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Before you begin cooking, you need to figure out what you’re going to make. (Bernadett Pogacsas-Simon/Dreamstime/TNS)

If finding the time to pack lunch every morning or cook dinner every night is impossible, or you're relying on takeout more than you want to, you're probably ready to jump on the meal-prep train. As you should! Except, um, how do you get started? If you've never done it before, meal-prepping can feel overwhelming. But it's not, really. Here's everything you need to know to succeed.

What is meal prep, and why should I try it?

Meal prep is exactly what it sounds like: prepping your meals (or meal components) ahead of time so your food is ready to eat whenever you are. The easiest way to do it? Pick a day when you're free — usually a Saturday or Sunday — to prep enough food to get you through the upcoming week.

People love meal-prepping because it makes life easy. Trying to figure out what to make for dinner every night can be stressful, and finding the time to make it can be even more so. Meal-prepping means you get all the work out of the way ahead of time. Instead of taking time to think about food and cooking during the week, everything's already there.

Planning your meals ahead of time can make it easier to eat healthier too. "We tend to make better choices for our future selves than we do for our current selves," says Georgie Fear, RD, CSSD, author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. It's easy to succumb to takeout or frozen pizza when you're exhausted after a long day. But you'll probably be motivated to make better choices — say, salmon and quinoa or chicken and pepper fajitas — when you map out your menu in advance.

HOW TO MEAL-PREP

Prepping several days' worth of food all at once might seem like an overwhelming task. But it's actually pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Here's a step-by-step guide to getting started.

1. Gear up.

Despite what some meal-prep guides might say, you don't need to shell out for tons of new products before beginning. That said, having the right tools can be pretty helpful. Consider stocking up on these items, if you don't already have them on hand.

One or two large sheet pans. Use them to roast veggies, proteins, or full sheet-pan meals.

A big stockpot. It's key for one-pot meals like soups, stews, curry, or chili.

A medium sauce pot. Use it for cooking whole grains or making hard-boiled eggs.

Glass storage containers with sturdy lids. They're your best options for storing prepped food. (And, unlike plastic, they won't leach chemicals into your food.) Aim to have a variety of sizes for storing big and small batches of prepped items.

Zip-top bags. Small ones are great for portioning out snacks like nuts or sliced veggies. Bigger ones are good for storing whole meals or individual components if you run out of storage containers (or run out of room for more containers in your fridge).

2. Plan your menu.

Before you begin cooking, you need to figure out what you're going to make. Aim to have a protein, a vegetable, and a starch for each meal — the combo will help you stay satisfied, says nutrition expert Kelly Jones, MS, RD. As for what to cook, exactly? The sky's the limit, but in general, the most successful meal-prep meals fall into one of these categories:

One-pot or one-pan meals: Think soups, curry, chili, oatmeal or anything else that you can cook in a single pot or Crock-Pot. "They're always a great option because you don't need to add anything to the meal other than condiments," Jones says. Sheet-pan meals and frittatas (bake them in a big pan and cut into slices, or make individual servings in muffin tins) work here too. If you want simplicity to the max, this is the route to go, Fear says.

Component-based meals: Want a little more variety? Try prepping proteins, vegetables and starches individually for mixing and matching. For instance, pre-chopped veggies can top a pizza on Monday, be mixed into pasta sauce on Tuesday, and folded into tacos on Wednesday, Fear says. And since a plain bowl of quinoa, veggies and chicken or tempeh can get kind of boring, plan to make a few sauces, dressings, or toppings to keep things interesting from a flavor perspective, Jones says.

Do you have to map out every single thing you're going to eat for the entire week? Nope. "Having a plan for most meals may be helpful for some people, but it's important, especially when starting to meal-prep, that you start small," Jones says.

So if tackling five or even seven days seems like way too much, start by prepping just two dinners. Double the ingredients so you can eat each dinner twice, and bam! You've got four nights covered.

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3. Shop and cook.

With your menu planned, it's time to make a grocery list and go shopping. Think through all the items you'll be cooking and write down all the ingredients you'll need. This is key! Having an actual list (versus trying to keep track of everything in your head) ups the odds that you'll actually come home with everything you need — and won't waste time running back to the store later on.

When it's time to cook, think about ways to maximize your efficiency as much as possible. "Meal-prepping shouldn't take more than one to two hours if you multitask the right way," Jones says. (These recipes only take 15 minutes from start to finish!) If you're firing up the oven, roast vegetables and bake chicken or tofu at the same time. Then start a pot of quinoa or soup on the stovetop. While that simmers, pre-chop fruits or veggies or whip up a batch of hummus for snacking, she suggests.

4. Pack it up.

Got your food all prepped? Congrats! Now it's time to store everything so you'll have easy access to your meals and ingredients throughout the week. Three important tips to keep in mind:

Utilize the right containers. Portion out single servings into small individual containers, which are easy to grab and go, Jones says. Dinners you'll serve in one big batch can go in bigger containers.

Keep salads and dressings separate. Storing already-dressed salad is a recipe for a soggy, wilted mess, Fear says. Keep everything fresh by packing chopped salad veggies in one container and dressing in another.

Cool before refrigerating. It's fine to transfer hot food straight to your glass storage vessels. But let the food come to room temperature before moving it to the fridge — especially when it comes to big batches. Popping a family-size serving of, say, piping hot chili into the fridge will warm up everything that's already in there, Fear says. That could potentially set the stage for spoilage and food poisoning.

5. Eat strategically.

You've got all this delicious food at the ready — so what should you eat first? "Most things can be prepared in advance and stay safe to eat for five days," Fear says. Still, animal-based proteins often tend to lose their luster the quickest. So consider eating your meatier meals earlier in the week and saving plant-based proteins for later on, Jones recommends.

Of course, it's always a good idea to use your judgment. If something looks or smells suspect, don't eat it — even if it's only been sitting in the fridge for a day or two. Use this guide to determine how long food really lasts.

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