The 7 Essential Rules to Meal Prepping When You Haven’t Prepped in a Long (Forever) Time
During the pandemic, my main motivation for meal prep went from a time-saving/waste-eliminating weekly chore to an important Mom self-care ritual. Give me some noise-canceling headphones, a set of sharp knives, and a bunch of produce to be processed and let the chopping therapy commence. We’ll all be fed as a result!
Instead of batch cooking, I turned my focus to prepping healthy snacks, things to reheat for lunch, and parts of dinners I could do in advance. I also threw in a few sweet treats (hello, banana bread!) and engaged in a very long courtship with my sourdough starter, Juliette.
Having quick snacks and lunch options meant fewer work interruptions and instances of cleaning up the kitchen throughout the day. Playing the role of prep cook by chopping vegetables and making sauces, salads, and dressings in advance helped me turn my kitchen into a restaurant where only dinner was served. Thank goodness, because we generate a lot of dirty dishes in my house with a growing boy!
Now that school is back in session and I’m not making each and every meal we eat, I’ve had to remind myself of some of my old meal prep ways. If you’re just starting to get into meal prepping or if you’re a meal prep pro who’s a little out of practice, give your routine a reboot with my seven essential meal prep rules.
1. Keep a running list of what you like to eat.
As the name implies, meal prep is all about being prepared. A list will help keep you on track. Start by making a running list of the meals you enjoy (including snacks!) throughout the week. Your goal is to add to it and come up with a good rotation. Take copious notes, look for patterns, and then use those patterns to start building out your list.
2. Start your week with a clean fridge.
Once you have your list, it’s time to check your stash. Look through your pantry and fridge to see what you need to use up/repurpose. There’s nothing worse that buying something you already have, or worse — wasting food.
While you’re taking inventory, don’t be surprised if inspiration strikes. My meal prep usually starts with a fridge clean-out. I like to start the week with a clean fridge, so I use this process as a way to get creative! Some of my best soups come from sad produce that’s desperately seeking a new home.
3. Break down your recipes before you start chopping.
You’ve likely heard this, but it bears repeating: Reading your recipes closely will save you time. Is there something that can be done in advance that will help you get a meal to the table faster? DO IT. Break down your favorite recipes into steps and ask yourself, “What can I do ahead of time?” All of these little things — whether it be chopping onions, marinating meat, or making a vinaigrette or a sauce in advance — can help shave precious minutes off of future prep work and cooking time. And remember that the small things can add up: Prepping toppings for dishes like tacos, burgers, and baked potatoes can buy you valuable time during the week.
4. Check your calendar.
When you’re sitting down to meal plan and prep, open up your calendar: Is that big work project due soon? Do the kids have games three nights this week? Then maybe focus on recipes that can be made completely ahead and then stashed in the freezer, so all you have to do is reheat and eat. Is it a lighter week and/or are you in the mood to entertain? It might be time for some project cooking!
5. Try something new (but not all the time).
Try something new once a week — or don’t! We’re living in a world of immediacy and if you go too far down the recipe rabbit hole you’ll be convinced you need to make a new recipe every single night! Focus on building your arsenal of tried-and-true meals and then start adding new ones when you need to shake things up. You can even start small by buying a new ingredient to play with! A fresh spice or that condiment you’ve had in your online cart for a while can be just the thing to wake up your cooking.
6. Think about the future of your food.
Keep in mind the shelf life of your ingredients when you’re prepping. How long can something you make last in your fridge? How many times can you eat something before you don’t want to eat it again? And just because you have your knife out doesn’t mean you should cut up EVERYTHING. I’ve definitely gone overboard with chopping up too many vegetables ahead of time. (Fortunately I know how to roast them and make soup when they’re not suitable for snacking purposes any longer.) Time isn’t always on your side when it comes to fresh produce. Act accordingly.
7. Make room for dessert.
After years of doing meal prep, I realized that throwing in a sweet treat for my family each week goes a long way. Baking at night is also very relaxing, no? To prevent us from eating all the treats at once, I stash some in the freezer. Just be warned: Frosting is even better when it’s frozen. Also, there’s real magic in being able to make cookies on a whim from cookie dough in the freezer.
10 Great Meal Prep Plans to Get You Started
Now that you’re all prepped for meal prep, it’s time to get to work! These plans are a great place to start your training.
- A Week of Freezer-Friendly Meals: Perfect for those busy weeks.
- Prep 2 Weeks of Lunches in 90 Minutes: DIY frozen burritos are the stars here!
- Prep-Ahead Sheet Pan Suppers: Lazy-day dinners made even easier.
- Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner in the Instant Pot: Easy meals for when you’re under pressure (sorry!).
- A Meal Prep Assist from Costco: A trip to Costco + 2 hours of prep = a super-easy week
- Same as Above, but from Trader Joe’s: Let Joe help you with dinner.
- A Plan for the Flexitarian Family: Veggie-forward and light on the meat.
- A Week’s Worth of Meals for $33: Use the money you save to buy pizza for dinner on Saturday.
- Ina-Inspired Meal Prep: Bring the Barefoot Contessa home.
- And When the Holidays Come, Prep Your Cookies! An easier way to holiday.