There are meal prep fanatics who will tell you that it’s just so simple to get breakfast, lunch, and dinners ready for the entire family every week. To that we say: good for them. For everyone else, it’s a matter of balancing the reality of life with the desire for tasty, healthful food that isn’t the same day-in and day-out. To that we say: meal prep, but relaxed. It doesn’t have to totally take over your life to do a little big batch cooking for the week. These 8 tips can be adapted to just about every type of meal prep, whether you’re going to make every meal or just dinners. And always remember: the freezer is your friend.
- Do your planning and shopping 1 to 2 days before you start cooking: Not only does picking your dishes at least a day in advance mean that you’re starting cooking fresh, it gives you a chance to pick up any missed items from the supermarket. Opt for dishes you’ve made before if you’re new to meal prep. That way, you can focus on getting the maximum amount done, with the least amount of stress.
- Your pantry may contain hidden inspiration: Start by seeing what you have before planning the list. Not only does it cut down on waste, it will save you money, too. Those cans of hominy you bought on a whim a few months back? They’re begging to be made into a Mexican-inspired stew. What about the jars of marinara nearly past their best-by date? Sounds like eggplant parm casserole is on the menu for the week.
- Enlist family members, or double up with a friend: The saying “many hands make light work” is a cliché for a reason. Give one person the prep tasks like washing and chopping vegetables while the other stands at the stove. And make sure someone in the family is on dish duty. Pairing up with a friend can be a way to split costs if you’re single. Choose the recipes together, then each take home half.
- Put your food processor to work: If you have a food processor, now is the time to let it shine. Though it can seem like a hassle to lug the heavy machine out from the cupboard, we promise: it can chop onions way faster than you. For everything from carrots to cheese to Brussels sprouts, the food processor is a go-to tool for meal prep.
- Label liberally: You may think you have a perfect memory, but time and stress can get in the way of remembering just what that brown dish is in the back of the freezer. Grab a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker. Write the name of the dish, the number of servings, and the date cooked.
- Group related ingredients on a rimmed baking sheet: Condiments, herbs, sauces, and other ingredients can get forgotten when scattered about the fridge. If you’ve made a chili, for instance, store it with the sour cream, cilantro, shredded cheddar, and pickled jalapeños on a small rimmed baking sheet. When you’re ready to eat, pull the entire thing out, reheat, and serve.
- Don’t forget snacks: We’re not saying you need to whip up a batch of muffins for your daily morning coffee break, or that a homemade trail mix is in order, but one oft overlooked element of meal prep is snacks (which can be the cause of a pastry bought out daily—hard on the wallet). It can be as simple as portioning out your favorite nuts and prepping some carrot and celery sticks. Or, if you want to do something slightly fancier, fill containers with some dark chocolate, dried apricots, and almonds.
- Double up beloved recipes that freeze well: Sure, this week you might have time to make two lasagnas, but next week it’s back-to-school and one parents’ got a new job and probably the dog will need to go to the vet. This is where the freezer steps in to save the day. When you have the bandwidth to double up a recipe on your meal prep agenda, send half to the freezer (labeled, of course). You’ll thank yourself later.
Bonus meal prep tip: Queue up an audiobook or podcast
Sometimes music isn’t enough to motivate. A gripping audiobook or engaging podcast can make the hours (and crucially, the dishes) pass by more easily.