Meal prep can be time consuming, messy, and stressful. If you aren’t organized about it, preparing food often happens at the last minute, when you’re hungry and tired.
Organized meal prep is much easier when you’ve set yourself up to have everything you need. Three steps will get you there.
- Make a meal list.
- Turn your meal list into a menu.
- Optimize your grocery shopping.
Now, it’s time to prepare your meals. Counting snacks, daily meals, and choices for family members with varying dietary needs, meal prep can feel endless. When you consider how long it takes to prep food (5 – 15 minutes each for breakfast, 30 – 60 minutes for dinner, plus snacks), you might be spending 7 – 10 hours a week or more making food.
5 Meal Prep Strategies to Simplify Your Food Life
The Staples Strategy
- Rice or another grain – beans and rice, stir fry, flavored rice
- Beans/Legumes – a bean bowl, nachos, tacos, tostadas
- Pasta – marinara, primavera, salad, pesto
- Cut vegetables – salad, veggies in lunches, stir fry, snacks, sauté.
- Meat – roasted chicken, chicken soup, chicken salad
Use a programmable cooker, so your food cooks without you. Whether you cook your morning oatmeal in a crock overnight, or set your instant pot to cook your dinner in time for your arrival, programmable cookers make a hot meal.
- Instant Pot – Which Instant Pot model is right for you?
- Crock Pot
- Vegetable Steamer/Rice Cooker – I’m a huge fan of this vegetable steamer/rice cooker because you can set a countdown timer plus cook time.
Once a Week Meal Prep
- Goal – Prep all of your meals and snacks for the week at once.
- Timing – Pick one afternoon to make your meals for the week. Most people pick Sunday afternoons, so they’re prepped for work and school.
- Planning – Look at all the recipes that will comprise your meals for that week. Prep the ingredients for all of the meals at once. Don’t just cut one onion for enchiladas. Cut the onions you’ll need for every recipe, cooked or raw.
- Containers – You can use mason jars, freezer bags, pyrex dishes, plastic food containers, foil baking pans, plastic bags, and food bins for your refrigerator. Laptop Lunch and bento boxes work well for lunches and snacks.
- Organize Yourself Skinny has a great step by step guide to how to prep all your meals for the week in one afternoon and a beginner’s guide to once a week food prep.
Dinner Co-ops/Food Swaps
A dinner co-op consists of two or more families who have agreed to swap meals on a schedule. You make a full dinner for however many households are in the co-op and deliver meals to those houses. On other nights of the week, they’ll deliver to you. If you’ve got three to five families, your dinners are covered for most nights and you only cook one of those dinners. This one makes for a time intensive day and means coordinating tastes and times with other people, but you get home cooked meals with much less cooking time.
- Approach friends and neighbors who live close by and have a similar diet. A paleo family and a vegan family makes for hard food swapping.
- “Make sure you’re comfortable with everyone’s understanding of basic food safety, and that food allergies, aversions and preferences for organic or locally sourced products are made clear from the beginning,” advises Laurie Woolever of the NYT.
- For in-depth instructions about food preferences worksheets, the food containers you’ll need, and more, check out Delicious Living’s, “How to Start a Dinner Co-Op.”
- You might opt for a simple swap with a neighbor so that you’re not having to buy identical sets of dishes, do food delivery, but you get a meal once or twice a week, and you make double batches once or twice a week to swap back.
Freezer cooking means you prepare food ahead of time and freeze to eat later. Some of the meals will be fully prepared and only need reheating. Others will need final ingredients or preparation such as baking.
- Double or triple your recipe so you have one dish for now and more frozen for later.
- Freezer cooking works well with casseroles, soups, smoothie bags, burritos, dough, sauces, muffins and breads.
- Read a great beginner’s guide to freezer cooking at Organize Yourself Skinny
- Freeze safely – check out these steps to freezing food at Vegan Once a Month Cooking.
- Freezer cooking is often used for a method called Once a Month Cooking. It’s as involved as it sounds. Do the math for all of your ingredients multiplied by the number of times you’ll make that meal for a month. Make a huge shopping trip and use most of your month’s food budget. Cook all day or all weekend, and freeze for a month. Why? You’ve made all of your meal bases and only have to do things like cut fresh veggies. You save time and money. Think it might be worthwhile? Read this comprehensive introduction to OAMC at Ellen’s Kitchen.
Some of the strategies above are easier to implement than others. And some may just be outside your interest. You may decide that you don’t want to do a full month’s worth of cooking, but combine once-a-week cooking with freezer cooking and a neighbor dinner swap.
If you’d like some help getting your kitchen, pantry, refrigerator and freezer organized, contact me. I can help with other rooms and systems as well.