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Meal prep has many layers, from planning, shopping, cooking, packing, storing, and eating. But ensuring food safety means you should know how long ahead to cook and keep your food. I will give you all the information and tips on how early you can meal prep.
How Early Can You Meal Prep?
There are three types of meal prep, each requiring a different kind of storage. Let’s look at what they are:
- Dry Food Prep: Dry foods are items like granola, nut and seeds, trail mixes, chips, cookies, etc. They can be stored in your cabinet, pantry, or countertop. They last anywhere between a few days to a few weeks.
- Fridge Food Prep: Fridge foods are the meals or ingredients you plan to use within a few days. After a few days, they will go bad, rot, or lose quality. It is best to prep for 3-5 days for fridge meals.
- Freezer Food Prep: Freezer meals can last for months until you use them. It is best to prep three months ahead for these foods as after that, they lose quality.
Many people don’t go into extensive meal prep and prefer only to prepare cooked food weekly. That will require fridge storage and, on occasion, the freezer. Sticking to advance prep of 5 days maximum is best for food storage safety.
Is It Safe to Prep Meals Ahead?
When you consider the point of meal prepping, it boils down to doing as much as you can ahead of time, from chopping veggies and marinating meats to cooking whole meals. This tends to cause a lot of concern about food safety among many people.
Prepping food for days, weeks, and months ahead is safe if you use the correct storage times and methods. Imagine making a bunch of food, and then you can simply assemble or reheat the meal prep before eating. That saves so much time and effort in the kitchen daily.
Sticking to 3-4 days of fridge prep is safest. If you have any food left beyond that, it is best to use it immediately or freeze it. If you see signs of spoilage, discard the food to prevent illnesses.
Freezer prep is best done 3-4 months ahead. While many freezer foods can last beyond six months, they start to lose flavor, and the texture can change, reducing the quality of your food. The faster you use prepared food, the safer it is for your health.
Another safety measure for when your fridge or freezer stops working, and your food loses its quality or starts defrosting is to use it immediately or discard it. Some freezer food will be safe to refreeze, but avoiding it is safer and healthier.
I once had five pounds of beef, three whole chickens, and a week’s worth of cooked meals in my freezer that stopped working overnight. I didn’t realize it and woke up in the morning to a disaster! Safe to say I lost all that food, but hey, things happen, and I move forward and start again!
How Early Can You Meal Prep for the Fridge?
Whether you prefer weekly fridge prep, don’t like freezer food or don’t have the time for it, or don’t have freezer space, having ingredients and whole meals ready in the fridge is super convenient. You don’t have to bother with defrosting; it only takes a few minutes to assemble or reheat.
Many people who do weekly fridge prep think they must prepare for the 7-day week. This can be unsafe. If you are meal-prepping early and storing food in the fridge, don’t exceed prep for more than four days.
Some food might still be safe, especially with cooler temperatures (30 degrees Fahrenheit) and proper storage, but if you want to ensure health and safety, avoid carrying food for more than four days in the fridge. Bacteria grows and spreads when food stands for many days, causing foodborne illnesses.
If you don’t have the time to prep twice a week to replenish your stock, try to keep food in the fridge for 3-4 days and place the rest in the freezer. That way, all your work gets done simultaneously, and you can enjoy the convenience while ensuring food safety.
Early Meal Prep: 7 Foods That Are Safe
Salads are fresh and safest to use up within 2-3 days. Water ingredients like cucumbers, tomatoes, and green leaves should be kept separate to avoid sogginess. Dressings should only be added when serving.
My favorite way is to store all the salad ingredients ready, cleaned, and cut up in different containers. That way, I can assemble a delicious, crispy salad in less than a minute, and nothing is wet, soggy, brown, or moldy.
Oats are one of the best early meal prep foods. Baked and overnight oats will last for 43-4 days. But you want to keep any berries or other fruits separate and only add them before eating, or they will turn soggy and may grow mold.
Pasta is probably the most popular early meal prep food because it is easy to make and can last up to 5 days in the fridge. It is recommended to use it up within four days and freeze any leftovers, especially if it contains ingredients like dairy from cream, milk, and cheese.
Eating rice within 2-3 days after storing it is safest. Placing it in the fridge about 30 minutes after cooking is best to help prevent bacillus cereus spores in uncooked rice that survive the cooking process and grow into bacteria, multiply, and produce toxins, causing illness when you eat it.
Rice can get moldy incredibly fast. On one occasion, I left some rice on the kitchen counter for 2 hours during the summer, and it had already started to go bad. There were green spots, and it smelled off. It was definitely a realization that ensuring safety with rice shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Meat and Poultry
Meat and poultry must be cooked well to the proper internal temperatures that consider them cooked through. They will last 3-5 days in the fridge, but it is best to consume them within 3-4 days and place any leftovers in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Soups, Curries, Chili, and Stews
Food like soups, curries, and chili are my favorites for meal prep. They are always delicious, have several variations, and are easy to toss in the freezer if leftovers exist. They can last 5-6 days in the fridge, but using them within five days is best for the best-tasting quality.
Sandwiches And Wraps
Sandwiches and wraps should not be prepped more than 2-3 days ahead. They tend to get soggy from veggies and sauces. The bread can also get hard and spoil quickly. Proper storage using plastic wrap, foil, and airtight containers, is also necessary to keep them fresh for longer.
Baked goods like cakes and pastries can last 3-5 days on the countertop. Items with fruit, fresh cream, cream cheese, etc., must be placed in the fridge for 3-4 days. If stored correctly, homemade cookies can last more than a week, even up to 2.
I have stored cookies for two weeks in airtight containers, and it worked out perfectly. I try not to keep the cake for more than four days, or it starts to grow mold. This has happened several times, especially in the summer months. It’s no fun seeing your hard work go to waste that way!
Most meal prep lasts between 3-5 days in the refrigerator. Freezer meals should not be kept for more than three months to ensure the quality of taste and texture. And always practice proper storage methods to keep your food fresh.
Nathaniel Lee is an avid cook, drawing on his decades of home cooking and fine dining experience. He is a contributing chef at Mashed, and his recipes and contributions have been featured in Tasting Table, Edible Arrangements, Insanely Good Recipes, and The Daily Meal.