It’s a fact of modern life that we are all crazy busy. As a yoga teacher, I could tell you about the value of simplifying, cutting back, and prioritizing, but this is reality. We all have struggles. We all have some combination of demanding jobs, kids, aging parents, social obligations, volunteer commitments, fitness needs, and recreational habits. Plus the stuff we actually want to do. This is what makes it so tempting (and sometimes necessary) to order pizza or stop for McDonald’s on the way home.
When I was a kid, McDonald’s for dinner was a way of life. It was just my mother and I at home during my middle and high school years, and by the time she finished her commute home from work, the lastthing she wanted to do was cook. So we ate a lot of burgers and fries. We ate so much takeout that I actually got sick of it. This is when I started learning to cook. She was the only working parent she knew who could look forward to coming home, most days of the week, to dinner made by her kid—without even having to guilt me.
Things are a little different for me now. When my kids were home, I made good use of my Crockpot to create meals with something for everyone. But now that the kids are mostly gone and it’s just me, my cooking strategy has changed. It’s hard to find the motivation to make dinner every night for just myself, and although I don’t do McDonald’s, there’s the lure of the Thai House just down the street, with their $13 shrimp Pad Thai waiting to destroy my caloric and monetary budgets.
This is where meal planning and prep comes to the rescue. I spend about two hours, one day per week preparing most of a week’s meals. Sometimes I end up with even more than I can eat in a week, like when I make chili or spaghetti sauce, and I can put half away in the freezer for a bonus on another week. I try to portion out each meal in individual serving containers, unless it’s something that needs to be stored separately until eaten, like pita sandwiches.
If I plan my meals well, there is very little waste when I cook this way, because I cook it all at the start of the week. You know how sometimes, you have great ideas when you go shopping on Sunday, and you think you’re going to make something like salmon en croute, but by Wednesday, you are exhausted and you just end up eating a bowl of cereal for dinner and then all your expensive food goes to waste? Well, if you have already prepped your food, heating it up is exactly as much work as making cereal, and a lot more tasty.
Here are some of my top tips for meal planning success:
· Keep everything simple.Don’t imagine you are going to make five elaborate dishes that each take an hour to prepare. Think quick, easy, mix and match.
· Pre-cook one starch per weekand store it as a base to put under your sauces. You can cook one round of quinoa, rice, faro, millet, or whatever else you crave and store it in the fridge for three to four days.
· Cook one protein, use it multiple ways. This week, I made delicious turkey meatballs that I ate over quinoa with jarred marinara sauce. Another day, they’ll appear on a flatbread with melty fresh mozzarella. For lunch, they will crown some romaine lettuce and cherry tomatoes.
· Use prepared foods where it makes sense. Rotisserie chickens save you about an hour and a half of cooking time, and you can shred that cooked chicken and use the meat to make salads, pita sandwiches and hearty soups. Jarred pesto and marinara can elevate a quick meal into next-level awesomeness. Hot smoked salmon is amazing on a salad. It keeps perfectly unopened and you don’t even have to heat it. Best of all, for singles, it comes in 4oz packages, which happens to be an exactly perfect serving size.
Where to find meal prep ideas
If you don’t yet feel comfortable coming up with your own meal prep plans, there are lots of places online where you can find ideas. Many sites will want to charge you, but I say ba-humbug to that. If I am so cheap that I am trying to save money by eating in every meal of the week, clearly I don’t have the cash to spend on pre-arranged meal plans.
So here are a few places I’ve found with ideas. Keep in mind, I am gluten free, but not all of these suggestions are. I made my own GF adaptations.
· The Kitchn: Meal Prep Plan: A Week of Easy 1500-Calorie Days. The turkey meatballs recipe here is amazing, and it really gets into the details of how to prep and pack everything. https://www.thekitchn.com/meal-prep-plan-for-1500-calories-261270
· Eating Well: 14 Day Gluten-Free Meal Plan 1,500 Calories. This list is more about meal planning than prep ahead, but still some great ideas that capitalize on reusing the same ingredients to save you money and simplify prep. I love the Salmon with Chimichurri. http://www.eatingwell.com/article/289222/14-day-gluten-free-meal-plan-1500-calories/
Don’t want to try a whole lot of new things? That’s ok, just keep it simple. Stick with your favorites. Try to think of things that hold well in the refrigerator or freezer, like veggie chili, spaghetti sauce with ground turkey, and grilled chicken. One day when you have some time, make a big pot of chili, another of spaghetti sauce. Grill a family pack of chicken breasts (or pull apart a rotisserie chicken). When the chili and the spaghetti sauce are done, portion them out into two-cup containers and cool them in the fridge. Cut up the chicken and store it separately in two-cup, freezer-safe containers. Evaluate how much you think you can eat in a week, and put the rest in the freezer (use a strip of masking tape and a sharpie to label and date the containers). Wash, dry and tear some lettuce into salad-sized pieces. Portion the salad greens into two-cup containers. Put some cherry tomatoes, beans, and whatever other sturdy vegetables you like into the containers. Prepare as many salads as you think you can eat in 2-3 days.
And there you go. On any weeknight, you can come home and toss some chicken onto a bed of lettuce for an instant salad, or heat up your chili, or put on some pasta for spaghetti in 15 minutes. Ta-da.
Personally, I love having my prepped meals to look forward to, and knowing that I don’t need to exert any effort to make them, except heating them up. I also love knowing that it only costs me about $100 to buy all of my food (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and coffee) for the week. That is less than $5 per meal, and includes coffee! And snacks! And I know all the ingredients of my food, so I can manage my salt, sugar and fat intake as necessary. So even if you don’t go all-in and make a whole week’s worth of food at once, I do hope that maybe you are a little inspired to spend about 20 minutes planning the week’s meals before you shop, and that you adhere to the concepts of keeping meals simple, using similar ingredients so you don’t spend a ton of money or waste a lot of food, and using prepared foods where it makes sense.
Have a healthy and prosperous day!