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meal-prepToday’s jam-packed schedules present challenges for preparing healthy, home-cooked meals, particularly at dinnertime, when families are contending with working parents, kids’ activities, nighttime commitments, travel schedules and more. If you’re like me, who doesn’t love the kitchen and often doesn’t consider dinner until 4 or 5 p.m., you end up in a slight panic, whipping up whatever is in the house (pasta, again?), relying on frozen pizza or grabbing carryout. Not good.

It is difficult to find time to make dinners that are quick and tasty. When you are responsible for feeding a spouse or significant other, along with kids and other family members, it’s smart to have a game plan for dinner, which ideally is eaten together, but even if not, is typically consumed by everyone eventually.

There is a better way, provided you plan ahead. With some forethought, organization and preparation over the weekend, you can have meals ready to go for the work week. Here are some recommendations on how to meal prep for the entire week.

Before Grocery Shopping

Obviously, if you are going to prepare meals – or ingredients that are part of meals – you must first determine what you will eat. If planning for four to five nights is overwhelming, start with one to two dinners. Remember, you may have leftovers, which means you don’t need to create a new meal for every night, as you can eat that entrée another evening. Start small until you get the hang of meal prep.

The planning stage involves selecting recipes, assessing what foods you have on hand and listing what must be purchased to make each meal. Start with simple recipes with limited ingredients that are quick to make.

Options can include grilled chicken breasts; pasta with marinara sauce; fish or chicken tacos; chili or soup; chicken or turkey casserole; meatloaf; lasagna; beans and rice; slow cooker entrees and more. Choose what your family likes to eat, but eventually add some variety by occasionally making a new recipe.

It’s simple to search online for recipes that are healthy, require minimal ingredients and are quick to prepare. You’ll discover a ton of ideas if you simply search “meal prep recipes.” You can also find instructions on how to meal prep for a week, complete with recipes and grocery lists.

Get a calendar, use a piece of paper/meal planner outline or go online to record meals for the days you have selected. Writing it down provides an instant visual and a reference point for future planning so that you’re not serving the same foods each week.

If picking recipes and planning meals ahead of time sounds like a drag, I get it. But it ultimately saves you time and money because you’re not constantly scrambling to assemble a decent meal, or finding out as you’re cooking that you are missing a key ingredient. Plus, you won’t be stressed nightly at 5 p.m., racing to figure out how to feed kids that have to be at a practice/rehearsal/work by 6 p.m.

So get your recipes and make a grocery list while you are standing in the kitchen where you can see what items you have already. Make basic substitutions as necessary to simplify, like brown rice for white rice, plain Greek yogurt for sour cream, cheddar cheese for jack cheese, etc.

Also, assess your supply of plastic and glass containers and gallon-size bags to store prepped food in the fridge or freezer. Clear plastic or glass is best so you can see inside, and having several containers of the same size makes it easier to stack them and save space.

Some containers have separate compartments where you can pack different components of a meal. Choose BPA-free plastic, and make sure your containers can go in the dishwasher. Dry erase markers work well to label plastic containers, and Sharpies are great for bags. Add these to your grocery list if necessary.

The Prepping Begins

Once you have your ingredients, consider each meal and prepare what you can in advance. Note that there are two ways to meal prep: you can put together the entire entrée, along with side dishes, store in the fridge or freezer and simply heat up at mealtime; or cook, chop and ready ingredients separately, store them, and then assemble and heat when you are ready to eat.

To create full entrees, consider what will keep well in the fridge or freezer, such as casseroles, chili, soups, stews, and baked pasta dishes. A quick check online will tell you how long foods usually last in the fridge, and what freezes well.

Smart multitasking makes meal prep more efficient. To save time, use your crockpot and cook multiple items in the oven simultaneously. While you brown meat, cook chicken, fish or other meat in the oven. Then you can make quick meatballs, meatloaf or burgers for the fridge or freezer.

Next, move to cooking pasta, rice, quinoa or lentils – rice cookers, pressure cookers and steamers are helpful here. While all of that is cooking, wash and chop your veggies.

Cooking or roasting potatoes, sweet potatoes and other veggies at the same time is a great time-saver during the work week, and hard-boiling some eggs provides a quick protein source for salads.

You can store your cooked and chopped ingredients separately, such as the chicken breasts, rice and veggies, and then plate them and heat up when it’s time for dinner, or put a portion of each in a container with separate compartments, and simply heat it when you are ready to eat. Your call on what works best for you.

Be sure to label everything with the date, and freeze what you won’t use in three to four days. Note that it’s best to let foods cool before putting them in the freezer. And remember, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to meal prep. You decide how much or little prep you want to take on, based on your schedule.

Meal Prep Tips

Now that you know the basics of meal prep, remember these tips:

  1. Shortcuts are acceptable – You can buy precut veggies or use frozen; pick bagged salads; use tuna versus fresh fish; get a rotisserie chicken instead of roasting one yourself, etc. No shame in saving time!
  2. Cook in bulk when possible – Make a double batch of marinara or pesto sauce, soup, chili or whatever will freeze well, and then you’ve got another meal handy for later with minimal extra time invested.
  3. Stock up on essentials – If possible, buy items that you use often in bulk, such as pasta, frozen shrimp or salmon, frozen veggies, canned beans and broths, chicken breasts and more.
  4. Multitask – Have something cooking in the crockpot, oven and on the stove simultaneously, while you are chopping food or assembling ingredients. Set multiple timers, and learn to keep an eye on everything so you don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen meal prepping.
  5. Relax – If you can’t meal prep one week, don’t stress. Do what you can, when you can. And if you don’t want to eat the meal on Wednesday that you prepared Sunday, or don’t feel like leftovers, grab something else. You’re in charge.