Prep-Ahead Meal Strategies that Actually Work
As a dietitian, I meet so many clients who have the best-laid plans to meal prep their whole week only for life to get in the way. When that happens, they are left getting takeout or piecing together last-minute meals. I’ve heard time and time again that meal planning and meal prepping is stressful, challenging, and just not feasible for most. It’s not easy when you have a laundry list of responsibilities and you have to feed yourself and your family before everyone throws a hanger tantrum.
One of the reasons meal prep seems so hard is because we have this vision that our planning and prepping strategy needs to look like it fell off a Pinterest board. That if we don’t have all of our meals laid out in perfectly matching containers, then what’s the point? Social media unfortunately blurs reality when it comes to many things, meals included.
I’m here to say what you may need to hear: Your meal prep does not need to look picture perfect to feed your family delicious meals that keep them nourished. And it doesn’t need to take up many precious weekend hours either.
By simplifying the way you approach and execute meal prep, and by implementing a few low-impact strategies, you may even—dare we say it—be excited when someone asks you “what’s for dinner?”
Stop comparing every picture-perfect meal prep post and start tinkering with your own family’s plan to find what works best for you. To get you started, below are a few meal prep strategies that actually work.
Ready to make meal prep easier? Try out these strategies:
Prepare single-item foods.
Preparing only single items may seem counterintuitive to “meal” prepping, but hear me out. Think about these three items: chicken breast, Brussels sprouts, and sweet potatoes. Now think about different ways you could enjoy them: You could put them on a plate and eat them separately. You could put them in a bowl with lettuce, quinoa, and your favorite dressing. You could even make tacos out of them.
The best part is that everyone can rearrange the food to meet their own preferences—this could be an ideal tactic if you have picky eaters in the house. And you can reuse and repurpose leftovers for interesting lunches or additional dinners. So instead of trying to prep an elaborate meal, just stick to single-ingredient basics and let the rest of the family take the reins.
Less is more.
This should go without saying, but the less prep you have to do, the easier it will be. People often come to me saying that they need variety. Sure, who doesn’t? But in the same breath, they also tell me they need meal prep that’s easy. And there’s the problem: Variety isn’t always easy when it comes to preparing full meals in advance. Think about it. You have three meals per day, seven days per week, multiplied by however many mouths you have to feed. For one person that’s 21 meals per week. A family of four is 84 meals per week. If you’re trying to make every single meal different and new, that’s quite the burden, physically and mentally.
How can you do more with less? Simplify your meal prep to one or two “base” meals for the week, and add variety with toppings each family member can choose for themselves. For example, instead of making a completely new breakfast for every day, you could make one or two options for the week, such as overnight oats, muffin-tin egg cups, or breakfast burritos. Then allow everyone to add their fruit of choice to the oats or their veggies of choice to the egg cups or burritos. Now, you have variety while also simplifying meal prep to just a base meal.
Schedule it out.
This is key. If you didn’t schedule your dentist appointment, it probably wouldn’t happen. But you make time for it because it’s an appointment you have to show up for. The same should be said for meal prep: You need to schedule it, and show up.
But here’s some good news! This doesn’t mean you need to set aside three hours on a Sunday. We don’t all have that luxury (or desire). But you could look ahead at your schedule and find spaces in the week that work best for you.
Maybe it’s one hour on Sunday evening where you make dinner for that night and also toss together a slow-cooker chili or roast to use in various ways over for the next few days. Perhaps while you’re preparing dinner on a weeknight, you go ahead and slice extra veggies and fruits for snacks or a future meal while you have the knife and cutting board out. Then, maybe you have a free half-hour Thursday morning and you use that time to make lunches for everyone.
Schedule a couple hours over the course of the week dedicated to meal prep because what gets prioritized is what gets done. Once you experience success with small bursts of meal prep blended into your weekly schedule, it’ll become second nature.
Related: The One-Stop Breakfast Shop: A Week of Easy Healthy Breakfasts
Enlist the help of others.
You don’t have to meal prep alone, unless of course you want to. Everyone in your household (babies not included) is capable of helping in one way or another. Help could come in the form of “many hands make light work,” where each family member takes an age-appropriate meal prep task. Or help could mean getting everyone else out of the house or engaged in an activity so that you have peace and quiet and space to get the meal prep done. Help could also come in the form of cleaning so that your primary task is cooking.
Living solo? You can recruit the help of foods that are already chopped, cooked, or prepared for you. Why make it harder for yourself when brands are literally ricing cauliflower for you? Don’t be ashamed of using pre-prepped food—that’s what it’s there for!
Keep a well-stocked kitchen.
I can’t tell you how often my kitchen saves me when I run out of meal-prepped food or run out of ideas. Having non-perishables on-hand can be super helpful when you need a quick meal or need to add some flavor to a boring old meal.
A well-stocked kitchen also includes the right equipment to make the process enjoyable—a good knife, big cutting board, slow cooker, quality pans, as well as plenty of storage containers for prepped items and leftovers. And repeat after me: “My mismatched containers are beautiful.”
Meal prep is not about re-creating the wheel or looking like it came out of a magazine; it’s simply meant to help you get healthy food on the table more easily. Keep it simple, keep trying new tactics, and you’ll soon find a meal prep flow that works best for you.
Laura Ligos is a registered dietitian who resides in Albany, New York. She takes a food-first approach and focuses on optimizing the health of her clients and followers through her private practice and brand, “The Sassy Dietitian.” She has a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Sciences from Cornell University and went on to complete her Dietetic Internship and MBA at Dominican University. You can connect with her on Instagram @thesassydietitian or on her website at www.thesassydietitian.com.