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If you are like many people, you have such a busy life, that making homemade, healthy meals each day is a constant struggle. 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? Here are some things to know about each of these options to help save time, money, and still prepare healthy meals each day for your family.
What is Meal Planning?
Before you can start on your meal prep, you need to plan your meals. For many of us, this can be the most difficult part. Meal planning is just deciding what meals you are going to make in the near future. You can plan out your meals in great detail, including side dishes and desserts, or go more general. Maybe Tuesday will be Mexican and Wednesday is always pasta. That being said, the more details you determine in advance, the easier it will be to plan and prep things efficiently.
Time is what we need to save more of!
By starting with meal planning, you will then know what your meal prep is going to consist of. This is going to be a big time saver 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 and can make sure you have all of the groceries in stock.
Here is a rundown of how meal planning works, though keep in mind there is a lot of room for variation. You don’t have to stick to things in a hard and fast way. You should make any and all adjustments that make this process a helpful time-saver for you and your family.
How Many Weeks to Plan For
The first thing you should decide is exactly how much meal planning you want to do, in regards to how many days or weeks to plan ahead of time. This really depends on your preferences and a number of factors to be considered. Put some thought into 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.
It is also extremely important to consider how much room you have in your refrigerator and freezer. While planning your meals for 3 weeks ahead of time is great for the schedule, you can’t always buy and prep that far in advance if you don’t have the fridge and freezer space available! Meal prep can always become one of your Sunday habits for a weekly prep!
Don’t hesitate to start small!
When you are just starting out, try to plan for just one 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. Obviously, account for the things you know aren’t needed, such as a child who eats lunch at school or family who isn’t home for dinner.
Make sure to include any meals you will prepare at home, lunches your kids and you will bring to work or school, and any extra items you need, such as bringing brownies to this week’s Boy Scout meeting or any other special occasions.
Where to Start with Meal Planning
If you’re not sure where to start with planning your meals, you can make it easy by taking 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. A quick way I do this is by surveying what meats I have on hand. If I have ground beef, chicken, and pork chops in the freezer, I know I will use those in my meal plan before adding in additional meals!
This should be a good start, and then all you might need are some filler ingredients. You may have almost all of the ingredients you need for homemade spaghetti, so you only have to grab a particular spice for that meal.
Once you know everything you already have, start considering what the different meals are that your family will be interested in, but don’t forget about considering how each of those meals will be prepared. Some weeks are busier than others, as are certain nights throughout the week. If you know you will be pressed for time, try to think of meals you can make ahead of time or that can be made in the slow cooker all day while you are at work.
Related: Incredibly Simple Steps to Stress-Free Weeknight Dinners
The Importance of Detail in Your Meal Plans
Once you have started writing down some meals you plan to make during the week, try to be as detailed as possible. If you are planning on making a meal on Tuesday that you know will result in 2-3 servings of leftovers, plan for that. This is a great way to always have a good lunch for you and your husband on the meal plan!
This helps you reduce how many lunches you need to prepare, which further saves you a lot of time when it comes time to prepare your different meals for the week. After listing the meals, make another list with all the groceries you need to purchase, making sure not to include what you already have on hand.
Leaving Room for Flexibility
While planning out each meal is a great way to save time during the week, there are bound to be some situations where things don’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 find out your child did something spectacular at school and you want to go out to dinner to celebrate. Don’t hesitate to celebrate that just because you planned to make tacos that night. Just do a bit of rearranging on your meal plan and make it another night. Meal planning is meant to simplify the process, not restrict you too much.
Include Leftovers in Your Meal 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, buy more than you need and freeze them. This lets you have enough chicken for that meal, but also for chicken soup, salads, sandwiches, or other dinner ideas. You are going to save money and time by having the extra chicken on hand. Buying in bulk is almost always cheaper.
How is Meal Prepping Different?
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.
Related: 6 Cheap Ways to Eat Healthily
Types of Meal Prepping
There are two basic elements to meal prepping: First, chopping vegetables and putting ingredients for meals into containers. Then, actually cooking some 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. 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. This can be a great way to have the “hard parts” of cooking already done while still cooking fresh meals each day. Others actually cook the casseroles and chicken, and then freeze them so that dinner just involves popping them in the oven for a set amount of time!
Containers to Use
When you are planning on prepping meals, you need to be conscious of the types of containers you use. The containers you utilize in meal prepping are not just storing the ingredients and cooked food. They are meant to keep things 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 proper 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. Meal prepping can lose all appeal if the food tastes awful on the day it’s served.
Try storing items in mason jars.
Mason jars are perfect for storing certain items. A great example, that you’ve like seen before, is salad! Maybe you often pack yourself salads for work. Try putting each day’s salad in a separate mason jar. Choose the wide-mouth jars and add the denser items at the bottom. Your 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 easy and really, it’s 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 cooking food in these containers.
Consider casserole dishes that work for baking and storage.
When you are cooking bigger meals ahead of time to be reheated each evening, it’s easiest to use casserole dishes. Use glass dishes that you use for baking, but that can also be used for storing them in the freezer. Just make sure you leave them out to cool down before freezing them, or the dishes might crack.
Tips for Meal Prepping
Related: 37 of the Most Amazing but Simple Crockpot Recipes
As you get started with meal prepping, there are some other things to keep in mind. Follow these simple tips for prepping your meals after you’re done with the planning:
- Cook all your meat at once.
- Label every container with a date and directions for reheating.
- Use ingredients that can be prepped for multiple meals.
- Use freezer bags to premeasure and sort ingredients that will go in the slow cooker.
Ideas for Prepping
Here are some great ideas that make the process of meal prepping as seamless and easy as it can be!
Overnight Oatmeal Jars
To have some healthy breakfasts prepared for the week, add overnight oats to multiple jars. Along with the oats, you can add a variety of different toppings for each day. Some toppings to consider are cinnamon, sugar, slivered almonds, dried fruit, berries or other fresh fruit, raisins, and granola.
Roast All vegetables beforehand
To get vegetables ready for meals throughout the week, spend one day roasting all the vegetables for various meals. 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, ground beef, and strips of steak work great for this.
Keep salad veggies and toppings in one container
For salads, you can make it faster to put them together by having all of the greens and vegetables together. Keep all your greens, prepped and ready, in one big container. Then, you can place all the chopped veggies, cheese, and other toppings in another container.
By following these simple tips, you will be well on your way to easier meals! While the initial time it takes to meal plan can seem overwhelming at first, it makes weekdays so much faster. If you and your family suffer from the fast food rut, getting the hang of meal prepping is so vital! Planning and prepping for your meals will not only save you time and money but will lead to healthier meals!
Do you have any great hacks you use for meal prepping? Anything not listed here? I’d love to hear it in the comments!