Meal prepping is where you prepare whole, or part of your meals or dishes in advance. Despite what you might think, however, there are lots of ways to meal prep. And thankfully, not all of them involve spending your whole Sunday afternoon in the kitchen, but I’ll talk more about that later on!
Why People Meal Prep
Some advocates of meal prepping, literally only cook one day per week, or even one day per month, and cannot rave enough about all the time and money it saves them. Other advocates enthuse about meal prep, as a conduit for health and weight loss.
There are so many benefits of meal prepping, there is no “one reason” why people meal prep. For me, it was a way to have more control over what I was eating and to save some money by eating out much less.
Some Tips To Get Started
Part of the reason I started Only One Small Thing was that I had a bad habit of trying to change too much at once. This is an easy trap to fall into when you consider trying meal prep for the first time. You see all those Instagram-worthy pictures, showing rows of containers with fabulous looking meals and snacks, and suddenly feel you want to start prepping every one of your meals.
BUT, it takes time to get the hang of meal prepping that much food. I can guarantee that none of those meal-prep gurus went from zero meal prep to prepping all of their meals overnight! So that brings me to my number one meal prep tip for beginners:
1) Start Small
You don’t need to prep every meal and definitely not in the beginning, so start with your biggest problem area. Do you constantly skip breakfast, regularly grab a candy bar from the vending machine as an afternoon snack, or find yourself eating out for lunch or dinner most days? Identify what’s the biggest meal of concern, and start there.
For me, I started with dinner because I was already pretty good about making breakfast in the morning and while I tended to eat out at lunch, the deli by my office does a great selection of salads. While these meals were not exactly wallet-friendly, my lunches were at least relatively healthy so in “picking my battles” I decided lunch could wait. Dinner, however, was often takeout (and usually a pretty unhealthy takeout, such as pizza, Chinese or a Burgers & Fries) so I decided to tackle dinners first.
2) Plan Your Menu
I once heard that the definition of marriage is two people asking each other what they want for dinner for the rest of their lives. This was so very true with my husband and me! But I’ve realized that while my hubby likes a home-cooked meal, and definitely has some meals he likes more than others, he does not actually care all that much what we have each day. If I plan a menu that includes meals he likes, and then just tell him what we’re having – 99% of the time, that’s just fine with him!
When I’m planning our menu for the week, I now just make a point of asking him if he wants anything, in particular, that week. This way, I can include anything he’s craving in the rotation, but it’s rare he actually asks for anything specific. To quote “you know what I like so whatever you want is fine”!
This is what a typical week might look like for me:
3) Keep It Simple
Usually, the more elaborate the meal, the longer it will take to prepare and cook, so keep it simple. This definitely doesn’t mean boring, (seasoning is your friend here people), but I would recommend choosing meals which are straight-forward to prepare and cook. In short, if the meal is too complicated, you won’t bother – so keep it simple!
4) Focus On Tried & Tested Recipes
I usually attempt to try out no more than one new recipe per week. Anything more than that can be a little overwhelming and if any of your new recipes is a disaster, where either it goes wrong or you find you really don’t like it, you’ll have to find an alternative. By predominantly sticking to tried and true recipes I know we like, I minimize the potential for issues.
5) Take Advantage Of Convenience Foods
Yes, it’s cheapest to do all the prep work yourself, but I’m super lazy, so I do find it really useful to buy some pre-prepared foods. For example, I love pre-prepped fresh veggies like fresh butternut squash cubes and bags of pre-cut, washed broccoli florets.
I also often use prepped frozen veggies like diced onions or peppers in slow cooker meals. While frozen veggies can definitely be softer than fresh, they’re going to cook down in the slow cooker anyway. Seriously using frozen here doesn’t really affect the final dish.
6) Double-Up On Quantity
I mentioned that I started with dinners, but I did find it really helpful to plan meals that would include left-overs, that way most days I would also have lunch for the following day by default. I also know that some people have the same dinner two days in a row to simplify their prep, I prefer to switch it up, but it’s about finding what works for you!
7) Batch Cook
Some foods, particularly things like soup, stew, chili or tomato-based pasta sauce freeze and reheat really well. I typically like to make a big batch of something which freezes well every couple of weeks, so that way there are always a couple of options in our freezer.
8) Make A Shopping List
Once I have my meal plan for the week, I check what ingredients we already have on hand, including non-perishable goods like rice, pasta, tinned tomatoes or beans. Then I create a shopping list with whatever else we need. I’ve actually now created a template shopping list in the notes app on my phone, which I just update each week as I plan our menu.
I’ve found that keeping it on my phone works best for me because a) I will always have my phone with me, so if I realize we need something mid-week I can add it to the list straight away and b) it has a handy checkbox option, so I can literally check items off the list as I walk around the grocery store. But it is about finding what works best for you. But my Mom prefers a physical written list, which she leaves on their kitchen counter, so my Dad can add stuff to it as well. It really is about finding what works best for you!
My default shopping list includes;
- Fresh fruit and vegetables
- Meat and refrigerated goods
- Store-cupboard staples
- Standard household items
I also have a section for “other” items where I can add things like light bulbs, greetings cards or other random miscellaneous items, so they don’t get forgotten when we’re out getting groceries or running errands.
Side note: I mentioned earlier that I always check if the hubby wants anything in particular for dinner that week? Well while he rarely makes dinner requests, as he now knows I’m asking as I plan our menu and write a shopping list, this nearly always prompts him to highlight something we need to get, like laundry detergent, coffee or soda – seriously, I’ve found that I have to make far fewer midweek trips to the grocery store, by simply having this quick 2 minute conversation each week!
9) You Don’t Need To Prep Fully Cooked Meals
When I prep our dinners for the week, I rarely cook full meals, but I do take the time to do most of the “grunt work” like peeling and chopping vegetables and measuring out portions of dried goods where applicable. My goal is to save time on weeknights, not to spend my whole Sunday slaving in the kitchen.
How to Meal Prep
The steps which go into meal prep will vary somewhat, dependent on what meal(s) you’ve chosen to prep. But, there are some standard steps to the process including:
- Plan – what meals are you prepping and when
- Prepare – make sure you have the required equipment (like containers, ziplock baggies and cooking utensils) and buy in your groceries
- Prep – I find it easiest to chop all my veggies together, then prep any meat, then complete any other prep work needed
- Pack – Once you’ve finished prepping, you need to pack your food away in airtight containers so it stays fresh until needed. Bonus Tip: make sure hot food is fully cooled before you put it in the refrigerator and store your wet and dry food separately to avoid things getting “soggy”.
When the time comes around, if you’ve prepped fully prepared meals, you will then simply need to unpack and if applicable, reheat your meals as needed. If like me, you usually still need to cook your meals, you simply need to unpack your prepared ingredients and then cook and assemble your meals when needed.
So what are your tips for someone trying meal prep for the first time? Please share in the comments below!