If preparing lunches and dinners has become a time-consuming chore, it’s time to learn meal planning and prepping. Learning how to meal plan and prep helps you maximize the amount of time it takes to prepare several meals.
Not only does it save time, but it also saves you the added expense of buying last-minute take-out food, or going out to a restaurant. Let’s face it, food that’s ready to eat is convenient, which is why meal planning works so well.
Here are some ideas on how you can get started with meal planning to streamline the time it takes to get dinner on the table each week.
Understanding Meal Planning and Prepping
The first part of meal planning starts with knowing how many home-cooked meals you need each week for your family. This may vary depending on the size of your family and everyone’s weekly schedule.
Meal planning is nothing more than figuring out which meals you are going to make in the near future. When meal planning, you can be as detailed as you like, or simply plan and prep only main courses.
To get started, make a list of your family’s favorite meals. Then do an inventory of what you already have in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer to prepare those meals.
Keeping these things in mind will help you come up with some initial meal ideas, without having to do too much additional grocery shopping.
How Many Weeks Should You Meal Plan for?
The first thing you should decide is exactly how much meal planning and prepping you want to do. Will you plan out breakfast, lunches, and dinners, or perhaps just focus on dinner.
When you are just starting out, try to plan for just one full week in advance, so that you don’t get too overwhelmed.
Next, consider how much time you have for meal planning and prepping, as well as what your budget is for buying more food in bulk. You will also need to carve out a block of time on one day that you will use to prepare the meals.
Then, consider how much room you have in your refrigerator and freezer to store the meals you are preparing.
How to Begin Meal Planning and Prepping
As I mentioned, taking inventory of which foods and ingredients you have on hand will help you get started. But don’t just eye-ball what you have on hand, write it down.
If you haven’t sorted through your food in a while, this is also a good time to get rid of expired items. Once you know everything you already have, you can start coming up with a few more meal ideas.
When you are just getting started you want to use what you already have on hand, so that you’re not wasting food.
After planning your meals, make another list with all the groceries you need to purchase, minus what you already have on hand.
Then as you create new meal plans moving forward, you can shop based on what you’re planning to make next.
Creating Detailed Meal Plans
Once you have prepped a few meal plans, you can start getting more detailed. For instance, if you have enough leftovers from a chicken dinner, you could make chicken salad for lunch the next day.
Or, extra meatballs from pasta night, could be used for meatball grinders.
In fact, planning on making a bit extra dinner to use for lunches will help reduce the number of lunches you need to prepare, saving both time and money.
Keeping Your Meal Plans Flexible
While planning every meal is a great way to save time during the week, there are going to be some times where things don’t go quite as you planned. So, be sure to leave some room for flexibility in meal planning.
For instance, you may have a week night where you want to go out to dinner because you are celebrating a special occasion. That’s OK.
If you have a prepped meal that you’ve just defrosted, it can be used the next day.
Using the Same Meat for Different Meals
One of the best ways you can stretch your meal plan is by purchasing meat in bulk and dividing it up to use in separate meals.
For example, ground beef can be used for so many meals such as tacos, hamburgers, chili, lasagna, meatloaf, stuffed peppers, goulash, empanadas, or shepherd’s pie.
Chicken can be used for sheet pan meals, casseroles, soups, chicken parmesan, chicken and dumplings, curry dishes or fajitas.
Meal Planning vs. Meal Prepping
Meal planning and meal prepping are the two steps to preparing meals. Meal planning, is simply deciding which meals will be made in the upcoming weeks.
Meal prepping is buying ingredients for your meals and preparing them by chopping, marinating, seasoning, and portioning, so that they are ready to cook into a meal.
However, partially or fully cooking something, can also be considered prepping. How a meal is prepped will determine whether it needs to be simply warmed up, or fully cooked. Either way, prepped meals for upcoming weeks are typically frozen then defrosted for quick meal preparation.
Prepping Container Meals
When prepping meals, think about the type of containers and sizes you want to use. Containers are not just storing food items, but are designed to keep food fresh in the refrigerator or freezer for an extended period of time. Here are some recommendations for prepping food in containers.
Using Plastic Bowls with Lids
When using Tupperware type bowls with lids, don’t fill the bowl to the rim, because the food may expand during freezing and pop the lid off. This is especially true if you are putting hot food in a plastic container. So, it’s better to cool the food first before freezing. When defrosting, don’t use plastic containers in the microwave as they tend to melt.
Using Casserole Dishes
Glass dishes that you use for baking, can also be used for storing casseroles in the freezer. Just be sure you leave them out in room temperature after cooking to cool down before freezing them, so they don’t crack.
Choosing the Right Freezer Bags
Freezer bags are ideal for meal planning and prepping because they don’t take up much storage room in the freezer. However, the bags that come with the slider zipper across the top, seal better than the bags that close by just squeezing the top edges together. So, it pays to get the zipper bags.
Shortcuts for Meal Planning and Prepping
As you get more into meal planning and prepping, you may start looking for ways to prepare more meals faster. Here are a few shortcuts to help you to meal plan and prep more efficiently.
- Buy meats like ground beef, and chicken in bulk to use in multiple meals and prepare them at the same time.
- When you prepare a full-size casserole, make a smaller lunch-sized one as well.
- Roast different vegetables with similar cooking times together on one sheet pan, then use them for separate meals.
- Freezer bags are ideal for storing entire meals or individual portions for lunches.
- Label all meals with dates, so you know when to use them by.