Rows of identical multicolored meals packed neatly in glass containers on TikTok and Instagram may have made meal prep popular, but there’s more to this practice than meets the eye. Planning, prepping, and sometimes cooking several days’ worth of meals ahead of time has a number of proven advantages, from saving you time to helping you get a wider variety of nutrients in your diet.
“I definitely think meal prepping helps us with just living well in general,” says Basheerah Enahora, RDN, owner of BE Nutrition in Charlotte, North Carolina. “When we put some thought into it, we’re more likely to pick up really nutrient-rich foods from the grocery store. We have a list that’s decided in advance.”
And when you eat at home, that means you’re not eating out — a practice that, research shows, can have negative health impacts if overindulged. For example, a study published in April 2020 in The Journal of Nutrition suggests that less than 0.1% of restaurant meals were of ideal quality, as defined by the American Heart Association, meaning they didn’t have a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean poultry, and nuts, nor did they consistently limit sugary drinks, sweets, and processed meats.
If you’re new to meal prepping, it’s important to create a plan that works for you. “People feel that a meal plan has to be this rigid structure, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that,” says Enahora. You could prep and pack everything on Sundays, like some people do, but if that’s not your style, choose a day that works for you, or spread the prep work out however makes the most sense for your schedule. Flexibility is key.
“It’s really about understanding how to put together a balanced meal and making sure you have those components on hand,” Enahora says. With some planning and perhaps a little preemptive chopping and marinating, you can easily call yourself a meal prepper and begin to see its benefits.
And those benefits may be more far-reaching than you imagine. Here are some more science-backed ways that meal prepping has been shown to improve your health and overall lifestyle.
1. Meal Prepping Improves Diet Quality and Variety
As previously noted, home-cooked meals are generally healthier than takeout, but there’s more: Meal planning is scientifically linked to a more diverse, higher-quality diet, which means it provides nutrients that you likely wouldn’t get otherwise. A study published 2017 in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that individuals who plan their meals are more likely to have better adherence to nutritional guidelines as well as increased food variety. “This may be because planning for meals includes a longer thought process, allowing for educated choices,” says Mia Syn, RD, owner of Nutrition by Mia in Charleston, South Carolina.
Research also shows that more time spent on food preparation (over one hour a day) is linked to an increased intake of vegetables, salads, and fruits. It also generally helps you feel nourished but not overstuffed. “Planning ahead enables you to utilize different ingredients and create a more balanced plate, which leaves you feeling satisfied and satiated,” explains Brittany Modell, RD, owner of Brittany Modell Nutrition and Wellness in New York City.
2. Meal Prepping Is Linked to Weight Loss and Obesity Prevention
Takeout meals are almost always higher in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and sodium than those prepared at home, says Syn. That explains why meal prepping has been linked to weight loss and obesity prevention. The 2017 International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity study found that meal planning was associated with lower odds of being overweight in women and lower odds of obesity in men. Additionally, a pilot program documented in July 2021 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior had participants meet every Sunday for six weeks to prep healthy weekday lunches and dinners. By the program’s end, participants not only adopted a more balanced diet but averaged a weight loss of more than 3 pounds.
Prepping meals ahead of time may also aid in weight loss thanks to portion control — especially if you are batch cooking. “Because you have control of the ingredients used and cooking methods, unlike restaurant meals or takeout, you can portion out your meals to meet your personal nutrition needs,” Syn explains. She adds that having the right tools — measuring cups and spoons, a food scale, and proper storage containers — makes all the difference.
3. Meal Prepping Saves Money
Research shows that less than one hour per day spent on food preparation at home is linked with significantly more money spent on takeout. Plus, meal prepping can help you save money on groceries because it forces you to be more intentional with your choices and your hard-earned cash.
“Having a plan allows you to figure out exactly what ingredients you will need for the week so you can use them,” says Modell. It’s great for budgeting in general, especially if you take into account ingredients you already have on hand. “Purchasing just what you need can help prevent food waste and ultimately save you money from random purchases that may otherwise go uneaten,” adds Syn.
4. Meal Prepping Saves Time (and Gets You Organized)
“Research suggests that a busy schedule is one of the top reasons why people choose quick takeout meals,” explains Syn. And if you’re wondering how cooking will save more time than grabbing a quick bite, she explains that “you don’t have to spend time prepping food every day or cleaning. Set aside one day each week to prep your meals.”
Then it’s just a matter of reheating and chowing down. Spending more time cooking up front will shave off time in the long run. Although it may be an overwhelming habit to get into at first — especially if you’re not used to making grocery lists — it gets easier with practice.
5. Meal Prepping May Help You Live Longer
A study published in September 2021 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that frequent consumption of meals prepared away from home was significantly associated with increased risk of death by any cause. In other words, those studied who ate at home often (less than one takeout meal per week) lived longer.
The study tracked the dietary habits of 35,084 adults age 20 and older from 1999 to 2014, and mortality was tracked through death records until the end of 2015.
6. Meal Prepping Reduces Food Waste
How often have you gone into the grocery store without a plan, only for much of the food you bought to go neglected and spoil? Meal prepping will help you end that vicious cycle and reduce food waste at the same time. One-third of all food in the United States is thrown out, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Certain fruits and vegetables will eventually go bad if we don’t know how to incorporate them into meals or snacks,” says Modell. “Cutting and prepping fruits and vegetables will reduce the chance of food waste, because if they are prepped and ready to go, there is a much higher chance you will incorporate them into meals, especially when you are short on time.”
Syn adds that remembering to freeze certain fresh ingredients or batch-cooked meals can also cut back on waste. Plus, your future self will thank you for the work saved.
7. Meal Prepping Helps Eliminate Impulsive Food Choices and Dreaded ‘Hanger’
Impulsive food choices are all too real, “especially when you find yourself overly hungry,” Modell says. “This is because when glucose levels are low, any food decision will likely feel more impulsive. Your brain is going to look for quick energy, which often comes in the form of simple carbohydrates.”
Meal prepping and making the decision to eat balanced meals leaves room for flexibility while also encouraging you to eat food that “makes you feel good mentally and physically,” adds Modell.
8. Meal Prepping Can Improve Your Mental Health
There’s nothing quite like coming home after a long, stressful day and rallying with your partner about what’s for dinner. What if it was already decided? Imagine the huge sigh of relief that would bring. Meal prepping can make that your reality.
Although more research on this topic is warranted, a study published in September 2021 in SSM — Population Health found significant associations between the time that Canadians spent on daily meal prep and higher self-rated mental health as well as lower self-rated stress. Other research states that when the burden of choice is removed from eating, food relieves anxiety and anger, and also reduces systolic blood pressure more, than when choice is involved.
The perks of meal prepping go beyond the plate and can seriously impact your life and health. So the next time you wonder what’s for dinner, consider the difference you could make by planning ahead.