Here's a look at the easy meal prep method I use, along with some tips for creating your own schedule! What works for me may not work for you, but the key, I've found, is to create some sort of system that allows you to spend the time you want to spend making the foods you want to make. That's easy meal prep, no matter what it looks like for you!
It is no secret that I adore cooking. If I’m feeling stressed after a long day I crave being in the kitchen. I refuse chopping help from Jay because it feels like my own little worry stone – back and forth, controlling something simple compared to the rest of the world.
I never used to meal prep. My schedule allowed me to get home early enough to go to yoga and make dinner, and blissed out chopping, stirring, tasting, and enjoying the process was my nightly routine.
And then I had kids! And took a new job. And started working more. And suddenly, my love of cooking slowly every night didn’t make a bit of sense. Lucky for me, this happened at the same time that the meal prep craze kicked in, so I wasn’t alone. It seems that we, as a society, got really busy right as we doubled down on our desire to have healthy, fresh meals without a bunch of weeknight fuss.
Now, my meal prep method comes from the fact that I do truly love to cook. I also don’t love eating the same thing all week, so making ten highly Instagrammable matching chicken + rice + veg containers is not how I meal prep.
Here’s what I do!
On Wednesday I go to Sprouts for two very important reasons: it is super super SUPER close to my house and they have 8 day sales, meaning on Wednesdays I get last week AND next week’s sales. I buy cheap/on sale foods FIRST, then plan and prep my meals. I stock up on anything that can be frozen and is a great price, things I know we use all the time (if flour is half off, for example, because we make pancakes allll the time), and buy enough of produce and fresh things for one meal.
Once I know what I’m working with, I start to think about meals I can make. Ideas stem from: things I bought on Wednesday, things in the freezer, things that need to be used up. I NEVER think up a random recipe and go out and buy all of the ingredients for it. I’m mindful of waste and use what I have first, then buy other ingredients to round out meals.
I often have extra sauces and I kind of start with them because I already went to the effort to make them, you know? So maybe we had Thai lettuce wraps last week and there is leftover dressing, so this week I use the dressing to marinate some tofu and make baked tofu, but with a different sauce, then any extra dressing gets used on slaw - so now I've used the dressing from the original lettuce wraps in three different ways and didn't waste any.
Saturdays are for planning, Sundays are for prepping. Sometime on Saturday I rummage around and create meals in my head and on paper based on what I already own. I use as much that we already have as I can in these recipes, to keep my second grocery list really small.
Also at this time I write our schedule on a calendar we have on our fridge. Who’s working late, and when. If I’m going out or Jay is. If there’s a day off school. Those things help me figure out when we should eat what, if I need to cook every night or only a few.
For example: if I’m working late, then I’ll leave that night for a meal that is completely done – soup, often. If I know we’ll be home by 5pm I make a meal that night that includes some cooking, but I’ve prepped and chopped as many of the ingredients as I can, or made a sauce of some sort.
Each week I leave one night for leftovers and one night for takeout or a restaurant. I also try to balance our meals in other ways – some nights meat, some nights vegetarian. Some nights noodles, some nights salad or another low carb option. Always at least one or two meals that are done entirely in advance such as a soup or casserole.
Here are some meals that I make often that are made entirely in advance:
As I’m planning, I make a list of any final ingredients I need as well as regular stuff for the week – milk, bread, fruit, in our case are bought weekly. Then I go to Lidl, Aldi, or Trader Joe's (somewhere cheap, basically) on Saturday or Sunday.
Throughout Saturday and Sunday, I start to prep some of the dishes I’ve planned for the week. I don’t usually do massive all-at-once cooking because my life doesn’t allow for it. I’ll wash a bunch of veggies and chop them while my kids are finishing lunch, that sort of thing. Some people do all of their cooking at once, and I think that sounds great too if it seems like it works for you! I need the flexibility of small tasks throughout the weekend that don’t take a ton of time.
Literally small tasks: depending on the amount of time I have I might microwave some peas and corn for the kids, put them in the fridge, and be like "one thing done!" and pat myself on the back. SMALL.
During nap time on at least one day to cook my “all the way done” meal prep meals. I also might wash salad greens, peel shrimp, make salad dressing or a sauce for chicken – anything that allows me to still cook during the week but have some of the steps done by the time I get going.
By Monday, I have done a lot of chopping, made some marinades and sauces, and have a meal or two ready to go for at least done dinner. More than that, though, the thinking about food for the week is done.
Each week I have at least one meal that is like "roasted and sauteed whatever protein and veggies we have," so I usually try to make a sauce to go with that.
Or, I have a premade sauce on hand and make something like this weeknight alfredo with the help of a jar. Easy!
Another thing I have in my brain is recipes like the pasta above that can be used with any remnants that need to be used up. So maybe I'll take the base of my garlic beef fried rice, which is really just eggs, rice, and soy sauce, and have Fried Rice on the calendar but use any protein and veggies I have leftover at the end of the week.
For me, a big mental load of adulting is balancing family-thinking (who needs to be where when, who is eating what, my GOD potty training kids go through a lot of undies need to start laundry) with work-thinking (did I answer that email, is that contract in, have I double booked myself). By keeping my food schedule somewhat consistent I know that I’ll have time and headspace built in to create an eating plan that I feel good about.
If you’ve never meal prepped? Start small! Figure out what you already own and some meals you can make from it. Take 30 minutes one night per week to wash all of your produce. Shop sales and cook those foods rather than buying things at full price.
I don't use a ton of gear for meal prepping, but I do have a few things that make an appearance every week:
- Stasher Bags - new to me, but we're loving them.
- Covered Casserole Dish - almost always have a full meal in the freezer in this.
- 4 Quart Pot - also new to me, but seriously the perfect size for soup for our family + leftovers, but not so big that it takes up half the fridge.
- Glass Storage Containers - for prepped veggies OR leftovers to be eaten for lunches throughout the week.
The key to creating an easy meal prep system is picking things that feel natural for your food needs and your life. It can look totally different for everyone!
One final meal prep tip, whether you meal prep or cook every night or hardly cook at all. When you make ANYTHING that can be frozen, make double and freeze half. This works beautifully for soups, chili, lasagna or other baked noodle dishes, slow cooker meats and stews. I make this potato beef curry and ALWAYS freeze half. It's such a treat to thaw out a month or so down the line.
That way, if you have a beautiful weekend outside or on a trip that includes no meal prep you’ll come home to a gift from your former self – dinner that you don’t have to think about.