On and off for the past two years, meal prep has been a big part of my weekend routine. Clean eating and support of our fitness goals were the original motivating factors for this lifestyle change but what was once solely a physical health initiative, meal prep has morphed into a huge mental health benefit/sanity saver for me as well. With three kids and opposite work schedules for me and my husband, having ready to eat, pre-planned meal and snack options on hand make it easy to make good choices during our busy days and frankly, allow me to feel a little less pressure to cook when I don’t have the energy to prepare a big meal on a night when it is just me and the kids.
The great thing about meal prep is you can do as much or as little as you have time for, under any diet or lifestyle parameters, sticking to your normal grocery budget, and with very little additional resources outside of what you already have in your kitchen.
Planning for and cooking just one meal can sometimes pose challenges (What do I make that everyone will eat? Will I have enough time to get dinner on the table? Did I remember to buy chicken breasts this week? Maybe we should just do Chipotle…), so thinking on a larger scale might seem extra intimidating. Fortunately, I have learned some good lessons along the way which I am happy to share! With a little extra planning and some efficiency in the kitchen, you can save yourself a lot of time and energy throughout the week.
- Planning: Plan your work and work your plan. Planning for my weekly meal prep is HUGE for me. Being totally transparent, I probably spend more time on this step than necessary because I really enjoy cooking so selecting recipes to make for the following week is actually kind of fun for me. Because we like to stay inside a weekly budget for groceries, I usually start by seeing what is on sale at Sprouts that week and then build my menu around the proteins and produce that are seasonal and budget friendly. Costco is always the best option for bulk items that we eat a lot of as a family so things like eggs, berries, some proteins are purchased there to save money and multiple trips to the store during the week. From there, I look for family friendly recipes (or at least things that my kids might try or eat part of) that I can make utilizing all the surfaces in my kitchen so I can prepare multiple items at once (more on this in the Maximizing Time step!) Something for the crockpot, something on the grill, something in the oven, maybe the Instant Pot and stove top…I try to use them all! Pending on our week, the menu will look different in terms of what is prepped. Some weeks I prep multiple, whole meals that will be portioned out for lunches or easy dinners. I usually do some kind of breakfast item since I start work at 6:30 and am not about to start cooking that early. Some weeks when I know I have a little more time to cook, I will prep ingredients to expedite dinner time on a week night. So, I write out my menu and then build my grocery list, creating separate sections by store (we usually do Sprouts/Trader Joes/Costco) and trying to keep the list organized by area in the store so I can be more efficient when shopping. If I am feeling extra motivated, I will also map out my plan for cooking so I can maximize my time in the kitchen which for me, is my girls’ naptime on Saturdays when my husband is working. Written out, all this sounds like a lot of time but in reality this step is probably 30-60 minutes of time tops.
- Prepping: This step actually starts in the grocery store for me. Looking for shortcuts by way of prepared foods like jarred garlic, pre-cut veggies, pre-marinated and/or precooked proteins (frozen meatballs, breakfast sausage etc.) is one of the meal prep hacks I have wholeheartedly embraced. Sometimes these items cost a little more but in relation to time in the kitchen, the benefit totally outweighs those extra costs. Once I am ready to cook, I wash and chop all my prep items. This includes things I won’t even be cooking, like berries for the kids or the veggies for snacks. One cutting board, one assembly line for prep, everything all done at once. Since this is my least favorite step, I usually save a podcast or new Spotify playlist for this time to make things a little more entertaining (#treatyoself).This is also a good time to recruit the kids for help. My four year old likes to separate the yolks from whites for hard boiled eggs, my seven year old is really good at cutting up strawberries or picking grapes off the stems, and my three year old is entertained by laying out containers or finding things in the pantry/fridge for me. Every little bit helps! Once all the prep is done, it is time to start cooking.
- Maximizing Time: As I mentioned earlier, a big time saver is utilizing multiple surfaces all at the same time. While doing a task like chopping veggies, I try to start something that doesn’t require a lot of prep so it can cook unattended while I am actively working on something else. Starting things that take a longer amount of time like rice cooking or throwing something in the crock pot helps you work smarter, not harder. Then I time the other things around that – sweet potatoes cooking in the Instant Pot, veggies roasting in the oven with a breakfast frittata baking while I grill chicken, for example. Also during that prep stage, I make sure to consider ingredients that are showing up in multiple recipes (examples: cilantro, onions). This makes it so that I can prep one ingredient that might show up in multiple recipes so I am not constantly coming back to the cutting board, which can be a big time suck. In regards to cleaning…I have found it is faster (and less annoying) to cook all at once and then clean all at once. I have tried cleaning as I go but I find I feel like I am in a constant battle against the mess vs just embracing a few hours of kitchen chaos.
- Packaging: Pending on how you plan to eat your meals, purchasing the right containers for your food will help with storage and speed in reheating. I portion out our meals using these little divided containers I found on Amazon very inexpensively. Because my husband and I track macros, this is when I weigh/measure, calculate out our numbers, and package up foods we will be taking for lunches or quick dinners during the week. If it is something I know I am making that will be communal for the family, I just use larger Ziplock containers. If anything is going in the freezer for future use, I label and store accordingly. Space in the fridge is a commodity so buying containers that stack and don’t take up any more room than they have to has been essential in making everything fit!
All that is left to from there is enjoy the fruits of your labor…and all that extra time you created during the week! For meal inspiration, check out the Recipe board on the EVMB Pinterest here and see some of my favorite go to meal prep items. Happy prepping (and eating), mamas!