Whether you are looking to save money, time/energy, or eat healthier in the new year, meal prepping is the easiest way to make a difference in your everyday life.
This a topic we have explored here on The Nerdy Nanny before, but it bears repeating and we have included more actionable information in our latest update.
Everyone from Oprah to Dr. Oz has been espousing the benefits of meal prepping for years, and it has taken me this long to realize they might have a point. A quick scan of the google results for ‘Meal Prep Guide’ and the various charts and tables involved always made the process seem incredibly intimidating to me. Until I learned the truth…
Meal Prep is Making Leftovers –
– ON PURPOSE
That is it. That is all there is to it. The meal plans, guides, charts, graphics, and shopping lists online? They are just complicating what is, inherently, a very simple process.
Buy in bulk, cook larger portions, and have enough leftovers make up a few extra meals for the week ahead. Meal Prepping saves time, energy, and money by cooking only a few times but in larger batches. It also makes it easier to choose a healthier option by having meals at the ready instead of being tempted by the drive-thru when you are on your way home and really don’t want to have to cook.
If you still are not sure, or even if you are but want a little help, here are three questions to ask yourself to help get started.
Meal Prep 101 – How Many Meals Do You Want To Plan?
Part of what always made Meal Prepping seem so intimidating to me was the idea of scheduling out every meal for the next week. How was I supposed to know if I wanted chicken fajitas for lunch next Wednesday or not?
Over scheduling anything is a sure way to set yourself up for failure. Life happens, situations change and the best-made plans need to be able to adapt.
Three meals a day, seven days a week comes out to 21 meals (assuming you aren’t skipping any) per week. In general, try and plan for somewhere around half of that. Cooking two large meals per week, with extra servings for lunches, and a breakfast option (click here for a few ideas for fast and easy breakfast solutions) is usually more than enough for me. That amount of food generally breaks down like this;
- Meal One (3-4 servings per person)
- Meal Two (2-3 servings per person)
- Breakfast Option (4-5 servings per person)
- Snacks (4-8 servings per person)
Two big meals plus breakfast generally gives me enough food for 10 – 12 meals, plus a handful of healthy snacking options. This is enough for two meals per day during the workweek with a couple to spare. And, really, that is enough. Plans are going to change. If I really don’t want to each my beef and broccoli for lunch that day, I don’t eat it, and I don’t worry about it.
The trick with this situation is really having a good understanding of your own needs. Do you have a rigid work schedule week after week? Or do your shifts change depending on other circumstances? Do you work two days on two days off or more on the weekends? Do you work from home? Are you able to store or heat a packed lunch at work?
My shifts vary, and though food is readily available at both jobs, it is not exactly the kind of food I should be eating. To counteract that, I try to stash a couple of healthy alternatives or bring in a two-day lunch supply to the one job where no one will mind my lunchbox taking up refrigerator space. The other job I pack meals less frequently as changing schedules means meals tend to be forgotten. But I do try to at least bring healthy snacks.**
Meal Prep 101 – When Do You Want to Cook?
Planning out all the super nutritious and perfectly portioned meals in the universe does nothing if you don’t set aside the time to actually turn those ingredients into real meals. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to do all of your meal prep for the week in a single massive cook-off.
This is not Thanksgiving.
The trick is to find the windows of time that are most likely to be available week after week and blocking them off as much as is realistic. Scheduling ‘Cooking Time’ makes it more likely to follow through. Things will come up, schedules will have to change from time to time. But by choosing times that are more likely to be consistent it builds the practice into a routine.
“For me, finding time between the two jobs, school, and everything else that needs to get done is tight. Sunday afternoons are generally my biggest window and are also when I generally tackle all of my other housework. Adding grocery shopping and cooking into that chaos of cleaning, laundry, and dishes was surprisingly seamless.
I prepare a bigger meal and breakfast for the week and I set up a few snacks. I know myself, if the hummus and celery aren’t already in containers and ready to go, I’ll eat donuts instead. I usually cook a smaller meal on Thursday (depending on work) and that is really all I need to have enough meals for the week.
Find times that work for you. If you are in a multi-person household, don’t be afraid to share the load. Cooking together is great when the stars align. But cooking for each other when the schedules don’t line up is an act of service that can mean just as much.
Meal Prep 101 – What Meals Do You Already Know and Like?
In an ideal world, all of our meals would be fast, delicious, easy to make, inexpensive, and nutritious. And while that is an excellent goal, it is not a realistic starting point.
Sit down with a pen and a notepad (yes, there is probably at least one floating around your house somewhere) and write a list of a few of the foods and meals you already know and like. And yes – there is a difference between ‘foods’ and ‘meals’.
The examples I am using are not gourmet for a reason. Building habits begins with what you know. If that is buffalo chicken and broccoli, then guess what will be on the menu tonight?
‘Foods’ are individual dishes. Things you already like and know, or at least kind of know, how to make. You do not have to be a master chef to have a favorite food or even a preference. Frozen chicken tenders are a staple in my house because they are fast, easy, and can be used in a variety of dishes both hot and cold. What you cook will change as time goes on and you become more comfortable in the kitchen, but more on that later.
‘Meals’ are generally one-pot dishes including several foods that are already irreversibly combined somehow. Individual components baked off casserole-style in a single dish. These are generally less work to prepare and a lot easier to deal with when dishing out servings for the week. They are also a little less flexible if you are trying to deal with the varied tastes of multiple people, or just like to mix it up a little.
The advantage of individual foods over meals is that you can mix and match. If you make were to make chicken tenders, cauliflower mash, and broccoli, you don’t have to eat those same three foods in that same arrangement. Chicken tenders with honey mustard one day. Cheesy cauliflower and broccoli another. And chicken and broccoli together to make ‘stir fry’ for lunch if you have a few soy sauce packets.
Once you have determined how many meals you want to prepare, what day you want to cook, and have a few foods you already like, you will already have a solid platform to start from.
Pick a few of your favorite foods or a big batch meal, make too much of it on purpose, and pack up a few Tupperware containers. You don’t have to start with a plan or a schedule or a chart. Just pick a few of the foods you already like, and get cooking.
The more you cook, the more recipes you will add to your list of meals and individual foods that you feel comfortable with.
The more recipes you feel comfortable with, the more willing you will be to experiment or try something new.
If you are still uncertain or looking for good place to start, keep tuned for more ‘Meal Prep Made Easy’ coming soon.
If you are a novice in the kitchen or even if just want a solid review of the basics, I recommend checking out these free web series below to start –
You can also check out Eve Daniels, author of The Nerdy Nanny books, on YouTube where she gives writing and academic advice as well as updating you on all of her latest and upcoming projects.