Ever wandered how to meal prep? Need some tips on how to become a more efficient meal planner? Maybe you just want to simplify your crazy week or save some money by eating out less.
I’ve come to enjoy the whole process of meal planning, and have some great tips for first-timers and veterans alike. I’ll walk you through my step-by-step process below, (or, feel free to click on some of my pre-made meal plans)
How to Meal Prep like a Pro
Phase 1: Planning
1. Devote 1 full hour of uninterrupted time to planning
In order to do this right, you need to put in the time. “But Ally, I thought this was saving me time?” It will. All this prep work will save you valuable time every morning and night during the weekdays, but first you need to have a plan in place. I like to prep the hour before I go to the grocery store on the weekend, but use whatever hour you have available to you. As you get better at this, you might be able to cut down on the prep time.
2. First, clean out your fridge and take inventory
This is the double-duty step where you save yourself time AND money. Empty your fridge and pantry of anything expired, or undesirable, (example: if your goal is to lose weight, remove any temptations for you). This will not only prepare your kitchen with extra room for all the fresh produce that accompanies healthy meal planning, but it will allow you to start fresh.
Next you’re going to create your first list of the day: inventory. Write down the quantity of every single item that’s still fresh and available for use in your fridge, freezer, and pantry, and spice cabinet. The goal, ultimately, is to save money so it’s important to waste as little food as possible. As you’re doing the next step, research, you’ll need to cater the recipes you select to use up items you already have to prevent over-buying at the store. This will also help that inevitable moment halfway through the week where you’re cooking dinner and missing a key ingredient you SWORE you had already or had enough of. You’re saving time by only shopping once a week and never needing to waste time with last-minute grocery store runs.
Tip: don’t forget to consider your non-food items as well! Do you have plenty of tupperware to get through the week? Gallon-sized plastic bags? Aluminum foil and plastic wrap? Don’t forget the essentials that could ruin your well-intentioned meal planning session. You don’t necessarily need to inventory everything, but if you’re running low make sure to add it to your final shopping list or order it from Amazon.
3. Find inspiration
Scour Pinterest and Instagram for recipes that fit your goal. If you want to lose weight, search for healthy breakfasts, smoothies, healthy snacks, paleo dinners, etc. If you want to save money, search for the ingredients you’re trying to use up from your inventory. To save time, find some slow cooker recipes you can prep ahead.
I like to screenshot recipes on my phone that are winners, or take photos of magazine recipes I come across for easy access. This process doesn’t necessarily have to be the day of the planning phase, but can be an ongoing process.
The important thing is that you’re excited about all the recipes you choose. You want to wake up every morning and want to make that smoothie, and you want to go to work every day excited to heat up your packed lunch. Healthy recipes do not have to be gross and miserable. Research recipes until you find ones you like.
4. Select the final recipes, (hint: it’s fewer than you expect)
Here’s the thing that may be counterintuitive: plan for the unexpected. Any time I meal prep 5 lunches for the week I end up wasting food. Expect some dinner leftovers through the week that you can repurpose into lunch meals. They are already healthy and approved! Plus, it helps spice things up for you at lunch. You want to stick to this meal plan because you like it, not want to die at the thought of heating up your 5th straight day of old chicken and veggies.
Here’s my recommendation:
Breakfast: choose 1 that you can quickly make each day like a smoothie or casserole you can meal prep then heat up
Lunch: choose 1 recipe that you can make 3 or 4 portions of. Factor in dinner leftovers as lunch options to keep things interesting.
Dinner: choose 6 dinner options for the week. Assume that one night out of the week you’re going to be like, “screw this, I’m exhausted, I want chips and queso and a margarita.” That’s ok. You’re a human, it’s ok. Planning for the unexpected will keep you flexible and stop you from feeling guilt over wasting a meal! Just move the planned dinner to tomorrow and enjoy yourself. Remember, you’ll never stick to a diet or healthy meal plan longterm if there’s no room to enjoy yourself a little.
Snacks: choose 2 healthy snacks for the week that you can pack up on Monday and have all week. Just enough to keep it interesting, but not enough to break the bank. I recommend a big bag of roasted, salted almonds, and a few greek yogurts. Maybe a big bag of baby carrots with hummus and a big container of your favorite fruit. If healthy snacks you love are on hand, you’re less likely to impulse eat the leftover donut sitting in the break room at 3 PM.
Money saving tip: choose cuisines with similar herbs (you’d be surprised how expensive they are!) and ingredients For example, Mexican, Asian, and Indian foods all use cilantro and rice. Italian and Thai food both use basil and noodles. Keeping these in mind will help save you money and reduce food waste.
5. Make a list, make it again, and then make it again
As you go through all the recipes you’ve chosen, write down every ingredient and quantity you see listed. That’s your first list, but that’s not nearly store-ready.
Next, take that list and consolidate ingredients and quantities. For example, if one recipe calls for 1/4 of a red onion, and another calls for 2 red onions, and another calls for 1/2 a red onion, consolidate these into 3 red onions on your next list. Cross off items you consolidate as you go to keep track.
Finally, envision your grocery store. I re-write my second list in terms of how I move through my grocery store. First, I group together meats, then try and group together aisles, (international foods, canned foods, spices, condiments, frozen, tools, etc.) break out dairy, and finally produce. Bonus points if you sub-group your produce by location in the produce area. Don’t forget plastic containers and plastic bags!
The more you meal prep, grocery shop, and learn your store’s layout, the easier, (and more helpful!) this will be. If done correctly, this will save you tons of time.
Phase 2: Shopping
6. Again, devote about a full hour of uninterrupted time
The time and attention you spend at the grocery store will be important to ensure you don’t have to make emergency trips later in the week because you forgot something. Don’t put your headphones in and zone out, you need to be fully present. I don’t pretend to understand the challenges that come alone with having children yet, but if it’s possible to go to the grocery store alone, that will help you tremendously. Expect the whole process to take about an hour due to the amount of groceries and bags you’ll be dealing with.
In order to keep things healthy if that’s your goal, you’ll want to spend time reading labels and making sure your food has a few ingredients as possible, (and that you can pronounce them all!). If saving money is most important, use the time to find deals using the coupons at the front or by price shopping. Regardless, these things take time and attention.
7. Bring your list and a pen
Cross things off as you go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve scanned over a list and been like, “yep, got everything!” when I, in fact, had forgot some times and overlooked them. Alternatively, sometimes I use the Notes app in my phone to type out the list and I delete the items as I go. This also helps you save time if you’ve already put your list in order of the grocery store layout. Don’t leave one section until the whole section is checked off! Prevent yourself from walking back and forth across the store several times.
8. Consider pre-prepped items
This is where you may need to decide what’s more important to you: saving time or saving money. Grocery stores these days have so many great pre-prepped items now in the refrigerated frozen section: diced onions, zucchini noodles, peeled garlic, cubed butternut squash, cauliflower rice, etc. It will be more expensive, but could save you lots of time and hassle during the meal prep process. A zucchini is less than a dollar, but a carton of zucchini noodles are almost $4 at my store. For me, I like the pre-prepped options because it saves time AND dishes, (a spiralizer is one more thing you have to take apart and wash!). It’s up to you to price shop the options and make the decision right for you.
Phase 3: Meal Prep
9. Figure out what needs prepped
Here I’m going to go through different types of ingredients and recipes and how you should approach them when it comes to meal prep.
Fruits and veggies: the basic rule is that if it can brown when cut, (apples, avocados, potatoes, etc.) you should not pre-cut these. Otherwise, feel free to cut up fruits for smoothies and place them in plastic bags, dice all your veggies and store them separately in tupperware in the fridge, or fruit for snacks separately in tupperware.
Meat: you can season or marinade all your meats ahead of time and store them each in gallon-sized plastic bags until they are ready to use.
Important: take note of all the expiration dates. If it expires before you plan to use it, then store it in the freezer rather than the fridge.
Grains and pasta: feel free to cook these ahead of time and store them in containers in the fridge. They hold up well without sauces or dressing.
Breakfast: I’m a smoothie lover for breakfast. To meal prep smoothies for the week cut up all the fruit and portion them out into 7 plastic baggies. You can add non-liquids to the bag as well like peanut butter, chia seeds, etc. You can store these bags in either the fridge or the freezer, and then each morning you dump one bag into the blender and add the required amount of liquid.
For breakfast sandwiches, casseroles, or frittatas, you can fully cook these on your meal prep day, let them cool, and then store them in individual bags or containers. Just heat up in the microwave each morning when you’re ready to eat!
For more traditional breakfasts, you could pre-cook the bacon or sausage, dice up the vegetables you want to use, and save the egg cooking for the morning of.
Lunch: I recommend fully cooking/preparing all your lunches for the week ahead of time. These are going to be your grab-and go meals and should be easy to heat up or assemble at work, for example.
For most hot recipes, fully cook these on your meal prep day and portion them into to-go containers to heat up in the microwave later.
For sandwiches, place and “wet” ingredients as far from the bread as possible. This means tomatoes should not be in direct contact with the bread, (you could put them in between meat and cheese, for example) and the same goes for sauce. You may even want to consider storing the sauce in a separate, small container on the side to dip.
For salads, store the salad dressing on the bottom of the container with the lettuce on the top so it won’t wilt, (just shake when it’s time to eat!) or store the dressing in a separate small container.
Dinner: this is a different beast than the other meals. I lean towards the side of cooking dinner each night instead of making it ahead, but you can proceed with the same guidelines as lunch if you’d like to prep dinners ahead of time too. To keep dinners quick each night, I recommend following the guidelines for meat, veggies, grains, and pasta above but don’t assemble everything until the day-of.
However, for slow cooker meals, I like to place all prepped ingredients (expect dairy and other post-cooking finishers/ toppings) into a gallon-sized plastic bags and store them in the fridge. Then, the morning of the slow cooker dinner, just dump the bag in the slow cooker and turn it on before you leave for the day. Easy peasy!
Snacks: hopefully by now this one is self-explanitory! Snacks should be accessible and quick, so prep all ingredients and store them in grab-and-go bags or containers.
10. Are you sick of this one yet? Devote uninterrupted time to cooking and prepping!
Cooking and prepping may take you an hour or two (or three) but it will be worth it! I promise! You’ll have healthy, ready-to-go meals all week and you’ll never have to ask yourself “what’s for ____?” Isn’t peace of mind great?
Did this help you learn how to meal prep? Are there any tips or advice you’d like to add or share? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below! Feel free to share this article with others that you think this would help 🙂