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Meal planning & meal prep are essential pieces of the puzzle if you're looking for stress-free, easy weeknight dinners. In this post you'll learn how to start meal prepping, even if you're a complete beginner.
Before you get started prepping, I recommend making a meal plan. It doesn't matter whether you use a meal planning service or make your meal plan using a meal planning template. What's important is that you make a plan.
What you'll Find in this post
- What is Meal Prepping?
- How to Start Meal Prepping
- 5 Steps to Meal Prepping Success
- Which Meals Should I Meal Prep?
- Meal Prep Ideas & Methods
- Meal Prep FAQ
what is meal prepping?
Meal prep, if you don't already know, is when you prepare food ahead of when you’re going to use it. This could look a lot of different ways, depending on your schedule, family preferences, and lifestyle. We'll cover several meal prep methods you can get started with today.
The way meal prep looks in your house will likely be different than it does in mine, but the idea is the same. We want to make cooking healthy food for our families EASIER and take LESS TIME!
The truth is - you are NOT the same person as your sister, or your neighbor! And what works for someone else isn’t necessarily going to work for you, too. So let's dig into how you can find a meal prep system that works for YOU.
How to Start Meal Prepping?
By identifying the cooking tasks you're doing over and over again, you can bundle up some of those tasks and you will save time. Think about a repetitive task like chopping an onion. You might use diced onion in three or four recipes throughout the week.
Each time you chop an onion, you get a cutting board out, you get a knife out, get the onion out and go through the process of chopping that onion. And then you need to wash the cutting board and wash the knife.
And then think about if you chopped all the onions for the week in one sitting. You’d only have to get out the cutting board ONCE, and get the knife out ONCE, and wash the cutting board and knife ONCE.
By meal prepping ingredients or meals in advance of when you need them, you’ll be able to chunk those repetitive tasks and the time you’re saving WILL add up. It might not seem like a lot of time at first, but it will add up. And not only do you save time, you save mental energy.
If you've ever gotten overwhelmed by the amount of decisions you have to make each day, you'll love meal prepping.
I'm always trying to think about ways I can be more efficient with my time. So if I find myself peeling and chopping carrots for my kids at lunch every.single.day...DING DING DING.
What if instead, I peeled and chopped a big container of carrots on Sunday, before the week starts. Then I could just grab them throughout the week as I need them.
Here's another example. I make oatmeal for my kids at least 2-3 times a week. Instead of making two single serving bowls of oatmeal each day, I can make a big pot of oatmeal on Sunday and just reheat it throughout the week.
If it sounds simple, that's because it is. The hardest part is shifting your thinking and getting into the habit of batching some of your cooking tasks into a one-hour or two-hour long chunk of time.
5 Steps to Meal Prepping Success
- Make a meal plan. Read about how to use a template to meal plan in this article. Use a template that works for you. If you prefer an Excel meal plan template, learn more about Excel templates available here.
- Get some meal prep containers. You can use what you have to start, or get some like this that are glass and have separators. Mason jars work awesome for soup, too.
- Set aside some time to meal prep. Look at your schedule and find 1-2 hour long openings where you can do a bunch of meal prep at once. Use a service like Prep Dish to help you figure out what you can prep ahead and what you can do day-of for maximum efficiency (and delicious real food meals). You can read my full Prep Dish review here.
- Cook/Chop/Prep. This is where you do your meal prep work. If you're not sure what to meal prep, keep reading. Here's a free 7 day gluten free meal plan to show you how simple planning & prepping can be. Batch cooking is another tool for your meal prep toolbox that doesn't take long, but makes a HUGE impact.
- Relax and put your plan in action. Think about all the time you saved and how easy it was to just follow the meal plan. Fewer decisions, happier you.
3 meal prep methods
As you're starting to think about meal prepping, the first thing to think about is which meal prep method will work best for your schedule and availability. Finding a meal prep method that works for you is ESSENTIAL to making it actually stick.
1- Gradual - the everyday prepper
This method of meal prep is best for the person who wants to do a little bit here, a little bit there, and not really dedicate any chunks of time to meal prep.
This is a good way to start - like the gateway to more intentional meal prep. Because in this stage, your daily and weekly schedule doesn’t really have to change.
But your mindset will change. Because you’ll find yourself constantly thinking about how you can double a recipe or freeze something for later, or how you can prep something ahead of time (ingredients, sauces, salad dressings).
2- Little chunks - 1-2x/week
This method of meal prep is for someone who wants to take some time once or twice a week and prep food for later.
With this meal prep method, you shift your weekly schedule around to make a one-two hour chunk of time once a week to prep ingredients or meals for the week ahead.
3- Big chunks - 1-2x/month
The third method of meal prep is for the people who want their day-to-day cooking time to be GREATLY reduced. And we do this by taking a big chunk of time once or twice a month and preparing meals for the weeks or month ahead of time.
The main way this is done is by using freezer meals. I’ve personally used freezer meals to free up time that I would normally be cooking dinner, and it is AWESOME.
The specific type of freezer meals that I recommend are the ones where you don’t have to cook any ingredients before you put them in the freezer bag. Just chop, dump in the bag, freeze, then when you’re ready to eat it, thaw it out and dump it in the crockpot.
It’s like healthy convenience food. Because there’s no unnecessary ingredients, and you know EXACTLY what’s inside. And it’s just waiting in your freezer (like the freezer aisles at the store, but way more convenient).
Which meal prep method is best for you?
So, you may be asking...what’s the best method for ME?
Here are a few questions for you to ask yourself to find the answer.
- How much time do you want to be spending each day cooking dinner?
- How much time are you willing to devote to meal prep?
- How committed are you to meal prepping?
Once you have those answers, you’ll be one step closer to figuring out what method of meal prep will work best for you.
Which meals should I meal prep?
Alright, so now that you've figured out the best meal prep method for your lifestyle, great.
Now it's time to figure out which meals you should meal prep.
As you think through which meals are the best to get started meal prepping, think about which meals you feel rushed to get ready? Which meals do you get takeout more often than not? Think about the most stressful meal times in your week. Those are the best meals to start meal prepping.
Remember, the idea is to make more food at home and save time doing it (you'll likely save money, too, which is a nice bonus). Once you know which meals you're going to meal prep, think about where you have a 1-2 hour pocket ahead of time. Make a meal plan and try it out for a week. Adjust as needed.
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Meal Prepping Ideas
Here are some meal prep recipe ideas to get you thinking about what will work for your schedule and needs.
Breakfast meal prep
If you're usually rushed in the morning, consider meal prepping to provide easy healthy options on the go. Use your meal prep containers and grab a ready-made breakfast on your way out the door.
- Make your own breakfast burritos. Make a bunch,, wrap them up individually for the week, and freeze the extras for later.
- Frittata or quiche. Make it on Sunday and pack individual slices for breakfast each day.
- Pancakes/Waffles/French Toast. These are super easy to make a bunch at once and pull one or two out when you need it. Keep them in one big container, or separate them into smaller portions. These often freeze well, too.
- Scrambled Eggs. You may not love the idea of reheated scrambled eggs. But if you don't mind, make a dozen (or two dozen) scrambled eggs. Keep them in one big container, or separate them into smaller portions.
- Oatmeal. Instead of making one bowl at a time, make a big pot for the whole week. Then just reheat a single serving at a time.
- Yogurt, fruit, and granola in a mason jar. Use the ratios that you like, make a few for the week in mason jars.
Lunch meal Prep
If you bring lunch to work, you'll save a significant amount of time making your lunches all at once. Then, divide them into your meal prep containers and you're ready. No more rushing to grab something on your way out the door, and no more being dependent on takeout.
- Soup or curry. Make a double batch of your favorite soup to eat for lunches this week. I'd recommend this coconut curry, vegetable comfort soup, carrot ginger soup, or Paleo crockpot chili.
- Salad. Make a salad in a jar (with the dressing on the side), like this quinoa salad from Pinch of Yum. Put it in a jar, then dump it out when you're ready to eat it.
- Stir fry. Veggies + Meat + Sauce = yummy.
Dinner Meal prep
Some people just eat the same dinner every night. They cook it over the weekend and dinners are done for the whole week. Easy-peasy. If that sounds like it would work for you, awesome! Do it! If you like a little more variety in your dinners, here are some ideas to get your wheels turning.
- Freezer meals. There's a lot of recipes for freezer meals out there, but here are my favorites to get you started. Learn how to get started with freezer meals here.
- Make double batches of freezable meals. Lasagna, enchiladas, chili, soup (not creamy soup) work well. Eat half for dinner tonight, freeze the rest for later.
- Cook extra meat. Make a big batch of chicken (or ground beef, or beans) and season it mildly. My go-to "plain" seasoning is garlic powder and salt. This way you'll be able to use it in a variety of recipes throughout the week. Tacos, stir fry, soup, curry.
- Chop ahead of time. If the only thing you do for meal prep is chop vegetables ahead of time, you'll save time and stress. Not only will you be able to just dump the veggies in the recipe when needed (kind of like a celebrity chef), you'll be more likely to use them if they're prepped and ready to go!
Snack meal Prep
Make a few snack options for the week so you can just grab them and go. If you have kids, pick some that are kid friendly and not too messy for car snacking.
- Chop veggies like carrots, broccoli, celery, or bell peppers for a healthy snack. If you have healthy food ready to eat, you're much more likely to grab it and munch when you get snacky.
- Hard boiled eggs. A great high protein snack, and easy to prep a bunch at once.
- Crackers. I like to make up a double batch of these crackers when I prep my snacks. My kids love them, and I do to. High in protein, gluten free, dairy free. Yum!
- Trail mix. Make your own trail mix for a custom snack. Make a big container with a few types of nuts and dried fruit. Then keep a few small mason jars with this trail mix in your cupboard. Grab and go!
Meal Prepping FAQ
What food shouldn't I meal prep?
Maybe you're thinking - okay - but I tried meal prepping one time and things didn't turn out so well.
It's true. There are some things that just won't work well to meal prep.
Things that get soggy are on my never-make-ahead list. I really don't like soggy food, and I imagine you don't either. These things are on my do-not-make-ahead list. Of course, if you keep the salad dressings, sauces, and spreads in separate containers, they're back on the make-ahead list.
- Salads with dressing
- Fried foods
- Noodles in soup
Best Meal Prep Service
I always recommend Prep Dish to anyone who asks how to get started with meal prepping, because they give you pre-made meal plans AND help you learn how to meal prep at the same time.
Read my in-depth review of Prep Dish here to learn more about exactly how it works (and get an exclusive Scratch To Basics coupon code).
Really I could sing the praises of Prep Dish all day. But I'll stop now.
Let me know how your meal prepping goes. I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!