You've probably seen any number of cooking and food blogs talk about meal prep and making large batches of meals, so they can freeze or fridge them and eat them throughout the week. You can probably picture it in your head; the image of seven or ten identical Tupperware containers, all with the same food in them, ready to be packed away and pulled out one at a time.
There's just one problem with this. It's boring! Who wants to eat the same dang meal every night for a week? Variety is the spice of life! Changing up meals every night or every couple of nights is, we believe, one of the most important parts of keeping life interesting. When you're eating the same meal over and over every night, you're just begging to fall into a rut and lose your motivation.
At the same time, meal prep is a great idea. Cooking large batches to get the most out of ingredients that can spoil, to buy in bulk and save money, to save time in a busy schedule when you don't have time to cook every night and don't want to spend the cash to eat out – especially when restaurants are closed like they are now – it's all a great idea.
So how can you reconcile those two pressures? How can you meal prep to make the best use of your time and money, but still maintain variety in your evening meals, breakfasts, or whatever other prep you want to do?
It's possible, and we have some guidance for you.
Use a Mix and Match Method
The first tip we can give you is to change the way you prep your meals. Divide a meal up into 2-4 categories and make one item for each category, for the week. Then, when it comes time to eat, pick one item from each category, mixing and matching to make a meal.
Here's how it might look in practice.
First, divide up your categories. We like something like a protein, a side, a base, and a treat. You can limit it to just a protein and a vegetable, or a protein and a side, or a protein and a base and a side, however you feel like mixing it up.
Next, make 2-4 different kinds of each category. You can do this in two ways: you can either make a week's worth of each and have 2-4 weeks worth of food prepped for you, or you can make smaller batches of 2-4 days each, to have 1-2 weeks worth of food.
So, for example, if we have a full four categories, we might do this:
Protein: Buy a few chicken breasts, a couple of salmon filets, and some lean ground beef.
Roast the chicken to create 3-4 meals worth of chicken, cook the salmon to make two days of salmon, and cook the beef into burgers or whatever you prefer. You can also use the beef to make something like a red sauce for pasta, if you prefer.
Base: A base is something like a noodle dish, or rice.
Something that's filling, if a little unhealthy, and serves as a base for the protein. A sesame teriyaki noodle can be delicious and goes with a lot of different kinds of protein. Rice, like plain white rice, is easy to make. You can also mix up a sauce for the rice (Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, a bit of butter, and some garlic, onion, salt, and pepper makes for a delicious rice).
Side: Typically, your side will be some vegetables.
You can use your typical meal prep for vegetables easily enough. Put together a large salad to divide, roast some vegetables for a couple of days of cooked veg, put together a chopped and roasted potato fries batch, whatever you like.
Treat: A small treat helps make meal prep interesting.
Instead of making larger batches, consider making several smaller treats so you have a unique treat each day. We like things like a simply fruit and yogurt parfait, a cookie, or some fresh-baked rolls. This is the most flexible (and least healthy) slot, so play with it.
Once you've prepped all of this, you'll end up with anywhere from one to three weeks worth of meals. Store them as necessary (some will need to be frozen, others can be fridged, depending on the meal and how long it lasts). Pull out one item from each category each night, mixing and matching what you make.
The downside to this method is that it's a lot of work compared to traditional meal prep. With traditional meal prep, you're making one meal, just making a very large batch of it. With the mix and match method, you're making a bunch of different smaller meals. It doesn't necessarily save you on labor, time, or dishes.
Another variation to the mix and match method, which is somewhere between this method and traditional meal prep, is outlined here.
Double the Traditional Meal Prep
A traditional meal prep plan involves making seven batches of a single meal, from protein to base to side, and eating that same meal every day. Now, hear us out: instead of making seven batches, make fourteen.
"But then I'm just eating the same thing for twice as long! This doesn't help at all!"
Now, hold on. There's more to it. Making your extra-large double batch of meals, and freeze and store them away as you normally would. Then do it again.
You can eat this meal for a week and then prep a new double batch the next week. This way for week two, you have two options of meals; the meals from the first week and the new meals from the second week. Some variety, at last!
Now, the second week, you'll be eating some of the second week's food and some of the first, so by the third week, you're down to only a couple days worth of the first meal. When you make a third meal, you'll probably want to focus on eating the third and second meals, to keep the first meal around as an option for later. Though, the longer you go, the more a frozen meal might not taste great, so there's a limit to some kinds of meal storage here.
An alternative to this involves having plenty of time, and the budget to be up front with your meal prep. Buy a ton of ingredients all at once, and prep 1-3 weeks worth of meals each night for a week. Eat that meal for the night, and set the rest aside in meal-sized containers. By the end of the week, you'll have about two weeks each of seven different meals. That's a lot of variety to last you for a couple of months!
From there, any time you feel like cooking another big batch of meals, you can supplement the meal prep supply you have on hand. You just need to make sure you have plenty of containers and space in your freezer for it all.
Plan Short Term
An alternative means of meal prep isn't really the same kind of meal prep, because it only lasts for 2-4 days at a time, but it works well for a lot of people who like to cook but don't have the time to cook every day. It gives you more variety while still giving you the benefit of meal prep, to a certain extent.
The plan here is to simply make large meals and eat leftovers for a few days. Make a batch of spaghetti and eat it for three or four days. If you mix the pasta and sauce together on the first night, the flavors really mingle! Any meal can be made in a larger batch so you can save some for two or three days of meals.
Usually, a second or third day of a meal isn't enough to reach saturation and boredom, and it's not enough to need to freeze it when putting it in a container in the fridge will do. You can make pretty much anything in a large enough batch to do this, though a few kinds of foods will fail to hold up well and benefit from being made individually each day. For example, roasting some vegetables is quick and easy if you prep everything so they're just ready to be tossed in the oven when you're ready to eat, but the more complicated protein cooking can be done in advance.
The Sous Vide Option
A sous vide, or a water bath cooker, is a great way to get some meal prep out of the way and save a lot of time on cooking. Prep your meals ready to be cooked ahead of time, in large batches. For example, adding spices to chicken breasts and trimming off the fat. We like to vacuum seal the individual chicken breasts, but you can also use zipper lock plastic bags, so long as you get most of the air out of them. The key to sous vide cooking is immersion, after all.
On the day you want to eat one of your prepared meals, simply pull it from the freezer and put it in the sous vide. You'll want to cook it for several hours, but "cooking" in this case is just setting the machine and leaving it to do its thing. You can even throw it in before you go to work, and come home to a cooked meal ready to be removed from the bath. Most foods can go 6-10 hours in a sous vide with no ill effects.
The only part where this gets complicated is if you're trying to cook both a protein and a vegetable at the same time. Typically, you'll want to do a more traditional prep-then-reheat for vegetables, because the temperature differences in sous viding vegetables is high enough that it's harder to schedule properly.
Properly Storing Prepped Meals
If you're going for a bulk prep option like the mix and match, you'll end up storing meals quite a bit longer than you otherwise might. This means you run a greater risk of improper storage leading to degraded and less tasty meals. So how can you get around that?
First, you can go with an ingredients-only prep. Some people plan their meals in advance and then prep all the ingredients, like chopping vegetables, mincing garlic, mixing spices, and trimming meat, all ahead of time. Then everything is ready to be cooked on the day of. It saves on a lot of labor, but you do still need to cook.
One of the most important parts of successful meal prep, though, is the containers. Plain old Tupperware isn't always very good; it's not necessarily as air-tight as it seems, and it can hold colors and stain fairly easily. Glass containers with sealing lids are the best option. You can also consider a vacuum sealer for some kinds of meals. Sucking the air out of a container reduces or eliminates the risk of freezer burn.
You can keep meals frozen for 3-4 months in general, after which they may start to degrade enough that you don't want to eat them. They're still safe, but they'll have lost texture and flavor. Storing meals in the fridge is another story; they should be eaten within a couple of days.
Really, any meal prep plan can be extended to making more varieties of meals and saving them to pick from whenever you're in the mood. You're never limited in the variety of foods you prep, only in the time you have to prep them. If you spend a few days prepping a lot of different meals, you'll have weeks or months worth of food variety to choose as you go.