If you find yourself eating the kids’ leftovers for lunch, never stopping to eat a real meal, or making the same foods every day—and being frustrated by that—these super doable tips for how to meal-prep lunch are here to help!
Meal Prep Lunch
Lunch is often the hardest meal of the day, as it can sneak up on us—or really need to be prepped ahead of time. That’s where these tips come into play.
I almost never do full “meal prep” on the weekends because I simply don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen cooking, but I am always looking for smart, efficient ways I can meal-prep in the slivers of time I do have.
You can plan to do this for lunches that need to be warmed or ones you can eat cold, but the goal is to make it easier for you to feed yourself and your kids when lunch rolls around. The meal may be fully packed or you could have a main component made so all you need to do is to grab a piece of fruit.
To get some expert tips, we spoke with Talia Koren, founder of Workweek Lunch. Her site and meal-prepping program geared for people who want to eat well, save money, and use their time wisely when it comes to the midday meal. She’s a wealth of information about how to meal prep for lunch (and just meal prepping in general).
“I was sick of spending $12 a day on lunch,” Talia says. “I could totally make this at home for half of the price.” She started to batch-cook and it worked—she saved a ton of money. Plus, you can customize meal components exactly how you like when you make your food at home.
How to Meal-Prep Lunch Step-by-Step
This approach can feel like a lot of work, but if you keep a few simple tips from Talia in mind, it’s doable for anyone. (And I say this as someone who’s only ever hard-cooked eggs ahead for my lunches—the weeks when I’ve actually made a real meal ahead have been so enjoyable!)
To start, know that you don’t need any fancy equipment. Just the basics you already have in your kitchen. From there, these tips will help. Pick one to try or use a few. You can always do as much or as little as you prefer.
1. Think of What You Usually Buy for Lunch
What do you like to get for takeout? You can totally make a burrito bowl or sandwich or soup at home, especially if you stock the pantry with the basics you need.
2. Do it for the Kids AND You
If you’re already packing lunches for the kids, take a few extra moments to pack one for yourself, too. We parents need to eat, too, and this way, you’re more likely to actually eat a real meal than just grabbing the leftover crusts while you wash the dishes.
3. Keep Things Simple
Think pasta, burrito bowls, sheet pan meals, and other super simple template meals are an awesome way to start since they don’t always require a ton of cooking or ingredients. And you do NOT have to do 7 meals at once (unless you really, really want to). Even just packing your midday meal one day of the week is a great place to start.
4. Make Sure It’s Satisfying
Combining the basic food groups will help you stay satisfied until the next meal or snack, so aim to include them—but also include dessert, something crunchy, a seltzer…whatever you need to feel like the meal is checking all the boxes for your personal preferences.
5. Add a Sauce
Try adding salsa, tahini sauce, cucumber sauce, garnishes, mustard, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, guacamole, and other toppings to mix it up and add flavors to basics. These can be a great way to add flavor to meals you make for the kids but eat yourself, too. Buy or make these yourself, however it works best for you.
6. Pick Recipes That Store Well
Some recipes work better than others to make ahead. Anything that’s meant to be crispy won’t hold up (like breaded chicken—though maybe you don’t care!), or foods like some Asian noodles (like soba) can stick together when stashed in the fridge). And salads are great but hold better with the dressing on the side.
7. Prep in Small Batches
Whether making food for yourself or the kids, try not to make a giant volume of any one thing unless A.) you know everyone loves it or B.) it freezes well. Most of us won’t want to eat the same thing day after day, so simply acknowledge that and cook accordingly.
8. Make Good Use of the Freezer
You can make extra chili, soups, stews, muffins, pizza rolls, and more and stash them into the freezer for future weeks. This allows you to cook for right now and also the future in one fell swoop!
Recommended Storage Containers
Investing in glass containers is a great way to plan for years to come—they last forever! Glass also won’t absorb flavors or food stains and is super easy to clean. Ceramic is also a nice option, or durable plastic can work too. Some I like:
TIP: Find my favorite kids lunchboxes here and Bento Boxes for the whole family.
I am always a fan of cooking the same food for the entire family, so here are some tips for making it palatable for everyone at the table.
- Omit the salt if sharing with a baby (and salt your own portion).
- Make the meal less spicy and add hot sauce to your serving.
- Include produce they like—or keep the pieces of less preferred produce larger so they are easy to pull out.
- Deconstruct the recipes so they’re easier to eat by placing the foods next to each other instead of all mixed together.
- Serve your portion over baby spinach or shredded romaine to turn it into a salad.
- Add a simple side of fruit, applesauce, or a cheese stick to round out the kids meal.
TIP: Find my go-to 50 Recipes for Kids Lunches here.
Favorite Meal Prep Recipes
In addition to the recipes mentioned above, here are a few more of my favorite recipes to make ahead for easy lunches for parents and kids.
Frequently Asked Questions
Spoiler alert: There isn’t one proper way to meal prep. You can do it however works for you. You can prep one serving of vegetables, you can prep full meals, you can prep anything that helps your life be a little easier when things are busy.
Meal preps can usually store in the fridge for 3-5 days in an airtight container. You’ll want to add salad greens that might wilt in dressing right before serving and chop any produce that will brown when cut soon before packing if possible.
Meal prep lunches allow you to get ready for a meal whenever you have the time, then be able to feed yourself (or the kids) when you are in a busy stretch and need a fast meal. It’s a great way to cut down on fast food costs and to have food ready when you are.
Best Tips for Success
- Pack lunch for yourself while you make lunch for the kids.
- Include a mix of food groups, as well as a drink and dessert, to make the meal satisfying.
- If meal prepping a large quantity of anything, try to make sure it’s freezer-friendly so you can freeze anything you might not get to eat fresh.
- Keep it simple and don’t feel like you have to prep all of the food for the week. Even one meal can help.
Please comment below with any comments or questions!
This post was first published January 2020.