Posted on March 09 2022
If you work in an office or frequent any of the foodie-populated corners of the internet, you've probably heard of meal prepping. Technically speaking, meal prep can range from dividing a store-bought pizza into separate containers to freezing a year's worth of breakfast burritos. However, the most typical meal prep method consists of cooking a week's worth of food all at once and portioning out meals for each day into individual containers. But why do people meal prep, and what are the common pitfalls?
Meal prepping carries many benefits including time savings, healthier meals, and cheaper food. There's a definite economy of scale effect inherent to meal prepping. It takes just as long to boil ten servings of pasta as it does a single serving, so cooking a whole week of food can come with massive time savings. The same goes for cleanup; washing a pot takes the same amount of time whether you simmered a cup of soup or an entire gallon, so why waste your time and your dish soap more than you need to? Meal prep can also be a gateway to healthier eating habits, since by definition your food is parceled out into single servings. As long as you're conscious of how much food you've packaged, meal prep makes tracking calories a breeze. And of course cooking your own food is always healthier and cheaper than ordering out for similar meals during your lunch break every day.
It's key to keep food fresh and free of contaminants when meal prepping. While you can use tightly sealed containers you can also be more effective by vacuum sealing your food. This will keep your food longer and free from freezer burn. There are also many sous vide recipes that are perfect for meal prep since your foods are already vacuum sealed and ready for the water bath.
But meal prep is not always sunshine and rainbows; various negatives can also accompany the meal prep lifestyle. If you unwittingly use a total dud of a recipe, like the ubiquitous "Chinese takeout at home" you can be forced into a choice between repeating your efforts on a second recipe, shelling out for a whole week of takeout, or committing to sucking it up and eating your mistake. Certain foods, especially cooked vegetables with high water content (think zucchini), don't keep very well and would likely be unappetizing by Wednesday after a Sunday meal prep session if not sealed properly. Some dishes require day-of assembly work and necessitate a lot of containers or bags, especially if several ingredients need to be reheated and others don't. You can still gain many meal prep benefits by pre-cooking the meat and parceling out toppings, but don't expect to have burgers or tacos for a meal prepped lunch without at least three or four containers per meal.
While some dishes like soups, wraps, and rice bowls are clear meal prep candidates, not all foods are obvious choices for meal prep. However, in most cases clever packaging can make all the difference. A salad packaged on Sunday can be inedible on Friday, with mushy croutons and slimy greens. Luckily, through the magic of layered salads, often packaged in mason jars, your Friday lunch can be almost as fresh as the day it was chopped. For meals containing several unmixed items there are containers with various independent sections for all your portioning needs or you can easily vacuum seal your ingredients.
If you're not sure if meal prep is right for you, the good news is that it's a cheap and easy lifestyle to try out and doesn't require long-term commitment. Buy yourself some reusable containers and vacuum seal bags, look up a few recipes, and see what you've been missing!