You’ve stocked your pantry and freezer with the essentials, you’ve created a meal schedule, and you’ve purchased all the items on your grocery list, yet you’re still finding it difficult to get those well-planned meals actually made? Turns out, you’re not alone.
In my opinion, actually executing your meal plan is the hardest part of meal planning. No matter how good our intentions are, we’re human; the motivation to make a home-cooked meal goes right out the window when it’s 6 PM, we’re tired and hungry, and wine and popcorn in front of the TV sounds way better than cooking.
So how do you make it easier turn that meal plan into an actual meal on the table? Try these six brilliant meal prep secrets to make your time in the kitchen quicker and easier than ever before.
1. Prep ingredients ahead of time.
Take a look at your meals for the week and see what ingredients can be prepared ahead of time. You might be surprised how much meal prep can be done ahead! If you can find a few minutes on the weekend or in the morning to take care of some easy cooking tasks, you will dramatically reduce the time you need to spend in the kitchen on those busy weeknights.
Ways you can prep ingredients ahead of time:
- Wash and chop vegetables
- Roast vegetables
- Cook rice and other grains
- Prepare meats (grilling, roasting, slow cooking, etc.)
- Prepare salad dressings and marinades
- Cook a batch of hot cereal or granola, or prepare jars of overnight oats
- Hard boil eggs
- Slice or shred cheese
- Cook beans
- Prepare salads and sides that will stay fresh in the fridge
- Move foods from the freezer to the refrigerator to defrost
2. Pre-assemble lunches and snacks.
Similarly to preparing ingredients ahead of time, it can be incredibly helpful to pre-assemble lunches and even snacks. If you put foods into portioned containers before the week begins, all you have to do in the morning is throw the containers into your child’s lunch box or your work bag and you’re good to go!
Pre-assembled lunch and snack ideas:
- Fruits and veggies (whole or sliced)
- Hard boiled eggs
- Sliced cheese or cheese sticks
- Sliced lunch meat
- Pita bread
- Crackers, pretzels or tortilla chips
- Containers of hummus, guacamole or nut butter
- Salads with a container of dressing on the side
- Tuna or chicken salad
- Nuts or trail mix
- Roasted chickpeas
- Pre-portioned bags of smoothie ingredients
3. Look for shortcuts.
Unless you are some kind of super woman, you probably don’t have time to reasonably cook EVERYTHING from scratch. And guess what? That’s okay! If you’re short on time, look for ways you can take shortcuts in the kitchen.
Examples of easy kitchen shortcuts:
- Pre-cut vegetables
- Canned beans
- Canned tomatoes
- Quick-cook rice and other grains (My family loves Seeds of Change Ready-To-Heat Rice.)
- Canned fish (tuna, salmon, etc.)
- Individually packaged frozen chicken breasts or fish filets
- Frozen vegetables (especially veggies you can steam in the bag)
- Rotisserie chicken
4. Plan for leftovers.
One of the simplest ways to cut back on your cooking time is to make meals that create leftovers. Try larger meals like soups, chili, and casseroles that make 8-10 servings, or double a recipe you love so that there’s extra for a second meal. You can eat the leftovers for lunch the next day or serve them for dinner again.
5. Make recipes that use similar ingredients.
If you prepare multiple recipes that use one or more similar ingredients, you can prepare that ingredient once and use it for all of the meals. This can save you a ridiculous amount of time!
For example, if you need cooked chicken for three recipes, you can cook chicken breasts in your slow cooker and divide it up to use with all three meals. Or, if you need roasted vegetables for two meals, roast one large pan of veggies and use them for both recipes.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Prepare a large batch of black beans to use in Sheet Pan Sweet Potatoes and Black Bean Hash and Mexican Quinoa Stuffed Peppers.
- Make Slow Cooker Pork Carnitas. Use half of the pork for Burrito Bowls and half for Quesadillas.
- Try a few of these 24 Easy Meals You Can Make With Rotisserie Chicken.
6. Practice a chef’s best secret.
If you’re like most home cooks, you probably dive right into a recipe and start cooking with little to no preparation. After all, you need to get dinner on the table as soon as possible! Then, you get to step 4 of the instructions and realize you need to dice onions and mince garlic and measure out 5 different spices, and suddenly you’re scrambling around your kitchen in a tizzy hoping your food on the stove doesn’t burn before you get it together. Sound familiar?
There is one incredibly simple yet overlooked meal prep secret that will fix that problem for good: mise-en-place (“everything in its place”). It’s the idea of having all of your ingredients prepared before you start cooking. It is a chef’s greatest strategy for staying organized, quick and efficient in the kitchen, and it’s just as important for home cooks!
If you take the time to prep your ingredients and get set up before you actually jump into cooking the recipe, you’ll be stunned at how much faster the recipe comes together, not to mention how much more enjoyable the cooking experience can be.
How to practice mise-en-place at home:
- Read your recipe.
- Make sure you have all of the ingredients.
- Prepare your ingredients (chop, dice, rinse, drain, measure, etc.)
- Organize all of your ingredients and cooking tools near your stove (or wherever you are cooking).
- Cook your meal!
Take heart, my friend. No one masters meal planning overnight, and no matter how good we get at it, sometimes life still gets in the way of even the best-laid plans. The trick is to not give up! Create realistic meal plans that work for your family’s lifestyle, have backup meals in your freezer ready for when you need them, and employ these six meal prep secrets to get healthy meals on the table more often. Remember, the more you practice your meal prep skills the better (and faster) you’ll be at it, so get going today!