How to meal prep: A guide for busy families

Is dinnertime often a hectic rush in your household? We all want to feed our families nutritious (and delicious) meals during the week, but with chores, homework, and after-school activities to contend with, it often feels like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. If you’re rushed off your feet and wish that there was a way to have a healthy dinner ready each night without the hassle of cooking, then meal prepping could be the solution for you.

Meal prepping means cooking all (or most) or your food for the week in a single session, so you’ll always have a healthy and satisfying dinner waiting for you when you get home. This way, your family can sit down to a healthy, homemade meal in a fraction of the time it takes to cook from scratch, and you’ll have less dishes to worry about, too. More importantly, prepping your meals for the week ahead frees up valuable time to sit and eat together as a family.

The key to successful weekly meal prep is good planning, careful preparation, and making sure you have all the right equipment to cook, store and serve your meals. In this guide, you’ll find lots of meal prep tips to help you get started, including:

What is meal prep?

At the most basic level, meal prep is the process of cooking some (or all) of your food for the coming week in advance. Essentially, it should cut down the time you spend in the kitchen on busy weekdays, and help you to make sure that your family is eating healthy, home cooked meals instead of junk food or takeaways.

There are lots of different ways to do this, depending on how much preparation you’re willing to do. Some people cook every meal for the coming week in one session, while others will only do a few basic tasks to help save time later — like chopping veg or making packed lunches. Some people choose to prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner in advance, while others may just focus on getting their evening meals sorted.

Whatever you decide to do, you’ll need to make sure you’re well organised and have everything you need before you start.

Equipment you’ll need to get started

Good preparation is the key to successful meal prep, so you’ll need to make sure you’ve got all the equipment and tools you need to cook, store and serve your meals. Here, we’ve listed everything you need to meal prep for the week ahead.

Food containers

By far the most important equipment you’ll need is a selection of quality airtight food containers that will keep your food fresh until it’s time to eat. You’re going to be reusing your containers every week, so it’s essential that you have some durable, high-quality containers and dishes that will stand up to the rigours of frequent reheating and washing.

Both glass and plastic styles work well for meal prep, and you may even want to stock up a few of each kind, as both have their own advantages. Plastic containers are great if you’ll be meal prepping packed lunches, as they’re lightweight and easy to carry with you — just make sure you invest in some that are microwave- and dishwasher-safe. Heatproof glass containers can go straight into the oven as they are, so they’re very useful for storing prepped dishes that you want to cook or reheat this way.

Make sure you have an assortment of different shapes and sizes to suit different types of food, too. If you plan to prep entire meals with a main, side, and veggies, then containers with compartments for different food items are a must, as they’ll keep for longer this way.

Large pots and pans

With a meal prepping plan, you’ll often need to double — or even treble — the quantity of a recipe, so you can freeze some of it for later use. So, you may need to invest in some bigger pots and pans, as well as some extra baking trays. A very large pot will be useful for cooking pasta or rice in bulk, while large casserole dishes and are great when roasting big batches of chicken or fish. Oven-to-table cookware is especially useful, as you can use it to cook, serve, and store food, without transferring it to different dishes or containers.

A large oven or range

Cooking a week’s worth of food for the whole family in one session is a labour-intensive process, so be sure that your oven is up to the job. Preferably, you should go for a cooker with a double oven, so you can bake or roast twice as much food at the same time.

If you often struggle for space, it might be better to go for a spacious range cooker with a tall oven, a conventional oven, and a separate grill, as this will allow you to cook more food in a single session. A built-in hob with six or seven burners will also be a big help when you’ve got lots of different pots and pans on the go, too.

A quality fridge and freezer

Nearly all of your prepped food will need to be stored in the fridge or freezer. So, you’ll want to make sure your appliances are properly equipped to store your meal prep for the week ahead. All of our fridges have an A+ energy efficiency rating, meaning they’re cheaper to run, and they also include lots of handy storage solutions to help you keep your food fresh and well-organised.

If you plan to freeze a lot of your meals, then be sure to look for a freezer with a fast-freeze function. This will allow you to freeze fresh foods much more quickly, which helps to minimise ice crystal formation, prevent freezer burn, and maintain the quality of your food. And pay close attention to the freezer rating on the compartments. Our freezers all have the maximum four-star rating, so you’ll be able to store prepped meals for over three months.

Meal prepping in 5 easy steps

Creating a meal prep plan can seem like a huge task, but if you break down into simple steps, it’s actually quite straightforward. Here, we’ll run through the 5 steps you need to take to create a meal prep plan that will keep the whole family happy.

Step 1: Pick your cooking day

First things first: you’ll need to decide when you’re going to set aside the time to prep your meals for the week ahead. Of course, cooking five or more family dinners — and maybe lunches and breakfasts, if that’s part of your plan — is a big task, and it’s likely to take up a full afternoon. So, you should pick a time when you know you’ll able to devote your full attention to cooking. Most people opt for Sundays, as this is the most practical time to prepare food for Monday through to Friday.

Step 2: Create a meal plan

Next, you’ll need to create a meal plan, including what you’ll eat and when. Do want to prep dinner for every night of the week, or would you like to cook when you’re not so busy? Do you want to eat a different meal each evening, or are you happy to eat the same thing a couple of times?

Creating a watertight plan is particularly essential in a multi-meal household — that is, if your family follows different specialist diets under the same roof. By planning in advance, you can go for recipes which can easily be adapted to suit different lifestyles, to make the prepping and cooking process easier and quicker: for example, making three different lasagnes at the same time. This way, everyone’s also eating the same dish for dinner — even if it’s actually a veggie lasagne, a beef lasagne, and a gluten-free lasagne! Keep a dry-erase whiteboard (or a blackboard, if you’d prefer) and write up your meal plan before you buy your food for the week. If you’ve got any plans to dine out, then note them on your planner, so you’ll only ever make as much food as you need.

Step 3: Decide on a meal prep method

There are lots of different ways to prep your meals, depending on how much work you want to do on your cooking day, and how much time you want to save during the week. Those with very little time to spare may want to prep and cook complete meals on their dedicated day, and then reheat them later. Or, you could opt to just prep certain ingredients in advance (e.g. chopping up all your veggies for a stew or shepherd’s pie). You could also cook food in large batches, and then split it into portions and freeze them for later.

Step 4: Think about how to store your meal prep

Once, you’ve prepped your meals for the week, you’ll need to store them properly to keep them fresh. Most food will keep for 3–4 days when stored in an airtight container or storage bag in the fridge.

Remember to maintain good fridge hygiene and be careful to keep your prepped meals on a different shelf to any uncooked food, like raw meat and fish. In a multi-meal household, remember to store dishes for specialist dishes away from their regular counterparts, to prevent cross-contamination. This is especially important if anyone in your family suffers from an allergy or intolerance.

If you’ll be cooking meals for more than four days in advance, then you should freeze these, rather than storing them in the fridge. When freezing your prepped meals, you should be sure to store them in an airtight container or freezer bag. It’s important to make sure there’s not too much air inside the bag or box, as this will cause your food to dry out (sometimes called ‘freezer burn’), so try to use the smallest container or bag for the amount you need to freeze. Remember that liquid expands when frozen, so you’ll need to leave at least a little bit of room when freezing soups or sauces.

As you’re likely to have several days’ worth of meals stored in your fridge and freezer, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got a way to keep track of everything, so you know what to eat, and when. Transparent containers and bags will help you find what you need more quickly, and colour-coded boxes can help you to stay on top of everything. It may also help to label your containers with the date of freezing, and the date on which you plan to eat them.

Step 5: Reheating and serving your food

Lastly, you’ll need to know how to reheat your food throughout the week. Food should be warmed up in the microwave, in the oven, or on the hob until piping hot all the way through. To be on the safe side, it’s best to check your food with a kitchen thermometer: once the centre of your food reaches at least 70°C for two minutes (or an immediate reading of 75°C), it’s ready to be served.

If you’ll be freezing some of your food, then you’ll need to make sure that’s it’s fully defrosted before you cook or reheat it. You can do this by transferring your meal from the freezer to the fridge the day before you plan to eat it. Many of our Belling cookers, including the Farmhouse 60DF and Enfield models, have a built-in defrost function which circulates room temperate air around the oven cavity, defrosting your food hygienically in half the time. So, there’s no need to worry if you forget to take your dinner out of the freezer a day ahead of time!

Some foods — like raw chicken and fish — can be cooked from frozen, but remember to allow extra cooking time, and check that they’re cooked all the way through by testing them with a kitchen thermometer.

Remember, once your food has defrosted, you won’t be able to freeze it again, so you should only take it out of the freezer if you’re certain that you’re going to cook it. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive guide to food hygiene, so if you’re ever in doubt about any aspect of chilling, cooking, storing, reheating, or serving your food, take a look at the Food Standards Agency’s comprehensive guide to kitchen hygiene and safety.

Before you start: General meal prep tips

Fast, efficient, and tasty meal prep will come with practice and experience, but you to give you a head start, we’ve shared a few top tips that will make cooking in bulk a breeze.

Test recipes first

To start with, you’ll want to stick to tried-and-trusted recipes you’re already familiar with. You don’t want to create five batches of a new recipe you’ve never tried before right off the bat, only to find that you’re not keen on the taste, or that the finished dish doesn’t reheat as well as you’d hoped. So, stick to recipes you know and love, and expand your repertoire once you get into the swing of things.

If you’re really struggling, start by batch cooking a few large batches of pasta, rice, chicken breasts, and some roasted vegetables. You can use different combinations of these ingredients to create different dishes over the course of a week, like rice bowls, pasta bakes, stir fries, or pies. Once you’ve sussed out which dishes are a hit with the family, you can begin creating different weekly meal plans, adding new recipes as you go to keep things fresh.

Adapt recipes to batch cooking

Some recipes will lend themselves very well to batch cooking and being prepped ahead of time, while others may need tweaking to get the tastiest results. You’ll learn more about tweaking your recipes as you become more experienced, so take notes as you go, and change the recipe amounts or cooking times as needed. For example, when making pasta for meal prep recipes, it’s best to undercook it by a minute or two, as this will stop it from going mushy when reheated.

If at first you don’t succeed...

Don’t give up! If a dish turns out less tasty than planned, or you end up reaching for the takeaway menu after a tough day even though you know you’ve got a healthy dinner in the fridge, it doesn’t mean your plan has failed.

Instead, try to learn from your mistake: what do you need to do differently? Did you fall off the wagon because you need more variety in your plan? Or do the kids need larger portions of their lunch to make it through to dinner without resorting to snacking? Identify the problem and get straight back on with your plan.

Meal prep recipe ideas

Need some more inspiration for your weekly meal prep plan? We’ve rounded up some our favourite recipes, all of which can be prepped and then either stored in the fridge or frozen for later. Remember, if your family caters to different specialist diets, then many of these recipes can easily be adapted — take a look at our multi-meal guide to learn more.

Slumdog soup: This hearty, gently spiced soup is perfect for chilly day. Try cooking one large batch and freezing it in portions for later.

Quick tomato soup: This super-easy family favourite makes a great hot lunch or light supper — try serving it with some bacon, cheddar, and onion flatbread to make it a little more filling. Both can be frozen and defrosted in the microwave or toaster.

Pesto chicken or fish dippers: These dippers are sure to be a hit with even the fussiest kids. Prep them in bulk, and then freeze them while still raw. Just remember to add 15 minutes to the cooking time when baking straight from the freezer.

Bolognese: A classic Bolognese is a very versatile meal prep option: you can add spaghetti for a quick dinner, combine it with some pre-cooked penne and grated cheese to make a pasta bake, or even whip up a lasagne if you’ve got a bit more time to spare. Make one large batch (doubling or trebling the recipe as needed) and freeze it in portions.

Cajun chicken and three bean cassoulet: This healthy dish is perfect midweek fare, and will keep in the fridge for 3 days. If your kids struggle with spicy foods, then adjust the amount of seasoning to make it a little milder.

Sweet potato cottage pie: This hearty recipe serves 8 people, so you can easily split it into 2 dinners for a hungry family of four. Store one in the fridge and freeze the other pie for later in the week. Remember to defrost overnight in the fridge before cooking.

Cheese and salmon lunchbox scones: These scones last for three days when sealed in an airtight container, and you can even freeze them, too. They’re perfect if you need a quick, filling breakfast, and make a great addition to lunch boxes.

Butternut squash hummus: Hummus and chopped veggies make a great healthy snack for kids' lunch boxes, and you can prep both ahead of time on your cooking day. Easy breakfast cookies with banana: Who would have thought that eating cookies for breakfast could be healthy? These grab-and-go cookies are perfect if you’re always in a hurry in the morning, and they should keep for a few days in an airtight tin.

While meal prepping might seem complicated at first, once you get into a regular routine, you’ll find that it’s a straightforward way to make sure you always get a healthy homemade meal on the table. As long as you plan your meals carefully, allow yourself plenty of time to prep everything for coming week, and don’t mind spending a few hours in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon, then you should find that you save loads of time during the week.