I got so many questions about my meal planning and prep strategy after the nutrition post last week that I decided to focus on it for this week’s simplify theme. I did most of the leg work on this task last year- but I did take some time to go through my recipes and start writing down my list of go-to’s that are always winners by category, which I think will be really helpful. I also tossed any recipes that I hadn’t made in the last few years and found a couple of old cook books to take to Half Price Books. Now to the real stuff.
First, a few caveats (this is the most important part):
One size does not fit all when it comes to meal prep. If you see all of those Pinterest worthy posts of pre-prepped breakfast, lunch, and dinner boxes and it is totally overwhelming then don’t do it that way! There are lots of ways to approach this. If you even do one of the steps below, I promise it will simplify your life.
I personally think the meal planning is THE MOST important part. It is a huge stress reliever not to come home after work and only then start thinking about the age old question of “what’s for dinner?” or end up stopping for take out on the way home because I know we don’t have anything. If you only do one of the steps below, make it Step 1.
Having a chest freezer where I keep prepped freezer meals, frozen vegetables, back-up staples, etc is KEY.
My approach requires a love of leftovers and being okay with eating the same thing a few times a week.
Give yourself a lot of grace. I do all of the below when we have a fairly free weekend and it makes the next week 100% better. But, if I have a lot of work or we are traveling or life is very full, I just do what I can and leave it at that.
So, here goes. Meal Planning and Prepping 101:
Step 1: I sit down sometime on Saturday and pull out a few cookbooks and my Pinterest page and plan out dinners for the following week. I’ve lately fallen into nightly themes, which takes some guesswork out of it. Sunday Grill, Monday Meatless, Tuesday Fish or seafood, Wednesday Simple, Thursday Leftovers, Friday Take Out, and Saturday Variable. I check my calendar for the upcoming week to see if I have any evening events, in which case I leave that night blank. When choosing recipes I’m lately really emphasizing trying to use ingredients already in my kitchen- both to save money and also accumulate less stuff.
Step 2: I plan my work lunches and my son’s school lunches. Sometimes I know I’ll have enough leftovers for lunches, but most often I actually plan a separate recipe and pack 3-4 lunches when I do prep on Sunday. I usually eat the same thing for lunch all week- see caveat #4. And, the honest truth is that my son eats school lunch most of the time- I aim for packed lunch a couple of times per week, but school lunch is free, easy, and he likes it- so despite the fact that my packed lunches are quite likely more healthy, I often cut my losses on this one and try to make sure all of his other meals are nutritious. This is an area for improvement, for sure.
Step 3: Craft grocery shopping list based on above recipes + any needed staples and lots of produce. We heavily emphasize fruits and veggies when it comes to snacks. I use the @evernote app for grocery lists (and everything else 🙂 ). I love that it syncs phone and laptop so I can add items whenever I think of them.
Step 4: Grocery shopping! Stick to the perimeter where the healthy stuff is and go heavy on the produce.
Step 5: Meal Prep: Things I prep- workday lunches, Monday night dinner (I LOVE coming home on Monday to an already cooked dinner), my son’s breakfasts and (some of) his lunches, and (when I have time) any sauces or grains for other dinners that week. All of this typically take me under two hours start to finish (including distractions). Things I don’t prep but have on hand ready to go- my breakfast (which is typically a smoothie), and my afternoon snack (which, as my co-workers can attest, is almost always carrots and hummus).
Step 6: Relax! The above may look like a lot, but once you’ve got a system down, it is a huge stress reliever. It saves me time, money, and mental gymnastics at the end of busy weekdays when I’m already feeling decision fatigue. We eat far healthier now than before I started doing this regularly. I love sitting down on Sunday evening feeling ready to tackle the week.
What are your strategies?