Meal Planning vs. Meal Prepping (And Why You Need Both)

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What’s the difference between a dinner that supports your health and fat-loss goals…and a quick takeout order? It’s all in the plan: instead of meal planning vs meal prepping, it’s the meal prep and the meal plan. 

Let’s pull back the curtain of mystery surrounding meal planning vs. meal prepping. You’ve probably heard of both and have maybe even wondered “What’s the difference? Aren’t they the same thing?” 

These skills do go hand in hand but are different processes. Let’s talk about what each is and why these simple tools are important for keeping your fridge stocked with healthy, nutritious foods and even help you save money on your journey towards fat loss and better health.

meal prep in containers | Meal Planning vs. Meal Prepping

Healthy eating: easier said than done

We’re constantly surrounded by oh-so-delicious treats in the grocery aisles and bombarded by tantalizing ads, luring us to fast food restaurants. And these options are tempting, especially when your stomach starts talking to you after a long work day. Do you really have the energy to plan and cook a healthy dinner?

Despite our best efforts, eating healthy is simply not an easy thing to do with all of the unhealthy options that surround us as we navigate packed schedules. When hunger strikes, it is already too late to make the decision that supports our goals. Instead, we tend to grab the closest, most convenient meal because we’re hungry, overwhelmed with deciding what to eat, and frustrated by how long it takes to cook (not to mention doing the dishes). 

So how do we break the cycle of last-minute decisions and feed ourselves nourishing food while making new, healthy habits stick? 

The secret to success is in the prep, so we recommend both meal planning and meal prepping to stay on track with your health goals. And we don’t mean planning to go to Chick-fil-A on your lunch break. So what do we mean, exactly? Let’s break it down.

man and woman tasting food in the kitchen | Meal Planning vs. Meal Prepping

What is meal planning?

It’s not often you jump in the car and take off without a destination in mind. We plan where we’re going before turning the key. Let’s think of meal planning in the same way by developing a road map to your destination. 

Meal planning is the mental work of knowing what you’re going to eat and when. This is when you ask yourself “what’s for lunch this week?” And more importantly, the answer to that question, too. 

There are a lot of “right” ways to do this. You might only plan lunches, or maybe you’re extra ambitious and prefer to plan every meal for the week. This takes just a few minutes and can be fun when you let your creativity kick in. You’re certainly not restricted to plain boiled chicken and rice! Now is the time to pull out that tasty-looking recipe you saved months ago, but haven’t had a chance to try… until now. 

Once you’ve found your recipes, simply develop a list of the ingredients you’ll need before heading to the grocery store. It’s important to choose healthy foods you actually enjoy at this step because no one is going to stick to an eating plan if meals aren’t delicious.

At the start, it’s best to start small, try planning just one meal of your day for the entire week. Make sure you love what you’re preparing and you stick to your road map! This way you’ll make fewer impulse purchases and you’ll be excited about what’s on the menu.

woman planning meals in a notebook

What is meal prepping?

Meal prepping is the step that comes after deciding what to eat. It’s the physical act of getting the food ready to eat like chopping carrots, combining ingredients to toss in the slow cooker, or cooking several full meals to save for later. 

When you hear “meal prep” you might think of pictures of beautifully organized refrigerators with food containers, full to the brim with nutritious fruits, vegetables, and protein. Although it makes for a pretty Instagram post, a lineup of identical meals isn’t the only way to maintain a healthy diet. Remember, you can get creative with your meal prep (and not everyone likes eating the same meals on repeat!). 

If you want to add a little variety to your meals, consider making the main protein source for the days ahead – like marinated chicken breasts – and several sides such as salad, broccoli, or green beans that you can rotate between during the week. You can separate full meals into individual containers for each day of the week, or store every food item in one large container and take out what sounds delicious on a day-to-day basis. 

Instead of just preparing food for one week, you can even make meals to freeze and heat up later, like a comforting chili or scrumptious lemon garlic chicken thighs. Everyone’s prep will look a little different. And it will take some trial and error before you hit your stride. Stick with it, we know you can do this! Plus, there are huge benefits to making a meal plan and preparing it!

fresh vegetables being prepped

Benefits of both

If you’re thinking “Phew, this sounds like a lot of work,” consider some of the benefits.

Meal planning saves you from decision fatigue at the grocery store, and even saves money. Without a plan, it’s easy to start walking the aisles, throwing anything and everything into your cart that looks tasty – especially when shopping while hungry. Meal planning gives you a roadmap for what to buy and keeps you from wondering, “How on earth did my grocery bill get so high?”

You might wonder why preparation is important if you already have healthy ingredients. Why not just make dinner at the end of the day, for example? When we’re low on energy, mustering up the creativity for meal inspiration is tough. If you have to stay late at the office, your child gets sick, or you get stuck in traffic, plans to make a healthy dinner often go out the window, making you more likely to grab takeout on the way home.

We’re only human and our moods and energy levels change throughout the day. Prepping your food ahead of time helps you stay on track with healthy eating habits, even if your day doesn’t go as planned. Plus, you’re less likely to just order takeout when you’ve already spent time and money making a delicious dish you know you’ll love.

woman prepping snack and meal boxes

Slow and steady

There’s no need to empty your fridge and cupboards and start from scratch. Rather than trying to completely overhaul your habits in a day, work on adding meal planning and prep to your routine little by little. Try something small and manageable, like making one meal for the week, maybe a lunch you can pack for busy work days.

Once you’re comfortable with that, try adding breakfast, dinner, or both to your meal plans. Small changes have big results when repeated. Start small and watch your new habits form into a healthy daily routine before you know it.

mother and daughter serving dinner

Key takeaways

Eating healthy can be an uphill battle, but with a little planning and preparation, it can feel much less overwhelming. We know that when you’ve had a full day it can be difficult to make the most responsible, healthy decisions – even if you promised yourself you would eat nutritious foods just that morning. We’ve all been there! 

No need to decide between meal planning vs. meal prepping – the two work best as a pair! By coupling meal planning with meal prep, you’ll consistently work toward improving your health, saving money, and getting through your entire day without a grumbling stomach.

Change can be hard at first, but great things never come easy and we know you can make small, sustainable changes to your life to achieve your wellness goals! Time to plan and prep!

Are you ready to get started with your own meal planning and prepping? Check out our free e-guide here so you can dive in with 10 recipes and a week of at-home workouts!

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