8 Tips for Easy Meal Prep
Meal Prep. It's been a buzz phrase on the lips of every Pinterest super-fan and Martha Stewart wannabe. The subtle art of planning and making your weekday meals ahead of time, prepping meals has been changing wallets and waistlines around the country. But a lot of people who set out to conquer this task give up quickly. Why? There is a learning curve. It took me months to get the rhythm down; to figure out which meals or methods worked the best for me. If you want to save money, eat healthier, and NOT spend 17 hours a weekend slaving to do so, follow these tips on how to streamline your meal prep.
Have a Plan
Anyone who has ever meal planned would rather spend that time massaging their retinas with a soldering iron. Yes, the planning stage is boring but it's so necessary for a successful prep. First, figure out what meals you need throughout your week. Just breakfast? Breakfast and lunch? Are you prepping for every work day, or just a few? Knowing how many meals you will have to prepare in advance will make choosing recipes that much easier. Once you’ve decided on the menu, make a grocery list; don't rely on memory. Meal prepping is all about using your time effectively and giving you more you-time throughout the week, so If you leave your grocery list up to memory there is a good chance you will spend a lot longer at the store and possibly forget something. Let’s face it; if Dante had to go grocery shopping he would have added it to his Inferno as a Level of Hell, so why waste time there if you don't have to?
…But Don’t Over Think It
It is SO easy to get caught up in recipe hell when starting to meal prep. The perfectly manicured photographs of food bloggers will make you feel like you have to make everything from scratch or else you're “cheating” at meal prep. Before you know it, you’ve used every pan and dish you own on breakfast casseroles and coq au vin with a fiddly, much too complicated, side vegetable. Pump the breaks and keep it simple. Remember, you’re meal prepping to make your life easier, not more stressful. Keep that in mind while you are deciding the week’s fare. Prepping breakfast can be as easy as a cereal bar, a yogurt, and a banana. No prep involved at all; everything individually packaged by company or by nature. Lunch, too, doesn’t have to stress you out. The traditional sandwich is still an American favorite. If you have the space and ability, bring the ingredients to work and keep them in the refrigerator. That way you can make a fresh sandwich daily and not worry about soggy bread. Pair your sandwich with a cup of canned soup. Viola. Breakfast and lunch locked down without needing a recipe at all.
Also, you don't have to reinvent the wheel every week. I have a handful of easy, inexpensive, healthy recipes that I cycle through. As you prep week-to-week, hold on to the recipes that were successful for you and revisit them.
Pre-Prep Your Meal Prep
Take the drudgery out of cooking by preparing to prep the day before. You know your recipe calls for adding bacon to your chicken salad so cook it up on Saturday while you're making breakfast. Making a slow cooker stew? Dice your veggies and cube the beef directly in to the crock and stick it in the fridge; you can add the broth in the morning, turn it on, and let the appliance do the work for you. Also, doubling recipes with having leftovers in mind is killing two birds with one stone. Sunday’s breakfast casserole can be enjoyed by the whole family and then split up for the rest of the week. Instead of baking just one chicken breast for Saturday night’s dinner, bake enough lunches. You won’t feel that you’re spending all your time in the kitchen if you spend your time wisely.
Cutting Corners Will Not Get You Arrested by the Meal Prep Police
Thinking baked chicken breasts for lunch? Great. Steam a bag of frozen broccoli to make it a meal. No, it’s not a fancy side dish, but it’s simple, quick, and one less recipe for you to deal with. Don’t have time to roast a chicken? Buy it fully cooked from your grocer. Your recipe calls for a complicated mix of twenty different spices? Pick up a spice blend that's appropriate for the recipe to replace it instead of buying every individual spice. Stock up on jars of sauces so you don't have to make them. No one is going to know but you. It will save you time, money, and sanity.
Stock Up on Containers
One of the biggest rookie mistakes in meal prepping is not having containers for all of your prepared food. I use at least 15 separate containers each week. Avoid those “36 piece container” sets. They look convenient, but they usually have one or two of a suitable size for your lunch, so it’s much better to buy a lot of one standard size. I purchased twenty meal prep containers from Amazon. They are thin, dishwasher safe, and cheap enough that if I ruin one, I won’t have regrets about tossing it. When choosing your meal-prep containers, make sure they are visually different from your other containers. Why? To differentiate! I purchased two varieties of prep containers; the rectangular style is for my meal prep, the circular are for leftovers. That way my meals for the week are separate from anything else in my fridge, so friends, family, roommates or significant others don’t accidentally eat tomorrow’s lunch on me. They know at a glance what is up for grabs and what is off limits. You spent a lot of time getting ready for the week. Don’t let someone else mess that up.
Practice Portion Control
It’s no secret that American portion size is out of control. Did you know a serving of chicken breast is half a breast? That means a package of three chicken breasts is more than enough for your week. Keeping true to portion sizes lets you stretch your recipes out and keeps more money in your pocket. Don’t think half a breast will be enough for lunch? Fill up the rest of the way on veggies and fruits. You’d be amazed at how cheap and filling that is.
Leftovers? Freeze 'em!
It happens some times that we have leftovers from our prep. Maybe the recipe you're using makes eight servings. Portion it out and freeze it. When I have accumulated five meals in the freezer, I celebrate by taking the week off of meal prepping. Monday I’ll have leftover Tikka Masala, Tuesday it could be Turkey Chili - it's a veritable smorgasbord, the flotsam and jetsam of weeks gone by. It cleans out of my freezer, feeds me, and I didn’t lift a finger.
Clean As You Go
The aftermath of a meal prep session can often seem like more work than cooking the meals, themselves. But if you take the time to clean as go, you can finish cleaning and cooking at the same time. One trick to staying on this task would be my one-bowl trick. Instead of using every mixing bowl in my kitchen, I use the biggest one I have. For everything. It’s the Breakfast Egg Salad bowl, then it’s the fruit salad bowl, then it’s the bowl to toss sweet potatoes in oil and seasoning. One dirty bowl doesn't seem nearly as labor intensive as a stack of three, even though you give it a wash three times. Same goes for any pots or pans. One pot for the hard boiled eggs and steamed broccoli. One pan for browning breakfast sausage and chicken breasts. Use the wait through cooking times to start your dishwasher and wipe down the counters. A sink full of dishes is a buzz kill that would make you never want to meal prep every again, amiright?
So, there you have it!