When it comes to meal prep, the more ideas you have, the easier it will be to implement different ideas that work for you and fit into your lifestyle! When you are just getting started, it can feel overwhelming and time consuming. For example, there was a time when meal prep literally took me almost all weekend, but now I have refined it down to a few hours, either all at once, or split over 2 days throughout the week. Given that I don't cook the rest of the week, this is actually much less time than most spend on cooking their meals daily when you total it all up. (Keep in mind that this includes my shopping, prepping, and cleaning too! I try my best to only make a grocery store trip one time a week for everything that I need.)
With that said, I'll start off by giving you an idea of what the process of planning your prep looks like by sharing the way I go about it. Then, we will jump into my tips for the process of prep!
Know What You Want To Accomplish With Your Preps
In order to plan, you must first know what you want to accomplish! By this, I mean the logistics of things, your goals, and needs, such as:
- How many people need to be fed? This helps you to know how many servings a recipe will need to provide. Perhaps you will need to double or triple a recipe, or reduce by half.
- How many meals per week are required for each person, and which ones? Some of the household members may purchase or be provided meals at work or school. Taking these things into account helps you to outline an idea of what needs to get made (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks).
- How much in advance do you want things to be done? Perhaps there are there some things that you want to make ahead of time, but others you'd prefer to have what you need on hand and ready, but wait and make it fresh.
- Will you have any help with meal preparation and will others in the home be planning and making some of their meals on their own? This again helps to factor time requirements and how many meals are needed.
- Is there a budget you need to follow? Preparing meals may help to reduce cost by eliminating dining out—as long as you stick to eating what was made. If you are budgeting, you may opt to plan meals around items that are on sale.
- Are there specific dietary needs? If someone in the house trying to lose weight and making an intentional effort to choose healthy foods and recipes, meal prep is a wonderful compliance tool. If you make the healthy food and keep healthy choices available, you will be more likely to stick to a plan. You may also need to select meals based on avoidance of food allergies. See this article for how to plan adjustments if needed. Sarah is an excellent resource for other questions in this arena if you have them!
- Do you want to prep specific recipes, or do mix and match items? You can approach prep in different ways. You can make complete recipes, or make several types of protein and other staples (veggies, starches, etc.) with basic seasoning that you then mix and match. With the second method, you then add sauces and seasonings when serving to change things up. Some examples are this chicken or spaghetti squash.
At my house, it is just my husband and myself; no kids to plan for. My husband has such a random schedule that he isn't always sure when he will be home for meals, and I no longer try to prep a lot of food for him because so much went to waste when I did. He prefers having a few protein sources prepped, but otherwise, instead of the fridge, we keep the freezer stocked for him, especially when it comes to veggies. He also keeps fruit in the fridge for snacks and will often run to the grocery store mid-week on his way home if he wants anything he doesn't have stocked. That method has eliminated the spoiling that used to occur. Besides making a meal or two that I know my husband can reheat and eat on the run, I am prepping mostly for myself most weeks, so I do want to be realistic that it will take those who are including a spouse and/or kids longer. Either way, the process itself flows very similarly, so there will still be plenty of helpful tips for you in how I do things!
When I worked outside of the home, I would leave for work at 8:30 a.m. and get home around 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, so it was a necessity for me to have everything ready to go, as the majority of my meals were eaten away from home. Keep in mind that everyone's nutritional needs vary, but for me personally on the week days, I would typically have 2 mini breakfast meals (something small pre-workout and again post-workout since I worked out in the morning), a lunch (eaten at work), and an evening meal at home. Some weeks I will also make a snack as part of my prep, but I always keep healthy convenience snacks on hand for when I need them! Since I did not eat lunch until later at work (about 1-1:30) and I am not home until after dinner, I would usually have either some kind of steamed veggie and a protein treat at this meal (seasoned broccoli, green beans, edamame, and then something like Halo Top, a protein smoothie bowl, bananas or apples and PB2, a protein mug cake, protein bar, etc., for my last meal of the day. That meant that my evening meal didn’t really need to be pre-made, so that wasn’t really part of my prep, other than purchasing the items I need to have on hand based on what I will have that week.
The goal of my prep was centered around planning for one person who needed things ready for the Monday through Friday hectic work week in order to keep me on track with healthy eating. Now that I am working from home, it really hasn't changed much, other than I usually have one larger breakfast/lunch meal instead of two smaller ones. I still prep meals for Monday- Friday in order to make my day easier in the same way I did before for my work week. This allows me to be more efficient with my time during the day on my various work projects. I have a few "go to" meals that I rotate between on weekends, and occasionally my husband and I might have a meal out after church. We usually choose somewhere fairly healthy like Panera Bread, Moe's Southwest Grill, or someplace local that serves salads/other healthy options.
I never start my day without a cup of coffee! I am currently on a peppermint mocha kick and will make several at a time instead of making one each morning. You may have heard of "end of the jar" oatmeal where people will make overnight oats in the peanut butter jar when there is just a tiny bit left. Well, I make end of the almond milk jug coffee! I will brew several k-cups and pour the coffee into the empty almond milk jug, then I add the rest of the ingredients after mixing them up like the recipe calls for in a blender. Just shake well before pouring your cup in the morning, and it is ready to go! I like mine chilled, but you can just heat it up in the microwave if you want it warm!
Since transitioning to working from home, I now usually do my workout later in the day and have changed to one larger first meal instead of two. If I need to be somewhere early, I still switch back to doing 2 smaller meals around a morning workout. I usually have a small list of things I rotate through for my pre and post workout meals when I do need them. I find automating things as much as possible keeps me on track and there is much less decision fatigue (drain on my willpower battery from having to make extra decisions). Kind of like how Katie enjoys her protein shakes and muffins most of the time pre and post workout and then just changes the flavors, I don't mind eating something similar on a frequent basis if I enjoy it! These small meals need to be grab and go type things, so I don't get too creative or complicated. To give you some ideas, my pre and post workout meals are things like:
- Protein shakes
- Protein muffins, Sausage Cheddar Breakfast Muffins,
- Protein gelatin (made by mixing water, Vital Proteins gelatin, Vital Proteins collagen, and cooked frozen fruit) topped with protein powder + PB2 (it tastes like PB&J!)
- Boiled eggs + everything bagel seasoning
- Deli meat + cheese in lettuce wraps
- Protein bars/bites
- Overnight oats
- Hummus + smoked salmon in a low carb wrap
Even with a new work schedule, lunch hasn't changed much at all. It is usually a Dashing Dish recipe or another similar recipe that makes enough servings to feed me for 4-5 days. I don’t mind repeating the same thing for lunch at all for 4-5 days in a row if I enjoy the meal. I typically like to have a huge salad (the Pizza Chicken Salad is one of my favorites and you can also pack it up to take to work!!) or a big bowl of different roasted veggies and a protein, so those are the kinds of recipes I look for and choose.
Sometimes I just make a bunch of different roasted veggies with seasonings and a meat and don't follow a recipe. I also like to use recipes that can be multi-purposed. For example, the Mini Cheesy Chicken Broccoli Casseroles are yummy as a main dish, but I also like to use them as a salad topper. I will heat them up along with some other roasted veggies like butternut squash cubes, ranch cauliflower and broccoli, and anything else I have leftover to use up, and then toss the warmed toppings over the cold salad mix. The temperature contrast is amazing! You can also pack it up to take to work. Just put everything that needs to be re-heated in the microwave in a portable container and take your salad greens separate. Heat the toppings and then crumble them up over the lettuce you have dumped in a big mixing bowl. Toss in your favorite dressing and enjoy!
I like using this Oxo Salad Chopper to make my greens into a chopped salad at home. When I was at work, I just kept a small pizza slicer in my drawer to use with the bowl as a portable salad chopper! You can get a pizza slicer for about $1 at Walmart. It takes a little longer than the Oxo, but is a great portable option.
Again, even with my schedule transition, I tend to still keep things simple at dinner, opting for getting at least one or two veggies and a protein source and a healthy treat of some kind. I will make a few veggies (or have steamable ones in the freezer) and something like chicken or turkey in the crockpot or a quick soup with leftover meat to have at dinner. I have always had a sweet tooth, and I find that evening is the only place I struggle if I don't plan something fun, but also healthy. Instead of trying to deprive myself, I allow the wiggle room for a healthier treat and this keeps me on track! For a long time I tried to fight against this, but found it lead to a deprivation and then overindulging cycle. For me, the better route is to make sure my meals are satisfying (protein, fiber, healthy fats) and eating foods that I enjoy, rather than forcing myself to eat what I think I "should." Then I also plan on allowing myself to have something sweet but still healthy and this works well to keep me on track. I mentioned before that mug cakes or protein shakes frozen into an ice cream like texture are two of my favorite night time sweet treats. I prep these in advance too! I will make several protein shakes in a row and freeze them in individual Tupperware containers, then just pull them out to thaw for a few minutes before eating. I really like the chocolate covered cherry protein shake as it is like chocolate ice cream when made into a frozen bowl! A few tips: Use chocolate protein powder, extra dark cocoa, and frozen dark sweet cherries. You can sub more ice for the cottage cheese if you don't tolerate dairy! This recipe is perfect for prepping in advance if you want a chocolate mug cake in minutes!! Can you tell I like chocolate!? I top my chocolate mug cake with a low calorie peanut butter sauce made from PB2 thinned with water + a few drops of liquid stevia.
How To Get Started:
Decide On A Schedule For Prep
Figure out when you will shop and when you will prep. Will you do both at once, or on different days? Then plan time into your schedule to accomplish these things. I usually do one day of prepping veggies, protein, and baked goods, and then another day for making miscellaneous recipes; casseroles, crockpot meals (one of our all time favorites is the Crockpot White Queso Chicken Chili), and any new Dashing Dish treats I my have been eying to make! I spend about 2 hours each day when I divide it up.
How I Plan My Preps
As far as planning for specific meals, I keep an eye out for recipes that look yummy and plan a week or two in advance to have the ingredients on hand so that I only have to make 1 grocery store trip per week. I use Pinterest and my Dashing Dish recipe box to keep a running list of ideas that I can refer back to when I need inspiration. I usually prep on Saturday or Sunday afternoon once I have made my weekly grocery store run. For things that I make often which freeze well, I will make a double batch. That way I only have to make it every other week. This works well for things like muffins, protein bars, waffles, pancakes, and all the freezer friendly meals. Did you know that you can sort recipes by the freezer friendly tag from the recipe index page?
Time Versus Money Savings
I buy a lot of ready-to-cook veggies because I prefer the time-saving shortcut. So for the most part, I skip washing and chopping. However, if something is on sale, it can be worth it to buy and prepare it myself. For the things I do chop, I like using a veggie chopper to save time. A mandoline helps to save time for sliced things. I used my spirilizer a lot before stores starting selling pre-spirlized veggies. If you prefer to save money by doing your own, I highly recommend having one. Everyone's budget may look a little bit different, and so this is one area where you will have to find a happy balance between saving money and saving time. My biggest tip would be to spend money on the things that you might not like to have to prepare, or find difficult to prepare. For example, butternut squash can be a pain (literally!) to chop or spiralize, so buying them already prepared may be worth it. I can be worth it to invest in a few low-cost gadgets (like those mentioned above) to make the preparation a little easier. I have family members who really love their kitchen gadgets because simple tasks like chopping are painful, especially for people with arthritis.
Day 1 (Usually Saturday or Sunday):
The Flow Of Cooking
So you have a plan, all your groceries, and it's time to get going! Gather the instructions for any recipes you will be making so that they are handy when needed. Pull out your cooking essentials and cookware, and the food you will be preparing.
First thing is first, preheat the oven! Since veggies roast at a higher temperature than other things, it makes sense to do them in batches until done, then I turn the oven down for my meat and baked items. If the meat is going in the oven, I have it ready to go once the veggies are out. With most recipes, you don't want to put your food in until the oven is totally preheated, but I find with roasting vegetables, it does not affect the outcome to put them in while it is still preheating so I start with veggies and stick them in even if the oven is not preheated all the way.
Some veggies, like asparagus, don't need to be pre-steamed before going in the oven, and while you really don't have to steam any of them before roasting, I find it saves a little bit of time in the oven. So I usually start by pre-steaming my veggies in the microwave and then roasting them in batches. If the veggies don't come in bags that are made to steam, you can buy these.
Once I steam them, I line my baking sheets with aluminum foil (saves you cleanup time!) and spray it with cooking spray. Then I lay out the veggies, spray them, and sprinkle with seasonings of choice.
Most people just cook their spaghetti squash and pull it out with a fork, and I find that best if using for noodles, but I really like roasting it after the noodles are cooked and eating it as a side with just seasonings! Totally different flavor and texture! Same process as above for cooking on a baking sheet if you want to try it!
I keep rotating veggies until everything is done. In between veggie batches, I work on getting meat ready to cook. As soon as your veggies are done, turn the oven temp down for the meat!!
If I have any veggies to cook on the stove, like zucchini or squash noodles, I do that now too!
Allow your veggies to cool some, then transfer to storage containers and put them into the fridge!
Depending on my protein, I start preparing and cooking it once I have some veggies going as mentioned above. If it needs to go in the oven, then I'll save it for after the veggies—again, remember to turn your oven down! Things like the Honey Bacon Wrapped Chicken Tenders or Guacamole Turkey Burgers (also good as meatballs, which is shown below) are easy to prep while roasting veggies.
Sometimes I am blessed that my husband fires up the grill while the veggies cook and makes some meat! Confession: I don't know how to use our gas grill!
Other times I might use the crockpot and then I will usually start it first thing since that takes longer. Use these liners to save cleanup time!
Shredded beef or chicken is so easy and versatile, so you can't go wrong with that!
Next thing will be breakfasts! Usually overnight oats and some kind of healthy baked good. While the meat is cooking, I mix up a batch or two of muffins and have them ready to go in the oven when the meat comes out! If the meat you are cooking doesn't go in the oven, make sure you don't put your baked good right in after the veggies. The oven temp will need a few minutes to drop once you turn it down, otherwise they cook unevenly. A few breakfast favorites are the Sausage Cheddar Breakfast Muffins, Peanut Butter Cookie Overnight Oats, and PB2 Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies (only, we make them as muffins). A tip for oats: if you want to make more than 2 days worth, but don't want them to get yucky in the fridge, just measure out the dry ingredients into Tupperware. Then you add the wet the night before. Saves time by allowing you to make more at once without them spoiling! See the photo below!
Next will be packing up any snacks that I might be having that week into single serving (nuts, deli meat, boiled eggs, protein muffins, fruit, chopped veggies, etc.) so I can just grab and go if I am on the run. It also helps with portion control to do this, even when I know I'll be eating them at home. I use zip lock baggies or little Tupperware containers depending on what it is
If I have and fruit or veggies that aren't getting cooked and/or need to be chopped to package up for snacks (I.e. what I might use in my salads) I don't wash and chop until I am ready to put the salad together so that it does not spoil by the end of the week.
For when I was packing meals for work, I liked using something like 6 Pack Bags for keeping all my things in. Lots of space for stuff I would use regularly (sauces, seasonings, protein bars, bags of nuts, etc.) and it has room for ice packs to keep my meals cool all day. If you invest in one, they last a long time! Each one of mine lasted about 5 years when used daily.
If making something like a salad to take with you to work, you can divide the greens and wrap them in paper towels so they don't get soggy by the time I you eat them. Then pack the salad toppings separately to dump in a bowl with your salad at work!
Last thing will be pulling things out of the freezer that I may have made from a prior week so they thaw by the next day. As far as clean up, I try to rinse things as I go and put them into the dishwasher so I don't have a lot of cleanup at the end.
Day 2 (Later in the week):
One thing I will also do is make a casserole type dish another day later in the week with leftover meat. Some of our favorites are the 30 Minute Cheesy Chicken Wild Rice Casserole and the Low Carb Green Chile Cauliflower Chicken Casserole. Another easy dish is the Three Cheese Chicken Stuffed Peppers!
I also make things like my smoothie bowls, and maybe another baked good or no-bake snack while that is cooking! Peanut Butter Grain Free Blondies are delicious! You cant go wrong with muffins! This is also the day I would typically make a batch of the peppermint mocha I mentioned before.
I hope this has helped you to come up with an idea of how to make prep easier for you and your family. I find the more I do it, the less stressful it is and the faster meal prep goes!