You don’t always have the time or energy to cook a full meal from start to finish. Less time shouldn’t mean less health, though, and a meal plan is an excellent way to make the best choice, the easy choice. It’s a sigh of relief to have the right ingredients stocked, pre-portioned, and pre-cooked, ready for you and your family to enjoy.
It may seem like a time sink at first, but batching meals ahead of time sets you up for success. Meal prep can save time and money, prevent waste, and promote health. Take your busy life head on by prepping healthy, balanced meals, starting with these top 10 tips.
1. Decide what kind of plan will work best for you
What kind of kitchen utensils do you have? How are your knife skills? How much time do you have to cook? Is your availability a little bit every day, or a single 3 hour period on Sundays? Should you prepare just a couple of meals, or would you be better off with prepping three meals a day for the whole work week? Answering these kinds of questions helps you get clear on what kind of meal plan you should implement.
To save time, try to use a few of the same base ingredients in multiple meals. You can also purchase vegetables pre-chopped or even start with pre-cooked foods that you can spruce up with a few fresh veggies. Cooking all your meals ahead of time sacrifices some of the quality of a freshly-cooked meal, so decide if the time savings is worth the tradeoff.
2. Make sure you’ve got the right tools
A good knife, a cutting board, a spatula, a couple of pans and some storage containers will do most of what you need for basic meal planning. That said, many recipes require specific tools. Get familiar with all the uses of your appliances, as well as what you need for the specific recipes you want to make.
If you’re not ready to upgrade your kitchen to a commercial meal prep studio, improvise with what you have.
A large fork doubles as a whisk, a potato masher, a mini spatula, and a strainer. A wok can serve as a whole array of pots and pans — saute, boil, roast, and more in a single pan. Make sure to have the most essential tools, but if you don’t have every single gadget don’t let it get in the way of your meal plan goals! Not sure what we mean? Take a look at these Dinnerly recipes, made with only 6 ingredients.
3. Establish a routine
For meal planning to work it has to make it into your busy schedule. Adopting a meal plan is an investment of your time. You make an upfront deposit, and then reap the rewards of saved time throughout the week. Ultimately, batching your meal prep pays off in the end. Make sure to account for enough time at the grocery store, chopping and measuring all of your ingredients, and any other steps you might have to take — 5 hours in total or more.
It’s too easy to not give it enough time and then have a half-prepped mess on your hands when you should be getting ready for Monday. Getting family and roommates involved with weekly meal prep can lighten up the mood a bit, as does a good playlist!
4. Include your favorite foods
Meal plans don’t have to be boring! One way to make meal plans more interesting is to incorporate your favorite foods, even if they aren’t easy to make. Meal plans can give you the opportunity to perfect your favorite dish. Don’t be disheartened if the first batch turns out just ok — the cooking skills needed to make your favorite dish take multiple tries to perfect. Meal planning is part of a complete strategy to fill out the range of your cooking skills. If you fail once, try again! Eventually you’ll be a pro making up your favorite foods with your eyes closed!
5. Try a meal kit delivery service
If you want to dabble with a meal plan without worrying “what have I gotten myself into?“, meal kit delivery services are the best place to start. Meal kits provide you with delicious recipes of your choice, pre-portioned with foolproof instructions to help you feel like a chef in the kitchen.
Check out our rankings and reviews of meal kit delivery services whether you’re a beginner in the meal prep game but want to level up your skills quickly, or if you're a culinarian looking to try something new. Meal delivery kits offer the convenience of a complete meal plan without any of the hassle of identifying recipes, assembling shopping lists, and then buying, chopping, and measuring out your food. With our ranking system, you’ll be able to find the perfect meal delivery program for you.
6. Get clever with your leftovers
You can set yourself up for success with a meal plan and minimize your food waste by ensuring that any food you make in bulk can be used in multiple recipes. Proteins are the most straightforward to reuse in leftovers. Last night’s chicken can be shredded for chicken salad. Spiced beans used in tacos make a flavorful addition to a soup or salad. Use leftover vegetables to spruce up a mixed greens salad or a grain bowl. They make a nutritious addition to baked dishes like lasagna or enchiladas, too.
Simply topping leftover veggies with a sauce or dressing is a resourceful way to make a delicious meal anytime. Finding new ways to reuse your leftovers helps you maximize your time and reduces landfill waste, the leading contributor to U.S. landfills.
7. Treat yourself
Leave some wiggle room for getting takeout or ordering in. A good meal plan is one that you can sustain, and if you don’t leave room for social events and going out, it’s not very sustainable. Alternately, forcing your social life to fit the parameters of your meal plan is a sure way to get disinvited to the next event. Having flex days built into your schedule gives you the freedom to be spontaneous when you want to, and will help you feel like you’re not just eating the same thing again and again.
8. Keep your veggies fresh for longer
Some vegetables stay fresh for longer when stored away from each other. Keeping your fruit and veggies in separate drawers helps prevent your fruit from rapidly ripening. It’s especially important to separate apples, bananas, avocados, and onions from your other produce. These are high ethylene producers, which can speed up spoilage.
If your vegetables lose their crisp, reinvigorate root veggies, green leafy veggies, or any vegetable with a stem by putting them in cold water in the fridge. It works wonders for limp carrots, celery, and kale! Mushrooms are best stored in paper bags. Avoid washing mushrooms and potatoes ahead of time — they tend to turn slimy after being wet.
Don’t bother pre-chopping veggies that get mushy or don’t last very long once cooked or chopped. If you do, adding a touch of lemon juice can prevent browning and premature spoilage.
9. Keep your shelves stocked
Having the choice of dried, canned, or frozen is a lifesaver in the kitchen when you forgot to get everything you need at the store. Plus, if you need to deviate from your meal plan with a quick dinner, extra ingredients in your freezer or pantry can fastrack a nutritious meal.
Part of your meal planning should be a pre-grocery inventory to make sure you have all of the whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and staples to spruce up your recipes. Never run into shortages by keeping a list of your staples for easy reference.
10. Label and Date
The cardinal rule of any kitchen is “first in, first out”. For an optimized meal plan regimen, labels and dates help you know exactly when to eat something.
With an accurate dating system, you also have a clear picture of what needs to be eaten first if you get behind on your original meal plan. Dating your food takes the guesswork out and helps prevent unpleasant surprises next time you clean out your fridge.
A well-oiled meal prep routine saves time, money, prevents food waste, and can help you with your health goals. Keep these key points in mind when you’re considering a meal plan.
- Make sure your meal plan fits with your abilities, your kitchen tools, your schedule, and your health goals. Use a meal plan as a way to add variety to your meals, to get all your favorite meals on your weekly menu, and as an opportunity to learn how to make your favorite dish.
- If establishing a meal plan sounds like diving into the deep end, try a meal delivery program to get a feel for it while cutting out the hassle.
- Leave some room in your plan for eating out, social events, and easy-to-make foods. Avoid imposing your meal schedule on your friends!
- Avoid eating the same thing over and over by repurposing your leftovers and using the same base ingredients in multiple recipes.
- If you’re only buying produce once a week, it’s important to make it last. Separate your fruits and vegetables, and store things to optimize freshness.
- Label and date your prepped meals to avoid spoiled food and to keep you on track.