Invest a bit of energy into meal prep and you’ll get perfectly portioned meals, trim your food costs (no more impulse takeout!), and reduce time spent cooking during the week. But all these benefits are only possible if you do the prep work—chopping, cooking, portioning, and, of course, going grocery shopping for ingredients. A well-stocked kitchen is an essential early step in the meal-prep process.
That doesn't mean that you should prep and eat the same dishes week after week. “It’s great to have recipes that you don’t even have to think about, that you know the whole family likes, and that you can easily prep in advance, but it becomes easy to fall into a rut when these are all you make,” says Autumn Ehsaei, RDN. She recommends trying a new recipe each week—this diversifies your meal lineup, as well as your nutritional intake.
Regardless of what recipes are on your meal plan for the week, some foods are no-brainers for meal-preppers to keep on hand. Here are the ones that nutritionists and dietitians recommend you keep in your cabinets, fridge, and freezer at all times.
Opt for fresh, seasonal veggies whenever possible—they’re more delicious, and cooking what’s seasonal will help you avoid the broccoli, again?! rut. So many vegetables are easy to roast (like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, carrots, zucchini) with just a little bit of olive oil, says Amy Shapiro, RD. And the end result after 20 to 30 minutes in the oven is high in fiber, low in calories, and jam-packed with vitamins and minerals. Roasted veggies can be used as the base of a salad or dipped in hummus for a healthy, filling snack, says Nikki Sharp, health coach and author of Meal Prep Your Way to Weight Loss.
To prevent waste and save money, aim for a meal plan that uses the entire vegetable, says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist, and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. “For instance, if you’re serving carrots, use carrot tops to make a pesto. If you’re serving lemon, grate the peel for extra flavor,” she says.
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No time to wash, peel, and chop veggies? Keep your freezer stocked with frozen vegetables. “They can bulk up any meal easily with extra fiber and nutrients, and they can be thawed and added into dishes, cooked quickly in the microwave, or even steamed and then roasted in the oven for a charred finish in 10 minutes flat,” says Ehsaei.
Yes, more vegetables! Use greens to make a large, undressed salad that you can eat for lunch or with dinner throughout the week, recommends Lisa Samuels, RD, founder of The Happie House. Get a pre-washed box to cut down on prep, suggests Sydney Greene, RD, at Middleberg Nutrition—that makes it even easier to get something green on your plate with every meal. “Add a handful to your morning smoothie or scramble or throw some in your Tupperware with last night’s leftovers for lunch,” she says.
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Meat and seafood
Your diet and preferences will dictate which proteins you meal prep. Ehsaei recommends taking advantage of your freezer if you do eat meat and buying it in bulk to save. “Plus, it’s so easy to pop something out of the freezer, throw it in a slow cooker, and have your protein ready to go by the time you are home from work,” says Ehsaei. You can keep fish and shrimp frozen, too. Buy a whole rotisserie chicken at the grocery and you'll find countless ways to use it throughout the week (in pasta, topping pizza, as part of a hearty salad, etc.).
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Canned or dry beans
“If you’re looking for a super-easy way to create heartiness and healthfulness without meat, beans can do the trick,” says Newgent. They’re also budget-friendly and full of protein and fiber. You can use beans in hot and cold dishes, and in all sorts of cuisines, points out Ehsaei. And there are many, many varieties available both canned and dried. Sharp suggests roasting a big batch of chickpeas with paprika in the oven for snacks or in salads throughout the week.
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Greene calls eggs a “small but mighty protein source.” If you have eggs on hand, you can hard boil a batch at the start of the week and eat them as a snack, in salads, sliced into soups, alongside hummus–and countless other ways. Make egg muffins for an on-the-go breakfast option throughout the week, suggests Ehsaei.
Of course, eggs don’t have to be confined to morning meals. “Whenever your meal needs a bit more high-quality protein, plopping a fried, poached, or sliced boiled egg on top is always a good idea—and it can be done as a last-minute add-on, if needed,” says Newgent.
Samuels suggests choosing a grain each week, making a large batch, and storing it in the fridge. Keep quinoa, brown rice, oats, farro, and bulgar on your pantry shelves. These grains are easy to make, lend themselves to batch cooking in advance, and best of all, last for a while in your pantry, says Ehsaei.
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With canned tomatoes, you can whip up a big batch of homemade pasta sauce and freeze it for meals in upcoming weeks (making your own is easy and infinitely healthier than jarred options). You can also use canned tomatoes in chilis, soups, and braised dishes, says Ehsaei.
All of these types of dishes are ideal to make ahead (soups and chilis will taste better the next day) and can be frozen in individual portions for meals in the weeks to come, too. “Plus, [canned tomatoes] help you enjoy the tastes of summer all year long and pack a punch of lycopene and vitamin C,” says Ehsaei. (Try our 29 favorite healthy tomato recipes.)
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Cooking oils are essential for any meal prepper’s pantry. “Make sure to have extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil (great for roasting sweet potatoes and carrots) on hand at all times,” says Shapiro.
Condiments, sauces, spices, and herbs can punch up flavor and add variety to the same old chicken breast or roasted veggies. Greene suggests rotating between different spices—try Mexican flavors with one meal, Asian with the next, and Indian or Italian the following week. “Keep things like mustards, hot sauce, soy sauce, vinegars, lemon, and lime on hand to brighten up dishes, make dressings or sauces from scratch, and give life to your reheated, meal-prepped leftovers,” says Ehsaei.
You might even consider growing your own fresh herbs on the windowsill, suggests Newgent. “[They’ll] add fresh herbal appeal and aroma to meals at serving time.”