If you’re part of Instagram’s Fit Fam, you know that a good body is made in the kitchen, and that means cooking at home… or meal prepping. Throughout internet fitness culture, the idea of #MealPrep has spread like wildfire. Over 7.8 million posts on Instagram have documented the phenomenon of pre-cooking and packaging one’s food for the week into near-identical units of Tupperware.
A look at Google searches from the last 13 years suggests that the term has just recently hit its stride, compared to “cooking” which has had a consistently high search frequency over the same period. But why the sudden interest? What makes meal prepping special?
The uninitiated may view meal prep as creating leftovers, which has been around for nearly a hundred years. In the 1800s, techniques like pickling, smoking and salting helped humans preserve food for later use. Starting in the early 1900s, refrigeration systems became popular among those in the middle class, facilitating the mainstreaming of leftovers as we understand them today.
Meal preppers are quick to distance themselves from leftovers, though. In a Facebook post, Prepared Nutrition, a meal prep service in Louisiana, clarifies the difference, calling meal prep “a strategic cooking method that allows proper portion control over a set period of time,” compared to leftovers, which are “pieces of uneaten meals, typically the portions of the meal that no one wants to eat.”
While the characterization may sound harsh to leftover-lovers, the emphasis on strategy typifies the larger frame and messaging surrounding meal prepping: individualism and productivity. Almost universally, meal prep’s goals diverge from the realm of pleasure, instead focusing on productivity and efficiency. Meal prep proponents advocate the technique, saying it will save time, save money, gives you control, keep you energized, and helps you lose weight.
In the age of neoliberalism, where productivity is paramount and one’s reality and circumstances are seen as an extension of their own work and will, meal prep is an appealing form of consumption.
The methods of meal prep can be traced back to the professional cooking industry — designed to maximize productivity in restaurant kitchens. Through a set of organizational methods called mise-en-place (French for “put in place”), professional kitchens prepare elements of dishes in an assembly line fashion for cooking — usually with individuals assigned to single aspects of a dish (“prep work”), that later come together once cooked or arranged.
But why apply these industrial procedures to home cooking? In our work-obsessed society, the productivity-focused methods of kitchen prep have become the ideal form of food making in our personal lives. Meal prep is molded by the Monday-Friday, 9-5 work schedule. The weekend provides ample time to prep the necessities for the week, when people are in the corporate trenches. As increasing numbers of people in the US live alone, meal prep reorganizes meals around the preferences of the individual that prepares them, and away from family style eating.
Typically, meal prep is also framed in terms of economy, health and self-improvement — it is the cheapest way to maintain and upgrade your most valuable piece of capital — your body. Through controlling labor and capital inputs (exercise and nutrients) you can produce a healthy body. Renewed and ever-higher Google search traffic every January (resolution season) suggests that the term has become integrated into the self-improvement zeitgeist.
Like many methods of saving money in our modern economy, meal prep tends to privilege the wealthy and those with 9-to-5 jobs. Serena Thomas, a career restaurant worker living in Brooklyn told me that working in the food and service industry ironically makes it hard to meal prep: “I think it’s definitely more feasible if you’re a 9 to 5er” she says, “because then you have the consistency of usually having the weekends off and take some time.”
In addition to time, meal prep requires money. While it can help you save money in the long run, meal preppers need to be able to spend anywhere from $50 to $100 at one time on a week’s worth of groceries. For employees relying on a night’s tips for their money, this can be hard.
Aside from its functional and economic advantages (for those who can afford to do it) in today’s society, meal prepping also allows people to escape the cultural baggage of leftovers.
Since the 1920s, leftovers have frequently carried a reputation of being for the poor — if you were eating leftovers you weren’t rich enough to afford fresh food. In The Atlantic, Helen Veit writes that certain wealthy people would publicize their distance from leftovers by bragging about giving them to the help: “some white southerners publicized the fact that they sent their domestic servants home with the leftovers from their own dinners.” The idea persists to this day, with a now-defunct 2013 app proposing giving leftovers to the poor as a way to solve world hunger, and the Facebook post above, suggesting that leftovers are inferior because they’re not fresh.
Meal prep escapes this reputation by packaging food into discreet units. By separating dishes cooked at the same time into different packages, eaters can avoid feeling like they’re eating something from a previous meal. Despite having the same relationship with freshness and time as leftovers, meal prep meals are packaged as fresh and new.
Meal prepping’s rise can also be understood as a way for men to masculinize home cooking. Through institutionalized sexism, women have historically been forced to do most housework, including cooking. According to a study in Nutrition Journal, 92% of females in the US reported cooking compared to 28% of men in 1965. By 2003, the proportion had shifted, but cooking in the US remained overwhelmingly done by females, with 69% of women reporting cooking compared to 38% men. In 2016, 46% of men reported cooking at home compared with 70% of women, according to another study in Nutrition Journal. Through this societally enforced ratio, home cooking has been conceptualized as inherently female by many in American culture. By superimposing the “masculine” veneer of logic, science and organization onto cooking — meal prep gives men a way to publicly embrace cooking while continuing to exist in patriarchal society.
Meal prep’s popularity undeniably comes from the control and convenience it provides in a world of infinite food options. As Stacy Ardison writes in NerdFitness, “making choices based on emotion and convenience are just too easy.” But in a society that increasingly imposes a strict logic and rationality over most aspects of our lives, do we want to sacrifice one last space where it’s okay to act emotionally?