A lot of people feel overwhelmed doing Meal Prep because they think that the only way to do it is to make a bunch of foods over the course of the whole weekend and portion them all out for the freezer. It quickly becomes a very intimidating prospect; it shouldn’t be, and there are different things you can do to make the most of your Meal Prep time.
Don’t try to do it all at once. You’ll be setting yourself up for failure if you try to do everything all in one day or even a weekend, and you’ll likely be turning yourself off to the possibility of doing Meal Prep ever again. Instead, break everything up into two- to four-hour blocks of time, and focus on a few things–two or three at most. By breaking everything up into smaller tasks and time frames, you can be sure to get in at least one good Meal Prep session a week if you so choose. I have a guy who comes in three times a week to help out with housework, laundry, and cooking. Wednesdays are usually our cooking days, and we only do one dish at a time. It almost never takes more than 1½-2 hours, unless I’ve put the slow cooker on before work, and my freezer is currently full to capacity.
Prioritize. Start with basics such as staple foods, and work outward from there. As I said in the post titled Focus on Your Staples, your staple foods carry you. From there, you can add the extras a little bit at a time. If you have your freezer stocked with staples such as different kinds of rice, pasta, veggies, and meat, you can pick and choose what you want from among the various items and put together a whole meal. Add a slice of garlic bread or small salad, and dinner is served.
Budget your oven time. There are different ways to make the use of your oven as efficient as possible, especially if you do set aside an entire day or weekend to do all of your Meal Prep. If you have two full size ovens, you can set each one to a different temperature as needed. You can also organize the dishes that need to be baked in one or both of two ways: from longest baking time to shortest, and also from highest baking temperature to lowest. If you have two ovens, you can use one method for the first oven and the other method for the second oven.
Here’s how it would work. Say you’ve given yourself three hours to do your Meal Prep, and you want to make a roast that takes about 2½ hours. You’d put it in the oven first. Then you could gauge when to put the next dish in at that temperature, so the two will be done at roughly the same time. Any other dishes that are baked at the same temperature will be added to the oven (space permitting) according to how long they need to bake, so that everything is done at about the same time.
Here’s another example. Say you start your oven temperature at 400 °F (200 °C). You have three things that will be baked at that temperature. You would put in the one that takes the longest, then the next longest, and finally the shortest time. Then you can take everything out at about the same time and reduce your oven temperature for the next batch of dishes to go in. Work your way down, always making sure that you put the things into the oven from longest time to shortest so they’re done at about the same time before you turn the oven down for the next batch.
Work smarter, not harder. There are a lot of different things you can do the night before that can shorten your overall Meal Prep time. Do all of your chopping, slicing, shredding, etc., the night before. If you need to chop one onion for each of three dishes, do all the chopping at once but put each onion into a different bowl and mark it for the recipe it will go into. Likewise, if you need to shred cheese for several dishes, do it all at once and portion each amount with a label so you use the right portion of cheese for each dish. A quick way to determine how much cheese you will need to shred in order to make a given volume: each weight measurement is half the volume. In other words, if you need two cups (16 ounces in volume) of shredded cheese, buy an 8-ounce (by weight) block to shred. See my post titled Mountains of Spaghetti, Meatballs, and…Sawdust?! for exactly why you should always take the time to shred your own cheese.
Fill up any blank time. You’re sitting there, waiting for the casserole to finish baking. It’s the last thing you need to do, and you’ve got 25 minutes to kill. The very last thing you should be doing is just sitting there waiting for it to be done, or worse, watching TV. There should always be something to do while you wait. Load/start/unload the dishwasher, clean out the sink and wipe the counters, put away any ingredients you’re finished with, and sweep the floor. If you have nonperishables that you’re planning to portion out for the pantry, do them now. Heck, you can start a load of laundry if you want. The point is, blank sections of time need to be filled somehow. Watching TV or doing the crossword puzzle may be fun and relaxing, but they’re not productive. If you get into the habit of cleaning up a bit while you work and doing other portioning between dishes going into or coming out of the oven, everything else will run smoothly.
If you have multiple things going into or coming out of the oven over the course of time you’re working, plus you have new dishes you’re going to start, then when you put something into the oven you can put away the ingredients you no longer need (or won’t need again until later if they’re perishable), and get out the ones you’ll need for the next group of dishes. Get out all of your food storage containers, food-safe labels, and a permanent marker; label all of your resealable bags and plastic or glass lidded containers. Remember that any stickers or labels you use must be food-safe; if you use regular stickers or labels, there will be a gummy residue left over from the adhesive, which can attract harmful bacteria that get into your food. Food-safe labels can be peeled off cleanly so there’s no residue.
Wind everything down. Take one last look at everything you’ve done, making a checklist if need be. Did you do everything you set out to do? Is it all properly portioned and put away? It may seem unnecessary, but giving your kitchen the once-over to make sure nothing has been overlooked can be a big help. Many a time has been that *someone*🙄forgot to put something perishable away and had to toss an entire dish in the trash! Your goal here is to save money on your grocery bill, not waste valuable food.
Make sure that everything is cleaned and straightened, the floor is swept and mopped if needed, and dishes have been washed, dried, and put away. Finally, take anything from the freezer that you’re planning to cook or reheat the next day, and put it into the fridge to thaw overnight. This will make it easier for you to prepare your meals each day. I will often take 6-10 premade sandwiches (minus the mayo, etc.) out of the freezer and put them into the fridge so all I have to do is take one out each day and make it for lunch. I’ll have a granola bar or some crackers to round out the meal.
If you have more Meal Prep to do the next day, now’s your opportunity to get in the chopping and other prep tasks you need to do. If you need to do your weekly grocery shopping, make a list, paying attention to any products that are on sale. You can also make a list of dishes you plan on doing for your next Meal Prep; put anything on the shopping list that you don’t have or need to replenish if you’re running low.
By budgeting your time wisely, you can ensure that your Meal Prep goes as smoothly as possible. If you can get into a routine for your Meal Prep, it’ll quickly become second nature to do everything in the most efficient way possible and you’ll be much happier for it. What tips do you have for making Meal Prep run smoothly? Let me know in the comments!