I’m in middle of a Whole30*, and my planning and prepping tendencies are in overdrive. Meal prep is key to success on the Whole30, but it’s not limited to a nutrition challenge.
I’m a huge fan of meal prep any given week because it saves money, time, and stress. Whether you are doing a nutrition challenge, looking to make dinnertime less chaotic, or wanting to reduce your food budget, these tips are for you.
Meal Prep Like a Boss #1: Determine What Works for You
Just as our nutrition needs are bioindividual, how you meal prep is going to be specific to your needs and preferences.
Do you prefer to have a set menu in place for the week, or do you like to eat what sounds good at the time? For a set menu, plan and prep individual dinners for each night. If you like more flexibility, plan to have enough food for the week, prep veggies, proteins, sauces, etc. ahead of time, and then assemble real time, adding seasonings and sauces to fit your mood.
Are you a creature of habit, or do you need to keep things new and exciting? If you’re happy to eat your favorites on repeat (this is me!), it’s helpful to make a list of twenty or so meals you love. Meal planning is very simple when you have a short list to choose from. If you prefer to mix things up, keep your favorite blogs and cookbooks on hand for meal planning, this way you’ll have somewhere to start. A Pinterest board is also a great way to collect ideas. You can see mine here.
Do you have time for a big meal prep session? If you are able to set aside a few hours over the weekend, or on a day that works for you, you will be able to prep a significant amount of your food for the coming week. If not, that shouldn’t stop you from meal planning. You might consider focusing on a simple menu and prep ahead as you are able to.
How often do you want to meal plan? The most common are weekly and monthly. While some prep will always need to be done weekly (like fresh vegetables), you can plan a month at a time and prep all meals that freeze well. I prefer to plan and prep weekly, as our schedule often changes. And, looking at a blank meal plan for a week is less intimidating than for a month!
Meal Prep Like a Boss #2: Be Reasonable, Be Flexible
This might be the most important step in meal prep. Think about how much you are putting on your (meal prep) plate.
Cooking long, involved recipes on the weekend can be fun, but do you want to come home to a meal on Tuesday night that requires chopping ten veggies and 90 minutes of simmering? My personal rule is weeknight meals must have twenty minutes or less of hands on prep time. I also like to limit my menu to one or two new recipes at the most (often times I go with favorites only and nothing new).
If you know you have limited time for weekend prep, fill your week with quick dinners, as you won’t have much time to prep ahead. And if you have a week with extra prep time? Consider adding a few freezer meals to your prep plan to save for a busier week.
Prioritize the meal that you find hardest to throw together on a daily basis. Do you enjoy cooking dinner to unwind after work, but struggle to eat a healthy breakfast? Prioritize baking a breakfast casserole on the weekend, and include other prep as you have time.
When I worked full time in an office, I prioritized a breakfast casserole that I could eat all week and prepping basics for dinner. Now that I am at home, I have a really hard time putting together my own lunch. We’re usually in a hurry and getting the baby situated and fed comes first. Currently, my first priority for prepping is grab-and-go, individually packed lunches for me.
Over time, life changes and the way you meal prep will as well. Try new ways of doing it until you find what works for you.
Meal Prep Like a Boss #3: Plan and Shop Early, Or Don’t 🙂
If you’ve got a busy schedule, it’s likely that you will need to break up the steps of meal prep. I like to write my menu mid week and get the shopping done on Friday. Confession: Most weeks I fail at the Friday shopping (because something about getting the baby to the store is impossible) and end up doing it Saturday morning. But, I try every. single. week.
Having my menu written early allows me a few days to fit in the grocery shopping before my Sunday morning prep. My husband in generally in charge of the baby and I spend a few hours in the kitchen, starting at the top of my prioritized prep list, going until I don’t want to prep anymore. Some weeks that is at the end of my list, other weeks I don’t make it all the way through before I run out of steam.
Perhaps you have a big block of time and you’d rather do it all at once? That works, too!
Need a starting point for your planning? Download my (very simple) weekly menu template here. I start by filling in any known social commitments. From there, I plug in leftovers and frozen prepped meals I plan to use. Next, I fill the rest with either favorite meals or new recipes, keeping in mind what we have going on each day and effort level. Last, I make a list of what needs to be defrosted, including the day I need to do so, and what is on my Sunday prep list. Here’s an example from a recent week.
If you prefer not to plan meals and simply want to prep components, I suggest making a list of all the proteins, carbs, veggies, sauces, etc. you plan to prep. This will provide you with a game plan for prep, and also ensure you have enough food for the week. The list will be helpful to have on hand during the week to pull from as you assemble meals.
Meal Prep Like a Boss #4: Have the Right Tools
I don’t have a large kitchen, and therefore I’m pretty picky about what gadgets I purchase and store in my limited space. Over my years of perfecting meal prep, I’ve narrowed down what I need to prep, store, and cook a week’s worth of food.
- Instant Pot: The Instant Pot is a relatively new addition to my kitchen, but it has quickly become a workhorse. I use a lot of homemade broth in my cooking (soups, stews, chilis), and with the Instant Pot I can make 8-10 cups of broth in 90 minutes. I also use it to cook meat and vegetables during the week for quick meals. You can roast a chicken in 30 minutes!
- Slow Cooker: I love the slow cooker for dinners when I will be out of the house for the majority of the day. About once a month, I assemble slow cooker meals in ziplock bags and freeze. I defrost overnight in the fridge, throw in the slow cooker in the morning, and dinner is ready when we are.
- Cutting Boards: I like to have two cutting boards, so that I can use one for meat and one for veggies and not worry about contamination.
- Good Knife: A good knife will make tedious chopping (my LEAST favorite part of meal prep) much easier. I love my ceramic knife for veggies, and my Global Chef’s knife for anything that has a hard seed or bones.
- Measuring Cups and Spoons: I have two sets each of measuring cups and spoons. This is really helpful when doing a big prep session, as I can use one for liquids and one for solids and just rinse or wipe out between uses.
- Tons of Storage: If you do a big meal prep, you will need a way to store all the food you’ve made. I use a mix of mason jars (make sure yours are freezer safe if you are freezing!), ziplock bags, glass tupperware (for anything that will be microwaved or reheated in the oven), and BPA free plastic tupperware. Buying glass tupperware can be expensive if you pay full price, but I find great deals ($3 or $4 each!) at home stores like Ross and TJ Maxx.
Meal Prep Like a Boss #5: Clean As You Go
My first step in food prep has nothing to do with actual food. Instead, I unload the dishwasher. Once I’m cooking, I immediately rinse dishes, tools, and utensils as I’ve used them. If they are not going to be used again, they go straight into the empty dishwasher. Trust me on this one. Meal prep will be 3.4 times more fun if you don’t have to wash all your dishes once you’re done prepping. #fact
I also take the trashcan out from under the sink and keep a large bowl for compost on the counter. Any trash (think raw meat wrappings) goes in the bin as soon as it’s no longer needed, and without me having to touch the cabinet handles. All peels, seeds, and other food waste can be dumped from my cutting board into the compost bowl with minimal effort. This may sound basic, but it allows me to keep my work space clean as I cook and reduces clean up at the end of the session.
Meal Prep Like a Boss #6: Do What You Can
ANY prep is better than no prep. Some weeks, you may not have time to sit down and write a detailed menu or set aside a few hours for food prep. Rather than focus on the time you don’t have, focus on the time you DO have. Do you have thirty minutes? Brown some ground meat and boil a dozen eggs for healthy proteins. Sixty minutes? Add a few veggies to wash and chop and make a freezer chicken meal for the crockpot.
Need a game plan for what to do with your time? The Meal Prep Plan for the Time You DO Have free printable provides instructions for a quick 30 or 90 minute cooking session with minimal ingredients and kitchen tools. To download, click the image below or click here.
*Curious what the Whole30 is? In short, it’s a thirty day protocol that eliminates foods that have a negative effect on health.
Do you lack energy? Suffer from poor sleep? Have digestive issues? Chronic pain? Trouble losing weight? Feel addicted to sugar? Any of these can be the result of the food you’re eating. The best way to determine if that’s the case? Give up commonly problematic foods for thirty days, then slowly reintroduce them and see how you feel.