Get your meal prep in gear with these easy-to-implement tips for simple, healthy meal planning and weekly meal prep!
MEAL PLANNING, AM I RIGHT?
Running a food website is kind of a funny thing. People tend to assume I cook all day, every day - and that my dinner table is full of fancy, from-scratch, super-stylish foodie things.
The reality of my job is that I usually spend one day a week in the kitchen for "work." That's when I shoot and style new recipes, test things, and turn my kitchen into something resembling Dorothy's house post-tornado.
The other 90% of my time is spent sitting at the computer, doing design work + answering email + consulting with clients + updating the website + etc. etc. etc. + boring boring boring. I also tend towards the "workaholic" end of the spectrum, which means I'm at my desk by 8 or 9 each morning, eat my lunch in front of the computer, and forget about dinner until K gets home from the office/gym/whatever real grown ups do all day.
Around 6pm, it's a lickety-split dinner and then, nine times out of ten, it's back to work for a few hours. (slash omg, did I just TOTALLY make you want to start a food blog? I paint a pretty thrilling picture. I know).
BUT ANYWAY. The point I've been trying to make for a million years now (OMG JESSIE, GET YOUR ISH TOGETHER) is that leisurely dinner cooking is not so much a thing in my house.
But what IS a thing is lots and lots of meal planning. (YAY!)
Sitting down at the start of the week to plan out our meals is a huge (HUGE, you guys. HUGE) timesaver. And since I've started menu planning more consistently, I've found a few tricks that always help me cut down on the time and energy involved in meal prep. So I'm sharing them with you today! Wahoo!
Here are my ten favorite ways to conquer meal prep like a pro.
1. Plan Your Meals.
Ok, this one is like ... DUH ... but how many of us (*raises own hand*) are guilty of wishing we were better at meal planning without, umm, actually trying to plan our meals? ??????
It only takes a few minutes to sit down and write or type out a recipe list for the week. Because I run le bloggity blog here, I start by adding any recipes I know I'll be cooking for work to the calendar, and then I fill in the rest of the slots for the week with quick and easy recipes.
2. Keep your favorite recipes organized.
Meal planning goes much quicker when you've got an organized recipe catalog.
My favorite way to organize is with Pinterest. (If you haven't tried Pinterest yet, think of it like a virtual bulletin board where you can collect your favorite websites and organize them into categories).
I have one Pinterest board for recipes I want to try, and another board for recipes I've tried and loved. When I sit down to plan our meals for the week, I just pull up the Pinterest boards and pick a few things that stand out.
3. Have new recipes "delivered."
Tried-and-true recipes are great, but when the repetition gets boring it's important to have a fresh source of recipe inspiration. Pinterest is a great way to find new recipes, but my personal favorite way to do this is to sign up for email updates from other chefs and food bloggers. It's like a daily dose of tasty new food baked right into my morning routine!
I delete any emails with recipes that don't speak to me, and add any that pique my interest directly to my "recipes to try" Pinterest board. Then, when I sit down to meal plan, all the new ideas I've collected are right there waiting for me!
4. You don't have to do everything 100% from scratch.
GASP! I know. Aren't food people supposed to be all about that "I-make-everything-all-by-myself" lifestyle? I definitely avoid the preservative-heavy, uber-processed stuff (looking at you, Cream of Mushroom Soup in a can!) but that doesn't mean I can't cut a few corners to save on my meal prep time. Personally, I almost always opt for pre-made pasta, bakery bread, pesto, nut butters, and even the occasional rotisserie chicken.
If you have a grocery store like Wegmans (HI WEGMANS I ❤️ YOU) or Whole Foods, you can also often find pre-chopped veggies in their prepared foods section. Our Wegmans slices and dices all kinds of fresh produce right on the produce floor, so it's just like prepping all your veggies right at home (except, umm, without the "prepping the veggies at home" part). Frozen produce is another great choice - many brands flash-freeze their veggies and fruits at harvest time, so they retain their freshness without being weighed down by syrups or preservatives.
There's no shame in buying pre-diced onion, people! (Especially if it means the difference between making your own dinner or heating up a can of Spaghetti-Os).
5. Choose a few main dishes to use throughout the week.
I'm a big fan of cooking one big batch of food that can be repurposed throughout the week. My favorite Slow Cooker Meal Prep Chicken is a great choice here - I whip up a batch on Sunday and toss it into salads (I love this cilantro chicken chopped salad), soups (shoutout to our pesto chicken soup), pastas, and sandwiches all week long.
Big batches of side dishes are also great to heat up throughout the week - I'll make a pot of smoked gouda mashed potatoes to reheat and serve with different entrees on different days. Pair them with a baked maple Dijon chicken on Monday and a pesto crusted mahi mahi on Thursday and you won't even notice the side dish is on repeat!
6. Do your shopping all at once.
This is the toughest part of meal planning for me - but it saves time (and money!) in the long run AND cuts down on food waste.
When you sit down to plan your meals for the week, make your grocery list at the same time. Double check your shopping list against what you've already got on hand, and buy everything you still need in the same shopping trip. Multiple shopping trips always encourage me to deviate from my meal plan and/or buy a ton of things I don't need - so curb the temptation by sticking to your list and getting it all done at once!
7. Make extra food to freeze.
The freezer is my meal planning BFF. When I'm cooking something that I know freezes well - like a mushroom lasagna or a skillet chicken pot pie - I make a double or triple batch and put the extra servings in the freezer. Then, on extra-busy weeknights, we have homemade frozen food on hand to pop in the oven (WAY better than ordering takeout!) Just be sure to let the dishes warm up before baking so you're not putting a cold pan into a hot oven.
8. Learn to love leftovers.
I wasn't much of a leftover person until a few years ago. I think it's because I don't love eating the EXACT SAME MEAL multiple times in a row.
But I broke the anti-leftovers habit when I started putting all my leftovers in the fridge in individual containers instead of one big pot or bowl. It seems simple, but there's something about heating up a pre-portioned scoop of mashed potatoes (rather than scooping a serving out of a big block of cold potatoes, yuck) that makes me much more amenable to the whole "eating the same food again" thing.
Another great trick if you have leftover-averse family members? Mix and match your leftovers so you never have the same meal twice. Fill a plate with some of Tuesday's Vegan Jambalaya and yesterday's Lemon Garlic Chicken and pair it with a fresh side of fruit or salad to help leftovers feel like an entirely different meal instead of the same thing over and over again.
9. Keep swap-able staples on hand
A magical thing sometimes happens even when I've planned my menu down to the last detail: I CHANGE MY MIND.
When that happens, I try to appease my shifting taste buds by switching out any non-perishable pieces of a planned recipe (but leaving any veggies or fruits on the menu so they don't go bad).
Keeping staples like pasta, flour, rice, and other grains on hand means I can make on-the-fly changes quickly and easily without wasting anything.
For example, if I was planning on a veggie stir fry but don't feel like that anymore, I'll throw those same veggies into a quick pasta dish with a bit of olive oil. Planning to cook spaghetti and meatballs but not in a noodle-y mood? Whip up a fifteen minute pizza dough and turn the sauce and meatballs into a deep dish skillet pizza.
10. Give yourself permission to be a meal planning cheater.
You guys, you can have the best intentions and the fanciest checklists and the best-stocked fridge on the block, and sometimes, you still just want to get home and put on your
ugliest comfiest sweatpants and faceplant onto the couch and have a strange delivery person bring you a large pizza.
AND THAT'S OKAY.
If you're an obsessive planner like me, you can even build a "cheat day" wild card into your weekly meal plan - use your cheat day when you need to, and shift the rest of your schedule back a day so you're still eating all that tasty, fresh food you bought.
Love this post? Check out our post on grocery shopping on a budget →