Out of all of the meal planning process, this step is the one that I never knew I needed to be doing until I became a mother. Steps one, two, three, and four are each important with kids too (especially those who are picky eaters), but none other determines my attitude towards dinner each week quite as much as this one.
It's meal prep.
Meal prep is the final and most effective meal planning step to saving your sanity with meals each week. In anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, you can set both yourself and your family up for a week with less meal time stress and more feeding success. This post will help you see how.
I have only been a mom for just over three years now. Before that, I didn't know this whole "meal prep" thing even existed.
If I wanted to make an elaborate dinner for just my husband and me on any given night, I would. It may take more time to prepare, require an unexpected trip to the store, and push dinner later than planned, but ultimately I could prep whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I think we can all remember back to those days of leisurely making dinner, likely enjoying a glass of wine while we did so, and maybe even engaging in adult conversation or catching up on world events while listening to the news.
Then I had kids.
Now, there are no elaborate dinners, definitely no extra grocery runs, and a non-existent margin to when meals need to be served before I have a couple of hangry kids. I feel like I am waiting on a ticking time bomb as soon as it hits 5:00 each night, wondering which kid is going to lose it first and who's meltdown until meal time will last the longest. This whole window that I thought would exist for "making dinner" each day is not a time slot on my calendar that comforts my kids, dinner indeed is coming.
Instead, when evening hits and dinner time approaches, I am reminded that I am already too late at taking care of what I should have prepared ahead.
That's where meal prep comes in. It is simply the process of preparing in advance the items you would already be making later. The difference with doing these steps the day/night of however, is that you often are forced to prepare such items in the midst of the daily hustle. With kids needing their hair combed on the way out the door, or babes that are glued onto your leg when you need to rush ahead and get dinner out, meal prep eliminates the need for you to be in two places in these times.
Instead, with a little time and a blueprint for what to meal prep, this simple and yet final step to meal planning can save your sanity again and again.
I like to look at meal prep in three ways.
This post will address each of these and how they play a role in making for less meal time stress and more feeding success.
1. What can I prep ahead?
If you have gone through the first step of meal planning, you should have gotten my free download for a "Love it, Like it, Learning it" meal planner template (available for free, here). This is a great starting guide for families who want to focus exclusively on dinner meal planning and the prep required to make Love it, Like it, Learning it style meals each night. For families who feel already confident using this approach or who are ready to look to the weekly menu at large, here is another free meal planning template that includes space for meal planning breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks during the week. This is the meal planning template I personally use to not only plan our meals, but determine which items to prep ahead.
Both the Love it, Like it, Learning it and the Week at Large templates will provide you with an overview of the items you intend on serving each week. With this, you are able to evaluate what to prep ahead by answering a few simple questions:
- What meal(s) are the most time-consuming to prep?
- What days or nights do I most need meals ready ahead of time?
- What items would be the most helpful to have ready and on hand?
- What foods will stay fresh until they're eaten?
- What could I get ready all at once, so I don't have to do _________ repeatedly during the week?
By answering these questions, you are able to start looking through your weekly menu in terms of meal prep. What you come up with is not intended to be an all encompassing list (unless you intend to spend a significant chunk of time in the kitchen to execute your meal prep). Rather, these questions are intended to give you a starting place for what items you could wash, cut, mix, make, bake, or cook in advance, Depending on the amount of time you allocate to meal prep on a given week, you can work your way through the items you need to have prepped to those that are nice to have done ahead.
For examples of what I like to prep ahead, check out my Instagram posts every Sunday where I share a picture of my #veggiesandvirtuemealprepchallenge. Feel free to comment or ask questions on each post to gather more ideas and information on how this could work for you.
2. What can I make multiples of?
Another thing that hit me somewhere in between the transition from one to two kids was batch-cooking. This whole idea of why would I only make one meals worth of a recipe we love when I could just as easily double, triple, or even quadruple it? Much to my surprise, batch-cooking and making freezer meals is by far the system that saves me the most sanity with pulling off natural, nutritious meals night after night.
To make multiple batches of any staple recipe on your family's meal planning rotation, adopt this new, more-efficient mindset:
- Instead of cooking the same dish on several separate occasions, adjust the ingredients so you cook one large batch then store leftovers for future weeks.
- Consider making enough of items you know your family will eat within 1-3 months. For grains, consider making large batches of brown rice or quinoa, cooling, then storing in freezer-safe containers to cut out a step in your meal prep in the future. For marinaded meats, drop raw meat and other required ingredients into a freezer-safe container to label and freeze flat. For breakfast items you know your kids ask for and would enjoy on even your busiest mornings (like pancakes, waffles, muffins, and french toast), prepare extras then freeze flat with parchment paper in between layers. Soups and crockpot items are also infamous for being "dump recipes" you can easily make multiples of using an assembly line approach.
- Store extras in portions that are appropriate for each use. Find what the right portion is for your family size for items like whole grains, spaghetti sauce, and taco meat. These are easy staples to keep on hand, which are made even easier when prepped ahead and in individual meal serving size containers. Additionally, this helps lessen freezer burn and food spoilage. Instead of having to reopen a freezer-safe container several times, you have exactly the amount you need to thaw already portioned out and ready to go.
Limited for freezer space? Consider batch-cooking your marinades only. You can easily store these in small mason jars or freezer-safe ziplocks, then add the meats fresh each week. This will reduce the footprint batch-cooking has on your freezer. Also, consider doubling your recipe (versus tripling or quadrupling). Although most meals stay food safe and fresh tasting for easily three months’ time, you don’t have to quadruple recipes to feed for the whole season. You could instead double the batch - eating one and storing the second, especially if unsure about a new recipe.
3. What can I buy as a short-cut?
Do you remember those elaborate meals I mentioned above as a normal part of a new marriage? Yeah, so since those are not a normal part of motherhood, let's also be real about how much we can legitimately meal prep each week. Spaghetti night may be an all-American, family favorite, but I don't know many fellow moms who are making their own fresh noodles, hand-squishing their own homegrown tomatoes for a sauce, then baking an awesome focaccia bread to go with it on the side.
That sounds amazingly delicious and yet completely unrealistic. Am I right?
That's why this step is key. Even to the home-cook, scratch-made lover that I am, I know I need to come back down to planet earth a bit more often to evaluate what items in our meals I can go without having to prep much at all. Some of my personal faves are items like:
- Whole grain sandwich bread
- Boxed, whole grain pastas
- Pasta sauces
- Pre-cut veggies
- Frozen veggies
- Canned beans
- Pre-washed baby greens
- Some condiments and sauces (i.e. salad dressings, mayo, BBQ sauce, Thai sauce, etc.)
With smart shopping habits (like those discussed in step four!), you can find pre-prepared products that compare in cost and quality to those you would make from scratch. Having these staples on hand is how I am able to round out our weekly menu with confidence in the choices I am offering and yet sanity over what it takes to execute everything.
Take the #vvmealprepchallenge
It sounds freaky, I know. I know because I used to not do this whole "meal prep" thing either. But if you are a mom that feels there is just too much anxiety around that arsenic hour before a meal time, it is time to start taking this step to meal prep.
After working your way through the steps to meal planning as outlined in this series, meal prep is a seamless final step to set your family up for less meal time stress and more feeding success. You have to do it though.
Just like each of the other steps to meal planning, meal prep doesn't just do itself. You need to make an intentional choice to value your sanity without sacrificing what you put on the table. To achieve this, address these three questions:
- What can I prep ahead?
- What can I make multiples of?
- What can I buy as a short-cut?
Once you have gone through and identified which items make the most sense to include in your week's meal prep, DO THEM! Start small and pick one thing you could prep ahead. As you see the transformative power of such small yet significant meal prep, start adding on another thing each week. Soon, you will come to enjoy this hour (give or take) that you commit to getting your family ready for the week because you see how much it lessens your pre-meal time stress.
As you take this step to meal prep, share it! You should be proud of yourself for the ways you are taking care of your family's meal planning responsibilities. I would love to cheer you on in the process too, as well as answer any questions you may have as you start implementing this final meal prep step. Just tag me and include #vvmealprepchallenge, so I can see all your hard work! I promise, this meal prep step will never be time wasted.