If you find yourself eating the kids leftovers for lunch, never stopping to eat a real meal, or making the same foods everyday—and being frustrated by that—these super doable tips for how to meal prep lunch are here to help!
Lunch Meal Prep 101
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. Which is where these tips come into play to help.
And while I almost never do full “meal prep” on the weekends because I simply don’t have hours to spend in the kitchen cooking, 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 that it’s simply easier for you to feed yourself 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 help with some tips, we spoke with Talia Koren, founder of Workweek Lunch, a 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 it exactly how you like it when you make your food at home in your own kitchen.
How to Get Started Meal Prepping Lunch
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 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.
Recipe to Try: Easy Breakfast Burritos
2. Decide Ahead of Time
Making some food ahead spares us from having to decide what to eat when we’re busy in the middle of the day. Which can be really helpful if you’re naturally indecisive or you’re often too busy to think about what you really want come lunchtime. (This is the whole idea of my meal rotations in my monthly meal plans too.)
Recipe to Try: Salmon Salad Sandwich
3. Do it for Yourself
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.
Recipe to Try: Pesto Pasta Salad
4. 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.
Recipe to Try: Vegetarian Burrito Bowls
5. Make Sure it’s Satisfying
Combining the basic food groups will help keep you 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 of the boxes for your personal preferences.
Recipe to Try: Baked Chicken Meatballs
6. Add a Sauce
Try adding salsa, tahini sauce, cucumber sauce, garnishes, mustard, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, guacamole, and other toppings to mix 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.
Recipe to Try: Cucumber Sauce
7. 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.
Recipe to Try: Healthy Pasta Salad with Chicken
8. 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.
Recipe to Try: Spinach Quesadillas
9. Prep a Little Less than What You Think You Need
Something will always come up in your schedule or you may not want to eat what you’ve made—which is fine and normal. So having smaller quantities means that there’s less of a chance that you won’t eat it or that the food you made will go to waste.
Recipe to Try: Veggie Egg Muffins
10. 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!
Recipe to Try: Favorite Freezer Meals
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.
Tips for Prepping Food to Share with Kids
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 less spicy and add hot sauce to yours.
- 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.
- Egg Muffins with Cheese and Veggies
- Butternut Squash Hummus
- Cheesy Meat Buns
- Healthy Homemade Granola Bars
- Pizza Rolls with Spinach
- Pesto Pizza Rolls
- Zucchini Fritters
- Chicken and Sweet Potato Bowls
- Butternut Squash Curry
- Soft-Roasted Chickpeas
- Spinach Pesto Pasta with Peas
- Healthy Pasta Salad
- Pizza Pockets with Broccoli and Cheese
- Chicken Nuggets with Sweet Potato
- Pasta with Sausage and Broccoli
- Big Batch Veggie Chili
- Veggie Muffins
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Please comment below with any comments or questions!
This post was first published January 2020.