necessary in the mornings. When you’re ready for breakfast, add 1 cup (120ml) water and microwave the oats for 2 minutes. Drizzle with maple syrup or add a teaspoon or so of your favorite jam or jelly.”
— Lisa Andrews, RD, owner Sound Bites Nutrition
SHOP FOR LOCAL MEAT
“I buy ground beef and pork in bulk from local farmers. I portion it out into freezer bags in 1-pound portions and flatten them out so that they store easily in my freezer. Also, flattening them out like this allows them to thaw faster.”
— Jennifer Smart, MS, RD, owner of Smart Nutrition in Huntingtown, Maryland
MARINATE YOUR PROTEINS
“I buy four dressings/marinades and combine [each one] with a protein (chicken breast, tofu, salmon, chicken thighs) in a stasher reusable bag. Then I freeze or refrigerate until I’m ready to use. This week I’m doing Cilantro Lime from Primal Kitchen, Red Enchilada Sauce from Whole Foods 365, Tikka Masala from Maya Kaimal and Teriyaki from Primal Kitchen.” Use just enough to coat the protein in the reusable bag.”
— Mariana Dineen, MS, RD, dietitian at Pretty Nutritious in Houston, Texas
MAKE EXTRA SERVINGS
“Meal prep can be a struggle if you’re cooking recipes for one, but you shouldn’t let that be an obstacle. Instead, seek out your favorite recipes and new-to-you cuisines and make extra servings. You can do this when you’re already cooking (it doesn’t have to be Sunday), so you don’t always have to spend hours on the weekend prepping a bunch of meals.”
MAKE YOUR OWN SAUCES
“An easy way to make meals delicious is having different sauces and dressings on hand. My favorite is a tahini dressing: 1/2 cup (150g) tahini, 1/4 cup (60ml) soy sauce, a splash of rice wine vinegar and water, 2 garlic cloves and a 1-inch piece of ginger, pureed in a blender. It’s great on top of grains, salads and veggies.”
— Amanda Terillo, MS, RD, a dietitian based in Charlottesville, Virginia
Make progress every day while you work on mini fitness and nutrition goals, like walking more steps or learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.