Meal Planning Ideas
Why Should You Meal Prep?
Meal prepping may seem like a lot of work, but it’ll save you so much time later. Good candidates for meal prepping are foods that will keep for a while in your fridge and freezer, and that can be added to other recipes later. Shredded chicken, chopped vegetables, and chopped fruits are all simple meal prep ideas, but they can make any meal of the day much easier (and faster) to make when you already have them on hand. Just think of how far having a few cups of chopped onion ready in advance will go! You can also make meal planning menus at the beginning of the week, so you can plan to use leftover ingredients from one meal as part of the next one. Meal planning can not only save you time, but it can also help your budget (and the earth!) by cutting down on food waste.
Get the recipe: Thai Chicken
Breakfast Meal Prep
Meal planning for breakfast is one of the easiest ways to make busy mornings run a little more smoothly. Between overnight oats, freezer breakfasts, and overnight slow cooker recipes, a little bit of planning now can lead to quick and easy breakfasts tomorrow, for the rest of the week, or even in a month or two.
Get the recipe: Cherry Java Refrigerator Oatmeal
To prep for tomorrow, try overnight oats. Overnight oats are one of the quickest, easiest ways to enjoy oatmeal in the morning. Mix together oats, milk, Greek yogurt, and other mix-ins, then let them chill in the fridge overnight. Once breakfast time rolls around, add toppers and dig in. As an added bonus, some overnight oats recipes can stay in your fridge for a few extra days—some will keep for up to 3 days, so you can prep a big batch today and enjoy oats for half of the week.
To prep for the next few months, freeze! You’d be surprised at the variety of foods you can make now and put on ice to enjoy for breakfast later. Pancakes, oatmeal, smoothie bags, rolls, and even coffee cake can all be kept in your freezer for up to a couple months and reheated for breakfast later. Be sure to check the recipe notes for details about how long each food will keep.
Get the recipe: Apple Pie Coffee Cake
Lunch Meal Prep
Whether you’re having lunch at home or on the lookout for make-ahead brown bag lunches to take to work or school, it pays to include lunchtime in your meal planning menus. Some of our favorite make-ahead lunch ideas utilize extra ingredients from dinner the night before. If you’re looking for meal planning ideas for two or more, multitask with a double batch of dinner that can roll over as the next day’s mouthwatering midday meal.
Get the recipe: Orzo Chicken Salad with Avocado-Lime Dressing
To prep for the next day, plan to use leftovers from the night before in your lunchbox the following day. Many recipes calling for shredded chicken or pork can even be put together and refrigerated the night before, so all you have to do in the morning is grab your brown bag on your way out the door.
Get the recipe: Barbecue Beef Wrap
For healthy meal plan ideas that last throughout the week, layer ingredients in a way that won’t make them soggy later, or separate out different components of your lunch to assemble later (it’s usually a good idea to pack salad dressing in a separate container, for example). For some meal planning recipes, like our Homemade Cup of Noodles, you can use leftover ingredients and store them together for a few days to enjoy for lunch another day.
Get the recipe: Homemade Cup of Noodles
Dinner Meal Prep
Creating a menu of healthy meal plan ideas for dinner is easier than you might think! Of course, you can always make and freeze casseroles to bake later, but you’re not limited to just casseroles, even when you’re looking for meal planning ideas for families. We have plenty of big-batch recipes that can be prepped and made ahead of time to enjoy on a busy weeknight. You can also prepare some of our healthy meal plan ideas so you’ll have them on hand to reach for instead of your takeout menus on a hectic day.
Get the recipe: Green Chile Chicken Tortilla Casserole
To meal prep for the next day, look for recipes with long marinade times before cooking. Many dishes that call for a marinade have a range of time that the recipe can soak (for example, 2 to 24 hours), so you can prep the recipe on a Sunday to have ready for the grill or the oven on Monday. Like some lunch meal prep ideas, you can also use leftovers, like shredded chicken, from the night before to repurpose in the next night’s dinner.
Get the recipe: Coffee and Smoked Paprika-Rubbed Steak with Buttermilk Dressing
To meal prep for the next week (or even the next few months), look for freezer recipes. There are many casserole recipes that can be prepared ahead of time, then baked before serving. Soups and stews can also be good candidates for freezing for a few months—all you’ll have to do is grab them from the freezer, and let them simmer to warm, bubbly perfection before serving.
Get the recipe: Make-Ahead Two-Tomato and Chile Stew
Some meals can be completely prepared ahead of time, then reheated when you need them for a quick dinner in a pinch. You can also make entree salads ahead of time by washing and chopping all of the ingredients in advance, making the dressing, packaging separately, then combining them together when you’re ready to serve. Some make-ahead recipes, like casseroles, call for cooking and combining all of the casserole ingredients ahead of time, then simply pulling out of the freezer and baking when you need them for dinner. For more tips on what foods are the best candidates for freezing for later (and which ones may lose some of their taste and texture), check out our guide to make-ahead freezer foods.
Get the recipe: Make-Ahead Baked Ziti with Three Cheeses
More Meal Prep Tips
Just an extra hour or two spent chopping, slicing, and roasting at the beginning of the week can save you tons of time down the road. If you want to make meals quick and healthy, follow these easy meal prepping tips to have healthy ingredients on hand all week.
- Roast vegetables ahead of time and store them in your fridge. Some good candidates are beets, Yukon gold potatoes, red potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots. Add them to salads throughout the week, or use them as a fast and healthy side dish.
- Roast a whole chicken, or grill a pork tenderloin or flank steak. Shred or slice the meat, store in the fridge, and add to soups, salads, and sandwiches throughout the week.
- Chop or slice a few veggies ahead of time, like sweet peppers, mushrooms, and red onions. Use for making stir-fries, salads, and fajitas, or give them a quick saute and serve an egg on top for a speedy dinner.
- Make hard-cooked or soft-boiled eggs in advance for adding to salads and other recipes. Both can also be peeled ahead of time and stored in the fridge. Hard-cooked eggs will keep for up to 7 days, and soft-boiled eggs will keep for up to 3 days.
- Make a big batch vinaigrette for all your salads. Shake the ingredients together in a Mason jar and store in the fridge. If you're stuck, try this go-to recipe: Combine 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.
Take advantage of your freezer when you're meal prepping! Double or triple batches of sauces, grains, or even meatballs, then store the extras in the freezer for later. Just follow these tips for reheating and storage:
- Grains: It's super easy to make a big batch of rice, quinoa, or farro ahead of time! Store in the freezer for up to 6 months, and reheat in the microwave or a saucepan with a splash of water when you're ready to use them.
- Meatballs: Meatballs may not seem like freezer food, but making them ahead of time is a great way to get a jump on your next plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Once baked, store in freezer containers for up to 3 months. Reheat slowly in sauce, covered, over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes.
- Tomato Sauce: Just like meatballs, your extra tomato sauce will freeze beautifully. It can be reheated in a saucepan on the stove in just a few minutes, and stays fresh in the freezer for up to 3 months.
- Herb Sauce: Freeze homemade pesto or other herb sauces in plastic freezer bags or ice cube trays. If you use an ice cube tray, just transfer the cubes of frozen to sauce to a freezer bag once they're completely frozen. No matter what herbs you're using, the sauce will keep for up to 3 months.
- Guacamole: Made too much guacamole? No problem! Save it for your next party by storing in plastic freezer bags (just make sure to squeeze all of the extra air from the bag). Your guac will stay good for up to a month, so plan your next celebration soon!
No-Chop Prep Tips
Chopping and slicing can quickly become one of the most time-consuming parts of any meal. It certainly pays to do some of this prep work ahead of time, but you can also avoid it completely by stocking up on these foods that require no chopping. Some are completely no-chop, like pearl onions, and others you can find pre-chopped at the grocery store, like sweet peppers.
For Your Freezer:
- Mixed berries
- Dark sweet cherries
- Cooked, diced chicken breast meat
- Whole pearl onions
- Chopped onions
- Chopped peppers
- Broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower
- Pepper stir-fry
- Mixed vegetables of corn, peas, carrots, lima beans, and green beans
For Your Fridge:
- Rice vegetables like cauliflower, sweet potato, and broccoli
- Pre-chopped onions
- Pre-chopped peppers
- Pre-sliced zucchini/yellow squash
- Garlic paste
- Minced ginger
- Broccoli and cauliflower florets
- Diced butternut squash
- Grape tomatoes
- Sliced mushrooms
- Apple slices
- Matchstick carrots, baby carrots, pre-sliced carrots, carrot sticks
- Cubed or sliced melon
- Pre-washed spinach, kale, mustard greens, and traditional lettuces
- Pre-shredded cabbage
- Extra-lean ground beef, turkey, and chicken
- Extra-lean stew meat
- Chicken and turkey bulk sausage and sausage links
- Chicken tenderloins, breasts, and thighs
- Center-cut bacon
- Diced extra-lean ham
- Pork chops
- Assorted cheeses, sliced, grated, shredded, and crumbled (including fresh mozzarella pearls)
- Prepared guacomole
- Fresh salsa
For Your Pantry:
- Canned chopped green chiles
- No-salt-added canned vegetables, including pumpkin
- Bottled salsa
- Sliced ripe and/or green olives
- Canned artichoke hearts
- Bottled roasted red peppers
- Slivered and chopped nuts
- Bottled pasta sauce
- Whole grains
- Canned beans, peas, and lentils
- Petite potatoes, including fingerling and honey gold
- Cipollini onions
- Breads (wide variety), including pre-sliced