There have been many websites, blogs, and cookbooks devoted to the philosophy of Meal Prep over the last several years, and they all have really good ideas. I believe my ideas are different from the others, and I hope that my philosophy can help people. I welcome all ideas, so please feel free to add your two cents’ worth!
I understand that this can be an overwhelming prospect for a lot of people, but maybe having everything broken down into the steps I’ve outlined below can help you focus. This isn’t about overhauling everything you’ve ever known about cooking. It’s about optimizing your kitchen and pantry space by organizing and storing your foods in easy-to-use portions that will make everyday meals much easier to accomplish.
Think about the whole process long and hard before you actually do it. What are my goals? How do I apportion my time? How do I organize the cooking and preparation of the foods I’m making? These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself long before you start. It may be helpful to write down several questions you have for why you’re doing this, what needs to be done, and how you plan to do it. Answering those questions is a difficult but important part of the process.
The very first thing you need to do once you decide to start doing Meal Prep is to take stock of your entire kitchen. This is your opportunity to replace and replenish anything that’s old. If it’s broken, warped, stained, melted, missing a lid, or has anything else wrong with it (or you just don’t want it anymore), then it goes. Donate anything that still has some life in it, recycle what you can, and toss the rest. This includes kitchen towels, hot pads and pot holders, and all your dinnerware too (dishes, glasses, flatware, barware, mixing/serving bowls, etc.).
This is your opportunity to think about what kinds of food storage containers you want to use. Do you want containers that are appropriate for one serving of a complete meal, or do you want containers that give you one serving (or a family-sized serving) of a single food, such as rice or a vegetable? Or, do you want a mixture of both?
You’re also going to need resealable plastic bags in ALL sizes, plus those flimsy ones with the flaps you fold over to close them. There are a number of reusable food storage bags available on the market now. Feel free to use those to reduce waste. (DISCLAIMER: I have not used freezer bags in nearly 20 years, because I’ve found that the foods I make retain the same quality whether I use freezer bags or regular bags. I simply pay close attention to the dates on the bags and use everything up in an appropriate time frame. However, if you want to use freezer bags, go right ahead. I just feel that they’re a waste of money for my needs.)
A few disposable/recyclable foil baking pans are helpful too, especially the newer, sturdier ones that are available. You will also need waxed paper and baking parchment in addition to your plastic wrap and foil. A really helpful product, available online, is a box of burger patty papers. They’re precut waxed paper sheets that are about five inches or so square, and they’re typically used to separate premade burger patties. They’re very versatile and super cheap; Amazon has boxes of 1,000 for as low as around $10 (US). This is a perfect opportunity to invest in some new equipment as well. Always wanted that kitchen appliance or gadget everyone else has? Maybe now’s the time to get it. And a meat thermometer is a must, unless you don’t mind dry, overcooked chicken.
A kitchen scale with a tare or zero feature is a must-have as well. The tare or zero function allows you to subtract the weight of whatever bowl or other vessel you’re using to hold the ingredient you’re weighing, so all you get is the weight of the ingredient itself. Weighing ingredients such as flour is the most accurate measurement, as some ingredients absorb moisture from the atmosphere, which directly affects how the ingredient behaves in the food you’re making. Also, most ingredients do not weigh the same as they measure in volume. This is especially true for baking.
Look through your pantry and fridge. Make a shopping list of the staples that you need to replenish for your first foray into Meal Prep. Make a Menu Plan (as opposed to a Meal Plan). The difference is that a Menu Plan is a list of entrees, sides, vegetables, and anything extra that you intend to cook and portion out for the freezer and pantry, whereas a Meal Plan is a list of meals you will be serving/eating every day for a fixed period of time, such as a week. Whichever dishes you intend to make for your Meal Prep, put the ingredients you don’t already have on hand onto your shopping list. Then go shopping, and stick to that list like super glue. And the best way to avoid any impulse purchases, such as the candy and snacks that are placed right at the cash register area, is to make sure you’ve eaten before you go shopping.
You also want to do as much of your shopping as possible at only one or two stores in your area. Start with the store that has the greatest variety of things so you can cut out a big chunk of your shopping, then go to your secondary store only for the things your first store doesn’t carry. Save the fancy ingredients that you need to make a special trip for, as a way to wow your friends and family for a special occasion, holiday, or potluck.
You should invest in some good quality insulated shopping bags made specifically to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. This is so you can ensure perishables such as milk and eggs stay cold over long periods of time, in case you need to make more than a couple of shopping stops. A good practice to follow is to put the milk, eggs, meats, and other perishables or frozen foods into your shopping cart last instead of first to ensure a longer travel time, in case your shopping trip runs into unexpected delays.
Establish a routine. You want to do your planning, shopping, and prep/cooking over a minimum of two days. If you need to take several days over the course of a week to accomplish your goal, that’s fine. You can easily establish a routine by doing specific tasks on specific days, like always making a casserole on Mondays. Whatever you decide to do, stick to it. Eventually it’ll become second nature.
Apportioning your time during the prep and cook process is very important. You can do a lot the night before, such as all or most of your chopping and slicing. Put everything into storage bowls or resealable bags and park it in the fridge. Keep your frozen veggies in the fridge overnight so they thaw. That way, it’s much easier to measure out a serving or however much your family typically eats at a meal, and they refreeze well.
Another aspect of time apportionment is during the actual cooking. I’ve come up with two different ways to apportion your cooking. You can do it by the time it takes to cook (longest time to shortest), or you can do it by the oven temperature (highest to lowest). You can incorporate both methods as needed. A very useful tool to have for time apportionment is a timer app that has at least two different slots for keeping time. Just look up “cooking timer” in your app store.
You need a good set of permanent markers, food-safe labels, and/or freezer tape. If you use traditional labels and tape, the adhesive will leave a gummy residue that harbors bacteria, which is the last thing you need! You can color code your labels for different foods if you want or need to. Use a different colored marker for each category, such as meal type (breakfast/lunch/dinner/snacks) or by food (meat/veg/starch), or even for foods specifically made for a particular family member, especially if they have a specific dietary need.
Always label AND date your bags or containers before you fill them, and include baking/cooking/reheating instructions when needed. Adopt a “First In, First Out” (FIFO) practice when filling your freezer and pantry. Bring all of the previously made, uneaten foods to the front, and place the new ones at the back. Know how long a given food stays good in the freezer or pantry, and try to use it up in that time frame. There are a lot of guidelines available online that tell you how long a particular food stays good in the fridge, freezer, or pantry.
Make enough for leftovers, especially for a holiday or special occasion, or when you just want to have a few friends over for dinner. Have some storage containers, labels, etc., on hand before you start cooking, so that when you put the food away, you can portion it out and freeze it. Always put it in the front of your freezer so it can be used fairly soon.
Another good practice to get into is to go through all your food before your next Meal Prep and have a night or two where you use up whatever you have that will soon overstay its welcome. If you made breakfast bowls 3 months ago and you have a couple left, take them out and use them. There are no rules here. If you want a breakfast food for dinner or a lunch food for breakfast, go right ahead. This is also a good opportunity to make a casserole, pot of soup, or other dish that can use up a lot of things with minimal effort.
Think outside the box. You’re not only going to learn how to cook and portion individual meals, but also ingredients to be used in the preparation of some of the recipes you’ll be making. For instance, if you have a pound of any kind of raw ground meat, it’ll measure two cups once it’s cooked. That can be scaled up to absolutely any amount you choose to make. Then all you have to do is measure it out into two-cup portions. Label and date each portion, and you have the right amount of precooked meat for any recipe that calls for one pound of raw ground meat. Thaw it, and you’ve shaved time off your prep for getting dinner on the table. Recipes that call for shredded or chopped cooked meat, cooked pasta or rice, and/or fresh or frozen vegetables usually call for two cups of the ingredient in question, so this technique works for just about everything.
You don’t have to do all of the steps I’ve outline here, but I hope you find something helpful. Please feel free to add comments and suggestions below.