Got #mealprep goals, but not sure where to start? This practical, step-by-step meal-planning guide will help you get organized. Easy weeknight dinners, done.
Juggling a busy schedule can make it difficult to prepare healthy family meals, especially during the week. As a mom of three and a registered dietitian, I understand that struggle all too well. Over the years I have developed a weekly meal prep routine, and it has been a lifesaver. I recently wrote The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook to share my tips and tricks for getting food on the table fast. The biggest secret is a dedicated meal prep day.
For many people, Sunday makes the most sense, but any day of the week will work. Meal prepping will probably take a few hours, depending on how efficient you are. To save time, plan your meals and go shopping the day before if possible. Using your slow cooker is also smart, especially if you're short on time. Pop the ingredients in the slow cooker before heading out, and voilà, your meal will be done when you walk in the door.
For the first few weeks, start slowly. Perhaps only make lunches or dinners for the week so you can get a feel of the timing and work involved. I started with lunches because I found myself dropping at least $10 a day at work and wanted to save money. If you tend to order pizza or go to the drive-through on certain nights of the week, then meal prep for those nights during the first few weeks.
- RELATED: Easy Weeknight Meals
Here is what a sample meal prep day looks like, but what you do depends on the dishes being made. As always, adjust the following to make it your own:
- Meal planning: Select the meals you will prep for and find the recipes you want to use.
- Go shopping: Create a shopping list. Review the ingredients needed for each recipe and compare them to what you already have in your pantry or refrigerator. Make sure to write out measurements of expensive ingredients, like beef or chicken. It’s sometimes cheaper to order the exact amount from the butcher counter as opposed to picking it up prepackaged. If you do purchase your meat in bulk, you can divide it as needed for each recipe, which is also more cost efficient.
- Store ingredients: If you go shopping on a day or two before your meal prep day, make sure to immediately store your food in the refrigerator or freezer. Meats, fish, or chicken that will be used within the next 48 hours should be portioned and stored in the refrigerator. The remaining raw proteins should be properly labelled and stored in the freezer. If you’re shopping the same day you’re prepping food, place cold items in the refrigerator to maintain their temperature until you start your meal prep.
- Prep ingredients: The trick is to have all the ingredients prepped and measured, so when the recipe calls for it there isn’t much to do except add it in. That’s exactly what you’re trying to accomplish here—to make cooking go as smoothly as possible. Take out all the ingredients you’ll need based on the recipe’s ingredient list. Read each recipe thoroughly, including the instructions, so you understand each step you need to take. Wash, chop, dice, mince, zest, or juice any vegetable, fruit, herb, seed, or nut needed. Marinate any meats, fish, or poultry. Prepare any other ingredients you’ll need for each recipe so they’re ready to be used.
- Slow cook: The first recipe to prepare is one in the slow cooker. This is because the slow cooker takes between 4 and 6 hours (or more) to cook the dish. There isn’t much to do except prep and toss the ingredients inside (okay, and press the “cook” button), and after that you can move onto another task. RELATED: Slow-Cooker Meals Perfect for Summer
- Prep sauces, dips, and dressings: Hopefully you have a salad or two on your meal prep list for the week. Salads typically have dressings that are quick and easy (5 minutes, tops) to whisk together. Salad dressings can last 2 weeks, so make them as 1-cup portions so they last a while. The same goes for salsa, hummus, chimichurri, and other sauces and dips. These are easy-to-make recipes that are ready within 10 to 15 minutes and require no or minimal cooking.
- Cook ingredients: Another step in meal prep is cooking the separate ingredients needed for a recipe. This could be roasting or steaming vegetables, cooking starches like brown rice or quinoa, or toasting nuts or seeds. You want all parts of the dish to be ready before the dish is put together.
- Put it together: Once you have all the components of the dish prepped and cooked, it’s time to put it all together. Toss them together to make the dish, or put the meal together by cooking the components together to make it, like a stir-fry. What you combine depends on the recipe you’re making.
- Box it up: Once the dish is complete, divide it into portions for the refrigerator or freezer. For a dish like meatballs, you may decide to divide it into two large containers, one for the refrigerator and one for the freezer. If you’re planning on bringing a 4-ounce serving of Lemony Chicken Breasts (page 159) with a side of quinoa to work, then pack those two items together in a single container. If you made muffins or quiches, wrap them individually so you can grab and go. Portion out spiced nuts or popcorn for easy-to-grab snack packs for work. Sometimes you won’t be cooking the dish until right before you eat it, like an egg scramble or smoothie, but you can still package the ingredients together so they’re ready to go.
Toby Amidor is a registered dietitian, author, and recipe developer. For more meal prep ideas, plus weekly meal plans check out her new book The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook. Visit her blog or follow her on Twitter.