Sports practices, music lessons, homework, and other kids’ activities can throw a wrench in your meal plans. Fast food and takeout are so tempting when you have a busy night and don’t have time to cook. However, consistently eating fast food on busy nights can wreak havoc on your wallet and your family’s health.
Learning how to meal prep is an excellent way to kick takeout meals to the curb. Read on to learn how to get a jumpstart on meal preparation to feed your family healthy, home-cooked meals, even on your busiest nights.
What’s the Difference Between Meal Prep and Meal Planning
Many people use meal planning and meal prep interchangeably. However, they are two different steps in the cooking process. Meal planning is the process of deciding what to eat, while meal prep is the act of preparing part or all of a meal.
Both of these steps in the cooking process take forethought, and they will help you get your family fed quickly and easily. Once you decide what you will eat, meal prepping some or all of your meals is beneficial for many reasons.
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Benefits of Meal Prep
If you are a busy parent, you will reap several benefits from meal prep that will help save your sanity when your kids are pulling you in different directions throughout the week. Here are the most prominent benefits you will receive from prepping your meals.
Preparing all or part of your meals ahead of time, whether you prep breakfast, lunch, or dinner, will help reduce your stress level. Feeling calm, collected, and in control of meal time is essential for your well-being and keeping your cool when your kids are whining that they are hungry.
In addition to keeping your stress levels low, meal prep will help you save time in the kitchen. By prepping part or all of your meals or making a large batch of one meal to freeze for future use, you are saving time in the kitchen for those days and nights when you don’t have time to spend cooking.
First, it’s typically cheaper to buy more ingredients to cook a double batch of one meal than to buy all different ingredients to cook another meal. So, by batch-cooking one meal and freezing portions for future meals, you can save money on food and time in the kitchen.
Second, prepping your ingredients in advance can help you reduce food waste. For example, has this scenario ever happened to you? You buy vegetables to make side salads for several meals throughout the week. But you don’t wash and chop some vegetables ahead of time. Then the day rolls around when you had planned to make side salads to go with your dinner.
But wait! You forgot one of your kids has a doctor’s appointment before your other child has to be at a sports practice, so you decide to pick up a pizza for dinner instead. Meanwhile, the vegetables are still sitting in your fridge, unused, and going bad. Meal prep can help you avoid this common problem by having ingredients ready to be used quickly.
Meal prep can help you avoid last-minute fast food runs or phone calls to the local pizza joint as in the previous scenario. Cooking and eating at home is much healthier for your family than ordering out. It’s more nutritious because eating at home allows you to control the types of foods your kids put into their bodies.
In addition, you can prepare the food using healthier cooking methods. As a result, you can be confident your homemade meals contain adequate protein and other nutrients for kids’ growing bodies.
Best Meal Prep Tips When You’re Short on Time
Finding time to meal prep for a busy week is no easy feat. It takes planning and follow-through to be sure the ingredients or meals get prepped in time for when you need them. There is no right or wrong way to complete your meal prep for the week. The key is to figure out a system that works for your busy schedule. Below are a few pointers to get you started with meal prepping.
Decide Which Meals to Meal Prep
You certainly don’t have to prep every meal for the week. Instead, focus your energy on meal prep for the days or times you are at your busiest. For example, are mornings the most hectic time of day for you? Then having an arsenal of meal ideas to meal prep breakfast will help you get out the door in the morning.
Or are you drowning with after-school activities? Then dinnertime meal prep will be vital for feeding your family healthy and nutrient-rich meals to keep them going strong for their evening events.
Choose Your Method for Meal Prepping
There are several different ways to meal prep for the upcoming week. But first, you’ll need to decide which methods will best fit your schedule to be consistent and get yourself into a routine.
Batch cooking is when you prepare a large amount of one meal to enjoy on several occasions. There are two different ways to reap the benefits of batch cooking. One way is to cook a large batch of the meal for several meals in the same week. You’ll need to plan to consume the meal within a couple of days of making it to prevent it from spoiling.
If your family is not a fan of eating the same thing several times a week, another option is freezing the extras into family-size portions to eat later in the month. These already-prepared meals are often called freezer meals and are an excellent way to eat at home during busy nights. All you have to do is place your freezer meal in the fridge to thaw the night before you want to eat it.
Breakfast and lunchtime meals are usually meal prepped into individual portions. If you tend to grab breakfast and coffee on the way to work or order takeout for lunch because you don’t have time to make lunch the night before, consider focusing your meal prep efforts on these two meals.
Your breakfast and lunch prep can be as simple or involved as you want. For example, you could keep it simple by making an extra two portions of your dinner meal for you and your partner to pack up and take for lunch the next day. Or you could research different lunch ideas for work if you prefer not to eat the same things multiple times a week.
If you pack lunch for your children, consider portioning out the snacks they take to school for the entire week at one time. For example, if your child takes pretzels to school to eat at lunch, portion out five days worth of pretzels in separate bags or containers, so you don’t have to get the pretzels out every night.
Prepping the ingredients for your meals is an alternate method to completing your meal prep for the week. When you only prep the ingredients for your meals, you will still need time to cook the meal. However, your kitchen time will dramatically reduce, even from only prepping your ingredients.
Here are some ways to prep ingredients to use in meals throughout the week:
- Wash and chop raw veggies to use for salads or side dishes
- Pre-cook grains (i.e., rice, quinoa)
- Cook beans or lentils to throw into soups, stews, or casseroles
- Prep ingredients and pre-assemble casseroles to refrigerate or freeze until needed
- Prep and assemble ingredients for a meal and place them into a freezer bag for dump dinners
These are only a few ways to prepare ingredients for later use. Use these ideas to problem-solve how to meal prep your upcoming meals for the week.
Use a Combination of Meal Prep Techniques
Consider mixing and matching these meal prep methods to make the best use of your time in the kitchen. For example, you may decide to pre-make breakfast sandwiches to throw in the freezer so you can eat them throughout the week. While you assemble the sandwiches, you could cook up the ingredients you will use in the dinner you have planned for your busiest weeknight. Multi-tasking while completing your meal prep will help to optimize your valuable time.
Since your family obligations and meal plan will change weekly, you’ll need to be flexible with your meal prep routine. For example, one week, you may have time to meal prep an entire meal, and the following week you may only find time to prep a few ingredients.
Meal Prep Containers
If you are ready to start your meal prep, you will need meal prep containers to get the job done. There are tons of different types of reusable containers from which to choose. You’ll find plastic meal prep containers, glass meal prep containers, and two or three-compartment food containers. Decide how you will use your containers and what food you will fill them with before purchasing to make a suitable meal prep container investment.
Simple Meal Prep Ideas
Now that you know the basics of meal prep, you may be looking for simple meal prep ideas to get you started. Here are some easy ideas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pair them with healthy drinks for a satisfying meal.
Healthy Breakfast Ideas
Oatmeal: You can’t beat oatmeal when choosing a healthy and cheap breakfast. You can buy a large canister of old-fashioned oats for your breakfast meal prep for the week. Cook a large batch on a Sunday and portion it into single-serve containers. Then, reheat it in the microwave, add your mix-ins, and enjoy.
Another popular option for breakfast meal prep is mixing up overnight oats in a small mason jar. Put them in your fridge overnight, and you will have a healthy, ready-to-eat breakfast in the morning.
Breakfast Burritos: Breakfast burritos are easy to meal prep for the entire week or longer because they freeze up nicely. Cook the filling the way you want, fill and roll up the burritos, wrap them individually, and freeze them. Then, pull them out as you need them and reheat them in the microwave. Popular fillings for breakfast burritos are scrambled eggs, sausage, cheese, and veggies.
Pancakes: Homemade pancakes are kid-approved for breakfast. However, they can be time-consuming to cook. But if your kids love them, consider prepping a large batch to freeze so they can eat them during the busy week.
Belgian Waffles: Waffles are another easy and delicious breakfast option. Instead of frozen boxed waffles, try making your own with a waffle iron. It’s cheaper, you can make them healthier, and they are much tastier—meal prep a batch on the weekend to serve your kids during the school week.
Smoothies: Healthy smoothies are a popular meal replacement option for people on the go. To save time in the morning, you’ll want to prep some ingredients the night before. For example, wash and chop any fresh fruit or veggies to use in the morning. Or opt for store-bought frozen fruit to reduce your meal prep time. Also, if you bought berries in bulk for the week, you can wash and freeze them to prevent them from spoiling before being used.
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Healthy Lunch Ideas
Tuna Salad, Egg Salad, or Chicken Salad: These versatile salads make excellent lunch options if you want to meal prep your lunch for the week. Make a large batch and divide it into your meal prep containers. Then, store them in the fridge until you are ready to pack them up in your lunch bag for work.
Wraps: Wraps make great on-the-go lunches. They are quick and easy to make once you have your ingredients prepped. Try a veggie wrap for a super healthy lunch. Wash and chop your crunchy veggies early in the week and store them in green containers to keep them fresh for making your wraps.
Balsamic Honey Chicken Breast and Steamed Broccoli: Hot lunches are satisfying on your lunch break. Try balsamic honey chicken if you prefer a hot lunch and have access to a microwave during the day. Steam a bag of broccoli and divide your lunches into reusable containers.
Bento Box Lunch: Bento box lunches are very popular. Putting together a bento lunch involves planning, prepping, and packing several foods in small quantities. The foods you choose should complement each other and give you (or your children) a nutritious meal.
Food ideas to include in your bento lunch are
- Rolled lunchmeat
- Beef jerky
- Pita chips
- Cubed cheese
- Cottage Cheese
Healthy Dinner Ideas
Tacos and Black Beans: Beef or chicken tacos are an easy dinner for busy weeknights. They also make for simple meal prep because you can make your taco meat in your slow cooker or InstantPot ahead of time. Be sure to cook up enough taco meat to serve your family tacos on two nights to get the most bang for your buck (and your meal prep efforts).
Meatballs: Meatballs are so versatile. Meal prepping a large batch of meatballs (if you like to make your own) and freezing them is a great way to get ahead at dinnertime. Meatball subs, spaghetti and meatballs, and Swedish meatballs are three easy ways to serve those small orbs of deliciousness.
Meatloaf: Preparing a meatloaf to serve your family will surely please those craving a home-cooked meal. Make a large loaf, so you have enough for two meals for those busy weeknights. Then, add a side of mashed potatoes (store-bought or instant will do), and steam a bag of vegetables for an easy and delicious dinner.
Tilapia: Even fish can be meal prepped for a week, but you will need to freeze it if you aren’t planning to eat it within a few days. Tilapia is an excellent choice because it cooks up quickly, and there are many different ways to dress it up because of its mild flavor.
These are only a few ideas for inspiration. You can meal prep at least some component of almost any meal ahead of time. The possibilities of meal prepping are endless when you plan your meals and think ahead.
Once You Start; You’ll Love It
Getting in the habit of meal prepping can be life-changing for busy parents. Meal prep can help you feed your family healthy home-cooked meals. In addition, when you carve out time into your schedule for meal prep, whether a full meal or just a few ingredients, you will feel less stressed and more in control of meal time. Isn’t that every parent’s dream?
This post originally appeared on Hello Sensible.
Lisa is a personal finance enthusiast and founder of AdaptYourDollars.com, where she writes about her knowledge of frugal living and money management. Her goal is to help women gain control of their money to live their best lives possible. When she isn’t writing or at her day job helping people, she can be found cheering on her kids at their sporting events, baking bread, or running.