You’re hungry. And tired. Dinner takes 45 minutes to make. Sigh…you reach for the chips. Feeling guilty, you instead grab a granola-nut mix for better nutrition but higher calorie. Bummer for your weight…and your budget.
“What’s for dinner tonight?” If thinking about what to fix makes you annoyed or even a little crabby, try a “meal prep” day to save the frustration of cooking every night. The side benefits? You’ll save time and money, make leftovers more appetizing, and eat better. Win-win-win!
How to Prep Meals Better for You & Your Budget
With a little advanced planning, you can speed through a week’s worth of meal prep and reduce stress too. Actually, I consider two types of meals to be “meal prep” strategies: A) assembled, pre-cooked meals and B) freezer meals made with raw ingredients. Let me explain:
A) Assembled, pre-cooked meals – Using a group of recipes with complementary ingredients, I’ll batch cook, assemble meals into containers, and store in the frig or freezer to be used the next few days. Think something like chicken with pasta, a rice-chicken combo, and salad topped with shredded chicken.
B) For freezer meals – I’d prep, measure and combine raw ingredients that freeze well, to eventually cook by slow cooker, grill, stovetop or oven. These can be frozen up to several months, depending on the ingredients selected.
Today I’ll focus on assembled, pre-cooked meals, with a step-by-step process for super easy, “heat ‘n eat” dinners and grab-and-go lunches. These 8 steps should save you significant time and money, plus you’ll have healthy meals ready to go all week. (Of course, you could make some of these to store in the freezer for a short time too, and pull out when you want.)
8 Steps for Great Meal Prep Strategy
Here are my 8 simple steps to save money and take you from a handful of recipes to a week’s worth of appetizing meals:
- Create your ideal menu
- Make an accurate grocery list
- Stage for prep before cooking
- Use the right containers for storage
- Measure portions
- Assemble efficiently
- Cover and label containers
- Re-heat properly
Here are some goals and tips for each step:
- Create your ideal menu – Select several recipes you like, focusing on food you prefer and take note of ingredients currently in your refrigerator. (See my week’s recipes at the end of this article.) Your goal is to:
- Keep nutrition top of mind
- Balance proteins, fats, carbs
- Use meat cuts on sale and in-season veggies, fruits
- Batch cook, so most of your recipes use chicken, for example
TIP: If you’re really short on prep time, choose pre-cooked items like rotisserie chicken and pre-made burger patties or cut-up sirloin from the meat case.
2. Write an accurate grocery list – Get inspired by choosing recipes before you get to the grocery store – this saves times in aimless wandering and also keeps you from overbuying. Consider portions you want for single to-go lunches and dinners for your family. My grocery list is divided into two sections – items I must buy and those I have on hand, because I don’t need duplicates in my pantry. Your goal is to:
- Make one trip for groceries, buying on sale to save
- Buy only what you need for meal prep this week (let’s reduce spoilage!)
- Use up items already in your frig
- Use easy recipes that can be doubled and/or cooked quickly
TIP: Speed your prep with timesaving items that won’t break your budget… think pre-made bread crumbs, shredded cheese, etc.
3. Stage your prep before starting to cook – Have everything at your fingertips, in case you get interrupted. Gather needed equipment, recipes, ingredients and seasonings. This should help you work quickly and efficiently, and you’ll have only one kitchen cleanup. Your goal is to:
- Prep ahead in bulk. For example, dice onions and peppers, hard-boil eggs, chop nuts, make bread crumbs, shred cheese for all your recipes at once. Measure into amounts needed per recipe.
- Cook the meats or other protein first, as the cooking times are likely longer. Choose the grill, oven, stovetop or slow cooker/insta-pot, whatever you like. Allow to cool. (You can also do this step a day ahead and refrigerate if you wish.)
- Cook the grains/starches for the week’s recipes – rice, quinoa, pasta and maybe even potatoes. Allow to cool. (You can also do this earlier and refrigerate.)
- As the main ingredients are cooking, use your time to wash, cut and measure veggies and other additions you’ll be adding to each recipe. Make sauces as well.
TIP: Wash cooking utensils as you go, so they’re ready to grab when needed next and you don’t have a pile of dirty dishes at the end. You could also do the prep-ahead a few hours earlier or even a day or two ahead of batch-cooking day and then refrigerate until used.
4. Containers matter! Use containers sized for your needs – meals or snacks? One person or four? Oversized containers beg you to overeat. Choose reusable containers that can be heated and are easy to pack and clean.
TIP: Glass is great to go from freezer to oven and doesn’t retain past flavors.
5. Measure – it’s important! Slice or divide for portion control and accurate calorie counts. If your recipe says “serves four,” for example, you should know how much goes into one serving.
TIP: Measuring cups are different for liquid and dry ingredients. Use the proper one.
6. Assemble efficiently. Set up an assembly line. Allow ingredients to cool before assembling.
TIP: This is a great step for kids to help and learn to cook, but still supervise.
7. Cover and label each container. Label with recipe name, date, and heating instructions. Store in refrigerator or freezer, depending on contents and when you will eat it. If frozen, plan to thaw in frig the night before heating.
TIP: If you’re doing tacos, for example, where only part of your meal freezes well (lettuce does not), use separate containers that go together or match them with a number or color code.
8. Heat ‘n eat!
TIP: For better taste and blending of flavors, opt to re-heat in oven or toaster oven rather than the microwave.
Need some menu ideas?
Here’s what I’m using for the week’s menu, since pork is a bargain right now and chicken hindquarters (leg plus thigh) are on sale:
- Pork Loin Kabobs and Pasta Salad
- Pork tacos or wraps
- Szechuan Pork & veggies over noodles
- Honey-Glazed Chicken Thighs and rice or quinoa
- Chicken nachos
- Lettuce wraps with salsa
My grocery list is divided into two sections – items I need to buy and items on hand:
Here’s what I will buy to make meals for two:
- 8 chicken hindquarters. (While I really wanted boneless chicken thighs, the leg-thigh combo was on sale for about the same price as thighs alone. I opted for the hindquarters and asked the meat counter guy if he would please cut the thighs from the legs. Bonus – I now have “free” legs to freeze and make another meal!
- Pork loin roast (I get 3-4 pounds to cook)
- Nacho chips
- Taco shells, soft or hard
- 1 head lettuce, any type you like
- Fresh veggie selection – peppers (I choose a couple colors – red, green, orange, yellow), tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, maybe a cucumber and cilantro
- Shredded cheese (what you like on nachos and tacos)
- Hoisin sauce
- 1 Avocado, whole
- 1 can artichokes
- 1 can water chestnuts, sliced
- 1 large can black olives, medium or sliced
- Sour cream, 8 oz.
- 1 can pineapple, crushed or tidbits
- 1 can black beans
- 1 package crunchy Chinese noodles
- 1 package frozen, stir fry veggies (or you can opt for cutting up fresh veggies)
And here are items I already have on my shelf:
- Rotini pasta
- Brown rice
- Brown sugar
- Soy sauce
- Corn starch
- Sesame seeds
- Balsamic vinegar
- Ranch and Italian dressing
- Lemon juice
- Dijon mustard
- Olive oil and vegetable oil
- Well stocked spice rack (we’ll use oregano, cilantro, ginger, parsley, basil, pepper, salt rosemary, garlic, beef bullion cubes, chili paste, garlic powder)
Find the recipes here for Honey-Glazed Chicken Thighs, Pasta Salad, Asian Roasted Pork Loin, Szechuan Pork and Veggies, Pork Kabobs, Pork Tacos, Chicken Nachos.