‘Meal prepping’ is booming – but beware the health dangers

<span>Influencers post enticing pictures of prepared food in colourful rows to make your mouth water. But nutrionists have raised concerns.</span><span>Photograph: Andrey Popov/Getty</span>
Influencers post enticing pictures of prepared food in colourful rows to make your mouth water. But nutrionists have raised concerns.Photograph: Andrey Popov/Getty

Just after his food shop is delivered at 10am on a Sunday, Sean Willers starts his weekly routine. Bolognese, chilli, potatoes, rice, chicken and vegetables are all cooked and stored in the fridge for lunches and dinners until Wednesday.

The routine – he eats the same thing “80% of the time” – means he has similar food every week for 17 of his 21 meals so he can control calories, eat healthily and save money.

Batch cooking, or “meal prepping”, has grown in popularity and is attracting a diverse following.

Those on a tight budget, fitness enthusiasts, those who want to save time otherwise spent cooking during the week, or anyone who wants to avoid calling for a last-minute takeaway, have helped the trend grow. Instagram is awash with influencers posting rows of Tupperware filled with colourful curries and rice, hamburgers with sweet potato fries, smoothies and salads, among many other meals.

But it has also raised concern among nutritionists about the potential for different types of food to spoil in the fridge, and the accompanying health risks.

How the savings work

Prepping for meals through the week can save in several ways. Buying greater amounts of individual ingredients can save money through economies of scale. And with proper planning, there should be little waste – or so the theory goes. Chef Ben Ebbrell, a co-founder of the YouTube Sorted Food channel, says avoiding last-minute decisions will also make savings.

“Buying ingredients in bulk is often cheaper per kilo, plus there are savings to be made in terms of energy use by only having to use appliances, hobs or oven once. It costs a lot less to have three trays cooking in the same oven at one time than to heat the oven for a single baking or roasting tray of food three times on consecutive days,” he says.

Mimi Harrison, author of Beat the Budget cookbook, started meal prepping at university when her weekly supermarket budget was £13. Now she draws up meal plans where the costs are kept down by five portions being made at a time. Soy tofu, aubergine and rice comes in at £1.16 a portion, while rigatoni with pork at £1.02.

The last year has seen the prepping trend grow, she says. A “£20 weekly meal prep”, which makes 15 meals, has proved particularly popular. People are really focusing. They want to know how to make something last across the whole week that would reduce their budget,” she says.

Follow the storage rules

While many of the images of freshly prepped meals on Instagram may make your mouth water, they also give rise to questions about food safety and storage.

Nutritionists urge people to be fully aware when storing certain foods together. Not doing so can negate any savings, as they may end up in the bin, and also, potentially, make you ill. The Food Standards Agency, for instance, says cooked rice should be consumed within 24 hours after being stored in the fridge.

Nutritionist Isobel Baillie Hamilton, from the Nutritionist Resource directory, says meat, fish, grains and pasta can be kept in the fridge for up to three days, but in separate containers.

Carolina Goncalves, from online pharmacy Pharmica, says pasta and dairy products are more likely to go off due to bacterial growth and should be consumed sooner than other products.

“Scientific research suggests it is perfectly safe to refrigerate, or freeze, food as long as you prepare it hygienically, store it in proper containers and account for how long each ingredient can keep in the fridge or freezer based on its unique properties,” she says.

However, Ebbrell warns that the temperature of your fridge can drop sharply when it is opened throughout the day, meaning it does not run at the recommended 0C to 5C, which can reduce shelf life.

“A freezer is a brilliant option. But what doesn’t happen is for the time stamp to reset once frozen. If you’ve left it in the fridge for three days, then you transfer it to a freezer, when you defrost it, it is still on its last legs. You can’t then keep it for another three days without risk.

“Of course, not all foods freeze well – salads are impossible, for instance, and freezing rice at home drastically alters its texture.”

Psychological dangers?

While eating an organised and regimented diet may help your waistline and keep your finances in reasonably good order, it may also have an effect on your mental health, according to psychotherapist Eloise Skinner, who says there can be dangers in being “over prepared, controlled and structured”.

“Meal prepping can narrow our range of options, creating some degree of rigidity. There’s also a danger, perhaps especially for those with a pre-existing tendency towards controlled routines, that meal prepping becomes a fixation – creating a pattern that we feel we can’t deviate from.

“This could restrict us from some of the more spontaneous, unplanned joys in life – grabbing a meal with a friend, or changing up our meal plans at the last minute.”

Willers says he leaves space every week within his routine for meals out with his family or partner, so that he can have food which is not planned.

How to store food

Dean Harper, a private chef based in London, says people who have stored their rice incorrectly, for example, can come down with a nasty stomach infection days later. “If not stored properly, pre-cooked meals can become breeding grounds for bacteria – usually, the taste and texture of the food would go stale first.”

There are a number of ways to ensure that prepped meals remain safe to eat:

Use shallow airtight containers to store the food once it is portioned, and label them with the date.

Ensure food is cooled to room temperature before it is stored in the fridge.

Lisa Marley, a chef, recommends drinking fresh juices immediately, but says they can be kept in the fridge for up to two days.

Meals can typically be held in the freezer for up to four months, says Jen Walpole, a nutritional therapist.

Your fridge should be below 5C and your freezer below -18C, says Baillie Hamilton.