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Your guide to meal prepping, and the containers that make it easy

(CNN) —  

Americans are eating more meals at home and are facing new meal prep challenges. According to Supermarket News, 55% of shoppers polled in a study called “Covid-19: Reinventing How America Eats” said they’re eating at home more frequently because of the pandemic. As we head into a new year, we spoke to four meal prep experts to gather these meal prep tips and tricks that can help you shop smarter, make your money go farther, save time and eat healthier.

Mastering the basics of meal prep

All of the experts we spoke to agree that the most important part of meal prep is the planning.

Allyson Spungin, a certified personal trainer, nutrition coach and nationally qualified NPC competitor, says, “Have a plan! Map out your meals and snack ideas before grocery shopping or ordering online.” Jessica Woo, who calls herself the Bento Box Lunch Queen, agrees. “Routine is everything,” she says.

Apps like MealPrepPro and Prepear can help you get meal plans, recipes and shopping lists organized; if you’re a person who prefers handwritten lists, a meal planner with a built-in section for a corresponding shopping list can help you keep track of what you plan to cook and what you need to buy on your next grocery store run.

Tumbleweeds ‘What’s for Dinner?’ Weekly Magnetic Meal Planning Pad ($11.95; amazon.com)

Tumbleweeds
Tumbleweeds ‘What’s for Dinner?’ Weekly Magnetic Meal Planning Pad
PHOTO: Amazon

This planning pad makes meal prep simple. Featuring a tear-off shopping list and space for weekly meal planning, this pad sticks right onto your fridge to keep you on track.

While all the experts agree on the importance of planning, there are different approaches to meal prep, and they stressed that meal prep isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition — and that it’s not all about dieting. “I encourage people to think of meal prep as an act of self-care versus a means of sticking to rigid food rules,” Cara Harbstreet, a registered dietitian who focuses on intuitive eating, says. “If you approach it like this, your motivations for sticking to it shift to something that eases stress or eliminates chaos, and that can be very empowering.”

Spungin designates one day for cooking and, to make it less stressful, suggests scheduling meal prep for a day when you don’t have several other things to do. “Not a leftovers person? Pick two prep days,” she says. “For instance, Sunday for the first part of the week and Wednesday for the second half.”

Woo builds her meal prep into her existing schedule. “I like to meal prep when I am already cooking dinner or lunch,” she says. “Cook as if you are cooking for seven people and you can freeze individual meals,” which can be defrosted for a quick lunch or dinner.

Ez Prepa Meal Prep Containers, 20-Pack ($19.99; amazon.com)

Ez Prepa Meal Prep Containers, 20-Pack
Ez Prepa Meal Prep Containers, 20-Pack
PHOTO: Amazon

These three-compartment plastic containers are great for someone who is getting into meal prepping because you can portion out your meals, microwave them, then throw the container in the dishwasher once you’re done.

GreenLunch 3-in-1 Stainless Steel Bento Box ($28.89, originally $33.89; amazon.com)

GreenLunch 3-in-1 Stainless Steel Bento Box
GreenLunch 3-in-1 Stainless Steel Bento Box
PHOTO: Amazon

A stainless steel bento box like this one is good for your wallet and the environment. It comes with three removable compartments that you can swap around to plan your meal exactly how you want it.

Rubbermaid EasyFindLids Food Storage Set ($25.69, originally $29.31; amazon.com)

Rubbermaid EasyFindLids Food Storage Set
Rubbermaid EasyFindLids Food Storage Set
PHOTO: Amazon

Having a variety of different-sized containers is always convenient. Opt for this set of 38 from Rubbermaid, made with lids that snap onto the base so that you won’t lose them.

Keeping meal-size portions in the freezer can also help to keep boredom at bay. Kevin Curry, the founder of FitMenCook, says, “The No. 1 tip I have for people who are new to meal prepping is that it does NOT have to be boring. Boring recipes make it much more challenging to stick to a meal prepping routine.”

‘Damn Delicious Meal Prep: 115 Easy Recipes for Low-Calorie, High-Energy Living’ by Chungah Rhee (starting at $15.99, originally $30; amazon.com)

‘Damn Delicious Meal Prep- 115 Easy Recipes for Low-Calorie, High-Energy Living’ by Chungah Rhee
PHOTO: Amazon

Don’t let anyone tell you that meal prep can’t be delicious. Grab this book by author Chungah Rhee for some inspiration for your upcoming meals from breakfast to comfort foods.

‘Cook Once, Eat All Week’ by Cassy Joy Garcia (starting at $9.99, originally $34.95; amazon.com)

‘Cook Once, Eat All Week’ by Cassy Joy Garcia
PHOTO: Amazon

The idea of cooking all your meals at once can be pretty intimidating. Author Cassy Joy Garcia wants to help out with that in this book that offers guidance on how to make batch-cooking simple.

Spungin offers one last piece of advice for those who are new to meal prepping: “Don’t. Get. Hungry!” She stresses the importance of keeping nutritious snacks on hand, which can help to prevent poor food choices made out of hunger. The healthy snacks will also help you avoid digging right into the meals you’re storing away. Individually packaged snacks are a convenient choice, but buying snacks in bulk and storing individual portions in reusable silicone storage bags will save money and cut down on packaging waste.

Mission Meats Grass Fed Beef Sticks ($21.95; amazon.com)

Mission Meats Grass Fed Beef Sticks
Mission Meats Grass Fed Beef Sticks
PHOTO: Amazon

For someone who wants a savory snack, give Mission Meats Grass Fed Beef Sticks a try. They’re sugar-free and high in protein to keep you satisfied til your next meal.

Emerald Nuts 100-Calorie Variety Pack ($8.92; amazon.com)

Emerald Nuts 100-Calorie Variety Pack
Emerald Nuts 100-Calorie Variety Pack
PHOTO: Amazon

Nuts are an ideal healthy snack because they contain healthy fats and a good amount of protein. This variety pack of almonds, walnuts and cashews is sure to become a household favorite.

Stasher Silicone Reusable Storage Bags, Set of 4 ($49.99; amazon.com)

Stasher Silicone Reusable Storage Bags, Set of 4
Stasher Silicone Reusable Storage Bags, Set of 4
PHOTO: Amazon

If you’re one to take snacks on the go, ditch your traditional plastic bags now. The Stasher silicone storage bags are a game-changer to keep your food fresh without the waste.

10 expert-approved meal prep tricks

The experts we spoke to offered some of their favorite tips, tricks and products for successful meal prep. They also advise that you start small and stay flexible as you incorporate this new habit, since you’ll learn as you go. “Take note of what works and keep at it,” Spungin says of learning how to prepare meals in a way that works for you.

1. Take stock: All of the experts stressed the importance of keeping your kitchen stocked with the essentials of successful cooking. Spungin suggests investing in basic cookware, storage containers, measuring tools, spices and cooking oils. “That way all you need is the food,” Curry adds. “And don’t forget a quality cutting board and chef’s knife!” Check out our picks for the best kitchen knife sets here if you’re in the market for a new set.

Granite Stone Diamond Blue Pots and Pans 5-Piece Set ($49.99; amazon.com)

Granite Stone Diamond Blue Pots and Pans 5-Piece Set
Granite Stone Diamond Blue Pots and Pans 5-Piece Set
PHOTO: Amazon

Rubbermaid Brilliance Food Storage Containers, Set of 10 ($14.91, originally $17.99; amazon.com)

Rubbermaid Brilliance Food Storage Containers, Set of 10
Rubbermaid Brilliance Food Storage Containers, Set of 10
PHOTO: Amazon

Wildone Stainless Steel 20-Piece Measuring Cups and Spoons Set ($38.99; amazon.com)

Wildone Stainless Steel 20-Piece Measuring Cups and Spoons Set
Wildone Stainless Steel 20-Piece Measuring Cups and Spoons Set
PHOTO: Amazon

Victorinox Fibrox Pro Chef’s Knife, 8-Inch ($43.99, originally $54; amazon.com)

Victorinox Fibrox Pro Chef
Victorinox Fibrox Pro Chef’s Knife, 8-Inch
PHOTO: Amazon

Homwe Kitchen 3-Piece Cutting Board Set ($16.97, originally $19.97; amazon.com)

Homwe Kitchen 3-Piece Cutting Board Set
Homwe Kitchen 3-Piece Cutting Board Set
PHOTO: Amazon

McCormick Everyday Essentials Variety Pack ($21.98; amazon.com)

McCormick Everyday Essentials Variety Pack
McCormick Everyday Essentials Variety Pack
PHOTO: Amazon

Chosen Foods 100% Pure Avocado Oil Spray ($7.98; amazon.com)

Chosen Foods 100% Pure Avocado Oil Spray
Chosen Foods 100% Pure Avocado Oil Spray
PHOTO: Amazon

2. Keep it simple: Woo encourages new meal preppers to start small. When you’re just starting, she says it’s a good idea to plan one a week at a time “so you don’t overwhelm yourself.” Likewise, she says that new cooks should stick with easy recipes. “Get comfortable doing the basics,” she says. “Start with easy recipes you’re comfortable cooking, and it will get easier with time.”

Timing can be a struggle for those who are newer to cooking or who aren’t used to prepping many items at once, but a kitchen timer can solve both problems.

ThermoPro TM02 Digital Kitchen Timer ($11.69, originally $12.99; amazon.com)

ThermoPro TM02 Digital Kitchen Timer
ThermoPro TM02 Digital Kitchen Timer
PHOTO: Amazon

3. Small appliances, big payoff: The experts we spoke with all love small appliances to make meal prep easier on them. One way Woo makes things easy for herself is using a food chopper to cut up a lot of vegetables at once, which can be cooked or stored raw.

KitchenAid Cordless Chopper, 5-Cup ($79.99, originally $99.99; amazon.com)

KitchenAid Cordless Chopper, 5-Cup
KitchenAid Cordless Chopper, 5-Cup
PHOTO: Amazon

Curry also relies on small appliances. “I couldn’t live without my Instant Pot Duo Plus and my Breville Smart Oven.” Spungin, too, swears by the Instant Pot as well as her air fryer, both of which she says are major time-savers. “The Instant Pot is great for cooking foods in bulk like soup, chili, stew, etc. and you can slow cook while tackling other parts of your prep.” An air fryer might also be a good option if you’re looking to make your favorite foods without the excess oils or calories, as opposed to other cooking methods like deep-frying.

Instant Pot Duo Plus ($119.95, originally $129.95; amazon.com)

Instant Pot Duo Plus
Instant Pot Duo Plus
PHOTO: Amazon

Breville The Smart Oven ($268.95; amazon.com)

Breville The Smart Oven
Breville The Smart Oven
PHOTO: Amazon

Cosori Premium Air Fryer ($119.99; amazon.com)

Cosori Premium Air Fryer
Cosori Premium Air Fryer
PHOTO: Amazon

4. Get active: Curry stresses the importance of learning to multitask in the kitchen. “When I’m meal prepping, I’ve got three, four or sometimes five things on the go. I’m sweating. I’m hopping around the kitchen like I’m Remy from ‘Ratatouille.’” Prepping in this way, he says, not only saves him a lot of time, but it also makes meal prep a more engaging and enjoyable activity. Turning on music or a favorite podcast while you prep can help to make the time go faster and turn it into fun.

Amazon 4th-Gen Echo Dot ($29.99, originally $49.99; amazon.com)

Amazon 4th Gen Echo Dot
Amazon 4th Gen Echo Dot
PHOTO: Amazon

5. Think of the fridge as a buffet: “One helpful trick I learned was to think of my meals as an assembly line rather than individual, fully prepared meals,” Harbstreet says. The assembly line approach provides more options and flexibility. When storing prepared foods, Woo says you should “keep your warm items and cold items in separate containers so it’s easier to reheat your warm items.”

Rubbermaid FreshWorks Produce Saver, Set of 2 ($21.93; amazon.com)

Rubbermaid FreshWorks Produce Saver, Set of 2
Rubbermaid FreshWorks Produce Saver, Set of 2
PHOTO: Amazon

6. Bulk up: Cooking in bulk — and using those small appliances like an extra pair of hands — will allow you to assemble meals throughout the week with ease. “I pick a couple of protein sources like chicken and shrimp, carb sources like rice and sweet potatoes [and] have fats on hand like olive oil and avocados to combine for meals,” Spungin says.

Prep Naturals Glass Meal Prep Containers, Set of 5 ($34.99; amazon.com)

Prep Naturals Glass Meal Prep Containers, Set of 5
Prep Naturals Glass Meal Prep Containers, Set of 5
PHOTO: Amazon

Aroma Housewares Stainless Rice Cooker and Warmer ($32.81, originally $39.99; amazon.com)

Aroma Housewares Stainless Rice Cooker and Warmer
Aroma Housewares Stainless Rice Cooker and Warmer
PHOTO: Amazon

7. Master the most important meal of the day: “Breakfast meal prep can sometimes feel the most challenging,” Harbstreet says, “but silicone baking cups allow you to make baked oatmeal, muffins, mini frittatas and more.” Woo swears by Mason jars for overnight oats — and, she notes, they’re also great for storing salads and soups.

Paksh Novelty Regular Mouth Mason Jars, 6-Pack ($14.99; amazon.com)

Paksh Novelty Regular Mouth Mason Jars, 6-Pack
Paksh Novelty Regular Mouth Mason Jars, 6-Pack
PHOTO: Amazon

Ttsam Silicone Baking Cups, 24-Pack ($8.87; amazon.com)

Ttsam Silicone Baking Cups, 24-Pack
Ttsam Silicone Baking Cups, 24-Pack
PHOTO: Amazon

8. Cut corners with abandon: Meal prep doesn’t mean cooking every single thing from scratch — and, in fact, the experts agree that you should look for shortcuts to save time and money. “Just because you didn’t personally cook the food yourself doesn’t mean it can’t have a place in your meal prep routine,” Harbstreet says. Canned goods like beans, corn and diced tomatoes; frozen vegetables; and rotisserie chicken were items that the experts pointed to as time-savers.

“Just practice good label literacy and look out for added salt or sugar,” Curry says. Small acts like opening, draining and rinsing canned beans to toss in a salad or rice bowl can save time and energy when you need to pull lunch or dinner together quickly.

Prepworks by Progressive Powder-Coated Steel Colanders, Set of 3 ($12.99; amazon.com)

Prepworks by Progressive Powder-Coated Steel Colanders, Set of 3
Prepworks by Progressive Powder-Coated Steel Colanders, Set of 3
PHOTO: Amazon

KitchenAid Classic Multifunction Can Opener ($14.39; amazon.com)

KitchenAid Classic Multifunction Can Opener
KitchenAid Classic Multifunction Can Opener
PHOTO: Amazon

9. Give leftovers new life: Curry has another suggestion for combating meal prep boredom and saving some time: “Don’t be afraid of leftovers. Get creative with them! One of my favorite things is experimenting with a batch of leftover rice to see what kind of quick, cheap and tasty dish I can put together.” To prevent food waste, Harbstreet says to label your prepped meals clearly so you know how long you have to enjoy them.

Outus 132-Piece Removable Food Labels Stickers ($8.99; amazon.com)

Outus 132-Piece Removable Food Labels Stickers
Outus 132-Piece Removable Food Labels Stickers
PHOTO: Amazon

10. Dress it up: Finally, don’t forget a sauce or dressing! They can play a huge role in added flavor to a meal and will help to keep boredom at bay. “Experiment with a different sauce or dressing each round of meal prep,” Harbstreet suggests, noting that even if the basics of the meal don’t change, “you’ll be surprised how novel and exciting your meals can be with that simple change.” Storing dressings and sauces separately will also help to keep salad greens and fresh veggies from getting soggy.

Oxo Good Grips Salad Dressing Shaker ($14.40; amazon.com)

Oxo Good Grips Salad Dressing Shaker
Oxo Good Grips Salad Dressing Shaker
PHOTO: Amazon

Signora Ware Condiment Cups Containers With Lids, Set of 6 ($8.99; amazon.com)

Signora Ware Condiment Cups Containers With Lids, Set of 6
Signora Ware Condiment Cups Containers With Lids, Set of 6
PHOTO: Amazon

More meal prep containers

Check out our picks below for a variety of meal prep containers that’ll help you incorporate those tips into your daily routine and keep your food fresh.

Lovina All-in-One Bento Box ($17.99; amazon.com)

Lovina All-in-One Bento Box
Lovina All-in-One Bento Box
PHOTO: Amazon

We can’t wait to get our hands on this versatile bento box by Lovina. It features four compartments and even a sauce cup to carry our full meal in one handy container.

DaCool Insulated Lunch Container ($18.99; amazon.com)

DaCool Insulated Lunch Container
DaCool Insulated Lunch Container
PHOTO: Amazon

This insulated lunch container can keep liquids hot and cold for up to 12 hours. Have this ready to meal prep a hearty soup this winter.

Bentgo Fresh 3-Compartment Meal Prep Container ($39.99, originally $49.99; amazon.com)

Bentgo Fresh 3-Compartment Meal Prep Container
Bentgo Fresh 3-Compartment Meal Prep Container
PHOTO: Amazon

We have our eyes on this set from Bentgo, not only because the containers are adorable, but they also include an optional divider to create a fourth compartment. Customization is key for meal prep containers that will last you from week to week.

C Crest Glass Meal Prep Containers, 10-Pack ($29.99; amazon.com)

C Crest Glass Meal Prep Containers, 10-Pack
C Crest Glass Meal Prep Containers, 10-Pack
PHOTO: Amazon

Glass containers like these are helpful if you prefer to quickly see what’s inside. However, these aren’t partitioned so they’re best suited for things like pasta or casseroles that are served individually.

Umami Premium Bento Lunch Box ($26.99, originally $50; amazon.com)

Umami Premium Bento Lunch Box
Umami Premium Bento Lunch Box
PHOTO: Amazon

The white and bamboo finish of this bento box caught our eye, but luckily it’s as functional as it is stylish. It contains a sauce cup, reusable utensils and two movable dividers for your smartest meal prep yet.

Rubbermaid Easy Find Food Storage Containers, Set of 21 ($19.99; amazon.com)

Rubbermaid Easy Find Food Storage Containers, Set of 21
Rubbermaid Easy Find Food Storage Containers, Set of 21
PHOTO: Amazon

This set of storage containers features a built-in lid vent to avoid excessive splatter in the microwave while warming your food up. Reviewers believe this set is a great value for 42 pieces total.

Oxo Good Grips Salad Container ($15.99, originally $17.99; amazon.com)

Oxo Good Grips Salad Container
Oxo Good Grips Salad Container
PHOTO: Amazon

Salads can be a pain to meal prep, since you typically don’t want to combine all the ingredients until you’re ready to eat. Try out this round container for your next meal prep, that even features a plate and dressing cup for a takeout worthy salad.

Vremi Silicone Collapsible Food Storage Containers, Set of 4 ($12.99; amazon.com)

Vremi Silicone Collapsible Food Storage Containers, Set of 4
Vremi Silicone Collapsible Food Storage Containers, Set of 4
PHOTO: Amazon

Collapsible meal prep containers are helpful for when you finish your food but don’t want the bowl to take up too much space on the way home or in your cabinets.

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