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3 Types of Meal Planning to Try for Your Next Weekly Meal Prep

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If you’ve new to meal prep, did you know that there are multiple types of meal planning methods you can use for your weekly prep sessions? And not only are there multiple methods, but each approach to meal planning has different advantages and disadvantages, depending on your needs. In this helpful beginner-friendly guide, we’ll explore three common styles of meal planning, including the pros and cons of each method and how to choose the best approach for you.

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What are the different types of meal planning?

Meal planning usually refers to the process of planning out your menu or meals ahead of time. In some cases, people also use the term meal planning to refer to the entire process of meal planning and prepping. Generally, there are three different types of approaches that most people use for meal prep:

  • Portioned meal prep. Portioned meal prep refers to creating a meal plan using a variety of different batch recipes, then cooking and dividing your food into separate portions and meal prep containers.
  • Buffet-style meal prep. Buffet meal prep is a style of meal planning that involves creating a menu with different basic ingredients, then building your meals from the “buffet” of ingredients you prepped.
  • Ingredient prep. Ingredient prep is the method of planning your menu around a series of pre-prepped ingredients, without necessarily planning (or cooking) a full menu ahead of time.

Each of the different types of meal prep above requires a different level of effort, both up-front and when it’s time to cook, and each has various pros and cons. So, let’s explore what these three meal planning approaches involve, and how they can help you meet your own personal meal prep goals.

Portioned meal prep

Pros:Cons:Good for people who:
Only plan and cook once or twice a weekMost time planning spent up-frontSolo meal prep
Meals fully prepped all weekWill need to buy containersCount portions, macros, etc.

If you’ve ever looked up pictures of meal prep online, you’ve likely already seen what portioned meal prep looks like. Portioned meal prep refers to the method of planning a menu with batch recipes, then cooking your meals and portioning them into separate meal prep containers to enjoy throughout the week.

sweet and spicy tofu meal prep
The Healthful Human / Eleesha Lockett

Portioned meal prep is the most popular way to meal plan, especially as a solo meal prepper, because it’s the easiest way to ensure that you have meal prep on hand all week. On the flip side, this style of meal planning is also the most labor-intensive, because it requires you to spend a few hours up front planning, cooking, and portioning out every meal.

If you’re not ready to commit to a full week of meal planning portioned meals, here are a few different variations you can try:

  • If you don’t have enough time for a full 3-meals-a-day prep session, start by planning to prep one meal for a few days (like 3 servings of your favorite breakfast recipe).
  • If you’re someone who only needs food during the week for work or school, consider only planning and prepping enough food for 3-5 days instead of a full week.
  • If you’re someone who prefers to make larger batches of food all at once, you can plan and prep for longer than a week — just don’t forget to have plenty of fridge and freezer space available!

By the way, for more recipe ideas that are perfect for a portioned meal plan, check out my list of 10 quick and easy meal prep classics.

Buffet-style meal prep

Pros:Cons:Good for people who:
Only plan and cook once or twice a weekMeals not portioned outGet bored of eating the same food
More menu varietyNeed to be more creative with planningHave different preferences to accommodate for

Buffet-style meal prep is another popular type of meal planning, especially for people who enjoy variation in their weekly meal plans. When a buffet style approach, you plan a menu based around similar ingredients, then cook large batches of those ingredients to mix and match throughout the week.

The Healthful Human / Eleesha Lockett
The Healthful Human / Eleesha Lockett

Because you’re not planning or cooking a ton of different recipes ahead of time, buffet-style prep usually requires less effort (but more creativity) up-front. And you’ll still need to remember to put aside a little time to assemble your meals once you’re actually ready to eat. However, the best thing about this method of meal planning is the variety — for example, here’s a sample buffet-style meal plan:

  • Carbs: plain overnight oats, white Jasmine rice, whole grain tortillas.
  • Proteins: shredded rotisserie chicken, tuna salad.
  • Sides: mixed berries, sautéed peppers, cucumber, avocado, lettuce, tomato.
  • Condiments: peanut butter, honey, curry sauce, mayonnaise, soy sauce.

In this buffet-style meal plan, you could enjoy any variety of combinations, such as:

  • overnight oats with mixed berries and honey or peanut butter
  • curry rice bowls with rotisserie chicken and sautéed peppers
  • tuna salad rice bowls with cucumber, avocado and soy sauce
  • rotisserie chicken wraps with mayo, lettuce, and tomato
  • tuna salad wraps with cucumber and avocado

As you can see, by planning a “buffet” of ingredients, you can easily mix and match multiple combinations each week with this approach to meal prep. Given the variety of this style of meal planning, it’s perfect for those who enjoy a mixed menu or who prep for multiple people with different food preferences.

Ingredient prep

Pros:Cons:Good for people who:
Quickest meal plan method up-frontMeals not prepped ahead of timeMeal prep infrequently
Great for bulk ingredientsIngredients might go bad quicklyWant to save time in the kitchen

Although this is the most casual style of meal planning, the truth is that any proactive meal planning and preparation can help save you time and effort in the kitchen. With this approach to meal planning, it’s all about planning and prepping your ingredients ahead of time so that you don’t have to prep and cook all at once.

various meal prep ingredients laid out on a marble countertop
The Healthful Human / Eleesha Lockett

As far as meal planning methods go, ingredient prep is the least effort up-front because you can loosely plan a menu and gather ingredients without actually having to cook anything until you’re ready. Of course, that means that you’ll still have to pick your recipes — and cook all the ingredients you prepped — at a later time.

One nice thing about ingredient prep is that you can save a lot of money with this method by purchasing on-sale and in-season ingredients. By buying and prepping these ingredients in bulk ahead of time, you can then use your fridge (or freezer) to “shop” from as you plan out and prep your recipes for the week.

At the end of the day, if you don’t have the time to dedicate to portioned or buffet-style meal planning — but you still want to save a little extra time and effort in the kitchen — ingredient prep is a great method to try.

Meal planning FAQ

Choosing from the different types of meal prep can seem daunting, especially if you’re a beginner, but a little knowledge can go a long way. So, before you dive into your next (or first) meal prep session, here are a few more tips to keep in mind.

What’s the easiest way to meal prep?

If you’re just getting started with meal prep, one of the easiest methods of meal planning is to start with prepping your ingredients ahead of time. Once you’ve gotten used to prepping your ingredients for your meals each week, consider giving portioned or buffet-style meal prep a try to save even more time and effort.

How many times a week should I meal prep?

Most people meal prep once or twice a week, depending on how much energy and free time they have for planning, shopping, and cooking. Meal prepping twice a week is great for people who want to enjoy fresh meals during the week. But even if you can’t meal prep this often, prepping once during the week can still be a great way to save time and money.

How many days should I meal prep for?

A good rule of thumb to remember is that most cooked meals only last for about 3-4 days in the fridge before they begin to lose flavor or quality. If you’re on a twice-a-week prep schedule, it’s best to only cook 3-4 days’ worth of food at a time. If you’re only able to prep once a week, just make sure to store any extra portions you can’t eat in 3-4 days in the freezer.

Eleesha Lockett

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.

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