Meal Plans vs Meal Prep

While meal plans and meal prep both sound very similar, they’re different in the way you think, plan, prepare and enjoy your meals. People have success in reaching their goals and maintaining their lifestyle with both planning and preparing their meals - but what would work best for you? It could depend on how much time you have, how invested you want to be with what you eat, how much variety you want in your diet, and if you’re feeding a family, or just yourself.

What is meal planning?

Meal planning is where you take time and consideration to plan out what meals you want to eat. It can be as simple or as complex as you like - you can plan meals for the week, the fortnight, or even the month. Depending on if you live alone, or if you have a family, you’ll need to plan meals for just yourself or multiple people - it can get complicated when everyone is different in age and appetite! Lastly, your plans can span the entire day, or just one meal; you can plan for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and your snacks, or just dinner by itself.

You can plan your meals with a notepad, diary, whiteboard or your phone/computer
You can plan your meals with a notepad, diary, whiteboard or your phone/computer

Why are meal plans good?

Planning meals is about thinking of future you - what are you going to eat in the future. Because planning means you have to start thinking of the upcoming week, it means you start getting in the groove of being in front, instead of falling behind, on thinks like eating healthy, eating enough and having enough food in the cupboard.

If you’re planning meals, and you’re sticking to your plan, you won’t have to battle with frantic last-minute quests to find something to eat for lunch or dinner. You won’t need to open the fridge and see bare shelves and lapse into some quick take-away or fast food. We’ve all spent countless time debating back and forward (sometimes between ourselves!) about what we can conjure up for dinner, and before you know it, it’s 8 pm and you’re starving. Having a meal plan means you save time, often at the most critical parts of your day (dinner with tired kids, anyone?!).

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Meal planning means your fridge and shelves will be stocked at the start of the week (usually, or whenever you shop!), and the day before shopping they’ll end up being bare - which is great! A bare fridge, if planned for, means you’re wasting less food and money.

If you don’t have a plan in place, it’s really easy to let your tummy dictate what you’re about to eat - we’ve all had cravings for pizza and burgers. Those cravings are natural and fine, even eating those foods are fine - in moderation! Often, if you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to become a repeat customer at your favourite burger and fries place around the corner from work. Planning, and sticking to what you’ve outlined, reduces that temptation and still ultimately leaves you satisfied and eating what you want - because it’s your plan.

Meal planning for the whole family

Planning meals for yourself is pretty easy, you can just think about what you feel like and bam, you have a plan! When it comes to your family though, things not only get tricky, they get exhausting and take a lot of time. Most of the time, what works best, is not doing a ‘full plan’ but rather have a ‘partial plan’ for your family.

The way you plan, and what you plan to eat, can affect your partner or family.
The way you plan, and what you plan to eat, can affect your partner or family.

With a partial plan, the most basic example is breakfast - kids love having a choice, and it’s not something you really need to think about. Having Weetbix, Cornflakes and Rice Bubbles in the pantry, milk in the fridge with fruit and bread on the bench - nearly everyone is happy. They’re not items you actively need to think about planning out, it’s not exhausting and it keeps the kids (and the bank!) happy.

What is meal prep?

Meal prep is short for ‘meal preparation’, which is all about taking the time to organise and prepare your meals well in advance. You can prepare any of your meals that take time to make - most often this is either lunch or dinner. You can also prepare breakfast and snacks, but often those kinds of meals don’t require a bunch of attention or time. Typically meal prep focuses on one person instead of the whole family, as preparing a week’s worth of meals for 4+ people is a huge amount of work!

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How do you meal prep?

Meal prep requires planning too - just a different kind, with different results. You need to plan to prepare, cook and package what you want to eat, well in advance. Usually people that meal prep (“meal preppers”) do most of their cooking on a Sunday, which usually gives them a long window of time to do a lot of it!

Firstly you choose what you want to eat for the week - let’s focus on dinners. Usually meal prepping involves a single meal for the entire week. It can be a typical meal, like sausages, mash and roast veggies. You’ll need to buy enough ingredients for five of the same meal - if you eat two sausages for dinner, you’ll need ten for the week. You cook everything in one hit, all the sausages, you make a big pot of mashed potato - and you stock the entire oven full of vegetables.

A healthy vegetarian meal prep option - avocado is a fantastic source of protein.
A healthy vegetarian meal prep option - avocado is a fantastic source of protein.

After everything is ready, you transfer it to containers for storage. Any container will work, but air-right is preferred - there are some specific ‘meal prep’ containers which have little compartments too. From there, you gauge how long the meal can last in the fridge, which is usually only one or two days. So you put two meals in the fridge (Monday/Tuesday) and the rest in the freezer. You’ll pull the frozen meals out the night before you need them.

Is meal prepping hard?

Cooking is cooking - it can be easy, and it can be hard. The benefit of prepping is you get a large chunk of it out of the way in one sitting. So if you don’t like cooking, this can be for you, as you won’t have to cook during the week! However, it can be unappetising to eat the same meal every night for the entire week. You can have a few different meals in the freezer, but then you’re essentially just eating frozen food every day, which is pretty bland too.

Freezing ahead of time is a good time saver - but not all foods freeze equally. A study in 2007 showed fruit and vegetables can lose nutrients while frozen, due to oxidation[1]. Furthermore, a study six years later highlighted that thawing meat incorrectly leads to quality damage and ultimately more bacteria on the surface of meat[2]. We all know fresh tastes better, but it could also just be better for you!

If you’ve got a family, it’s hard to find time every night to cook, and it often becomes a stress. Shifting all that stress to a weekend works better for some, but often as a family you could be busy taking the kids to sport, seeing friends, or - dare we say it - relaxing. It can eat up a chunk of your Saturday or Sunday cooking a really big meal.

Which one is better for a diet?

If you’re looking for some structure and support around changing your diet - you could be looking at something like a keto diet, or even just intermittent fasting, both meal prepping and meal plans will work for you. You can choose what you want to eat, in what volume, and at any time - there’s no restrictions on how you should plan or prepare. Of course, at Noshh, we recommend changing your lifestyle, not going on a diet.

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Are meal plans or prep new?

Planning or preparing what you’ll eat for the day, week or even month aren’t new ideas. You’ve probably planned, even subconsciously, most dinners for the week - especially if you have a family. Planning can, and often does, get more involved than just thinking ‘what should I feed the family for dinner this week?’, and we’ll dive deeper into that soon.

Below is a chart from Google - it represents the Australian interest in meal planning and meal prepping over time. You can see, since 2004, meal planning (blue) has interested a lot of Australians, and it’s more and more people have started researching how to meal plan. In the last ten years, the interest has nearly tripled - a sign that planning meals are important to Australians.

In contrast, meal prepping (red) didn’t receive much interest until early 2015 - only six years ago. Before then, meal preparation was rarely searched on Google, at least compared to planning. However, over the last five years, meal prepping has seen a gradual increase in interest from Australians, never eclipsing planning, but it’s definitely becoming more and more popular:

Australian interest in meal planning (blue) and meal prepping(red)
Australian interest in meal planning (blue) and meal prepping(red)

What works best for you?

There’s no correct answer here, and no “clear winner” when it comes to what’s the easiest way to eat. Similar to foods you like and don’t like, planning and preparing comes down to what works best for you. Meal plans are great for families, people who want variety with some structure, and cost-saving benefits. On the other hand, meal prep is great for those that don’t get bored eating the same thing and want to get all of their cooking out of the way in one hit.

We’ve also found our customers can have great success in sticking to a meal plan, especially when it’s easy to generate and buy the groceries. Sticking to our meal plans mean they reach their goals; saving money, maintaining or losing weight, and just eating better.

1: Rickman, J. C., Barrett, D. M., & Bruhn, C. M. (2007). Nutritional comparison of fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Part 1. Vitamins C and B and phenolic compounds. In Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture.

2: Akhtar, S., Khan, M. I., & Faiz, F. (2013). Effect of Thawing on Frozen Meat Quality: A comprehensive Review. Pakistan Journal of Food Sciences.

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