One of the best parts about meal prep is finishing your weekly prep session and knowing that you have delicious home-cooked meals to look forward to all week. But prepping your meals is only one part of the equation — the other part is learning how to store meal prep properly so that your meals stay fresh (and safe) throughout the week. In this guide, you’ll learn 5 tips for cooking and storing meal prep that can help you keep your food fresh for longer during the week.
- How long does meal prep usually last?
- Cook food to the appropriate temperature
- Don’t let cooked food sit out for too long
- Store cooked meals in airtight containers
- Use insulated bags when transporting food
- Freeze food that you don’t plan to eat
- Meal prep storage FAQ
How long does meal prep last usually last?
Before we dive into the tips below, it can be helpful to know first how long meal prep lasts in the fridge. So, here’s a quick rundown of fridge storage times for some of the more common meal prep ingredients.
Generally, most cooked meal prep ingredients can last for up to 4 days in the fridge. Cooked meat, poultry, and seafood is safe to eat for roughly 3-4 days, as are most cooked vegetables and grains, depending on the ingredient. Some shelf-stable ingredients, like baked goods and nut butters, can also last for up to a few weeks in the fridge. (By the way, check out my full guide on how long meal prep lasts for a more in-depth list.)
The good news is that meal prep doesn’t have to last indefinitely for you to get the most out of your weekly meal plan. By following the 5 food safety tips below, you can learn how to store food for meal prep so that it stays fresh — and edible — for as long as possible.
1. Cook food to the appropriate temperature
One of the most important food safety tips for meal prep is to make sure that you cook your foods to the right temperature. After all, if you’re not practicing food safety while cooking your food, you can’t ensure that your food will be safe to eat days later.
According to the USDA, here are the recommended cooking temperatures for various meal prep proteins:
- 145°F for beef, pork, and lamb (with a 3-minute rest period)
- 145°F for fish and shellfish
- 160°F for eggs
- 160°F for ground meat, except ground poultry
- 165°F for poultry and ground poultry
Grains, vegetables, sauces, and other meal prep ingredients should also be cooked all the way through. And remember, when reheating your meal prep, always make sure that the internal temperature of your ingredients reaches 165°F.
2. Don’t let cooked food sit out for too long
After cooking your meal prep, it’s important to follow proper food safety guidelines and safely cool your food. Potentially dangerous bacteria can grow in the window between 40-140°F, so cooling your food quickly and efficiently is the best way to keep it safe.
Both the CDC and USDA recommend refrigerating any perishable cooked ingredients within 2 hours after cooking. If the temperature in the atmosphere is higher than 90°F, such as outside in the summer, perishable food should be refrigerated within 1 hour instead.
Another tip to keep in mind when cooling food is that moisture and meal prep do not go hand in hand. Not only can excess moisture make food soggy, but it may also contribute to the growth of bacteria. When cooling down your meals in their containers, leaving the lid off as the food initially cools down can help prevent moisture from gathering.
3. Store cooked meals in airtight containers
Although you can technically use any type of food storage containers to store your meal prep, there’s one type of container that’s essential in keeping food fresh: airtight containers. Airtight containers, whether glass, plastic, or another material, can help prevent oxygen from reaching your food.
Remember those potentially harmful bacteria we talked about earlier? Well, many microorganisms, including bacteria, require oxygen to grow. Exposing your food to air during storage can potentially speed up the growth of this bacteria and cause your food to spoil more quickly.
In addition to speeding up the growth of bacteria, oxygen also can also affect certain nutrients in foods, like fats and proteins. Using airtight containers can help reduce the risk of your food becoming discolored, soggy, or even rancid because of oxidation.
4. Use insulated bags when transporting food
Learning how to store meal prep safely is the first step in making sure that your food stays fresh and edible throughout the week. But if you’re someone who frequently enjoys your meals outside of the home, don’t forget to also practice proper food safety when transporting your food.
When you’re transporting food from one location to another, your meals can quickly enter the “danger zone” (40-140°F) if the temperature climbs high enough. If you frequently take longer trips that make it difficult to refrigerate your food within 1-2 hours, consider investing in an insulated food bag. Insulated bags are a great way to help keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot, when needed.
If you don’t have an insulated food bag, you can always use frozen ice or gel packs in your lunch bag to help keep the temperature around your food low. And if these aren’t available to you, even wrapping your food in something like multiple sheets of newspaper can provide a little insulation in a pinch.
5. Freeze food that you don’t plan to eat
Meal prep and other leftovers usually only last for about three to five days in the fridge before they begin to lose taste and texture — or become unsafe to eat. If your food is close to expiring and you’re unable to eat it in time, you can potentially salvage it by storing it in the freezer before it goes bad.
While cooked food can remain safely frozen indefinitely, it does eventually begin to lose quality the longer you store it in the freezer. Because of this, the FDA recommends storing frozen leftovers for no more than 1-3 months for the best quality.
By the way, if you plan to defrost your food in the fridge again before reheating it, just remember to eat it within roughly 24 hours after you’ve defrosted it. If you wait for days after defrosting your meals to eat them, you risk exposing yourself to potentially harmful bacteria.
Meal prep storage FAQ
Now that you’ve learned a few beginner tips on how to store meal prep safely, you’ll be able to get the most out of your weekly meal plans. However, before you dive into your next meal prep session, here are a few other things you should know.
Can I meal prep for 5 days?
If you’re planning to meal prep for a full 5 days (or more), consider switching up your weekly meal planning so that you meal prep twice a week instead of just once. If you only have time to meal prep once during the week, you can store any leftover portions in the freezer to safely enjoy later in the week.
What kind of container should I use for meal prep?
Plastic and glass meal prep containers are both popular choices for meal prep, and both have pros and cons. But if you’re looking to keep your meal prep fresher throughout the week, investing in a set of airtight glass meal prep containers (like these Prep Naturals containers) can go a long way in keeping your food fresh.
How do I freeze and reheat meal prep?
Always make sure to cool your meal prep before freezing it to avoid an unsafe drop in your freezer’s internal temperature — and try to avoid freezing food in glass containers, as they can sometimes crack or break. When reheating meals, whether from thawed or frozen, always make sure that your food is reheated to 165°F or higher.
Eleesha Lockett is a nutrition professional, meal prep expert, and freelance writer who specializes in crafting empathetic and inclusive health and wellness content. Her work has been featured in Healthline, Psych Central, SELF, Shape, Verywell Health, and Well+Good. She holds a master’s in Human Nutrition from The University of Bridgeport, which she uses to share her passion of nutrition (especially meal prep) with others.