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Everything you need to know about meal prep

Meal preparation or 'meal prep' is the process of preparing meals for the week ahead. It can help you make healthy eating choices when you're busy or stressed. It saves you time and money too. Find out how to get started.

Meal prep station in kitchen

What is meal prep?

Meal prep is the process of preparing a series of meals in advance. You can meal prep for breakfast, lunch and dinner or even snacks. These can be for the week ahead or for advance planning – stocking the freezer with healthy dinners for when life gets busy. 

You may have seen pictures on social media of colourful lunchboxes ready to go and fridges stacked entirely of packed Tupperware for the week ahead. It’s not surprising that meal prep is becoming popular as there are lots of benefits to doing it.

What are the benefits of meal prep?

  1. Save money

    Meal prep is a great way to save money on food. Buying ingredients to make multiple meals at once helps keep costs down. You can use low-cost ingredients such as seasonal vegetables and canned legumes (chickpeas, beans and lentils) to bulk out each meal and help food go further.
  2. Reduce food waste

    Cooking in bulk can also help prevent food waste (and therefore wasted money) when you make meals that can be frozen and use up leftovers.
  3. Save time

    Meal prep can save you time. It reduces the time needed daily to make decisions about what food to eat because your meals are already planned and ready.

How much time does meal prep take?

The amount of time it takes to do meal prep depends on what recipes you make and how many meals you want to prepare. Generally, 1-2 hours can be enough to prepare a couple of meals that serve between four to six people.

How long will meals last?

Making sure the meals you prep are safe to eat now and in the following days is extremely important to reduce the risk of food poisoning. How long your meals last depends on how you have prepared and stored the food. 

Aim to eat your prepared meals within two days. If you are not going to eat the meals within two days of prep, then it is best to seal the food in freezer bags or containers with the name and date of the meal, then place them in your freezer. Frozen food will keep for at least three months in a standard freezer.

Vegetables ready for meal prep

Seven simple steps to master meal prep

Step 1: Use appropriate, reusable storage 

Invest in a set of reusable containers in a variety of sizes with good seals. Varying sizes gives you options depending on what type of meal you are preparing. Salads will tend to fit into a bigger container whereas soup can fit into a smaller container or one that is microwavable. 

Metal or glass are going to be your best options for durability, and there are many sizes available. Good storage helps ensure safe food storage, as well as convenience for taking meals into school or work.

Reusable containers

Step 2: Dedicate time to meal prep

Set aside time for yourself to prepare one to two meals in one go. For some, this could be on a Sunday afternoon. For others, this might be Monday after work. Allowing one to two hours is a good idea to start with.

Step 3: Keep recipes realistic and achievable

Find recipes that take around 30-45 minutes each to make and which that will fit into your allocated meal prep time. The Heart Foundation has lots of healthy recipes for lunch, dinner and snacks that can get you started with meal prepping. Here are some that work well for freezer-friendly lunches or snacks.

  1. Moroccan roast pumpkin soup is excellent as we change seasons and the weather gets cooler. It’s easy to make in bulk; you can freeze it for a later date or take it with you for lunch with some grainy bread. 
  2. Baked chicken frittata with spinach is great for both kids and adult lunchboxes and is ready in under an hour.
  3. Serve this cauliflower tabbouleh with your choice of protein: chickpeas, chicken, fish or lean red meat. Or, if you have time, try making these homemade falafel.
  4. Chicken tray bake has both protein and vegetable portions sorted in one meal. Divide this recipe to eat with crunchy salad, fresh coleslaw or rice on the side.
  5. Fruit, vegetable sticks and raw nuts are a great start for prepping snacks. You can also try these chilli soy roasted nuts for a flavour twist.

Step 4: The best foods for meal prepping

Certain foods work better for meal prep, and some freeze better than others. Here are some tips to help you prepare food that’s safe and still tasty to eat a few days later.

  • Raw meat, seafood and rice are all higher-risk foods due to the harmful bacteria they can carry. Extra care is needed when preparing, cooking and storing these foods.
  • Prep and store any type of curry on its own, then cook some rice fresh each time you choose to eat it.
  • Make your pasta sauces separately and store the sauce in the fridge or freezer. You can cook and chill pasta in the fridge, but we do not recommend freezing pasta once it has been cooked.

Step 5: Food safety

In addition to the tips above, make sure you reheat your meals until they are steaming hot. This is to help make sure the food is above 75 degrees Celsius to kill any harmful bacteria. It’s also important not to reheat your food more than once.

Step 6: Clean, clean, clean

Keep everything clean, from the kitchen to your equipment to your hands. Food safety begins in the kitchen. Ensure your cooking equipment is clean and dry. Clean your hands before food prep, after using the bathroom, before and after handling meat and after using the rubbish bin.

Ensure your storage containers are clean and completely dry before transferring any food into them. Clean your cooking area, both equipment and surfaces, thoroughly once you have finished cooking.

Woman washing chopping board

Get started

Unsure where to begin? Pick one of the recipe suggestions above, such as the Moroccan roast pumpkin soup, and book in one hour of your time to prepare this recipe. The great thing about soup is that it freezes well. Being a couple of meals ahead is a great way to have meals to fall back on and to gradually bring the habit of meal prep into your weekly routine.

7-day meal plan

Browse healthy recipes

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

As a Registered Dietitian, I know that food gives us so much more than just nutrients. I am driven to simplify nutrition messages, educate on all aspects of food and support Kiwis to develop a love of food that helps them stay healthy throughout their life.