With 2017 just a few months in, many of us are trying to hold fast to our new year's goals. Whether they included getting in shape, spending more time with family, or getting organized, our goals have proven to require some work and consistency. And the results, whether we've seen them yet or not, are well worth the extra effort.
Take meal prepping for example. A little time spent in the kitchen on one day makes mealtime for several days less stressful, and more enjoyable. This means we get to spend more time with family, while eating better! Now we could knock out all three of our new year's goals in one fell swoop! You're welcome. =)
The idea of meal prepping is to cook and/or prep all or most of your food beforehand for later consumption. Many people do this for fitness and health purposes, where they create grab-n-go containers of food that's already portioned out for easy meals. Others meal prep to save time and/or money, as the cost of eating meals at home tend to be significantly less than meals purchased from restaurants or fast-food chains, and are much healthier.
When it comes to meal prepping you have a couple of options: You can prep all your ingredients but not cook them, which will allow you to throw everything together to make daily meals faster. Or you could spend the day cooking and pop lots of fully cooked meals into the fridge or freezer. Personally, I like to do a little bit of both by prepping some veggies/fruits and cooking several meal items I can mix-and-match throughout the week. If you're short on time due to work, kids, school, or all of the above, then consider meal prepping as a way to guarantee a home-cooked meal every night without the hassle.
Generally I like to make a few dishes under each of these categories: protein, carbs, veggies, and lunches/appetizers. I've been meal prepping like this for a little over a year so I thought to share some (10, actually!) of my tips and tricks to making the process a little easier for you.
My Meal Planning Tips:
1. Make lists! Make your meal prep list as well as a grocery list so you don't get off track. I put these lists front and back of the same paper to keep me on track. Ticking things off as you get them done is extremely rewarding and saves you time. Tip: SAVE THOSE LISTS for future meal prepping sessions. If you're too tired or just don't have time to think of new meal ideas, old lists can make the process easier!
2. Have a trusty cookbook or favorite recipes: Depending on the purpose of your meal planning, whether its weight-loss or convenience related, it's important to have recipes on hand that are simple and delicious. I have a "homemade" cookbook that's basically ripped out pages from cooking magazines that I've stuck in a 3" binder - it's my go-to place for recipes and new ideas. Or, you can start a Pinterest page specifically for meal-prep worthy dishes! Either way, have some back-pocket meals at the ready.
A typical week in my meal prep plan begins with a list on my fridge that looks something like this:
3. Double-buy one protein item: Proteins tend to be expensive, so purchase a double amount of the same when it's on sale and cook multiple dishes with it. For example, the ground turkey I bought will be enough for Taco Turkey w/ Bell Peppers and Kofta. Additionally, if you buy chicken breast, you can use one portion for grilling and pop the other half into the slow cooker for shredded BBQ sandwiches or straight-up with a side of mashed potatoes.
4. Use up what you have: Many recipes call for specific ingredients, but you shouldn't feel as though have to stick to the ingredient list to get a great-tasting dish. The Egg Casserole dish on my list didn't call for sweet potato, it asked for ripped up bits of toast. But I had cooked sweet potato in my fridge and I wanted to use it before it went bad, so I swapped out the bread. And you know what? It was delicious! I regret nothing.
5. Overlap your ingredients: When you overlap ingredients in various meals, it keeps your food budget low and helps avoid waste. Especially easily spoil-able items like dairy, cheeses, and herbs. For example, if you're making rice one night for a chicken curry dish, you can use it later in the week for fried rice. And that bag of spinach can be used in a salad or in the filling of lasagna roll ups. For this meal prep, I was already using coconut milk when making my brown lentils, and I also used it in the mashed potato layer of my shepherd's pie. Win-win.
6. Mix & match! Instead of having the same thing two or three days in a row, make several items that can easily be mixed and matched to create new dishes. The Taco Turkey w/ Bell Peppers work just as well in a wrap with fresh veggies as it does on top of a salad. And the Brown Lentils in Coconut Milk serve well with a side of chicken or Kofta for dinner, as well as by itself as a satisfying soup for lunch with shelled sunflower seeds and a dollop of sour cream. Yum!
7. Condiments & pre-made sauces are your friend: Embrace the pre-made sauces at your supermarket - they can go a long way in making meal prepping easier and more delicious. Try something new from Trader Joe's like BBQ Sriracha, Korean BBQ, Pineapple Salsa or Asian Style Spicy Peanut Vinaigrette. Marinade your meat then grill, bake, skewer, saute, slow cook, or broil away. Honestly this stuff tastes delicious on everything - from seafood, chicken, and beef to all kinds of veggies. Thank me later.
8. Set aside a "Meal Prep Day": Every Sunday I set aside a few hours to cook most, if not all, of the items on my list. Granted, the process can be time consuming but it makes dinner-time so much easier during the rest of the week. When I have freshly-prepared and ready-to-go items in my fridge, the only thing I need to do come dinner time is mix and match to create the perfect meal for my family.
9. Double duty dinner & lunch: Pack a homemade lunch! If you're worried you may not finish all of your cooked meal prep items this week, this would be a good time to start taking those healthy, yummy meals for work or school. If you're going to spend a bunch of time cooking, you may as well add a few work-lunch or lunchbox items to your list too. Your meals will work double duty, plus it's cost effective and much healthier!
10. Label: Pack and label your meal prep items for easy visibility. I keep a roll of masking tape in my kitchen drawer so I remember to label my meal containers. It sticks well, is easy to pull off before washing, and way cheaper than those fancy-shmancy food labels out there.
I cannot sing the praises of meal-prep enough! As I've said, I've been meal-prepping like this for almost a year and now that I have a handle on it, I can really appreciate how much time I save on a weekly basis.
If you're curious about what the other meals look like when I meal prep, I've created a little gallery here for you below.