Meal prepping became fashionable a few years ago when healthier eating and busier lifestyles began to merge. People simply grew tired of eating stuff passed to them through a window after a long day. The obvious solution was to have dinner mostly done when they got home. Seems logical, right?
There are several advantages to prepping meals ahead of time:
- Home cooked weeknight meals with minimum fuss
- Grab and go meals that take less time than the drive-thru
- No stopping by the grocery store for last minute items you forgot
- No getting halfway through a recipe only to realize you don’t have a key ingredient
- Proper portion sizes
- Healthier meals for the whole family — since you planned ahead you’re less likely to make something out of a box or use quick but inferior ingredients
- Eat what you want, not just what is available
- No “what’s for dinner?” stress
The unfortunate hang-up to meal prepping is that, if you’re going to chop, marinade, mix, and partially cook your meals ahead of time, there has to be a day during the week that is at least partially dedicated to these activities. Who has the time? I personally know people who have refused to try or fell off the wagon because they couldn’t budget time for meal prep.
Truthfully, I find this excuse ridiculous, even though I’ve used it myself. I actually find that meal prep saves me time in the long run and it definitely saves me weekday stress. I also think it saves me money at the grocery store since I have planned out my week and know what I need when I walk in. Planning ahead also eliminates the stress of last minute “what’s for dinner?” pressure.
Time requirement aside, it may just be a matter of finding the right prepping style for you, or maybe just learning some handy tricks can make the advantages evident. It is a skill that requires a bit of a learning curve and lots of organization. Here’s how to start:
- Decide what to make. Browse through cookbooks or do a few searches on Pinterest to find meals you think your family will like. Have a few go-to recipes that you know your family likes and maybe try something new once a week.
- Make a list. Once you know what to make, write an actual list to take with you into the store. This will ensure that you have everything you need and will deter you from buying more than you need. I find this saves money and stress at the grocery store.
- Be sure you have containers. Once you make the food you will have to put it in something. It may be as simple as storing a casserole in the dish you baked it in or as complicated as dividing each meal into pre-portioned containers. It will depend on your needs and your organizational temperament. I personally prefer glass, but if you opt for plastic at least look for BPA-free containers.
- Keep it simple. You might want to stick to what you know at first. Do a few 5 ingredient meals or some classics like stir-fry or chicken and vegetables to start with. Don’t try to do too many dishes at once at first, it will get overwhelming. Start with one dish at a time and work up from there. Once you get going, you can…
- Get creative. Resist making the same thing every week. Everyone will get tired of it. Another good tip is not to use the same spice in everything. I love curry, but I don’t want it for every meal all week long.
- Be Flexible. Maybe you want to grill one night. Make up some burgers or season some steaks and cut up some sweet potato wedges to bake while the grill is heating up. Serve it with fresh asparagus.
- Plan for leftovers. This one used to get me every week. I would plan a different meal for each night of the week, plus lunch, and I would have so much food left over it was ridiculous. You will have leftovers. You may not need something new every night. See the “Cook Once, Eat Twice” or “Reinvent the Roast” methods below for solutions to this problem.
- See my Handy Tips at the very end of this article for quick “whoops, I don’t have a plan” ideas.
There are several ways to prep. Here are a few that I have found work well for me and some of my friends:
The Chop-and-Bag or Traditional Meal Prep Method
The step that takes the longest when cooking a meal is chopping all of the vegetables, seasoning the meat, and making the sauce. The actual cooking isn’t such a chore, but preparing to cook is where the time and effort are really spent. If you can do this step ahead of time, you can really save yourself. This is what is traditionally meant by “meal prepping.”
Chop the vegetables into the sizes or styles your recipe calls for and store them in individual bags or glass containers. You can put some items like fajita veggies that you will use together in a container together, but be careful about, say, mixing a salad ahead of time. Some of the ingredients might make other ingredients soggy. See the amazing Amanda Meixner’s tips for inventive ways to prep salads, and other delights here.
The idea here is that you prepare all of the ingredients ahead of time so you can assemble them quickly when the time comes. This provides you with a time advantage. The disadvantage is that if your plans change you are left with chopped veggies that you need to use quickly or they will go bad. You also still have to assemble and cook the meal.
The Make a Week of Dinners on Sunday Method
I have a high school friend who has used this method for 15 years. She makes all of her main dishes on Sunday, then freezes them. In the morning, she takes the casserole or prepped crockpot dish out to thaw or slow cook. When she gets home at night, she has dinner waiting for her.
This works well for family meals. Enchiladas, a variety of casseroles, and stews freeze well and can be reheated in under 30 minutes. Serve with a fresh, green salad and you have dinner! You can also scale the serving sizes back to work for one person with leftovers. If you plan carefully, you also have lunch for the next day.
Another advantage is: because the food is frozen, you have some latitude if your plans change. Pop up dinner with friends on Wednesday? No problem, Wednesday dinner can hold until Thursday.
The drawback is that food will need to be cooked before it is frozen. Sunday will be spent assembling and cooking a whole week of food. If you are like me, with only one oven and limited kitchen space, this can take awhile.
The Pre-Portion a Week’s Worth of Meals Method
This works well for people who want to make sure they are sticking to their diets. When you have your meals already done for you and you can just grab a container without thinking about it, you will be more likely to stick to your nutrition plan.
The key here is to carefully measure out and prepare exactly what you need for each meal and put it into individual containers. So it’s like a homemade TV dinner! Choose a day of the week (usually Sunday) to put everything together and decide how you’re going to store it all. Amanda Meixner’s Mason Jar Salads work well, or you can use bento boxes to keep everything separated and fresh.
I like this method for single people making individual dinners or for packing lunches. It doesn’t work as well for family dinners. I have a friend who uses this method for breakfast and lunch, then prepares dinner fresh every night. That works for her. What works for you might be something completely different.
The Cook Once, Eat Twice Method
To use the “Cook Once, Eat Twice Method,” make something large one night; say on a Tuesday night when you’re not as busy you cook shrimp. That night you serve half of it with garlic and sautéed veggies over spaghetti (or zoodles!) and the other half you chop and mix with chopped celery, dill, lemon juice, and mayonnaise. The next day you have shrimp salad for lunch. Soup and stew work really well this way.
This is basically making over leftovers. My mom did this all of the time. Think: after Thanksgiving dinner how many different ways can you use leftover turkey?
The advantage is that you only have to cook once, and you get two good meals. You can even use this method on a bigger scale and get two dinners out of one by making a whole chicken and roasting a pan of broccoli, for example. That kind of prepping is covered more in depth in the next category.
The disadvantage is that you have to think ahead. What can you make that will be just as good (or better) the next day? Also, not everyone likes leftovers. The key here is to make over the meal well enough that it isn’t obvious that you’re having the same thing twice.
The Reinvent the Roast Method
This is the method I personally use. I like to make a large roast, chicken, or stew plus roasted veggies once and make it over for a few days. For example, I will make a pork shoulder in the crockpot with onion, Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, oregano, and salt. I put it in on low and leave a 4-pound roast on for 12 hours. Then I shred it and use it for pork tacos, barbeque pork, Hawaiian pork over rice, pork with sherry and mushrooms, casserole….there are so many possibilities.
You can do the same thing with beef, buffalo, a whole chicken, pheasant (ooh, pheasant slow cooked and served with coconut cream and wild rice is to die for), or whatever you happen to have. Cooking times will vary and you might have to experiment a bit. Make sure the meat you buy is quality. I like to source wild, locally raised, certified humanely raised, pasture raised, or grass-fed meat. It makes a difference not only for the animal in question but for the taste and nutritional quality of the meat.
I also roast a sheet-pan full of veggies like broccoli (my fave), cauliflower, carrots, or Brussels sprouts (wait, these might be my fave) with olive oil and salt until they are crispy and just a little brown on the edges. These store well and are good for lunch mixed with shrimp, bacon, avocado, raw sunflower seeds, the roast I had made for the week, or whatever you happen to have.
The advantage to this is that you don’t need a refrigerator full of containers. I usually have one container with my shredded (or diced, or sectioned) roast and one container of veggies. Then I have the extras like salad greens, fresh veggies, sauces, tortillas, riced cauliflower, etc. besides.
The disadvantage is that if you only have a few people in your family, a roast can last a long time. It gets boring, even if you doctor it up. But, if you do this every week, you can split the roast and keep some in the fridge to use this week and some in the freezer for later. After a while, you will have a variety of frozen meat to choose from.
Other Handy Ideas
I always have shrimp in the freezer, and usually will have wild caught Alaskan salmon or some other type of fish as well. Fish cooks fast and can be served with quickly sautéed veggies for a fast weeknight meal. You can throw some frozen shrimp in a pan with olive oil and garlic, toss with zucchini noodles and some capers and have dinner ready in under 30 minutes.
Cook hard-boiled eggs ahead of time. Some will say you should invest in an egg cooker. I still do mine the old-fashioned way. Whichever way you do it, I find that having hard-boiled eggs on the ready at all times saves me from reaching for “naughty” food when I’m hungry and unprepared. Plus, they’re easy to pack.
Cut up fresh veggies just to have for quick snacks. Easy snack options are key to sticking with a healthy eating plan. When you’re hungry you’re going to eat whatever is handy. Make it easy to reach for something good. Try bell peppers, cucumbers, carrots, celery (with hummus, Laughing Cow cheese, or nut butter), jicama, or kohlrabi. You know what is surprisingly delicious? Peel the tough outer coating off of a broccoli stalk and eat the tender inner part. So good. You will never throw a broccoli stalk away again!
Get a spiralizer. It is a must if you are making zoodles, sweet potato noodles, or any other noodle from a veggie.
Remember this sort of thing takes practice. Be patient with yourself the first few times you do it. I promise it will get easier and faster.
Find your own method. You don’t have to prep on Sunday. You don’t have to prep only once a week. If you reliably have a day during the week that you’re not as busy, do some of your prep then. Maybe prep the night before for the next day if that works best. I know a lady who is an early riser. She every other day she works out and the next she meal preps in the wee hours before her family gets out of bed. That works for her!
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