How to Meal Prep: Protein Edition
Protein should be a core part of every meal, because it boosts your metabolism, reduces cravings, and builds muscle. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to whip up a protein-filled meal on a weeknight, though. But if you prepare your proteins in advance, you can transform a quick pasta or salad into a proper meal with little-to-no added effort.
Here’s your game plan for how to meal prep protein like chicken, eggs, beans, and more:
Notes on Prep & Storage
The beauty of these ingredients is that they can be stored in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for several months. We recommend using freezer bags, being sure to label each one with the content and date prepared. When it comes time to dethaw your prepped proteins, the best method is to pop the bag in the fridge the night before you plan to use it.
Cooked chicken is a great protein to have on hand for quick and easy meals like chicken salad, burritos, and quesadillas. The secret to meal-prepping chicken breasts is to cook them whole, which prevents them from drying out.
For versatile, yet flavorful chicken, sprinkle breasts with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, then bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes (or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F). After the chicken is cooked, chop or shred whatever you plan to freeze and store it with any juices leftover in the pan, which will keep the chicken flavorful even when it’s reheated. Divide the chicken out into freezer bags (the smaller the portion, the easier it will be to thaw). Cooked chicken will stay good in the fridge for 3-4 days and in the freezer for several months. The best way to ensure dethawed and reheated chicken breast stays juicy is to brush it with olive oil and warm it in the oven at 325 degrees F until it once again reaches 165 degrees F.
Hard-boiled eggs are a great grab-and-go protein, whether they’re being used as breakfast, a midday snack, or a salad topping. Pre-peeled eggs won’t last as long, so refrigerate them in their shell and they’ll stay fresh for up to a week.
Hard-boiling is not the only way to meal-prep eggs, though. A freezer-friendly option is to make omelette cups. Whip together eggs with a little bit of milk and any fillings you like–like bacon, spinach, or cheese–then pour into a muffin tin and bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees F. These mini omelettes can be stored in the fridge for 3-4 days or in the freezer for up to three months.
By cooking your own dried beans instead of buying them canned, not only will you save money, you’ll be able to taste the difference. The process itself is long, but it’s mostly hands-off.
Start by soaking your beans in a pot of water overnight. If you forgot to do this the night before, all’s not lost; a quicker method is to boil them for 2-3 minutes then let them sit covered for an hour. Drain and rinse the beans, then cook them in fresh water for 30-60 minutes. Once cooled, you can store them in the fridge for use that week or in the freezer for up to six months. Portion them out two cups to each bag, for the rough equivalent of a 15oz can of beans.
Lentils are a bit easier to meal prep than beans, because you don’t have to soak them in advance. Simmer one part whole lentils with three parts water or stock for 15-20 minutes (5-7 minutes if using split lentils). Wait to salt them until after cooking to prevent the lentils from getting tough. Store the same way you would beans.
Fish is a quick, healthy protein that works great for weeknight dinners. Pop it in the oven at 450 degrees F or saute on your stovetop at medium-high heat, cooking for ten minutes per inch of thickness with either method. Unlike chicken, though, fish doesn’t lend itself to reheating; it’s easy to overcook, which can ruin the flavor. With fish like tilapia and salmon, the best method is to store cooked fish in the fridge for up to three days and enjoy in a cold dish, like a salad. Thicker varieties of fish, like halibut and swordfish, can be reheated in the oven at 275 degrees F for about 15 minutes. You can also freeze uncooked, individual fish filets and bake them from frozen.
For more advice on meal-prep, check out the 9 key ingredients we recommend you make in advance.
– Emily Polson