If you are like many people, you have such a busy life, that making homemade, healthy meals each day is a constant struggle. Even as a single person, I often have found myself overwhelmed with making time for planning, shopping, prepping, and finally making time for my meals. Instead of just giving in and going through the local drive-thru or ordering take-out three nights a week, why not give meal planning and meal prepping a try? Here are some things to know about each of these activities to help save time, money, and still prepare healthy meals each day for you and your family.
What is Meal Planning?
Before you can start on your meal prep, you need to plan your meals. Meal planning is nothing more than figuring out what meals you are going to make for the days ahead. It can be as detailed as you want, though the more information you include in your meal scheduling, the better off you will be.
By starting with meal planning, you will then know what and how to be more efficient at meal prep. This is going to help save you time because you aren’t running to the supermarket every day trying to figure out what to get for dinner that night.
Once the plan is in place, you now know the meals for the upcoming week. I sometimes get stuck thinking about my appointments or social activities and ultimately realized, I’m better off just planning to eat my meals at home or take them with me if I find myself going out. Here is a rundown of how meal planning works, though keep in mind there is a lot of room for variation.
How Many Weeks to Plan Your Meals
The first thing you should decide is exactly how much meal planning you want to do. My local supermarket has a monthly discount day and I love it when I can have the time to shop that day because I will purchase my essentials for the month. For example, I have a favorite cheese that I have pretty much every morning for breakfast and 4 blocks of that cheese last me a month. I’ve learned that I can freeze them! I also know that I eat at least 8 ounces of salad daily. Being clear on my food plan, I’m careful to look at expiration dates on produce so that I know it will last until the date.
In regards to how many days or weeks to plan ahead of time. This really depends on you and a number of factors should be considered. The main consideration for me has been how often can I make time to go to the market.
You should also consider how much room you have in your refrigerator and freezer. Planning for 3 weeks ahead of time is fine for the schedule, but you might not be buying food for this long if you don’t have somewhere to put everything or as mentioned earlier with produce, will it stay fresh.
I’m all about having whole fresh foods. Even though it is higher maintenance for shopping, overall, I feel better with fresh, non-processed food.
When you are just starting out, try to plan for just one full week and see how it goes. This should include all meals and snacks your family will eat for that entire week, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and desserts.
It includes meals you will prepare at home with leftovers, lunches your kids and you will bring to work or school, and any extra items you need, such as bringing brownies to a friend or event, or other special occasions.
A Good Way to Start Meal Planning
If you’re not sure where to start with planning your meals, you can make it easy by taking stock of what is in your kitchen. Take note of everything in your pantry and refrigerator, write it down, and see what meals you can make from those ingredients.
This should be a good start, and then all you might need are some filler ingredients. You may have almost all of the ingredients you need for homemade biscuits, so you know you can have a meal that uses those biscuits as a way of saving money and time.
Once you know everything you already have, start considering what the different meals are that your family will be interested in, but don’t forget about considering how each of those meals will be prepared. If you know you will be pressed for time, try to think of meals you can make ahead of time or that can be made in the slow cooker all day while you are at work.
How to Be Detailed in Your Meal Plans
Once you have started noting down some meals you would like to make during the week, try to be as detailed as possible. If you think you will have leftovers from a chicken dinner in order to have lunch for 2-3 days, note that in the plan!
This helps you reduce how many lunches you need to prepare, which further saves you a lot of time when it comes time to prepare your different meals for the week. After listing the meals, make another list with all the groceries you need to purchase, minus what you already have on hand.
Leaving Room For Flexibility Throughout the Week
While planning every meal is a great way to save time during the week, there are going to be some situations where it doesn’t go quite as you planned out. Make sure you leave some room for flexibility in your meals and meal planning.
For example, you might have a day where you want to go out to dinner because your spouse got a big promotion and you want to celebrate. Don’t hesitate to celebrate just because you planned to make spaghetti that night. Just readjust your schedule and make it another night. Meal planning is meant to simplify the process, not restrict yourself too much.
Include Leftovers in Your Plan
Always try to think about leftovers or using certain ingredients in your meal planning that can be used for multiple meals. If you know you want to make chicken and dumplings and are going to buy a pack of chicken breasts, buy more than you need and freeze them. This lets you have enough chicken for that meal, but also for chicken soup, salads, sandwiches, or other dinner ideas. You are going to save money and time by having the extra chicken on hand.
How is Meal Prepping Different?
Meal planning and meal prepping are often confused, but these are actually two entirely different things. With meal planning, you are simply deciding what the future meals will be. When you meal prep, you actually buy those ingredients, then start getting certain aspects of the meal prepared, so that very little needs to be done each day when cooking time arrives.
Types of Meal Prepping
There are two basic elements to meal prepping: chopping vegetables and putting ingredients for meals into containers, and actually cooking some aspects of the meal and freezing them. You can do one or both of these options depending on how much time you think you will have. Some people simply do the prep work, such as getting all their veggies chopped up, rice measured, and snacks into portion baggies to be used during the week. Others actually cook the casseroles and chicken and then freeze them so that dinner just involves popping them in the oven.
Containers to Use
When you are planning on prepping meals, you need to be careful with the types of containers you use. These containers are not just storing the ingredients and cooked food items but meant to keep them fresh in the refrigerator or freezer for an extended period of time. You need to be careful what you choose to store items in and how they are stored. Here are some recommendations for food storage containers:
Choose containers with airtight lids.
Make sure that your containers keep the food fresh with airtight lids. If you intend to use Tupperware-type containers, try filling them with water, then turn them upside down and make sure no water leaks out. This is a good way to tell how fresh your food will be in the containers.
Try storing items in mason jars.
Mason jars are perfect for storing certain items and meals. For example, if you like to take a salad to work, try putting each day’s salad in a separate container. Choose the wide-mouth containers and add the denser items at the bottom. The greens should always be at the top so they don’t get wilted or weighed down. Keep your salad dressing in a separate container.
Be careful with plastic storage items.
Plastic is fine to use, but you should know what type of plastic you are using. Make sure it is refrigerator, freezer, microwave, and dishwasher-safe first of all. Also check that the plastic containers don’t have any BPA, which can be dangerous when adding or cooking food in these containers.
Consider casserole dishes that work for baking and storage.
When you are actually cooking bigger meals ahead of time to just be reheated each evening, you want to use multi-purpose casserole dishes. Use glass dishes that you use for baking, but that can also be used for storing them in the freezer. Just make sure you leave them out at room temperature after cooking to cool down before freezing them, or they might crack.
Tips For Meal Prepping
Do you struggle with the time to prep? It may be that you don’t have a plan for this part of the process to meal planning. As you get started with meal prepping, there are some other things you need to keep in mind. Follow these simple tips for prepping your meals after you are done with meal planning:
- Cook all your meat at once.
- Label every container so you know when to use it.
- Note what prepping is being done for leftovers.
- Use ingredients that can be prepped for multiple meals.
- Get freezer bags together with ingredients that will go in the slow cooker.
Meal Ideas For Prepping
Here are some different meal ideas that work perfectly with meal planning and meal prepping. Be prepared for those nights when you’re super tired or just feeling lazy.
Put together different overnight oatmeal jars.
To get some healthy breakfasts prepared, add overnight oats to multiple jars, one for each day of the week. In addition to the oats, you can add different toppings for each day. Some toppings to consider include cinnamon, sugar, slivered almonds or other nuts, dried fruit, berries or fresh fruit, raisins, and granola.
Roast your vegetables beforehand.
To get vegetables ready for lunches and dinners throughout the week, spend one day roasting all the vegetables at one time. Choose vegetables with about the same cooking time, roast them together, then place in containers and freeze them.
Use a vegetable spiralizer instead of pasta.
This suggestion has been successful for a lot of people, personally, I haven’t had such great luck. If you’re willing to try it out, here you go.
To make healthy, low-carb meals and meal prep at the same time, consider using a vegetable spiralizer. This takes vegetables like zucchini and squash and creates pasta out of them. Spiralize your veggies on a Sunday, then save them for the week’s ‘pasta’ meals.
Again, mine always seem to turn to mush. If you have success, please share your secret!
Bake all of your meat, then freeze portions for each meal.
Decide what meat you want to use for multiple meals, then bake or cook it all at the same time. Do this in the oven or your slow cooker. Meat like chicken breasts, fish filets, and strips of steak work great for this. No more panic on what protein to make for dinner.
Keep salad veggies and toppings in one container.
For your salads, you can make it faster to put them together by having all of the greens and vegetables together in containers. Keep all your greens in one big container, and all the chopped veggies, cheese, and other toppings in another container.
My best tip for salads is to wash them all ahead of time and recontain them in Mason jars. Pretty much at all times, I have diced red onions, diced cucumbers, blueberries, and tomatoes on hand. It makes throwing together a salad super quick and easy.
With these tips, you will be on your way to both meal planning and prepping. This is going to save you a lot of time and money as you are not overbuying nor tempted to get takeout or just go to a restaurant.
Buy portioned out foods.
It often surprises people that even though I am single, I buy the majority of my groceries at Costco. The painful truth is that I used to waste a lot of money until I figured out a system by planning and prepping my meals, oh and better storage. I’m going to share with you some of my stapes and how I prepare them.
In the fresh produce:
- Organic butternut squash. It is critical to cook this within the next day or so to keep it fresh. I prepare this squash in the consistency of mash potatoes and store the portions in Mason jars in the refrigerator.
- Organic blueberries. I tend to always have these on hand for my daily breakfast. I wash them when I get home and store them in Mason jars in the refrigerator.
- Organic cucumbers. I wash, peel and dice these and also store them in Mason jars in the refrigerator. (I buy 1 – 2 red onions in my local Sprouts and chop those up in their own Mason jar.) Having both of these on hand, I often make a cucumber and red onion salad.
In the freezer section:
- The Kirkland brand of organic broccoli is amazing. It comes in a large bag, with four 8-ounce microwaveable bags. The best frozen broccoli on the planet.
- Kirkland organic strawberries. Nothing convenient about this packaging, I just wanted to include them as they are my favorite for my breakfast of yogurt and Gjetost cheese. I alternate this breakfast with blueberries.
- Kirkland brand Angus beef hamburgers. Patties are easy to take out one at a time. They are often my go-to lunch. They are fairly quick to thaw as you fry them up on the stove.
- Kirkland green beans. Another item that isn’t necessarily prepackaged for portions. That being said, I easily grab them out of the freezer, and microwave a portion for my dinner, add my protein and a salad and it’s a meal.
Tools and Resources for Life Balance
- Refer to my website, AnneMcGurty.com to get on the waiting list for my next 5 Day Detox. It is a program to guide you to detox your body planning, preparing, and eating whole foods for five days. If you don’t want to wait for the next program, email me to get started now.
- It’s not listed anywhere on my site. I do offer a one on one “Organize Your Pantry” virtual session. Email me if you would like to learn more about this service.
- Join my social media community.
- If you are looking to make changes in your life, whether at work or at home, sign up for a free 20-minute call with me to see if you are a candidate for my coaching or mentoring. Schedule here.
Anne McGurty is a business strategist specializing in creating systems and structures for the creative entrepreneur. She is also a PMP, Project Management Professional, with over 30 years of experience working with corporations and small businesses to improve communication, identify risks, and manage outstanding issues and help keep projects on schedule, adding value, saving time, and money. Anne is passionate about the role of a consultant and coach to her clients and brings a healthy, life balance perspective to her approach as she is a thriving cancer survivor.