Time-saving strategies to prep healthier meals in less time to decrease stress, save money and lose weight.
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It’s 5:34pm, you just got home from work after a long day, your kids are hungry and fighting, and you’re hungry. You open the refrigerator to see what you could possibly throw together for dinner, and you see… nothing. Well, unless there’s something you can make with a jar of pickles, cheese, and grape jelly. So you close the fridge, admit dinnertime defeat, and order a pizza, feeling guilty about wasting money on food completely devoid of the nutrients you know you need.
Sound familiar? What if dinnertime didn’t need to be stressful? What if you could save money and feed yourself and your family healthy meals to fuel the healthier lifestyle you want?
That’s where meal planning and meal prep come in!
When you know what’s for dinner every day, you’ll be more efficient, less stressed, and save money. And you can learn to master meal prep in less time with some time-saving strategies.
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What is Meal Prep
Simply put, meal prep is preparing, cooking, and packaging some or all of your meals in advance. Because you know exactly what you’ll be eating for each meal and it’s ready to go, meal prep is a way to put your meals on autopilot for the week (and reduce the temptation to stop at the food truck for lunch! It’s one of the best habits to develop for anyone who wants to improve their health, eat cleaner, or lose weight. Because it requires some advance planning, meals are often healthier and well-balanced.
Why Meal Prep?
Studies show that those who prepare their meals ahead of time make better nutritional choices and eat more fruits and vegetables. Not only is it healthier, but it can also significantly reduce stress by avoiding the scramble to get dinner on the table after a busy at work.
Meal prepping can also be very economical because it reduces food waste by only buying the ingredients you need and preparing the amount you will eat. And because healthy meals are ready at home, meal prepping saves the expense of expensive restaurant meals or take out.
Planning ahead can help you save time, money, and even your health!
Time-Saving Tips to Master Meal Prep in Less Time
1. Keep a list of your favorite recipes
Keep your favorite recipes (including your actual prep time) printed out at home, saved to a dedicated Pinterest board, or whatever is most accessible to you. When you have a working list of family favorites, it’s easy to fill in the menu for the week and you’ll save time scouring Pinterest for new recipes. And if it’s something you enjoy, you’ll be much more likely to stick to the plan rather than abandon the plan at the last minute.
2. Plan out your week
Take a look at your schedule for the week and decide when you’ll have time to cook and when you’ll need faster options. Then write down a meal for each day. If you know you’ll be at work late on Tuesday for a meeting or taking your daughter to dance class on Thursday, plan to pre-cook as much of that meal as possible or plan for leftovers on busy nights.
Just make sure there’s a plan for each day so you don’t resort to McDonald’s drive-thru!
3. Make a Grocery List
Now that you have a plan, check the ingredients for each recipe against what you already have in the freezer, refrigerator, and pantry (and take note of what you’ll need to take out to thaw!). Make a list of what you need to buy at the grocery store, and stick to the list when shopping!
4. Get the Right Gadgets
Meal prep can be time-consuming, but when you have the right gadgets, you can cut down on hands-on cook time! Everything from peeling, chopping, and cooking times can be minimized with the right tools.
I’ve recently started using my Instant Pot more for tender, juicier chicken (now the only way my husband will even eat chicken). And a Crock Pot is great to toss everything in before going to work and come home to a ready-to-eat dinner!
5. Get the Right Containers
High quality, freezer-safe, and microwaveable containers are a must to keep your prepped meals airtight and fresh. And a lot of them! Bonus if they’re color-coded to make finding the corresponding lid fast and easy. Because is there anything more frustrating than not being able to find the top that goes with the container?!
I love Pyrex Simply Store round and rectangular food containers for storing cooked rice and chicken and the 3-cup Pyrex rectangular container for packing my lunches for work. Or mason jars are excellent for keeping salads fresh.
6. Use Frozen Vegetables
Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh and a great way to keep lots of veggies on hand without worrying about spoiling. In fact, they can even be more nutritious because they’re frozen at the peak of freshness!
And because frozen vegetables have already been cooked, all you have to do is microwave them for a few minutes for a fast and easy side dish.
7. Use Shortcuts
Buy prewashed/precut fruit and vegetables or precooked meat. Sometimes the time saved washing, peeling, and cutting fruit and vegetables is worth even more than the extra expense of buying them already prepped.
And if you know you’ll be short on time, definitely get pre-cooked meats to save over an hour of marinating, cooking, cooling, and storing (and skip washing the dishes)! I personally love the pre-cooked marinated chicken breasts from Trader Joe’s and Central Market.
8. Use Different Seasonings, Marinades, and Condiments
If you like to keep your meals simple for easy cooking, they can certainly get boring and repetitive after a while. Mix things up (without any additional cooking) by using different seasonings or marinades on fish and chicken or using different condiments to change the flavor profile without taking extra time.
Marinades: teriyaki, lemon pepper, Primal Kitchens Vinaigrette Dressing & Marinade (Greek, Ranch, and Honey Mustard)
Condiments: BBQ sauce (watch out for too much sugar), salsa, mustard
9. Batch Cook
Batch cooking allows you to save time by making multiple serving and then portioning them out later. Things like brown rice, baked potatoes, and oats can take a long time to make. So if you know they’ll be on the menu a few times this week, why not cook it all on one day and save the leftovers? I like to make a big pot of brown rice on Sunday or Monday and keep it in the fridge to portion out for dinner sides all week.
The same can be done with entire meals, like casseroles, soups, or chilis. Double or triple Monday’s dinner recipe and save it in the refrigerator or freezer for another night. Making an extra batch only takes a few extra minutes when you’re already going through the steps anyway but it can save up to an hour by not having to make dinner another night!
Mix, Match, & Batch
Prep once then use in different ways throughout the week.
- Chicken: bake or grill some chicken breast to eat for dinner with a side of veggies and sweet potatoes then slice the leftovers to eat on a sandwich with whole grain bread for lunch or dice to make High Protein Buffalo Chicken Dip (great on a salad too!) or an avocado chicken salad with a mashed avocado, some toasted pecans, and a few diced grapes (delicious as a sandwich, on a bed of greens, or even as a dip)!
- Roasted vegetables: eat as a dinner side then save the rest to add to omelets or scrambled eggs for breakfast or add to a salad
- Hard-boiled eggs: eat as a snack or chop up to top a hearty salad
10. Keep Snacks Simple
Snacks don’t need to be complicated! In fact, choosing easy, grab and go snacks will make it easier to stay on track with your plan even when you’re crunched for time! Simple snacks like a piece of fruit and some nuts don’t require refrigeration and can easily be tossed in your gym bag or kept in your desk drawer at work. And packaged Greek yogurt (choose plain to avoid added sugars) with a little fruit is great well-balanced snack with protein, carbs, and fiber.
Although whole food sources are best for getting maximum nutrients, protein bars are a good option when you know you’ll be on the go. Just watch out for too many added sugars and not enough protein.
My personal favorite protein bars are Dale’s Raw Foods Protein Bars (my favorites are Blueberry Macadamia and Vanilla Cashew) because they’re made from raw, natural and mostly organic ingredients, don’t contain any chemical junk or fillers and use pea protein instead of whey so they don’t cause any GI upset many people can get from dairy-based whey. And the macronutrient profile is impressive with 22g protein, 16g carbs, and 14g fat!
Meal prep can seem intimidating and time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. Start small (2-3 days at a time), use these time-saving tips, and find a process that works for you so you can master meal prep in less time!