I enjoy cooking but meal prepping sucks. It doesn’t itch the creative bug that making a pie from scratch or an elaborate recipe I’ve never tried before does - it’s a chore but it’s one worth doing and I typically prioritize it above other tasks. Our house is far from perfectly clean and tidy - I choose to spend my time making delicious and healthy food instead of sweeping the floor every day or putting away all the clean laundry. And that’s ok - I have a supportive husband who helps keep our house clean-ish so I can focus on food prep!
Meal planning is a skill that you’ll get better at over time - when I first started Whole30-ing one of the biggest mistakes I made was picking recipes simply because they looked tasty and not taking in to account how many new spices I would need to buy, how long it would take me to cook, and how many leftovers it would make. I’ve learned a lot over the years and gotten meal planning and prep down to a system that works well for us - but every family’s schedule is different. You’ll have to play around with timing until you get a perfect routine for your household!
I have three go-to meal prep strategies that have all worked really well for us - they each have pros and cons and I choose a strategy depending on what we are prioritizing that week (budget, weekend time commitments vs. weekday time commitments, etc). Below are details on my strategies and in my next post I will share a sample one week meal plan to inspire your #realfoodmagic journey!
For all three strategies, my weekly food routine starts like this:
Calendar and Pantry Check
- Review calendar for the coming week to see if either of us is traveling, has dinner or lunch plans, if we have company coming over for a meal, etc
- Review stock in pantry, freezer and refrigerator for anything we need to use up that week or any staples to replenish (olive oil, ghee, chili powder, compliant Ranch, Rx Bars, etc).
- Check stock of emergency meal ingredients - I always have a meal’s worth of fully cooked sausages or canned tuna/salmon plus extra canned/frozen veggies. You never know when a recipe won’t stretch as far as you thought it would and you have to make something else mid week and don’t have the time or desire to go to the grocery again!
Saturday Grocery Run
- I usually go to Trader Joe’s AND Whole Foods (they’re right across the street from each other in my neighborhood). I buy everything I possibly can at TJs because it’s cheaper - then I get anything else at Whole Foods. They have a broader selection of Whole30 compliant products like salad dressings, mayo, hot sauce, frozen sweet potato cubes, etc).
- However you can definitely do all your grocery shopping at your regular store! It may be harder to find compliant spices, condiments, etc but you can also order those on Amazon, through Thrive Market or directly from brands like Primal Kitchen.
- Once I get the groceries home I freeze any meat that I won’t be cooking within the next 48 hours and set reminders on my phone of when I need to take it out of the freezer to thaw. Our fridge usually takes a full one to two days to thaw meat so I set the reminder for 36-48 hours before I plan to cook the meat.
Strategy One: Sunday Funday
This plan involves a heavy day of meal prep on Sundays - you'll knock out cooking all of your breakfasts and lunches for the work week, and you can also choose to go ahead and make dinners for the week. This strategy works well if you have more "free-time" on the weekends than you do during the work week.
The key to this plan is choosing recipes that have a variety of cooking methods so you can have more than one dish going at once - I typically choose a slow cooker recipe, something to cook on the stove, a no-cook recipe like protein salad, an Instant Pot recipe, and several trays of sheet pan veggies or meat to rotate through the oven while I'm working on everything else.
Plan for Deliciousness
- Plan breakfasts for work week.
- Plan lunches for work week.
- Plan two dinners to make with leftovers that will stretch from Sunday night to Thursday night (I usually double 2 different dinner recipes to make sure we have enough - we eat A LOT).
- We typically eat out on Fridays even though options are limited on Whole30.
- Plan Saturday and Sunday breakfast for the next weekend.
- Saturday and Sunday lunches = leftovers from the week or a quick no-cook meal. I like deli turkey slices, baby carrots and guac, fruit, and plantain chips (can only use store bought chips if not on Whole30).
- Plan Saturday dinner for the next weekend and enjoy the leftovers for dinner on Sunday (if I know I’ll have time I like to make a fun recipe on Saturdays that might be a bit more time consuming but has a “weekend” vibe).
- List out any snacks and drinks to buy (kombucha, jerky sticks, fruit, Rx Bars, etc)
- Time to turn on some good music or an interesting podcast/audio book and get to work!
- List out everything to cook that day and formulate a plan.
- Start any slow cooker recipes that will need all day to cook.
- Figure out a logical order for things baking in the oven (starting with things that cook at a lower temperature, then moving to things cooking at higher temp).
- I clean dishes and load the dishwasher as I go, and also reuse the same pans and baking sheets unless the flavors are so vastly different that they need to be washed in between.
- After you start any slow cooker recipes, prep first trays of food to go in the oven.
- Once you have your first batch of sustenance baking, this frees you up to cook anything on the stove, InstantPot, or any no cook recipes like tuna salad (and also prep the next tray of things to go in the oven).
- I’ve usually got at least three things going at once so I utilize a timer on our fridge, timers on the appliances themselves, and timers on my phone so I don’t burn anything. This does take practice so don’t worry if you need to focus on one item at a time at first - you will get better!
- As components finish cooking, I line up Tupperware containers and portion everything out. I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing how much to put in my boxes and how much to put in my husband’s but use the Whole30 portion guidelines until you get comfortable eyeballing it. https://whole30.com/downloads/whole30-meal-planning.pdf
To be perfectly honest, it’s not fun to spend a good portion of my Sunday in the kitchen but between work, going to the gym for 90 minutes nearly every day, trying to get eight hours of sleep and actually sit down with my husband for at least an hour every evening, I just don’t have much time to cook during the week and it’s better for our family to get it all done in advance.
However when I wasn’t working out everyday, I followed a different strategy...
Strategy Two: Different dinners every night, living my best life.
Another plan that has worked well for us involved cooking dinner almost nightly and we took leftovers for lunch the next day, which meant I only had to prep breakfasts on weekends. This is a great structure if you have a bit more time available on week day evenings than you do on weekends, or if the thought of getting it all done Sundays is too overwhelming.
Plan for Deliciousness
- Choose 5 dinner recipes you would like to enjoy during the work week. Keep in mind how much time you'll have available on any given night and chose recipes accordingly.
- Work Week:
- Plan Sunday dinner, leftovers for lunch on Monday.
- Plan Monday dinner, leftovers for lunch on Tuesday.
- Plan Tuesday dinner, leftovers for lunch on Wednesday.
- Plan Wednesday dinner, leftovers for lunch on Thursday.
- Plan Thursday dinner, leftovers for lunch on Friday.
- Friday dinner = enjoy a meal out!
- Plan Saturday and Sunday breakfast.
- Saturday and Sunday lunch = leftovers or quick no-cook meal (example in previous strategy).
- Plan Saturday dinner.
- Prep breakfasts for the week and portion in to containers so you can grab and go in the mornings.
- Cook Sunday night's dinner and pack up leftovers for lunch on Monday.
Strategy Three - Outsource!
Some people may call this lazy but I disagree. Life is short and sometimes you need outside support so you can focus on other important tasks. If you are prioritizing other areas of your life at the moment, and have a flexible grocery budget, this is the plan for you. Sometimes other things take precedence and you need to spend your time exercising, participating in kid's activities, or organizing your house because you never did that when you moved in over a year ago, and instead immediately started wedding planning, and at this point you need a full on Marie Kondo intervention (or is that just me?).
Plan for Deliciousness
- Research pre-made meal options available to you - there are many home delivery options you can order online. We are lucky enough to have SnapKitchen in our town and that's our go to. You can also find frozen Paleo and Whole30 meals (they even carry a special line of Whole30 approved meals in Walmart's freezer section!).
- Decide how many meals you would like to outsource. When we are using this strategy, we typically only order breakfasts and lunches for the work week - I still make simple dinners and quick meals on weekends.
- Plan recipes for any meals you don't plan to outsource.
- Enjoy the reduced number of dishes and fewer hours in the kitchen! You deserve a little help - don't feel guilty about using this strategy (this is also advice to myself).
Which of these strategies do you think would work best for your context? Does the thought of meal prep completely overwhelm you? As always, if there's anything I can do to help you get started on your #realfoodmagic journey, I am here for you!