Imagine a world where you could ask the “what’s for dinner?” question just once each week — instead of seven times. That world exists, and we’re going to prove it by walking you through some time-tested planning and prepping strategies.
Meal prep involves carving out an hour or so in the kitchen each week to chop, cook down, roast, steam, pureé, pickle or whip up ingredients and store for use later. For example, by roasting a chicken you can enjoy the cozy goodness the first night, make chicken salad for lunch the next few days and have chicken stock for a Sunday night stew. Meal planning doesn’t mean a big, tabbed binder full of months of upcoming meals. It’s also not just for families of four. In fact, it’s incredibly helpful for households of just one.
Once you get into a groove, meal planning and prep works wonders on your weekly schedule in a myriad of ways. In addition to guaranteeing you have fresh, healthy ingredients on hand for breakfast, lunch and dinner all week, it also helps keep you on budget because you won’t have as many impromptu nights out since you’ve already got something delicious waiting at home. You’ll have less food waste, ensuring the groceries you buy are being used, and used well. And, with a few easy-to-follow guidelines, taking time to meal prep also means you have the opportunity to get creative with different types of ingredients and foods.
So, what are you waiting for? Here are our time-tested suggestions for meal planning and prep.
1. SET MEAL PLANNING GOALS
For some, flipping through recipes to pick exciting and new dishes might be the way to go. But for most of us, picking recipes for meal planning is more successful when we ask ourselves a few key questions. Are you:
- Looking for variety in your meals?
- Hoping to save money?
- Striving to eat better?
- Working to prevent food waste?
- Preserving your sanity?
- Need a ready answer to the daily question of what’s for dinner?
Surprisingly, by starting a meal plan of your own, you can have it all — but if you’re new to home cooking, cooking on a regular basis can cause real burnout. Pick a couple of the most-important goals and stick to them. The rest of the perks of planning and prepping will follow.
2. PICK RECIPES WISELY
So, you’ve set some meal planning goals. Before you dive into cookbooks and food blogs, consider not only your goals for creating a meal planning schedule, but also what goals the recipes themselves need to achieve. Are you planning a quick dinner for your kids on a night when they have late soccer practice? If so, you need something quick, easy and nutritious. Perhaps you and your partner are staying in to cook together and need leftovers for lunch the next day. Keep these ideas in mind as you whip out those cookbooks. A few tips for recipe picking success:
- Choose meals that lead to leftovers.
- Cook recipes you know, but always add one or two that are inspiring and challenging.
- Pick recipes that work well together and share some common ingredients.
- Cook things you simply can’t wait to eat!
Depending on your level of kitchen comfort and interest, you might be the type of person who is excited about trying new dishes and working new recipes into your weekly routine. Select a couple that really sound delicious and hit on your major macronutrient categories, then plan how to use leftovers to create additional meals at other points during the week.
For example, pick a protein, a whole-grain, a couple of vegetables prepared different ways, a soup or sauce and a condiment. Some examples might be:
- Roasted chicken
- Steamed rice
- Roasted butternut squash
- Roasted tomato soup
- Pickled beets
- Homemade hummus
- A pot of lentils
- Couscous salad
- Chopped kale for salad
- Confit tomatoes
- Herby green pesto
Choose recipes that work together and ingredients that complement each other for the most meal planning success. And know that your so-called recipes don’t need to be elaborate. In fact, sometimes the easier the recipe, the better it complements other recipes and items to make creative meals. As an example, butternut squash might just be roasted with a drizzle of olive oil and salt. Chop some kale so you can pull it from the fridge later without lifting a finger. Both moves are still considered meal prep.
3. GO GROCERY SHOPPING
Before you get to the store, take inventory of what you have in the pantry and fridge. (Be sure to work these things into your meal plan if you haven’t already to cut down on waste and save money at the store.) Then, once you’ve got your grocery list and your recipes, get to the grocery store. Your shopping cart is a great place to double check whether or not you’re hitting all of your macronutrient bases for the week:
- Do you have a whole-grain?
- Do you have at least one or two protein sources?
- Do you have at least two vegetables to be cooked/prepped in two different ways?
If you’re lacking any of these things, circle back around the store to fill in the gaps. We suggest starting in the produce aisle and picking up two vegetables plus some healthy greens to make salads and to add to soups. Grab a favorite herb like parsley, cilantro, basil or rosemary to perk up your condiments, sauces and soups. Then head to the butcher to pick up any meat on your list. Lastly, walk through the aisles to get whole-grain staples, bread from the bakery and other ingredients you need to complete your recipes.
4. SPEND AN HOUR PREPPING INGREDIENTS
You’ve got your recipes and all of your ingredients to execute a delicious meal plan over the next week. To avoid the anxiety and extra time it takes to prep dinner from scratch each night, set aside a little bit of time on Sunday to pull out the knives, cutting boards and blender and prep for the week ahead. Your specific tasks will relate directly to the recipes you’ve chosen, but ultimately this is when you chop, dice, whir, roast and bake off the components of next week’s meals. This will make bringing together your recipes a snap!
5. EAT AND REPEAT
Planning and prepping your meals for the week isn’t hard, but it doesn’t happen accidentally either. The more you complete the process and stick with the routine, the more you’ll learn about the recipes you like, the things you enjoy eating, the types of meals that work well for the week — all sorts of things about your cooking and eating styles.
Take the lessons in stride, and remember that continuing to work at it will only make meal planning and prepping easier!