Meal prep doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can save you a lot of time and energy when you do it correctly.
Even if you’re not the most organized person in the world, making a few simple changes to your meal prep process can help you to be less stressed during the week when things are hectic and cooking dinner is the last thing on your mind. Also, prepping helps you to make healthier meals and reduces your risk of hitting the drive-thru or resorting to cold cereal for dinner — again.
Here are 15 tips for saving time — and money — by harnessing the power of meal prep.
1. Cook the week’s meals in 1 day
One common mistake busy adults make is waiting until the last minute to start prepping dinner. That leads to poor food choices. (Boxed mac and cheese, anyone?) You might have the best intentions, but after a full day’s work and a long commute home, it’s simply not practical to start mincing garlic for a complicated recipe, even if it did sound like a great idea at 9 a.m.
Instead, set aside a couple hours on the weekend, and make all the meals for the week at once. Or at least accomplish as much of the prepping as you can during that time. Most prepped foods will last for up to one week in the fridge. And as a bonus, you’ll never have to get home from work and wonder what the heck to make for dinner because it will already be made.
Pro tip: Did you know you can pre-cook pasta? Cook it al dente, drain, and then let it dry for at least 15 minutes. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil to keep it moist, and store it in an airtight resealable plastic bag. When you’re ready to enjoy, just reheat and serve with your favorite sauce.
2. Don’t complicate your meals
When the recipe calls for hard-to-find or difficult-to-prepare ingredients, you’ll be more intimidated about making it. Stick to variations of tried-and-true recipes that don’t have too many ingredients and can be made in a short amount of time. The more you cook from scratch, the more comfortable you’ll become with it. And then you can start experimenting a little bit.
Roasted potatoes or vegetables with olive oil and basic spices (salt, pepper, oregano, rosemary, and garlic) is a great starter dish that’s almost impossible to mess up. Simply set your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and roast until golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. This side makes a delicious accompaniment to just about any main course.
3. Splurge on pre-cut produce
Many grocery stores sell pre-cut fruit and vegetables. This is obviously a more expensive option, but if you’re short on time and you want to make a healthy home-cooked meal, it can be a great solution. And it’s still cheaper (and less calorie- and sodium-packed) than going out to eat.
If you’re going to go this route, look for difficult-to-prepare fruits and vegetables, such as butternut squash and mango. The newest trend is spiralized or riced versions of popular vegetables, such as sweet potato spirals or even broccoli rice.
4. Cook all your chicken at once
Making a big batch of chicken but need to keep life interesting? Divide your pan into two or three sections using aluminum foil, and season each one individually. You’ll wind up with three distinct main courses, but you’ll only need to set aside time for cooking once. Store the pre-cooked chicken in the the fridge for up to one week, and reheat it on those nights when you have no time.
Pro tip: Be sure to cut the chicken into uniform pieces for each section, so it all finishes cooking at the same time.
5. Invest in clear containers
Portioning out snacks or sides before you need them doesn’t just save time. It also helps you eat less because you won’t be mindlessly shoveling mouthfuls out of the main dish. Shop around for high quality, BPA-free plastic or glass storage containers in multiple sizes, and use them to portion your food. Always opt for clear containers, so you can see at a glance what’s inside without wasting time opening lids.
6. Freeze for later
Some weeks might be crazier than others. And in those instances, it’s a great idea to have some freezer meals prepped and ready to go. About once a month, it’s a good idea to devote a few hours to preparing a bunch of freezer-friendly feasts, such as pasta dishes and other casseroles. Then, when you’re strapped for time and have nothing prepped, you’ll always have a backup plan.
Pro tip: Store your freezer meals in aluminum pans with lids, and write the contents and cooking instructions directly onto the lid to stay super organized. Freezer meals are fantastic to have on hand for life events, such as new babies, unexpected illnesses, and those nights when the “chef” of the family is traveling or stuck late at the office.
7. Get acquainted with your slow cooker
Throw a bunch of raw ingredients into a pot, and come home to a delicious-smelling house and fully cooked meal? Yes, please. Slow-cooker meals have come a long way and are so much more than just stews. All you need to do for ideas is visit Pinterest or other recipe blogs to find some great inspiration. Slow-cooker meals can be made as large or small as you want. So cook up a double batch, and enjoy the leftovers for lunch throughout the week.
8. Pre-bag smoothie ingredients
You might not realize how many precious minutes you’re wasting making multiple trips between the fridge, pantry, and blender. If you enjoy a daily smoothie, add pre-chopped fruit, along with yogurt and all your other ingredients, into a resealable plastic bag. Then, store it in the freezer. That way, all you need to do in the morning is dump it into your blender.
Pro tip: You can freeze milk, too. Try portioning out milk or yogurt into ice cube trays, freezing, and then adding it in with your smoothie bag for an easy morning.
9. Go for frozen veggies
At any given moment, you should have your freezer stocked with several different kinds of frozen vegetables that can be microwaved and served with dinner.
Frozen veggies aren’t mushy like canned vegetables can be. And because they’re typically frozen at the height of freshness, they maintain all the valuable vitamins and nutrients that make them so essential to a healthy diet. Manufacturers make life easier for you and even sell microwavable-bag options. Or you can invest in a microwave steam cooker if you prefer.
To prepare them in a hurry, simply microwave for a few minutes, and add a tablespoon of butter, plus salt and pepper to taste. That’s it.
10. Have a few favorite meals to serve on repeat
Taco Tuesday, anyone?
Try to make a meal schedule, and stick to it week to week. You don’t need to make it absolutely the same each time. For example, if you decide Wednesday is pasta night, you can prepare a different type of pasta each time. But at least you have a basis for your preparations, and you don’t have to spend too much time thinking about it. Be sure to add in a leftovers night, as well, so nothing goes to waste.
When it comes to breakfast and lunch, sticking to the same (healthy) meal every day can actually help you lose weight. And it saves a lot of time when you’re heading out the door.
11. Prep everything right when you get home from the store
No matter when you plan to eat, lettuce needs to be washed and the sweet potatoes need to be peeled and cubed. When you tackle the most time-consuming tasks right away, it will make you more likely to actually cook the food later rather than letting your lovely vegetables get moldy. Turn on your favorite Pandora station or podcast, get out all the necessary utensils, and have yourself a prepping party. It might seem daunting at first, but you’ll feel 100% more accomplished when you’re done.
12. Organize your fridge
Knowing what you have is the first step to planning what you’re going to make for a meal. Schedule regular fridge purges (including condiments), and get rid of that moldy cheese and questionable takeout container from weeks ago. Label everything with the date you made it — or the date you plan to eat it — so you always know exactly what you have in your arsenal. Being prepared with healthy options also helps to keep you from reaching for that box of cookies.
13. Make big batches of homemade sauce
Here’s a great idea for all those tomatoes from your summer garden: Make a huge batch of tomato sauce, portion it out into glass jars, and freeze it for future use. You’ll save money by making it yourself, and you’ll save time running to the grocery store because you’ll always have delicious, homemade sauce on hand.
An even better idea? Limit carbs, and try your homemade tomato sauce with some spiralized zucchini or spaghetti squash.
14. Make a big batch of bacon in the oven
Breakfast for dinner is a classic, quick, and easy weeknight meal. But standing in front of the stove frying up several batches of bacon can take some time. Instead, try making your bacon in the oven. It’s less greasy that way. Plus, you can fit more slices onto several baking sheets than you can in a standard-sized pan.
To master this hack, line a couple baking sheets with aluminum foil and a wire baking rack. Lay out your bacon on the racks, and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 minutes.
15. Freeze single-sized portions for quick lunches
Get out of the sandwich rut, and try meal-prepping your lunches, too. You can keep them frozen until you’re in a pinch. Then, grab one to take to work and reheat. Just remember to date and label everything.
A few ideas that work well are stuffed peppers, soup in individual portions, burritos, and mini egg frittatas.