These tips and easy meal prep ideas for lunch will help you create a meal prep habit you can actually stick to this year!
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If you’re anything like me and your “new year, new me” plans got off to a rocky start this year thanks to the multitude of sicknesses making their rounds during the holidays, I’ve got some advice for you: you don’t need it to be January 1st to start making changes in your life! It may sound obvious, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s okay to ease into your New Year’s Resolutions. Or not take action on them at all until life gives you some breathing room to do so.
So to honor that mindset, I’m sharing a few easy meal prep ideas for lunch that can help you with any number of goals this new year. Whether you want to eat healthier, stop buying lunch out at work, or simply become a more organized person, these meal prep ideas are actually approachable and easy enough to become a sustainable habit. I promise!
These meal prep ideas are centered around one specific protein: our slow cooker pulled pork, which can easily be made in a big batch while you sleep (that’s our favorite part about slow cooker meal prep). But you can easily take these ideas and adjust them to fit with whatever protein you prefer, whether that’s roasted chicken & veggies, carne asada, or marinated tofu. With a little creativity and these basic ideas in your back pocket, the sky’s the limit!
The “Prep” Part Of Meal Prep
To start, you obviously need to prepare some food ahead of time in order to meal prep lunches for the week. If you’re already a meal prep fanatic and have this part down, skip ahead to the next section! But if you’re just starting to get into meal prep and need a little guidance, here are a few helpful things to consider:
- When will you prepare your main ingredient?
- How much time do you have? How much time do you want to spend prepping?
- How big of a batch do you need to make? Do you want lunch for 3 days, 5 days, or more?
- Are you okay eating the same thing every day, or do you want variety?
These are the questions we ask ourselves whenever we do our weekly meal prep! Typically, we cook a big batch of pulled pork or chicken tinga in our slow cooker on Sunday. This does take time, but it’s pretty hands-off so it fits in well with our busy schedules.
Slow cooker meal prep can go a long way in terms of the number of meals you get out of it. For reference, a 3.5 lb boneless pork shoulder will get you about 1.75 lb of pulled pork when all is said and done, depending on how fatty the meat is. If you plan on using around a quarter to a third pound of pork per meal, this easily gets you 5 to 6 meals for the week.
We also love prepping a simple protein so that we can use it in a variety of ways throughout the week. This keeps lunch more exciting day to day, which we find helps us actually stick with the habit of meal prepping! Figure out what works best for you, based on your answers to the questions above, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a sustainable meal prep routine for yourself.
Meal Prep Lunch Idea #1: Sliders & Sandwiches
Who doesn’t love a good sandwich for lunch? This is one of the easiest meals you can put together and it’s super customizable, so it works with pretty much any protein.
Here’s the only downside of sandwiches: they won’t stay fresh quite as long as some of the other ideas here, since the filling can make the bread soggy. But if you prepare what you can at the beginning of the week (i.e. portioning out snacks, shredding cheese, or slicing veggies), then all you have to do the night before work is assemble the sandwich. Trust me, this small step makes packing lunch way less of a hassle.
For inspiration, we love making BBQ pulled pork sliders with our slow cooker pulled pork. Here’s how to do it:
- Heat about a quarter pound of pork in a frying pan over medium heat until it’s sizzling (we love how this gives it a slightly crispy texture on the outside). Then, lower the heat and stir in some of your favorite BBQ sauce and shredded cheddar cheese.
- Spoon the pork onto 3 slider buns in a lunch container like this eco-friendly bento box and top with an extra drizzle of barbecue sauce, if desired, before putting the top buns on.
That’s it – two steps for a super simple pulled pork sandwich you can throw together ahead of time, or right before you head out the door. We like to heat the pork to give it a little crisp and melt the cheese, but you can also just toss the cold pork in BBQ sauce and shredded cheddar.
Here are some other ideas for sandwiches and sliders to get you thinking:
- If you made grilled chicken – grilled chicken sliders with lettuce, tomato, and roasted red pepper hummus
- If you made steak – steak sandwich on a fresh sub roll with roasted garlic aioli and arugula
- If you made roasted veggies – whole wheat wrap with hummus, roasted veggies, and sliced avocado
For sides, you can keep things simple and easy with crackers, fresh fruit, sliced veggies, or carrots and hummus. All great options alongside a fresh sandwich or wrap!
Meal Prep Lunch Idea #2: Burrito Bowls or Rice Bowls
Here’s another easy idea for using prepared protein or roasted veggies: make a burrito bowl or rice bowl! All you have to do is:
- Make a batch of steamed rice, which you can do while you’re prepping the protein
- Slice or dice fresh veggies like tomato, red onion, jalapeno, and bell pepper (for burrito bowls) or carrots, scallions, cucumber, pepper, and onion (for other kinds of rice bowls)
We recommend preparing somewhat “deconstructed” burrito bowls or rice bowls for lunch, for two reasons:
- They’ll stay fresh all week long, so you can make them all at once on meal prep day
- It allows you to separate what you want warmed up in the microwave from your fresh, cold toppings
In your main entrée container, pack a serving of rice topped with your prepared protein and/or roasted veggies. Then pack fresh toppings in separate small containers. When it’s time to eat lunch, microwave your rice and protein before adding your toppings. Assembling lunch on the spot this way means everything will taste super fresh!
Chances are you also have a favorite hot sauce, salsa, or other special condiment hiding in your fridge – now is the time to take advantage of that and use it in your bowl. Add it right to the rice and protein if it’s more shelf-stable and you want it heated up (like hot sauce) or bring some on the side if it’s more perishable and should stay cold (like tzatziki or avocado crema).
Tip: We love these eco-friendly containers for “DIY assembly” lunches like these, since there’s one main compartment for your entrée and two smaller containers for sides & toppings. The smaller containers lock onto the larger one, so you literally can’t forget to bring the toppings with your entrée! Plus, they’re microwave-safe so you can easily heat up lunch right in the container.
Note that you can easily swap rice for quinoa, lentils, or riced cauliflower if you want a different base for your bowl. Like sandwiches, bowls are super customizable – just pick your favorite grain, pair it with protein and veggies, and voilá!
Meal Prep Lunch Idea #3: DIY Tacos
While this idea is a bit more specific, tacos are – again – super customizable based on what protein or main ingredient you’ve already prepared. A taco is simply a tortilla filled with protein and toppings, so it’s really not much different from a sandwich (two slices of bread with protein and toppings) or a grain bowl (a base of grains with protein and toppings).
You know what else that means? You can use common ingredients across these three meal prep ideas, so you can cut down on prep time (and food waste!) while still getting enough variety into your lunches. Now that’s a win-win.
When it comes to meal prepping tacos for lunch, we suggest a “DIY assembly” approach for reasons similar to why you’d pack a deconstructed burrito bowl. Here’s what we recommend:
- Fold up a few 4-inch flour tortillas so they fit inside your main entrée container, and add a serving of protein on the side.
- Pack fresh toppings in smaller containers on the side, like shredded cheese, lettuce, peppers, onions, jalapenos, or tomatoes.
Packing the protein and tortillas in one container side-by-side means you can heat them up in the microwave while keeping the tortillas as fresh as possible. Like grain bowls, this also means you can prep all your lunches at the beginning of the week (instead of each night before going to bed) and know that they’ll stay fresh.
Of course, you can pack pre-assembled tacos for lunch if you want, but we recommend avoiding this unless you’re going to eat them within a few hours. You’ll risk the tortillas getting soggy and if you want to reheat them in the microwave, they’ll get super messy!
TLDR: Meal Prep Tips In A Nutshell
If there’s one major takeaway here, it’s this: the easiest way to make a habit out of meal prep is to start simple and figure out what works best for you.
Maybe you try making a slow cooker protein like our pulled pork or chicken tinga on Sunday, and use the three ideas we shared above to prep lunches for the week with some variety. Or, maybe you prefer to cook up a big batch of roasted chicken and veggies and serve it over rice every day of the week. Either way, we hope these tips (covered in this article) help you out along the way:
- Slow cooker meal prep can yield a large amount of food for the week with very little hands-on cooking effort required, so it’s a great for when you’re busy
- Prep whatever sides, toppings, and fresh ingredients (like fruits & veggies) you can at the beginning of the week and portion them out for each meal
- For meals that require reheating, pack the ingredients you want warmed up together in one container, and pack fresh toppings or cold sides in separate containers
- A set of functional lunch containers like this stackable bento box can make meal prep so much easier (and help keep your lunch together so you don’t forget anything!)
Happy meal prepping!
Feeling motivated? Check out some of these other big batch recipes that are perfect for meal prep:
- Slow Cooker Chicken Tinga
- Slow Cooker Carnitas
- Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala
- Easy Chicken Enchilada Casserole
- Thai Chicken & Rice Bowl with Peanut Sauce
- Sweet Potato Black Bean Rice Bowls
- Vegetarian Sweet Potato Black Bean Enchiladas
- Slow Cooker Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Slow Cooker Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili