Lunch meal prep is preparing foods and ingredients intended for packing for lunches. Doing so makes it easier to select and prepare lunches to take to school or work on a daily basis. What do you need to know to get started?
The sun is warm, streaming through the windows on a Sunday. I’ve already grocery shopped for the week. Everything is tidily put away, awaiting the meals the ingredients will become. I could, at that point, just move onto something else: cleaning or reading; picking up the living room or rearranging my bedroom. But if I want my family to take lunch all week, there’s work to be done.
So I pull out the cutting board.
This is lunch meal prep. It’s how I get foods ready for the week’s packed lunches. The fewer barriers to packing lunches that we have, the better. It’s less stress in the mornings and more certain too. Regardless of how busy we are, I know my kids and I will have easy-to-grab lunches ready to go.
The time I take on Sunday results in so much good. When you bring your lunch from home, it means less money is being spent on convenience food and more attention is being paid to what you are eating. That’s a win-win for your wallet and your waistline.
How to Start with Lunch Meal Prep
Lunch meal prep can be as simple as ensuring you have a variety of grab-and-go foods ready to be grabbed or as complex as preparing full meals, packaged individually, ready to be packed. We mix these two in our house. I purchase individual snack packs of cheese, for instance, and have granola bars on hand. But we also have prepared dishes like Potato Leek Soup to be grabbed. And there’s always fruits and veggies prepped for packing too.
How you go about your lunch meal prep will vary based on what you or your family like to pack and how you like to pack it. And that’s really where you should start with lunch meal prep: choosing the foods you or your family like to eat for lunches. My list of meal prep lunch ideas can help.
Then decide how they are best packed.
- If you can heat up lunches at work: You can either prep foods to be mixed and matched into lunches later or pack ready-to-grab lunches in containers. I prefer the first method because I can switch up the ingredients in my lunch daily. I really like the variety.
- If you need to take hot food: Consider how you’d like to pack it. Some dishes I don’t mind mixing components altogether. Others, I like ingredients to be kept in a certain order. For ones I like mixed up, I store them in portioned containers and just reheat before transferring to a thermos.
- If it doesn’t need to be heated: Again, it depends. I like to make salads with greens — for instance — the day I will eat them. But pasta salads are easiest stored in portioned containers for grab and go eating.
In terms of what to pack the food in, I am a big fan of glass containers with lids for storing prepared dishes like boiled beets and raw ingredients like sliced carrots.
Foods for lunch meal prep
What foods are best for lunch meal prep? Well, the ones you like are always the best. Don’t prep anything you don’t like — even if it seems like something good to pack. If you don’t like it, why would you waste time and money on it?
The following are some things we often keep on hand for easy prepping for lunches.
Fruits: Berries, bananas, apples, pears, clementines, plums, peaches, grapes, etc. Choose one you know you’ll eat. Don’t buy too much. No cutting needed. Just have these on hand.
Veggies: Carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, peppers, etc. Cut them up for easy snacking. What I love about these is that they are easily eaten raw and store well. You can either store these together or in individual portions for easy grabbing. I sometimes like to have cooked veggies on hand too like boiled beets, sauteed onions or roasted Brussels sprouts.
Proteins: Chicken, hard-cooked eggs, chickpeas, beans like black beans or cannellini beans, peanut butter, lunch meat. Proteins like chicken or eggs should be cooked when you are prepping and then stored ready to eat.
Dips: Hummus, ranch dressing, whatever you like. Avoid the prepackaged ones and instead by a larger portion and divide it into containers for taking.
Carbs: Crackers, bread, rice, pasta.
What you should know about lunch meal prep
Lunch meal prep is an hour or two of prep time to ensure that you and yours eat well all week. It’s an investment in your health and life. And it’s one to make deliberately and with good consideration.
There are 5 things everyone should know about meal prep:
- Choose foods you’ll eat. This one is huge. If you aren’t a big fan of farro, having a conveniently prepared vat of it isn’t going to make you any more apt to eat it. Instead, prepare foods you’ll want to eat.
- The more you can do ahead of time, the better. Again, this is important. If you know your mornings are too hectic for much more than tossing something in your lunch bag as you dash out the door, no amount of conveniently prepared foods will help … unless you have them ready to go in portioned containers.
- It’s okay to freeze some. Sometimes I will make four portions of a dish, but only really want to eat two that week. That’s where freezing meals comes in handy. Pastas, grain bowls and many soups often freeze well in portions. I particularly like to use my Food Saver whenever I can for this. Then I just grab a bowl and a bag of food to heat up at work later.
- Variety is the spice of … lunchtime. Have you seen those cooking videos where folks prepare chicken breasts and four quadrants of veggies, which are all perfectly cooked at the end. And then they put a different on in each container? Do this! Cook a few different veggies with your meal. Package them in different bowls. Enjoy. How wonderful to be able to prep once and have a variety of meals to choose from!
- Don’t forget the snacks. No, seriously. Well-planned snacking can keep you satisfied and energized through the day.
How do I meal prep lunches for a week?
Have a plan. Before you go to the grocery store. Before you chop anything or divide anything into portions, have a plan. This will help you avoid buying too much. Making a shopping list with that plan in mind.
Then, once you have all your groceries, prepare them. Chop. Cook. Prepare. Get as much work out of the way as you can. Then store your foods as advised above — in individual portions or grouped by type of food. You are prepped!
Now, comes the hard part: Packing it up. Each morning, grab your lunch. Prepare last minute things like salads and sandwiches. Pack up dishes to heat up. Remember the snacks and the forks.
If you have children, also consider getting them in on the lunch-packing act. It can be very empowering for kids to help with packing lunches.
Then enjoy, and bask in the wonderfulness that is a homemade lunch.
Do you meal prep for your lunches? What’s your favorite thing to pack?
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. She is the author of several cookbooks including The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook and One-Pot Pasta, both from Rockridge Press. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.