Making homemade, healthy meals each day is a constant struggle. But instead of just giving in and going through the local drive-thru or ordering pizza three nights a week, why not give meal planning and meal prepping a try?
Meal planning and prepping is a great way save time and money, and still prepare healthy meals each day for your family.
How is Meal Prepping Different to Meal Planning?
Meal planning and meal prepping are often confused, but these are actually two entirely different things. With meal planning, you are simply deciding what the future meals will be. When you meal prep, you actually buy those ingredients, then start getting certain aspects of the meal prepared, so that very little needs to be done each day when cooking time arrives.
What is Meal Planning?
Meal planning is nothing more than figuring out what meals you are going to make in the near future. It can be as detailed as you want, though the more information you include in your meal scheduling, the better off you will be.
This is going to help save you time because you aren’t running to the supermarket every day trying to figure out what to get for dinner that night.
You already know the meals for at least a week beforehand. Here is a rundown of how meal planning works, though keep in mind there is a lot of room for variation.
How Far Ahead To Plan
The first thing you should decide how far ahead you want to plan your meals for.
This really depends on you and a number of factors should be considered. Think about how much time you have for meal planning and prepping, how often your family likes to switch up recipes, and realistically what you can spend at the supermarket for planning these meals.
You should also consider how much room you have in your refrigerator and freezer. Planning for 3 weeks ahead of time is fine for the schedule, but you may not have a freezer big enough to store the meals.
When you are just starting out, try to plan for just one full week and see how it goes. This should include all meals and snacks your family will eat for that entire week, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts.
It includes meals you will prepare at home with leftovers, lunches your kids and you will bring to work or school, and any extra items you need, such as bringing brownies to the local potluck or any other special occasions.
If the thought of planning a full week’s worth of meals is already stressing you out – start with three days. This is enough time to experience the benefits of meal planning, without it feeling overwhelming.
The First Steps For Meal Planning
Before you start thinking of meals and looking at recipes, take stock of what is in your kitchen. Take note of everything in your pantry and refrigerator, write it down, and see what meals you can make from those ingredients.
If you have a well-stocked fridge and pantry, you may find that all you might need are some filler ingredients. For example, you may have almost all of the ingredients you need for homemade biscuits, so you know you can have a meal that uses those biscuits as a way of saving money and time.
The next step is to look at your schedule for the coming week. Note which nights you will be pressed for time. The amount of time you have available will help you decide which meals will be appropriate for that evening. Slow cooker meals are excellent for those days you’ll be getting home late.
Once you know everything you already have on hand, and you’ve taken a look at you family’s schedule, the next step is to consider your family’s favorite meals. See which ones you can incorporate into your plan. You may be tempted to use your meal planning to add a variety of new recipes, but I recommend stick to one new recipe a week.
Adding Detail To Your Meal Plans
Once you have started noting down some meals you would like to make during the week, try to be as detailed as possible. If you would like to make sure you have leftovers from a chicken dinner for lunch the next day, note that in the plan!
Using ‘leftovers’ for lunch the next day saves you a lot of time when it comes time to prepare your different meals for the week.
You can then see where there are any gaps, and add in more meals.
The last step is to take note of quantities. Look at your recipes for the meals you have chosen, and take note of how much of each ingredient you will need to buy.
Your final planning step is to make a list with all the groceries you need to purchase. Exclude the ingredients you already have on hand. And remember to include quantities!
Adding Flexibility To Your Meal Plan
While planning every meal is a great way to save time during the week, there are going to be some situations where it doesn’t go quite as you planned out. Make sure you leave some room for flexibility in your meals and meal planning.
For example, you might have a day where you want to go out to dinner because your spouse got a big promotion and you want to celebrate. Don’t hesitate to celebrate just because you planned to make spaghetti that night. Just readjust your schedule and make it another night. Meal planning is meant to simplify the process, not restrict yourself too much.
One way you can make your plan flexible is to plan for only 6 dinners out of 7, so you don’t end up with excess food.
Include Leftovers and Multi-use Ingredients in Your Plan
Always try to think about leftovers or using certain ingredients in your meal planning that can be used for multiple meals. If you know you want to make chicken and dumplings and are going to buy a pack of chicken breasts, consider other meals that can also use chicken breasts – such as stir-fry or a or chicken soup.
Types of Meal Prepping
There are two basic approaches to meal prepping: preparing the ingredients, such as chopping vegetables and putting ingredients for meals into containers, and actually cooking some (or all) aspects of the meal and freezing them.
You can do one or both of these options depending on how much time you think you will have, and your personal preferences.
Some people simply do the prep work, such as getting all their veggies chopped up, rice measured, and snacks into portion baggies to be used during the week. Others actually cook the full meals, and then freeze them so that dinner just involves popping them in the oven or slow cooker.
Containers to Use For Meal Prep
When you are planning on prepping meals, you need to be careful with the types of containers you use. These containers are not just storing the ingredients and cooked food items, but meant to keep them fresh in the refrigerator or freezer for an extended period of time. You need to be careful what you choose to store items in and how they are stored. Here are some recommendations for food storage containers:
Choose containers with airtight lids.
Make sure that your containers keep the food fresh with airtight lids. If you intend to use Tupperware-type containers, try filling them with water, then turn them upside down and make sure no water leaks out. This is a good way to tell how fresh your food will be in the containers.
Try storing items in mason jars.
Mason jars are perfect for storing certain items and meals. For example, if you like to take salad to work, try putting each day’s salad in a separate container. Choose the wide-mouth containers and add the denser items at the bottom. The greens should always be at the top so they don’t get wilted or weighed down. Keep your salad dressing in a separate container.
Be careful with plastic storage items.
Plastic is fine to use, but you should know what type of plastic you are using. Make sure it is refrigerator, freezer, microwave, and dishwasher-safe. Also check that the plastic containers don’t have any BPA, which can be dangerous when adding or heating food in these containers.
Consider casserole dishes that work for baking and storage.
When you are actually cooking bigger meals ahead of time to just be reheated each evening, I recommend using multi-purpose casserole dishes. Use glass dishes that you use for baking, but that can also be used for storing in the freezer. Just make sure you leave them out in room temperature after cooking to cool down before freezing them, or they might crack.
Useful Tips For Meal Prepping
As you get started with meal prepping, there are some other things you need to keep in mind. Follow these simple tips for prepping your meals after you are done with meal planning:
- Cook all your meat at once.
- Label every container so you know when to use it by.
- Note what prepping is being done for leftovers.
- Use ingredients that can be prepped for multiple meals.
- Get freezer bags together with ingredients that will go in the slow cooker.
- Put your meal plan up on the refrigerator so you can easily see what meals to take out.
- If you’re planning and prepping for more than 3 days, do your planning and shopping on a separate day to your meal prep.
Meal Ideas For Prepping
Here are some different meal ideas that work perfectly with meal planning and meal prepping.
Put together different overnight oatmeal jars.
To get some healthy breakfasts prepared, add overnight oats to multiple jars, one for each day of the week. In addition to the oats, you can add different toppings for each day. Some toppings to consider include cinnamon, sugar, slivered almonds or other nuts, dried fruit, berries or fresh fruit, raisins, and granola.
Roast your vegetables beforehand.
To get vegetables ready for lunches and dinners throughout the week, spend one day roasting all the vegetables at one time. Choose vegetables with about the same cooking time, roast them together, then place in containers and freeze them.
Use a vegetable spiralizer instead of pasta.
To make healthy, low-carb meals and meal prep at the same time, consider using a vegetable spiralizer. This takes vegetables like zucchini and squash and creates pasta out of them. Spiralize your veggies on a Sunday, then save them for the week’s ‘pasta’ meals.
Bake all of your meat, then freeze portions for each meal.
Decide what meat you want to use for multiple meals, then bake or cook it all at the same time. Do this in the oven or your slow cooker. Meat like chicken breasts, fish filets, and strips of steak work great for this.
Keep salad veggies and toppings in one container.
For your salads, you can make it faster to put them together by having all of the greens and vegetables together in containers. Keep all your greens in one big container, and all the chopped veggies, cheese, and other toppings in another container.
With these tips, you will be on your way to both meal planning and prepping. This is going to save you a lot of time, not to mention help you make healthier meals for your family.