Whenever I talk about meal planning, I always get questions on meal prep. How can I save time preparing weeknight meals? What foods can be prepped ahead of time?
Here are my top ten meal prep tips and hacks to help you save time on busy weeknights but still get a fresh and nutritious meal on the table for your family.
Meal Prep Hacks and Tips
Choose vegetables that can be used several ways
Buy foods you can eat raw OR cooked so you can still get your veggies in in different ways. Washing and chopping your vegetables when you get home from the supermarket makes that much easier to do. Let’s say you get carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, beets, red onions, and lettuce. If you’re short on time, you can snack on raw carrots with hummus or ranch dressing. Once the veggies are chopped, it’s so easy to throw a salad together or steam some carrots for a side dish. At the end of the week take your uneaten veggies and whisk with eggs and milk to create a simple egg frittata or crustless egg bake.
Cook once a week
While you may only have time to prep veggies after food shopping, there are other things you can prep ahead of time. Pick one day a week and do the bulk of your cooking. It might sound overwhelming, but by doing everything at once means you only have to preheat the oven once, chop your meats and veggies once and clean your kitchen once. For instance, chopping all the ingredients for one meal takes about 10 minutes. However, chopping all your ingredients for 15 meals at once takes about 30-45 minutes. That’s a huge time saver! It may be tempting to cook two, three or four weeks in advance, but resist that temptation. Most cooked meals tend to stay fresh in your fridge for only about a week.
Make freezer meals
Freezer meals have become popular over the past few years. Even when you meal prep, life gets busy and occasionally, you’ll need an even quicker meal (other than take out!). When you have a few meals frozen and ready to go, you’ll just need to heat and eat. Your family is still eating homemade food and you’ll save money not going out for dinner. Most freezer meals (that are already cooked) can last in the freezer from two to six months. Soups also store really well in the freezer, and you can split them into single servings to store for up to three months. After cooking your freezer meals, grab a permanent marker and write eat-by dates on them (with a marker and permanent marker). For great freezer meal ideas, check out Dinner at the Zoo.
Use the slow cooker/crockpot
My crockpot is a life (and time saver!). If you don’t have one, it’s time to get one. Small (2.5 quart crockpots) are great, but if you have a family, invest in a larger one so that you can cook several meals at once. For example, cook a huge pot of chili in the crock pot and freeze portions to eat later. I normally prep my crockpot meals the night before and place the crock in the fridge, so in the morning, all I have to do is plug in the slow cooker. You can even let it cook over night and portion your meals the next day. (image links to Amazon listing).
Don’t ignore frozen produce
Frozen vegetables and fruits are more than just convenient, they’re actually surprisingly nutritious. According to a 2013 research study from the University of Chester in England, most frozen produce is higher in antioxidants and other nutrients than is fresh produce. For instance, in the study, frozen carrots were found to have about three times the lutein and twice the beta-carotene, as well as greater levels of vitamin C and polyphenols, compared with their fresh counterparts. Why? They are picked at their peak of freshness and flash frozen so they don’t lose nutrition during transport from farm to store. Stock up on frozen produce when it is on sale and you’ll save tons of time without sacrificing taste or nutrition.
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Cook eggs ahead of time
Eggs are a versatile, protein-packed essential for meals and nutritious must-have for your kitchen.
Hard-boiled eggs are easy and inexpensive, as are fresh eggs poached over toast. You can make omelettes and frittatas with added vegetables (which you’ve already prepped!) Egg aren’t just for breakfast, either. We make quiches or have “breakfast for dinner” in our house a few times per month.
If you need to make a bunch in advance, using your oven instead of the stove-top can be a great kitchen hack. Make a dozen at once by baking your eggs in muffin tins for just 30 minutes. You’ll get a perfectly hard-boiled batch and can refrigerate for the week and eat as you need to! That way, you’ll always have healthy snacks and meal proteins handy.
Use a food processor
Unless you are Masterchef worthy (and I’m certainly not), chopping veggies consistently and quickly is quite a task. That’s why food processors are so handy!
You can chop vegetables almost instantly, and consistently, for sautées, salads, and side dishes. Use it to make sauces, cut veggies, nuts, and even fruit. This one is my personal favorite for a small, easy to use model. (image links to Amazon listing).
Many of us repurpose leftovers by just repeating the same meal with what is, well, leftover, but it doesn’t have to be boring.
You can repurpose main course items (such as proteins) into something new. For example, plain chili one night can be turned into tacos the next, or it can top spaghetti, rice or another grain, like quinoa. You can also make a pesto, spicy tomato sauce, dressings, or other sauces during your meal prep time to add a new flavor to leftovers to give your family something new.
Prepare proteins once a week
When doing meal prep, preparing chicken for the week is a staple in our household. I go back and forth between the grill and the crockpot. It’s like a whole new protein! I serve it with a few sides, or I will use it for things like tacos, stuffed potatoes, casseroles, omelets, soups, salads, pasta, and sandwiches. And it’s so easy to prepare! You can do the same with ground beef. Just cook it up and portion it for several meals.
Multitask your cooking and prepping
I’m a master multi-tasker at work and in the kitchen and this includes cooking and meal prep. Use your time wisely!
And some bonus meal prep tips:
Once your veggies are prepped, store them in stackable containers (they take up less room than ziplock bags) You can still see through them and can label them so you can easily see what you have on hand. For a printable on food storage and how long things last, check out this food storage post.
Make One Sheet Dinners
Add sheet pan dinners to your meal rotation. Cooking an entire meal on a cookie sheet is a genius way to cut down on your dirty dishes and active cooking time — and there are so many delicious meals you can make this way.
Try make-ahead breakfasts
Rely on make-ahead breakfasts to save time in the morning. There are tons of options, from overnight oats to hash brown and egg cups.
Use Smartphone apps to help you even more
Use these handy grocery and meal planning apps to make this “chore” even easier!
What meal prep hacks would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your ideas!
Because of Him,