We’ve been there: skipping off to the grocery store, armed with five-day menus and visions of becoming meal-prep pros—only to see that most of the fresh food we’ve bought can’t last the week without becoming susceptible to wilt, mold, and sketchy odors.
Depending on how you go about it, meal planning can be the bane of your existence or your weekly lifesaver. And while it does require a bit of thinking in advance, we’re all about helping you make it the latter with easy ideas to save both time and money. The first step is to choose food items that can keep for more than just a couple of days once prepped.
Get started with this handy guide of 19 foods, from pulses to produce to proteins, that will last at least four days once prepped, including bonus tips to keep them in the best condition possible throughout the week. (Want more recipes and tips? Check out our super-simple meal-prep guide.)
Meal-Prep Method: Living up to their nickname, the incredible edibles can be prepped in several ways that last you through the week. Hard-boil and store them in the fridge, with shells still on, in their original cartons to use in lunchtime salads or sandwiches. Turn a dozen of them into a giant frittata for an easy dinner option on busy nights, or individual egg muffins to have as a portable breakfast through the work week.
Bonus Tip: When hard-boiling eggs, refrain from peeling them until you need them so that they keep for the full week. However you prepare your egg, protect them from absorbing smells and flavors from other foods in the fridge by keeping them in separate cartons or airtight containers.
2. Lentils and Other Pulses
Meal-Prep Method: No clue what we mean by pulses? We're talking about the edible seeds in the legume family. So yes, lentils are a pulse, and so are chickpeas, dry peas, kidney beans, pinto beans, etc. And they are perfect for meal prep.
While opening a can of precooked lentils is convenient, the dried variety is so much more cost-efficient and doesn’t require presoaking like beans. Add 1 cup of dried lentils to 1 1/2 cups of water or broth and a pinch of salt (throw in a clove of garlic or some herbs to add even more subtle flavor), and bring to a boil. Then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes and let stand before packing the lentils into sealed containers. Toss them into salads, soups, and rice dishes, or simply drizzle them with your favorite dressing and eat plain. This Mediterranean Lentil Salad is really all you need for lunch this week, times five.
Bonus Tip: When storing the lentils (or other pulses), fill the containers with the cooking water to keep them from drying out when you’re not using them. They’ll last up to a full week this way.
3. Ground Meat
Meal-Prep Method: Warm up a skillet, then add the meat, cooking it until it’s evenly browned. Once cooled, pack three-ounce portions into several airtight containers. Like chicken, ground meat won’t last longer than four days in the fridge, so pack anything you’ll use after day four into freezer bags, squeezing out as much air as possible before sealing and freezing. Use the meat for pasta sauce, tacos, and casseroles.
Bonus Tip: Ground meat lasts longer cooked than raw, so be sure to remove it from the store packaging and cook it as soon as possible once you’ve brought it home. Make your frozen ground meat last longer by thawing it in the fridge rather than a microwave—doing so will keep the meat safe to use for an additional two days.
Meal-Prep Method: Coat your meat in a tablespoon or two of oil, season it, and bake in a 360-degree oven for about 30 minutes. To keep things interesting, season half your chicken one way and use a different set of flavorings for the other half. Once baked, let it cool slightly, then divide three-ounce cuts into multiple airtight containers. Since cooked chicken can’t quite last the full week in the fridge, cut up anything you’ll use after day four and place in individual freezer bags. Then freeze until it’s time to eat.
Bonus Tip: Chicken breasts may be the leanest, but for meal-prep purposes, thighs may be a better bet; their slightly higher fat content means they won’t become as dry in the fridge, plus they’re cheaper! Remember that it’s safest to reheat chicken only once, so warm up only the amount you plan to eat. Chicken is best reheated the way it was cooked, so spread the pieces on a cookie sheet, cover with aluminum foil, and place in a preheated 450-degree oven for about 10 minutes.
5. Brown Rice
Meal-Prep Method: Rinse one cup of short-grain brown rice in cold water. Add the rice to one and a half cups of boiling water and cook for about 30 minutes, covered. Let it sit for another 10 minutes before opening and fluffing with a fork. Cool, then store in shallow, airtight containers. You should get about five half-cup servings.
Bonus Tip: Cooked brown rice will keep for about five days in the fridge. To make it taste fresher, reheat only the portion you need for a given meal during the week. For speedy reheating, place the rice in a microwave-safe dish, sprinkle some water over the top, and cover the dish with a wet paper towel. Nuke on high heat until the rice is back to its steamy, springy self.
Meal-Prep Method: Rinse one cup of quinoa, then place it in a pot with two cups of water and a pinch of salt. Boil, then cover and reduce the heat, simmering for about 15 minutes until all the water is absorbed. Let it sit for five minutes before fluffing with a fork. Cool, then store in airtight containers. You should get about six half-cup servings.
Bonus Tip: Make quinoa last longer and taste even better by reheating it on the stovetop; add about two tablespoons of water for every cup of quinoa, plus a teaspoon of olive oil, and heat it in a pot for 10 minutes until it’s warmed through and fluffy.
Meal-Prep Method: Have breakfast half-ready all week long by simmering one and a half cups of steel-cut oats in four cups of water and a pinch of salt for three minutes before turning off the heat. Once the mixture comes to room temperature, place the oatmeal in an airtight container. You should get about five servings.
Bonus Tip: Save even more time in the morning by packing the oatmeal into five individual containers and adding your favorite mix-ins. Before heading out the door, add a splash of water or milk to one jar, and reheat in the microwave—or just eat cold for the easiest overnight oats ever!
Meal-Prep Method: Boil 10 ounces of pasta according to package directions, but take it off the stove when it’s just shy of al dente; you’ll want it slightly undercooked so that it’s not mushy when you reheat it during the week. Drain the pasta and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Toss the pasta in a splash of olive oil and place it into a tightly sealed container. You should have about five one-cup servings.
Bonus Tip: Make your pasta last longer by storing it separately from sauces and add-ins. For a fast reheating option, bring a pot of water to a boil. Put your pasta in a metal strainer and dip it into the boiling water for about thirty seconds, or until it’s warmed through but not soggy.
Meal-Prep Method: Cook two cups of bulgur (no need for rinsing) by adding it to four cups of cold water or broth, bringing the mixture to a boil, then simmering for 15 minutes. Let it stand, covered, for at least five minutes, and drain any remaining water before fluffing. Place it into airtight containers. You should have about six one-cup servings to use in grain bowls, pilafs, salads, or even as an oatmeal substitute for breakfast.
Bonus Tip: Properly stored bulgur will last for three to five days if refrigerated within two hours of cooking. Since it tastes good cold or hot and tends to soak up any liquid it’s in, use it for warm meals at the beginning of the week, and toss it into colder dishes once it’s a bit drier during the latter half of the week.
Meal-Prep Method: Apples are one of the lowest-maintenance fruits out there. Leave them whole and refrigerated in the crisper drawer to keep them fresh for up to four weeks. If you must slice or chop them, place the pieces in a glass container filled with cold water to prevent oxidization and browning.
Bonus Tip: Place a damp paper towel over whole apples in the fridge—the moisture helps them stay fresh longer. Alternatively, put them in sealed plastic bags and keep them separate from other produce to prevent ethylene gas from releasing and causing spoilage.
Meal-Prep Method: Grapes can last up to two to three weeks when stored properly. Line an open container with a paper towel and place the grapes on top. The towel will help draw out any extra moisture from the fruit and keep out bacteria or mold growth. Keep the grapes in the coldest part of your fridge.
Bonus Tip: For longest-lasting results, don’t rinse the grapes until just before you’re ready to eat them. Even if you do happen to wash them beforehand, though, they can still keep for up to a week if refrigerated.
Meal-Prep Method: Even ripe bananas can last all week with a few simple tricks. Take them out of any plastic bags as soon as possible and separate each banana from the bunch. Wrap each banana’s stem in a bit of plastic wrap, and place in the fridge. The wrap will prevent the ripening and browning agents from spreading to the rest of the banana too quickly, and the refrigeration will keep the fruit firm.
Bonus Tip: Make bananas last even longer by peeling and cutting them into one-inch chunks, then placing them on parchment paper and freezing. Once frozen, put them in freezer bags and keep for up to four months to throw into smoothies, baked goods, or one-ingredient "ice cream."
Meal-Prep Method: Surprised to see berries on this list? While the jewel-colored fruits are notorious for spoiling easily, there is an easy way to keep them fresh all week. Add one cup of vinegar to three cups of water in a large bowl, and soak the berries in the mixture for about five minutes. Drain the berries and pat them until they’re as dry as you can get them. Place them in an airtight container that’s been lined with paper towels and crack the lid open to keep letting moisture escape.
Bonus Tip: Keep in mind that despite this method, certain berries still hold up better than others. Opt for strawberries and blueberries over blackberries or raspberries, and try to keep them in a single layer rather than piling them on top of each other to prevent bruising.
Meal-Prep Method: Once home from the store, remove the green tops from your carrots, wash and peel them, and chop them any way you’d like. Wrap them in a damp paper towel and place in an airtight container. Every day you don’t use them, make sure to re-dampen the towel so that the veggies don’t dry up. Alternatively, put peeled and cut carrots in a container of cold water and refrigerate until you need them, swapping out the water whenever it starts looking murky.
Bonus Tip: Throw the carrots into boiling water for two minutes, then place them in ice water so they don’t overcook. They’ll retain their crunch and color, but they’ll last for up to two weeks as opposed to just five days.
15. Sweet Potatoes
Meal-Prep Method: On Sunday, scrub five or six sweet potatoes and oven-bake them whole, wrapped in foil, with their peels on. Once baked and cooled, put them in a plastic bag or a glass container and place in the fridge. You now have one ready to go for every day of the week, whether y ou cut, roast, mash, or simply reheat and eat whole.
Bonus Tip: Baked sweet potatoes will last up to 10 days in the fridge, but if you can’t use them all up within the week, they can easily be frozen for four to six months without sacrificing taste. Simply wrap them in plastic, place into Ziploc bags, and freeze. Next time you need your sweet potato fix, pop the frozen spud into the microwave for two to four minutes until it’s good and warm.
Meal-Prep Method: On Sunday, remove the outer leaves on a large head of cauliflower and cut it into florets. Put the florets into a loosely sealed plastic bag for easy access during the week when you want to roast or stir-fry them. If you’re prepping the veggie as “rice,” pulverize the head of cauliflower with a food processor and store in individual, sealable baggies, so you grab the exact amount you need for each meal through the week.
Bonus Tip: Cauliflower loses freshness when exposed to moisture, so while cooking it is tempting, it’s better to leave the florets (or the rice) uncooked and as dry as possible to stretch their shelf life, and rinse just before use.
If you’re opting for cauliflower rice, the uncooked version lasts longer, so just pat the granules dry and refrigerate them in individually portioned, sealable plastic bags until you’re ready to sauté (or not—cauli-rice can be eaten raw too).
Meal-Prep Method: Start by removing the beet greens (which taste great sautéed!), as they tend to dry out the beets prematurely. If you’re enjoying the beets raw, peel the skin and use a spiralizer or a large grater to shred them. If you’re cooking the beets, don’t worry about peeling the skin; just scrub the outside thoroughly. Boil them whole for an hour or pack them tightly inside foil and roast in a preheated, 400-degree oven for an hour. When cooled, the skins should rub off easily. Cube the beets and store them by either wrapping them tightly in foil or placing in shallow airtight containers.
Bonus Tip: Not only do cooked beets last for five to seven days in the fridge, but cooking a big batch at once also spares you the hassle of having to repeatedly clean up magenta beet juice spills during the week. Whether you’ll be enjoying them spiralized, cubed, or sliced, cooking beets first may work best for meal-prep purposes.
Meal-Prep Method: Remove the leaves from the thick stems, wash them, and let them air dry (or if you’re fancy, use a salad spinner to get the water out). Place them in a plastic bag or container along with a paper towel to continue to soak up any moisture.
Bonus Tip: We love sautéed kale as much as anyone, but we recommend cooking the greens just when you’re ready so they still taste fresh. Thankfully, kale takes mere minutes to cook up in a pan, so you’re not tacking on too much additional prep time. For raw salads, make sure you’re dressing the kale just before you eat to prevent the leaves from wilting while sitting in the fridge.
19. Butternut Squash
Meal-Prep Method: To make cutting into this veggie’s thick rind easier, pierce the squash with a fork and nuke it for two minutes in the microwave. Peel the skin with a knife, split the squash in half, and scoop out the seeds (save them to roast later for a delicious snack option!). Then cube the squash and store the pieces in airtight containers for use throughout the week.
Bonus Tip: Chopped and cooked butternut squash both last about four to five days when stored properly. To make the most of your prep time, toss your chopped squash in a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and roast on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Then put the cubes in an airtight container, so it’s even easier to toss them into salads or grain bowls, or purée them into soup during the week.