6 Awesome Meal Planning & Prep Lifehacks
The core truth is that good diet is all about being thoughtful about what you eat. This means you need to, you know, think about it! Planning out your meals for the week – whether for just yourself or for a family – can go a long way towards ensuring you eat well on those days when stress might lead you astray. A lot of people realize they need a plan for their workouts, but then skimp on making plans for their eating.
In order to help you along I give you these great tips for making meal planning easier!
Create a meal calendar for the week
You can use a lot of options for this. If you’re tech-inclined, use Google Calendar or your favorite scheduling app that lets you easily create events on specific dates. The key here is to fill in your calendar with specific meals.
Take a moment to consider the schedule for everyone you’re cooking for. A quick inventory of everyone’s plans will give you a rough idea of how many meals you’ll need, and how much you can get from each recipe. Now note how many meals you’ll need. You can group together meals by size and timing. For example: 2 quick dinners, 3 to-go lunches, 1 family breakfast, etc..
Now that you know how many meals and what kinds you need, have a look at your recipes, pantry, etc. and determine what you can make and what you need to shop for. If you keep a meal journal, you can use that as inspiration when you’re making your decision. Maybe there’s something you haven’t made in months or years, that you could try this week.
Remember: it takes time to ramp up to all home-made, from-scratch dinners and such. Even getting 3-4 per week is pretty impressive, so don’t expect miracles from yourself. It’s better to underestimate the number of meals you’ll have time to prepare than waste food you didn’t have time to cook.
Plan for leftovers and embrace your freezer
Most of us can tolerate left-overs to some degree, so use the fridge and freezer strategically. You could try cooking a couple healthy casseroles at the beginning of the week and then split them off into lunch portions for the whole week. If you can only eat left-overs for a single night (preference or otherwise) then try making double dishes, putting the extra in the fridge for the next day.
Along with doubling up day to day, you can also make double recipes every time you cook something that freezes well. Soups, stews, beans, and many other dishes are just as good reheated from frozen months after being cooked, as they are the first day. The freezer is the best friend of future you, who may not have the time to cook.
When you store left-overs, here are two big tips.
First, labels are your friend. If you have a removable/reusable label option, like dry erase markers, that works great. Put a short description of what’s in the container and the date it was frozen. It’s good to know if that chicken dish has been in the bacl of the freezer for the last month…or since World War II!
Second, freeze things in 1-2 serving portions whenever possible. You may have enough soup to feed a five-member family, but if you freeze all of it together, it makes it harder to thaw out just enough for one or two people. Reheating and refreezing foods can cause the flavor to sour and bacteria to collect. Plan to only defrost something once and then eat it. Small portions make this easy.
Prepare ahead of time
You have a few options about how to prep and cook.
Option 1: Pick a day and do all the cooking on that day. This can be any day where you can allocate all the time you need to preparing, cooking, organizing, and storing the meals for the coming week. If you do this, I recommend only doing dinners and then freezing them. Avoid anything that doesn’t reheat well (like fish) and use all the cooking methods you can manage at once. If you don’t have a slow cooker (or two) then you should invest in one soon. An easy meal prep day could be as simple as putting two proteins into two separate crockpots along with complementary vegetables, and then spending a couple hours while they cook preparing skillet and oven meals.
Option 2: Instead of preparing full meals, prepare “meal makers” that can be combined to create multiple meals later in the week. Cook large pots of vegetables and potatos; butter and pesto, or a good marinara, create very different meals of these. The same goes for any proteins you’re making. Chicken keeps especially well over time in the fridge or freezer, and it’s as simple step to add a different sauce each time you eat it.
Option 3: Prepare portions of meals that you’ll cook later in the week. Brown sausage, roast veggies, chop onions, create spice blends, wash the lettuce, etc. On the day of the meal, you’ll have most of the components ready, you just need to take the last couple steps to finish it all off!
Build and maintain a collection of great recipes
Start by deciding how you want to maintain your list. Some people prefer the old-school recipe books. They have a great feel to them, and there’s something about propping open your own book of homemade goodness to prepare a meal. A physical recipe book is nice because you don’t need anything other than the book, so your phone dying/internet going out won’t stop you from looking up Grandma’s Best Curry Chicken. On the downside, if you like to be very organized (alphabetizing, updating, etc.) then you need to be prepared to periodically go through the book, toss old pages, insert new ones, and other basic maintenance.
On the other hand, a computer/digital recipe book is also an option. Text documents on your home computer, Google Docs, Microsoft OneNote, and dozens of others are all available if you want to go this way. The biggest obstacles are learning to use your chosen software solution. and the fact that you can lose access to the documents in power outages and the like.
Something to consider as well: you can easily make backups of a digital recipe book, but not so much a physical one. But, a digital file can pretty easily be lost or destroyed by accident, whereas a physical book has the chance of being salvaged even if it gets damaged.
When you decide on how to store them, start looking for recipes! Your own creations, friends, family, restaurants, published recipe books, Pinterest…the list of sources is functionally infinite. Try a new recipe every week or two and add it to your collection. Try keeping notes when you make something for the first time on how it went, how it turned out, and any silly mistakes you made. A couple quick points to help yourself in the future can make that recipe less time consuming down the road.
Shop like a professional
A lot of success in meal planning comes from shopping purposefully. Don’t just head to the store with a vague idea what you need and then wing it. Just like with fitness and the actual cooking, prep work is key.
Start by making a recipe calendar like we talked about earlier. Now you know what you’re cooking and when.
Second, pick a shopping day. The morning of your cooking/prep day or the day before (if you have the time) can be a good choice.
Next, take stock of what you have versus what you need for the week. Your main goal should be to fill in the gaps on your list for the upcoming week. Your secondary goal will be to replace/refill basic pantry items that you use for many dishes, but are gone/running low. Things like olive oil tend to last a while, but you’ll still run out eventually. Try replacing these types of items when you have 2-3 meals left in your current supply.
At the store, what can you get on sale? Is there something on your list that can be replaced by a sale item and still provide a great meal? An example might be a chicken and veggie dish. The recipe calls from green beans, but snow peas are on sale. You know that the recipe works with either, so why not make the switch and save?
Get what you need for the week, plus whatever staples you need to replace, but don’t go crazy. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when your fridge, pantry, and freezer are overflowing with stuff. If you have only what you need, you’ll be less likely to break your meal plan when you don’t have to. This can reduce the chances of overeating in general. Also keep in mind that a lot of what you’ll be getting should be fresh meats, veggies, and fruits. These go bad after only a week or two, in most cases, so getting much more than you need is just setting you up to waste food.
Try a theme night or three
It can make it easy (and fun) to setup themes for the meals during the week. Maybe every first Monday is pizza day, but every second Monday is pasta day! Especially for those with kids, turning meal planning into a game they can play with you can help things move along. If you can narrow down the many recipe options you have to ones that fit a theme, you make choosing less overwhelming.
A method that might work for this is something like…
Pick a single day and assign a theme to it. Taco Tuesdays, Stir-Friday, etc. Pick something you (and anyone you’re cooking for) are happy eating each week.
Now, pick four variations on that theme. For Breakfast Thursday you could choose omelets, French toast, bacon, & sandwiches. Make one of those options your main dish for the next four Thursdays.
If you like the way this works out, then choose another day and repeat. If you find that you don’t like having the same theme night(s) every week, then just choose a couple nights week to week. Either way, have fun with it! If this makes your planning more difficult, rather than less, stop doing it!