Written by: Julia Semaan
Preparing meals for the week is much easier said than done. It requires not only recipe preparation, cutting, storing, cooking, etc., but also a great deal of mental preparation. The worst part about preparing meals for the week is when Thursday comes around and you are sick of eating chicken, rice, and broccoli. Although many people enjoy eating the same thing every day, this is not true for the majority.
Learning how to effectively “meal prep” can be a huge benefit to you and your family. It takes away the hassle of planning daily meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When done right, it can also be cost effective. An obstacle may be that your meal eventually starts to get boring, and your produce could go bad if left untouched.
To combat this, I have put together a step-by-step guide of how to succeed at preparing meals for the week, aimed at creating personal and tasty meals with budget in mind. My goal for creating this plan is meant to give you a variety of ingredients that can be used in different ways. The hope is that you’ll never get bored, and your meals likely won’t spoil as fast because you’re eating them on the right days.
Step 1: Determine Your Likes and Dislikes
Consider what foods you like and dislike. If you’re trying to eat ‘healthier,’ don’t just buy brussels sprouts to eat daily if don’t even enjoy them. Set yourself up for success by starting off with safe foods that you know you enjoy. Choose to try new foods and expand your palate on days where you aren’t meal prepping.
Try to plan based on My Plate. Below is a list of options that you can write down for inspiration to build your unique meal. Remember, start with foods you know you like!
- Grains: brown rice, white rice, jasmine rice, black rice, quinoa, pasta, couscous, oats, crackers, breads, cereals, tortillas
- Protein: chicken, beef, pork, beans (black, kidney, refried), tofu, fish (salmon, cod, catfish), shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab), yogurt, cheese, turkey, lamb, eggs, seeds, legumes (chickpeas), nuts (nut butters)
- Vegetables: broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, peppers, zucchini, snap peas, corn, beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onion, mushroom, cucumber, squash, cauliflower, carrots, eggplant, leafy greens (spinach, kale), celery, beets, the list goes on. These can be fresh, frozen, or canned based on your preference.
- Fruit: apples, oranges, pears, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, bananas, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapes, cherries, mangoes, and more, all fresh, frozen, or canned.
- Dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, whey, cottage cheese, sour cream, and dairy alternatives
Step 2: Double Dipping
After writing down your favorites from the list above, try to brainstorm where you can use the same ingredient for a different meal. For example, Greek yogurt is great for morning smoothies or yogurt parfaits, but can also be a hearty component of many pastas, such as alfredo. Likewise, those strawberries that went in your breakfast smoothie are the perfect side for your turkey sandwich at lunch, with lettuce that can be used for your Caesar salad with your alfredo dinner.
Step 3: Plan Your Prep
This is one of the most important steps of meal prepping. If you get home from the grocery store and put your groceries away, then move onto other things, it could be very difficult to get back into the mindset of preparation.
It might be hard to find time in your busy schedule. Think of a day that you have the most free time and start that day. Your meal preparation does not need to be a Sunday to Saturday schedule – do what’s best for you.
You should try to delegate 2-5 hours on prepping your food. This may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that you need to get to the store or market, get back home, wash, cut, cook, and store your meals. The time is also dependent on what meals you plan on cooking. Creating a yogurt parfait for breakfast only involves washing fruit and putting your mixture in containers, whereas cooking tofu stir fry has a lot more steps.
When you are first starting out, it is important to start slow. Maybe start with breakfast and then gradually add in other meals. Do whatever is best for you, your schedule, and your budget.
Step 4: Wash, Cut, and Cook
You’re back from the store, and you’re ready to begin. Start by washing all of your produce, and then start cooking your grains. While your grains are cooking, consider whether or not you want to cook all of your protein that day or save it for later in the week. One point of meal prepping is to have it all done in one day; however, we also want to avoid foodborne illness and make sure that your meals are eaten within their necessary timeframe.
After you’ve made your decision about what to do with your protein, you can start cooking it (if cooking is necessary) and placing it in a separate container.
Something that I have found to help my ingredients stay fresh is to place them all in separate containers, if you have the necessary storage space for it. I have found that it keeps all the flavors distinct, and nothing gets soggy or dry. This adds on an extra minute or two by taking out all of the containers when you are trying to cook them, but it’s worth it.
Get creative with your storage. Plastic containers are not the only methods for storing. You can also use jars, plastic bags, bowls, plastic wrap, or whatever you have available to you.
Step 5: Take Notes
Now that you’ve gotten over the hardest part, keep track of your tastebuds over the next week. What pairings did you like? What did you dislike? What was missing in your dish? What do you wish you could take out? Use this week as a learning experience to continue to build on your recipe creation and cooking skills in the future.
I hope that this step by step list helps you to succeed in your meal prepping journey! Remember to listen to your tastebuds, plan ahead, and enjoy your meals.