We are all creatures of habit, am I right?
Everyone has a custom and unique way of doing things and prepping and planning meals is no exception. What works really well for me might not work quite so well for you, and that’s perfectly okay. The beauty of meal prep and planning is that the entire process is totally customizable.
Sure there are some critical “steps” in the process, but there are many different ways to approach each step to get the desired result:
Less decision fatigue at dinnertime, no more hangry kids, and, streamlined mornings. And if you can save some money in the process? Even better.
My goal is to walk you through each step in my process and then discuss different methods for each step. Pick and choose what will work for you. I’ve even included a handy printable so that you can create a roadmap to meal planning success.
I’m hopeful that by breaking the process down into action-steps and providing ideas on how to accomplish each step, meal planning and prep will start to become less daunting.
Ready? Here we go!
Part One: Deciding What to Prep/Shop for
No matter if your pantry is empty or your fridge is full, you’ve still got to decide what you’re going to eat for the week. If a trip to the grocery store is in order, so be it. (Please see my Field Guide to Grocery Shopping for more information. It’s definitely a must-read)
Here are my suggestions:
1. What is your “goal” for meal planning?
Is it to cook healthier meals, have more meat-free meals, or save money? (Your goal could be one of these, or something else entirely!) Write down your goal for this week, and allow it to govern your choices when it comes to selecting how often you’ll eat out, or what ingredients you’ll use.
Another thing to evaluate is your own cooking style. Meal planning will not change the core of who you are as a person, but it can definitely help instill some wonderful, new habits. But my point is, if you aren’t a cook-from-scratch type of person, you shouldn’t try to force yourself into that mold. Meal planning should make your life easier, not more stressful!
If you’re brand new to meal prep, maybe a good goal would be to plan and prepare 2-3 dinners and lunches for the week. Start small to avoid overwhelm. If you’re looking to eat healthier, maybe you want to try to incorporate a few more veggie-heavy meals, or try some new side dishes? These are just a few examples. Regardless, it’s always good to have a goal in mind!
2. Get out a calendar or weekly planner. It’s time to plan!
First, decide what meals you’ll need to prepare. Maybe you’re a breakfast, lunch, and dinner from home kind of person. Maybe you have a lunch date one day, or will be going out to eat one night. The next step for me is to figure out what meals I need to make for each day of the week.
*Don’t forget to plan for your family members or anyone else you meal prep for. Just because you’re getting lunch out one day doesn’t mean that your husband won’t need a meal. Same goes for kids, do you need to have an after-school snack ready Monday through Friday? Think your week through, and make notes accordingly.
Plan a day to plan. (What? Stick with me!) By breaking up the process: plan, shop, prep into smaller tasks, you make the process much more manageable. I like to make a plan on Thursday, and then shop Friday or Saturday, for instance. I also pick up my meats from the farm on Wednesday afternoon, because that’s what works best for my life.
You’ll also need to decide what day or days will work best to do the actual prep, and how much time you have. I like to do the bulk of my meal prep on Sunday afternoon, but I often find it convenient, for me, to the morning of my day off (Wednesday) to do some end-of-the-week prep, too. That way I’m not in the kitchen for hours each time, and I can ensure that everything is fresh. (If only one day a week works best for you, don’t fret. You’ll plan for that.)
3. Now plan what you’ll be making. If you need to shop for supplies, you’ll need to create a list. (See my post on list-making strategies here.) But regardless, you’ll need to plan what you’ll be making for each meal that you need to prep for. You can get inspiration from anywhere.
Here are some great ideas:
· “Shop” your pantry, fridge and freezer and create a list of what ingredients you have on hand. You can look online for inspiration, or refer to your family’s favorite recipes.
· Assign a theme to each night. Monday is pasta, Tuesday tacos, Wednesday dinner salads, and so on. This can get monotonous, but it’s a great place to start. You can even get creative, if you’d like, and do chicken alfredo one week and spaghetti and meatballs the next.
· Check the weather. This is a good idea to do regardless, but it’s a smart idea to know in advance if it’s going to rain, or if it will be hot and humid, for instance. No one wants to grill in the rain. And a big, heavy comfort-meal might not go over so well on a hot muggy day.
· Ask your family what they would like to eat for dinner or lunch, and try to accommodate that. Keep in mind that you can’t please everyone all the time, but making concessions to each member of the family one day each week will help diffuse a lot of arguments and meltdowns.
· Spend some time each week perusing recipe websites or magazines. This is a great way to unwind, in my opinion. Set a timer for 5 minutes and browse. You’ll be amazed as to what you come up with.
· As you get further along in your meal prep experience, keep a list of meals that your family loves. This is especially handy if you like to try new recipes frequently.
(I also recommend keeping a binder or some other sort of filing system, to keep magazine recipe tear outs or print outs from websites. I would even make copies of favorite recipes from cookbooks. That way you have a quick reference for planning your next week of meals or grocery shopping trip.)
· Plan your meals based on the sales flyer at your favorite grocery store. This is an easy way to be cost effective and effortless. Ground beef and tortillas are on sale? Tacos. Chicken breast and romaine? Caesar salad. Even better, use the leftover tortillas from taco night to make chicken Caesar salad wraps for lunch.
Are you starting to get some ideas? Good! On to step 4:
4. Now that we’ve planned out our meals, assign what days (tentatively) that each meal will be served on. This is helpful especially if you have some foods doing “double duty.” So if you are roasting a chicken and using leftovers for pot pie, you’ll want to make sure you’ve planned what day the chicken will need to be thawed, and then may want to skip a day or two in between before you serve the pot pie.
Grant yourself grace, however, if things don’t go exactly to plan. If something comes up, it’s okay, you should be able to shift things around a little bit. Nothing traumatic will happen if your family eats chicken two nights in a row (although Glen might disagree with that!)
5. At this point, ideally, you’d want to plan and execute your grocery shopping trip. (See my posts on grocery shopping and list making for more info.)
Get your free meal-planning strategies cheat sheet right here! simply submit the form below!
Part Two: Organize and Prep your Meals
By now your groceries and pantry supplies should have been purchased, or planned for. You should have a list of the meals you’ll be making this week and what days you’ll be serving them, barring incidentals. Once you’ve accomplished that, it’s time to start prepping and organizing your meals and meal components
Here are some suggestions for getting it done:
· When you get home from the store, or as soon as you are able to, prep your food. Wash and chop fruits and veggies. Portion out proteins. Shred cheese. You get the picture. (One tip: don’t overwhelm yourself with too much at once if you are new to meal prep or not yet comfortable multi-tasking in the kitchen. You’ll find your groove.)
· Cook parts of your meals. Cook (and season) the ground beef for tacos. Roast chicken thighs or breast meat to chop up for chicken salad or to use in other meals. Cook all the rice you’ll need for the week. Steam or roast the veggies you’ll be using.
This is also known as “food prep,” and can be a wonderful fall-back for when you’re too hungry to even think about cooking, or you need to literally throw a meal together in seconds.
· Portion out washed and prepped produce into containers to make for easy and healthy grab-and-go snacks. I like to make a “fruit salad” with strawberries, grapes, and kiwi, and just store it in an air-tight pyrex. It’s a great option for Brynne when she wants a snack. (And also for me too!)
· Pre-marinate your proteins. You can store them in air-tight containers in the fridge or freezer to save an extra step before cooking.
· Portion out cooked food into individual containers to have them ready to go for lunches.
And, as always, practice food safety when prepping and storing your meals.
(Please see my post on Kitchen Organization for more information.)
· Always wash your hands before and after handling raw meats.
· Wash your cutting board between foods. Do not use the same cutting board for meats and produce.
· Always label food prepped at any stage (from raw to fully cooked) with what it is, when it was purchased, and, if necessary directions for cooking. Example: raw chicken breasts, 3/10/2018, Cook at 350F 25-30 minutes.
· Be mindful of storage temperature and length.
Refrigerated Foods (40F or lower)
Ø Cooked meat, poultry, fish : 2-4 days
Ø Cooked beans/grains: 5 days
Ø Cooked eggs, chopped vegetables (stored in air-tight container): 5-7 days
Frozen Foods (0F or lower)
Ø Cooked meat, poultry, fish: 3 months
Ø Soup, stew, beans, and rice: 3 months
Ø Chopped fruit and vegetables: 6 months
Ø Blanched vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, snap peas, etc.): 8 months
And there you have it! Some useful and actionable ideas for putting together a meal plan and prepping food for the week!
Please check out my meal-planning cheat sheet below for a quick reference guide to the information in this post!