Learning how to meal prep has been a life saver for me. Meal prepping takes the pressure off on the days I’m too stressed to or don’t have time to cook. Likewise, it ensures that I eat on the days that I need to look after my mental health. But usually don’t have the energy or motivation to make a meal. Whether I’m too busy, too tired or not in the right mental or emotional head space. Meal prepping can be invaluable.
I’ve experimented with various different timelines and steps. The ones below are what have worked for me. But feel free to tweak and experiment at every level. What works for you will depend on various things including your personality, how busy you are, who and how many your cooking for. Among many other variables. However, meal prep can work for you.
It can be a huge time saver and a massive relief when you realise you don’t have to cook when you don’t have time to. Or help ensure that you eat, meeting a basic need, when you’re mental health takes a dip and even simple things can be a struggle. It can lighten your cognitive load so you’re not constantly planning meals for each day. I know I used to plan a weeks worth of dinners during the wind down at my yoga class. Probably not the best use of that time. It can also ensure you’ve got the ingredients you need to cook. And save last minute dashes to the store which always happens on your busiest days. Lastly, the bulk cooking element particularly can help you save money. Particularly if you’re creative with your meal planning and think about using leftovers etc.
For 5 Benefits to Meal Planning read here.
#1: Meal Plan
I used to meal plan week by week. But I’ve discovered that I find it easier to do on a monthly basis. I’ll sit down for about an hour and plan out lunches and dinners for four weeks ahead. I prefer to use a specific meal planner which I hang up in my kitchen. Many planners only have one slot per day, I prefer ones which have separate slots for lunch and dinner (This is my current favourite!). You can also buy ones which have for all 3 meals of the day and snacks. This could be handy especially if you are a snacker or have kids in the house.
Create Your Plan
To populate my meal plan I try and ensure variety. So, most Mondays for instance we have red meat for dinner. Tuesday is usually a fish meal etc. Having some kind of consistency is helpful. So is a list of favourite meals if you feel like jotting them down. You could even separate them by type e.g. all your meat meal recipes, all your pasta dishes etc. You could decide to have the same one week or two week meal plan and simply repeat them each week. I don’t do this currently. So every week I plan looks different. But it’s definitely an option and could save you more time.
I also find having my calendar next to me whilst I meal plan is handy. It makes sure I take into account meals where there may be less people because someone is out. It also prevents me planning meals if we will be out. And reminds me to plan a more substantial meal or extra courses if we will be having people over.
You can save further time (and money) by being creative with your meal planning. For example, ratatouille can be a great option for a sauce for meat. So, make a big saucepan and freeze smaller portions as a side for a meal. And use the rest to marinade your meat or poultry for a second meal.
Likewise, I use a frittata recipe for quiches too. Making them at the same time makes sense. I’ll make the basic egg mix and use some of the mix for quiches adding extra flavours directly to the quiches before putting them in the over. I’ll pour the rest of the mix into a silicone muffin pan and add different flavours to them too. Once they’re cooked you’ll have a quiche or two and a bunch of mini frittatas. I’ll keep one out for a fresh meal and freeze the others for future meals.
#2: Shop Groceries
My next step after my meal plan is to sort my grocery list. I try and do this at the same time when possible. With my meal plan in front of me I’ll go online and order the groceries that I will need for each week. Once I’m on my grocery website I find it easier to create multiple orders back to back. And whilst not an exciting exercise, I can usually do it with the TV on or listening to music or a podcast.
Having my groceries sorted and my meal plan done for a few weeks means I don’t have to think about them for a while. Instead of it being a weekly task, it becomes monthly. I find it incredibly helpful not to have to think about what we will eat each day and if I need to pop to the shops after the work or find time on the weekend as we don’t have ingredients for a meal.
#3: Bulk Meal Prep
Not only do I save time and mental burden by meal planning and shopping ahead of time. I plan my meals with bulk cooking in mind. Many, although not all, the meals I make can be made in bulk. Bulk cooking can be an important part of relieving the stress of having to cook when you’re too busy. Or making sure there is food in the house when not having a meal ready means not eating.
For Self Care for Depressive Episodes read here.
Bulk cooking obviously requires double or triple the ingredients. So make sure you bare that in mind when you do your grocery shop. I aim to have a mix of premade and fresh meals each week. This means that most weeks I only have to make dinner every other day. And use pre-prepared meals for the rest. I’ll also try and plan which days I make fresh and which are pre-made depending on how busy my day might be. If I’m working in the evening or have a particularly busy work day I’ll plan for a defrosted meal. When this isn’t possible or I’ve got an easier day in the week I’ll try and pre-prepare even the fresh meals. Just to get ahead.
To add this level of detail into my meal plan I’ll put a tick or cross next to meal items on my plan. The tick indicates to me that I already have this meal or part of the meal premade. The cross indicates it something I will need to make. And make it bulk. This helps guide me when I do my groceries so I know when no groceries are needed or double ingredients are. It also helps when I consult my meal plan reminding me if I need to cook that day or if I need to defrost something.
What to Bulk Cook
Which meals freeze well will come with experience. There are certain meals I will always make from scratch. Whilst freezing them is helpful it’s simply not worth it. Other foods like soups, meat balls, quiches, sausage rolls etc. freeze well. So, I’ll always bulk cook them. Some foods need to be frozen in a certain way. For example, soups are best frozen in soup bags and stored upright in the freezer at least until they are frozen. Cookies can be frozen too but it’s best to lie them flat when you first freeze them to prevent breakage. Some frozen foods can be put straight in the oven from frozen. Others it is safer to defrost first. If you’re unsure, defrost overnight to be safe.
Don’t forget many sides can be pre-made too. We tend to eat proteins and veg for most of our meals. Unless it’s a pasta dish I’m less likely to make a grain. That’s simply our preference as a family. I’ll often bulk make some kind of vegetable dish to go with various meals. Other veg are better fresh so I stick to easy recipes for those. Usually buying pre-cut or frozen vegetables and adding spices and putting them in the oven. I don’t freeze grains, partly because we rarely eat them but also they’re easy to make quickly. So it’s not worth using precious freezer space for them!
Storing Pre Made Foods
When bulk cooking always label what the food is and when it was made on the container. This prevents you having to open endless containers to find what you’re looking for. And is helpful when you’re in a rush. Dating the items too will prevent you having anything in your freezer for too long. Food which has been frozen too long definitely compromises the taste. Before you sit down to meal plan it can be helpful to double check what you’ve got pre-made. Incorporate these into your meal plan so they don’t hang around in your freezer too long. And reminds you what you’ve already got pre-made so you don’t end up making it again.
For A Guide to Prioritizing Self Care read here.
#4: Be Flexible
Meal prepping may sound boring. Like most chores it can be even when you can watch TV or listen to something you enjoy. But I prefer doing it all in one go in a set time period. And then know it’s done and I don’t have to think about it. Instead of having it on my mind every day. But just because you meal prep doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with your meals. Or chop and change to suit your mood.
There are still days that I don’t have the time to cook no matter how organised I was. Or that we don’t feel like eating whatever is on the menu. So, be prepared to be flexible if that suits your needs. Meal prepping is meant to make life easier and give you more time for the things you enjoy. Not to suck all spontaneity or fun out of life. If one evening you want to eat something different. Then do it. If you’re celebrating or just need an easier night and fancy a takeout; do it if you can. The important thing is to make meal prep work for you.
What are your thoughts on meal prep? Do you do it? What are the benefits? Let us know below!