Food prep is one of the best tools to reduce meal-time overwhelm. However, the idea of food prep can be overwhelming in and of itself if you aren’t sure where to start!
Let’s face it — we are all busy these days. Even as a nutritionist, foodie, primal living enthusiast, and home chef, I don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen!
I’m excited to guide you through what food prep looks like, how to get started, the ways it can benefit your kids, and my top picks for make-ahead meals.
5 Benefits of Food Prep
If you are reading this article, you probably already believe there are benefits to meal prepping, but reminders always motivate me to maintain my weekly routine. Let’s review.
1. Saves time
Whether you focus on meal components or the whole kit-and-kaboodle, food prep puts multiple kitchen tools to work simultaneously to put meals on the table more efficiently.
2. Leads to healthier eating
Food prep inevitably requires a plan, and a plan usually means healthier intentions and fewer stops at your local fast food joint.
3. Brings more variety to your meals
With a plan and fresh ingredients prepped you can consciously add variety; especially week to week.
4. Results in less stress
We have enough stress in our lives. Let’s take away the exhaustion around serving well-balanced meals by preparing some foods during less hectic moments.
5. Saves money
Food prep goes hand in hand with intentional purchases (avoiding impulse buys), and results in visible, ready to use food — leaving less to spoil in the dark corners of the refrigerator.
What does food prep look like?
The process of planning and preparing meals in advance can look different from one household to the next. The goal is to find the method that works best for you!
Successful food prep doesn’t have to look like a week’s worth of meals cooked, labeled, and neatly stacked in the fridge. In fact, this method can discourage people altogether.
The purpose is simply to reduce the time spent starting from square-one day after day. Here are four different strategies.
Start small: Meal prep ideas to save time
Whether you want to take baby steps to ease your way into healthy meal prep, or keep your prep steps small and manageable, focusing on meal pieces is an effective strategy.
Here are a few tiny tasks that can make a big dent:
- Wash and chop vegetables: Heartier vegetables like carrots, peppers, and celery can be washed and sliced for easy snacks, lunches, and further chopping. Diced onions and garlic are always handy to have ready for a multitude of main dishes.
- Hard boil eggs: A dozen boiled eggs makes for an easy breakfast protein, snack on the go, or cobb salad addition for dinner.
- Bake potatoes: Pre-baked sweet potatoes are an excellent post-practice refueling food to eat before a soccer game. They also make for an easy mash side dish, or add nutritious starch to a breakfast hash.
- Mix a batch of homemade trail mix: Separated into single-serving containers, trail mix is a satiating snack for sports bags, or a healthy fat source on a bowl of oats.
Batch cooking: Meal prepping in bigger parts
Batch cooking is simply preparing or cooking bigger portions of food. I like to think of it as constructing the different parts of meals to compile for variety throughout the week.
This technique could look like a pan of sweet potatoes baking in the oven, a pot of rice cooking on the stove, flap meat on the grill for thin slicing, chicken in the Instant Pot for shredding, a sauce or soup in the crockpot, and chopped veggies for quick salads or sides.
These starches, meats, and veggies can be mixed and matched for easy, balanced, real food meals over the course of a week.
Double dosing: Using leftovers
Cooking more than you need and setting aside leftovers for another meal is another efficient style of meal prepping.
If you are already making a dish, try dicing, sauteing, or roasting extra ingredients. It takes a fraction of the time and results in future healthy food at the snap of your fingers.
Our family relies heavily on repurposed leftovers for lunch. Taking last night’s grass-fed burgers and slicing them over a fresh salad is easy and delicious.
If using leftovers right away is not your jam, dishes like chilis, casseroles, and soups are perfect for portioning out and freezing for weeks to come.
Pre-cooked recipes and freezer meals
I refer to this method of meal prepping as the whole shebang! Some people rock this style of cooking multiple full meals in advance. This process involves packaging, labeling, dating, and stacking prepped food in the fridge or freezer to be reheated later.
If you thrive on having your whole week laid out in front of you and enjoy turning up the tunes in the kitchen and dancing your way through a day of cooking, then this strategy can leave you with the healthiest version of TV dinner freezer meals out there.
Where to begin with healthy meal prep
Success in any area of life begins with preparation and a plan of action. A little thought around where you ultimately want to end up and how you are going to get there can make all the difference. The same applies to food prep!
You need to have a plan, designate time, and take action.
1. Have a meal plan
For any meal prep strategy to be successful, you have to HAVE A PLAN, specifically a meal plan! It can be as detailed or rough as you like, but it’s key to getting you moving in the right direction.
What does your week look like?
Mapping out the week ahead will highlight your busiest days, the evenings where you have a little more time, and the mornings that will require a grab-n-go breakfast. This will help you place your meal ideas and recipes accordingly.
Let’s take a look at this sample menu in the picture above of one of my family’s recent weeks. Monday nights are filled with music lessons and baseball practice. When I’m on carpool duty, and my husband is coaching late, then having dinner premade is a recipe for smooth sailing. Chicken Tacos it is!
On Tuesday I know I have more time, so I may have the filling for the Baked Stuffed Pumpkins premade, but I can roast the pumpkins and tie the meal together while helping the kids with any homework questions.
Which ingredients would be helpful to prep ahead?
With a menu planned, your meal prep needs become more obvious. I love to start with a simple list.
Using our family’s sample menu again, I may want to:
- Chop veggies for Monday’s taco toppings, Thursday’s roasted veggie side, and salad fixings and snacks throughout the week.
- Cook a double batch of chicken for the tacos and to pair with Carrot Ginger Soup
- Hard boil eggs and make hummus dip
- Premake the filling for Savory Minced Stuffed Pumpkins on Tuesday.
These tasks alone certainly simplify the week.
2. Designate time for cooking ahead
A common perception is that food prep done right takes place on one day of the week — a massive cookup. Sure, this can work, however, for the benefits of food prep to shine, it has to work for YOUR schedule.
The weekend cookup
If your weekdays are maxed out with full-time jobs, school, homework, sports, and extracurriculars for the kids, the weekend cookup may be your solution for low-stress, healthy meals at home.
I have seen this strategy most successfully executed when the whole family is involved. It’s a great opportunity to engage your kids in the entire process from meal planning to cooking. It’s amazing how much you can get done when you delegate age-appropriate tasks to each person.
This time together can be just as beneficial for your overall wellness as the healthy food you will be enjoying throughout the week.
Mornings, mid-day, or evenings
If one designated day of cooking sounds daunting, try seeking small chunks within the week. Remember that food prep can be just as effective when any little tasks are completed ahead of time to make meal-time-cooking easier.
Personally, I love it when our family takes a few hours on the weekend to map out our upcoming menu, hit the store, and batch-cook a few staples.
On days when I need it, I then use the hour before my kids get off the bus (putting work aside and shifting my mind to “mom-duty”) to assemble any pieces that still need to be done so that pulling dinner together during the “witching hour” is easy-peasy.
3. Take action on your meal plan
Once you have a plan and some designated time for food prep, it’s time to take action.
The picture above shows the result of one of my recent food prep sessions. My strategy included:
- Preheating the oven, boiling a pot of water, and starting the Instant Pot for potatoes, eggs, and chicken respectively.
- Washing, slicing, chopping, and dicing veggies was next – some went straight into the fridge, others in the oven, and lastly to soup pots and saute pans on the stove.
- I put the food processor to work for a double batch of Cookie Dough Bites (half to freeze) and walnut red pepper hummus – mixing a third of it with tuna and saving the rest as a dip.
- I finished up by mixing a large mason jar with raw nuts, seeds, coconut flakes, dried goji berries, raisins, and a few chocolate chips to have homemade trail mix on hand.
Most of this was done in a two hour chunk on Sunday, but the Banana Almond Pancakes were made Monday morning to enjoy fresh with extras set aside for later in the week. I use the right column of my menu planner to make notes on what I can do throughout the coming days to stay ahead.
Food safety reminders
In your excitement over new time-saving strategies, avoid going overboard and cooking too much food. Remember that prepared food only lasts so long.
In our home, we follow the three to four day rule for most cooked items, and I label containers with masking tape to remind us when the time is up. Labelling also helps prioritize what needs to be eaten first.
Keep in mind that pre-assembled meals with raw meat should be kept in the fridge only for one to two days before cooking!
Freezing food in an air-tight container is a great way to salvage a cookup that left you with more than your family can handle. To read more on the best practices of food storage, check out this article on safe ways to store food at home.
How food prep helps kids make healthy choices
Food prep decreases your time in the kitchen, AND it can lead your children towards healthier food choices.
Keeping food organized
Did you know that we eat first with our eyes?
Food prep typically results in a clean and organized fridge and pantry where fresh and healthy food looks visually appealing. When veggies, fruits, and the ingredients for real food meals are lost in a bag, rotting in the back of a crisper drawer, or are hard to assemble, it won’t happen.
But when healthy foods are at eye level and easy to put together, kids WILL reach for them.
Feeling more autonomy
When you allow and encourage your children to help you decide what snacks and meals will be available throughout the week and participate in the prep, they feel part of the process and become interested in healthy choices. There are plenty of healthy dinner ideas for kids, and healthy lunches for teens, that don’t sacrifice flavor for nutrition.
Stay ahead of junk food munchies
Whether it’s having cut up fruits and veggies ready to eat, or their favorite recipes in bite-sized portions, kids will choose healthy foods if they are easy to grab.
Put together a quick cutting board or serving tray of things like fresh sliced meats, veggies, olives, and real cheese, with mashed avocado or hummus-like dip that you and your kids can snack on after school.
If you have these foods already prepped, these trays will pull together in no time. Watch your kids munch away on nourishing choices rather than a bag of chips.
My top picks for make-ahead meals
Need meal prep ideas? Here are a few breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack recipes that fit right into a make ahead routine. Imagine the relief of opening the fridge and having these meals at your fingertips.
Breakfast meal prep
Lunch meal prep
Mango Avocado Salsa (to serve with Jackson’s Honest, or Siete Foods tortilla chips)
Hearing the benefits of meal prep isn’t always enough to tackle this task alone. In this article we look at different types of food prep, where to begin, and the influence on raising healthy kids.
Now it’s your turn to consider how food prep will best suit your family needs. Consider your weekly routine to plan, designate time, and take action to get ahead of putting healthy food on the table.
I shared some of my favorite make-ahead meals with you and there are even more recipes in the 4 Weeks of Real Food program that are perfect for meal prep strategies.
Grab your weekly menu planner and begin mapping out the week ahead and the steps you will take to bring those dishes to life with less stress, more variety, and saving time in the long run.