Balance easy foods and recipes:Though I love making up my own recipes and trying new ones, I quickly learned that if everything I was prepping required a recipe it would take a huge amount of time! In order to not make meal prepping a day-long ordeal, simple dishes like roasted starches, vegetables, and meats should be balanced with more time-consuming dishes. Balancing simpler dishes with more elaborate ones can give you enough variety to prevent meal monotony.
Therefore, I might make some easy veggie sides like roasted broccoli and brussels sprouts and some simple starches like roasted sweet potatoes or regular potatoes, but I might get a little more involved with the protein by making taco meat or bacon-wrapped chicken. The starches, veggies, and meats can be mixed and matched to add interest to your meals.
Calculate it out:
Whether you follow a strict meal plan or not, you will either know or be able to approximate how many servings of each food you will need. For example, I typically prep lunches and dinners, so I know I will need 10 servings of protein, starches, and veggies for each meal to get through the week. Multiply the number of servings by the number of ounces per serving and you have a ballpark of the volume you need to buy. Keep in mind raw food loses water as it cooks, so add an ounce or two of raw food per serving to make sure you end up with enough. Here are some raw to cooked weight conversions for meat and vegetables.
Also consider the amount of condiments and snacks you will need and calculate the volume. I like to have a piece of fruit or a small salad with lunch, so I make sure to prepare enough vinaigrette, have enough lettuce (about a cup for each salad) plus a few other chopped veggies, and enough pieces of fruit. I also like fruit and nuts or nut butter for a snack, so I make sure I count those too.
Order of operations:
Besides making the shopping list and filling out a meticulous spreadsheet of what and when you are going to eat for each meal, it’s important to have a game plan of how you are going to cook the food. For example, if you have too many things to make on the stove top, you may create a traffic jam, prolonging the meal prep.
Before you even go to the store, pick out your simple and more complicated dishes. Then, read the recipes! This is a tip Julia Child mentioned often. It’s not enough to buy the ingredients. Reading the recipes all the way through gives you an idea of when you will need to use each ingredient and if it would be better to start a dish early in your meal prep or later. You will also learn the volume of food it will make in order to determine the amount of servings to budget for. Then you can properly allot enough time in your order of operations.
I start with the things that take longest to cook yet require little monitoring such a roasted squash, sweet potatoes, and regular potatoes. I cook them at 400 degrees F on foil-lined baking trays for easier clean up and just get them out of the way while I work on things that require more monitoring, cook quickly, and/or require the stove top. It can be very gratifying in the first 15 minutes of your meal prep to already have sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, and brussels sprouts on their way to being done! Another thing to note, I typically get most of the veggies out of the way before starting on meats because it limits the amount of time I have to go back and forth washing my hands between meat and vegetables.
Mise en place:
Mise en place is a French culinary term meaning “everything in place.” Taking time to set up everything before you start cooking will help you get through it faster! It can be so frustrating to require an ingredient a few times only to keep putting it away every time. It can also be annoying if your hands are all gunky from mixing meat only to realize you need to get something out of your fridge (if you made your order of operations, then this likely won’t happen). Having everything out and ready saves time because you won’t be searching for things and stopping to wash your hands a gazillion times.
My mise en place includes:
Having a cutting board and knife out for meat and as well as for produce. You don’t want to have to keep washing the same cutting board and knife or your hands over and over again. This also reduces risk of cross contamination.
If you need an ingredient twice (or more), chop it once. You might be making several recipes with chopped garlic, for example. Chop it all and save it on the corner of your cutting board for each recipe.
Get all your spices out and have them ready. Pilfering through your spice rack every few minutes uses valuable time.
Get all the dishes and baking trays out and ready to go.
Make room in the fridge and freezer.
Allow the store to lend you a helping hand:
Though it can be more expensive to buy pre-chopped food, if you rationalize the time it takes to chop the ingredients yourself it may be worth it. This is especially the case for hard to chop veggies like butternut squash, which takes a bit more effort than something like broccoli. Since my food processor went kaputz, I also buy pre-made cauliflower rice.
Pre-marinated meat may be worth looking at, but be sure to check the ingredients to make sure there’s no ingredient that doesn’t align with your diet (especially important if you have allergies).
Seasoning mixes are a great way to add a lot of flavor without getting a bunch of spices out. Just be sure there’s no bad additives. You can even make your own! Here are a couple recipes:
Have enough cooking ware:
Related to mise en place, having enough pots, pans, skillets, measuring cups and spoons, aluminum foil, baking trays, cutting boards, knives, prep and storage bowls, are a must. Take inventory before you go shopping.
Small appliances like an immersion blender, regular blender, or food processors may be something you want to consider, but aren’t necessary for a successful food prep. Just be sure to read your recipe to make sure these aren’t required.
Serving it up:
Some people may want to divide the food into different storage containers so all you have to do is grab a container and go. Others may want to choose their foods each day based on their mood. Try both and see which is more convenient for you. Personally, I like the grab-and-go method. On a busy morning I don’t want to dole out the food for my lunch. I just want to take a homemade “tv dinner” as I call them. Whether your portion food or not, along with my previous tip, have enough containers.
Those are my top tips for meal prepping. The first few times you give it a try, it may be difficult but stick with it and you will be a meal prep champ in no time! Do you meal prep? Please comment below if you have any other tips to streamline the meal prepping process!