If you are like many women, you have 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. Meal planning is nothing more than figuring out what meals you are going to make. It can be as detailed as you want, though the more information you include in your meal scheduling, the better off you will be.
Meal planning gives you a leg up so that you know what and how to better meal prep. This is going to help save you time 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. Here is a rundown of how meal planning works, though keep in mind there is a lot of room for variation.
How Long Should You Plan For
The first thing you should decide is exactly how much meal planning you want to do, how many meals are you planning for, how many are you cooking for, how often are you switching up your recipes and realistically what you can spend at the supermarket for planning these meals.
You can do a BIG shop by heading to a warehouse club depending on how much space you have in refrigerator and freezer. Planning for 3 weeks ahead of time is fine for the schedule, but you might not be buying food for this long if you don’t have somewhere to put everything.
When you are just starting out, try to plan for just one full 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.
This doesn’t necessary mean that you will be prepping them all at once. This is just a PLAN!
Make sure you consider anything you may need to make for the school bake sale or other events.
Shop Your Kitchen
Don’t want to have 50 cans of black beans. The best way to start menu planning is to look at what you have in your pantry, fridge and freezer. Take note of everything in your pantry and refrigerator, write it down, and see what meals you can make from those ingredients.
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 a handful of recipes.
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. 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.
How to Be Detailed in Your Meal Plans
Once you have started noting down some meals you would like to make during the week, try to be as detailed as possible. If you think you will have leftovers from a chicken dinner in order to have lunch for 2-3 days, note that in the 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, minus what you already have on hand.
Leaving Room For Flexibility Throughout the Week
While planning every meal is a great way to save time during the week, there are going to be some situations where it doesn’t go quite as you planned out. Make sure you leave some room for flexibility in your meals and meal planning.
There will be times where you may have to work late. Maybe your spouse works late, or your kid has a double overtime game.
Don’t hesitate to spontaneous just because you planned to make spaghetti that night. Just readjust your schedule and make it another night. Meal planning is meant to simplify the process, not handcuff you to your meals.
Include Leftovers in Your Plan
Okay, I know you are going to say I hate leftovers, but making leftovers is a HUGE way to say you time and effort during a busy week. When I cook chicken breasts, I cook enough for minimum 2 days. That’s enough chicken for soup, salads, sandwiches, or other lunch/dinner ideas. You are going to save money and time by having the extra chicken on hand.
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 making or setting up the food for later in the week.
Types of Meal Prepping
There are two basic elements to meal prepping: chopping vegetables and putting ingredients for meals into containers, and actually cooking some aspects of the meal and freezing them.
You can also double cook. You will take your dinner and make extra so that you have lunch or dinner for the next few days.
Here is where you decide what makes the most sense with you.
Containers to Use
Choose containers with airtight lids.
Make sure that your containers keep the food fresh with airtight lids. Put water in your containers and flip it over, if water pours out its not air tight and could cause your food to spoil
Try storing items in mason jars.
Mason jars are perfect for storing certain items and meals. For example, if you like to take salad to work, try putting each day’s salad in a separate container. Choose the wide-mouth containers and add the denser items at the bottom. The 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 fine to use, but you should know what type of plastic you are using. Make sure it is refrigerator, freezer, microwave, and dishwasher-safe first of all. Also check that the plastic containers don’t have any BPA, which can be dangerous when adding or cooking food in these containers.
Consider casserole dishes that work for baking and storage.
When you are actually cooking bigger meals ahead of time to just be reheated each evening, you want to use multi-purpose 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 in room temperature after cooking to cool down before freezing them, or they might crack.
Tips For Meal Prepping
As you get started with meal prepping, there are some other things you need to keep in mind. Follow these simple tips for prepping your meals after you are done with meal planning:
- Decide how many meals you are cooking.
- Label every container so you know when to use it by. No more than 3 days to keep it fresh
- Note what prepping is being done for leftovers.
- Use ingredients that can be prepped for multiple meals.
Meal Ideas For Prepping
Here are some different meal ideas that work perfectly with meal planning and meal prepping.
Put together different overnight oatmeal jars.
To get some healthy breakfasts prepared, add overnight oats to multiple jars, one for each day of the week. Add different toppings for each day. Some toppings to consider include cinnamon, sugar, slivered almonds or other nuts, frozen fruit, berries or fresh fruit, raisins, and granola.
Roast your vegetables beforehand.
To get vegetables ready for lunches and dinners throughout the week, spend one day roasting all the vegetables at one time. 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. Want to save even more time? Most grocery stores now sell veggies pre riced, spiralized, crinkle cut and then so much more.
Bake all of your meat, then freeze portions for each meal.
Decide what meat you want to use for multiple meals, then cook it all at the same time. Meat like chicken breasts, fish filets, and strips of steak work great for this. Be sure to cool this, get all the air out of the container so that food doesn’t get freezer burn or mushy when you thaw it out.
Keep salad veggies and toppings in one container.
For your salads, you can make it faster to put them together by having all of the greens and vegetables together in containers. Keep all your greens in one big container, and all the chopped veggies, cheese, and other toppings in another container.
With these tips, you will be on your way to both meal planning and prepping. This is going to save you a lot of time, not to mention help you make healthier meals for your family.
Want some more tips? Be sure to grab my Meal Prep Guide.