There are seemingly infinite meal prep resources available today. From meal kit services like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, to specialty services like Sun Basket, and meal prep delivery like Catered Fit, the options seem endless. Additionally, a multitude of social media gurus offer services that provide you with a fully outlined menu to follow, like Workweek Lunch, including specialized meal prep recipes.
For residents of the Central Coast, check out a great local meal prep resource: Clean Machine Meals. Created by a local chef who worked at restaurants like Thomas Hill Organics, these are fully prepared meals delivered directly to you. Worth it!
If, however, you’re looking to experiment on your own, and perhaps hone your meal prep and planning skills, the remainder of this article is for you!
I’ve included the top four questions I consider when creating my own meal prep menus. By shaping your meal prep utilizing the following four parameters, you are more likely to create and stick to a plan that works for you. The answers you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Of course, it is always important to keep the purpose of your meal prep in mind. Be it saving money, having more free time with family, eating healthy or simply trying something new. After all, this meal prep is for YOU and it should be whatever you need it to be. Decide first what need meal prep fulfills in your life. From there, answer the questions below and let your meal prep “preparation” grow!
If you feel stuck or lacking inspiration, I recommend following some meal prep accounts on your social media, like Instagram or Pinterest. You never know what may serve to inspire!
This article series aims to make meal prep & planning more accessible, less daunting and maybe provide the inspiration and courage you need to try it for yourself. Let’s get to it!
When planning a menu, consider these four questions.
1. What do you want to eat?
2. What’s in the pantry you can create a meal around?
3. How much time do you have to assemble the meal?
4. How much time do you want to spend prepping?
Below, we’ll get into detail about the reasoning behind each of these questions and some examples of how you may answer them to fit your lifestyle. But generally, these are the four things in the front of my mind when I plan out my meal prep for the week. Now, I’m sure you’ve thought of what it may be like to plan a menu for the week — but let’s take it a step further real quick. I also have a tendency to plan my “execution” of the menu, aka I plan out how I’m going to cook my meal prep. This keeps things running as smoothly as possible, which means less time spent on prep and more time spent on life! More on that another time.
Let’s break down the first task of meal prep — creating a menu.
Question 1: What do you want to eat?
There’s nothing less motivating in meal prep than cooking meals you have no interest in consuming. No matter how “healthy” or diet-friendly the meal may be, if you don’t want to eat it, sitting down for lunch will be excruciating, not exciting! ~Not to mention you’ll be less likely to stick to it if you dread every meal~
So first, we consider the most basic question. What sounds good to you? Start by brainstorming from some of your favorite cuisines (like Mexican or Italian) or by your favorite dishes (let’s say Chicken Alfredo, for example). Once you have an idea of what type of food you’d like to eat, you can search for recipes similar to it, and create your meal prep around it.
Be sure to include dietary restrictions (voluntary or otherwise) in this first step. I’m lactose intolerant so it would be a very BAD idea for me to pursue a classic Chicken Alfredo meal prep. Instead, I’d use some dairy-free alternatives, or even look to vegan recipes. If, for example, you love Chicken Alfredo but are on a keto diet, you could look to do a pasta replacement (I really like Banza) for a low-carb version of Chicken Alfredo and it would work great for you!
It may be equally helpful for you to create a short list of things you do not like and have no interest in eating. For example, cilantro may be the most divisive, controversial herb of all time. If making a big batch to share with others throughout the week, leave the controversial ingredients on the side.
If your goal for meal prep is to get healthy and/or pursue fat loss, that’s great! Construct your meal prep around low-fat recipes, or whichever specified parameters are dictated by your diet. On the other hand, if you are meal prepping because you don’t want to cook every night, that’s great too! Meal prep doesn’t have to be about eating healthy or losing weight. Only if you want it to be.
Question 2: What’s in the pantry you can create a meal around?
After deciding what type of food you want to prepare, check your own grocery store first! Not the Aldi down the street, I mean open up your cupboard, root around the pantry, dig in the freezer and see what you have on hand first. Maybe there’s a box of Mediterranean Lentil Mix that you’ve had for six months. Maybe it’s time to use all those cans of kidney beans.
Chili’s, soups and “bowl” meals are super ways to use frozen produce and canned items that have, perhaps, overstayed their welcome in your kitchen.
Not to mention, most chili’s and soups can be easily executed in large batches in a Crock Pot or Instant Pot, saving you that much more time in prep!
Personally, I receive the Talley Farms Fresh Harvest Box each week. It’s packed full of fresh produce, either grown on Talley Farms or procured from other local farmers. I build my weekly meal prep around the box! Check your local farms to see if they do something similar, and if you are slocal, check out the Harvest Box.
Question 3: How much time will you have to heat up / assemble the meal?
You know what you want to eat, and maybe even have some of the ingredients in your pantry already. Great! What’s next? Consider this: how much time do you actually want to spend reheating and/or assembling at each meal?
Let’s take two extremes, both meal preps I have done: Salad Vs. Tacos.
Salad: Requires NO heat, simply dress and serve. Takes less than five minutes to plate and serve. No reheating time. Easy to assemble quickly, and its great to have on hand when you’ve only got thirty minutes between coming home from work and leaving for nightly activities.
Tacos: You can prep the taco meat, and precut all of the toppings. However, tortillas need to be heated (for soft tacos) or fried (for crunchy). The taco meat needs to be heated, and all of the toppings need to be set out/made available for personal taco dressing. One option to cut back on assembly time is to use store-bought crunchy taco shells. Either way, taco assembly still takes more time than dressing a salad. But it can be a very fun and interactive way to dinner.
Both are great meals, are extremely versatile in what type of ingredients go in them, and can be used for lunch or dinner. However, the big difference is how long it takes to get dinner on the table. If you have some time after work, the tacos are worth it. First of all, because who doesn’t want tacos for dinner every night? And second, having the tacos assembled fresh makes it feel less like meal prep, and more like you just made dinner in half the time! It all depends on what works best for you.
Keep it personal. Look to others for inspiration, but ultimately, don’t be afraid to modify based on your own needs!
Question 4: How much time do you have to spend/want to spend prepping?
One pot or sheet pan meals can be super useful, not to mention time-saving, especially when you are just beginning to develop a meal prep habit! Break out the slow cooker to whip up a batch of pulled pork and roast some veggies in the oven, or take to the internet for a slew of sheet pan, one pot, instant pot and/or crock pot meal recipes.
You don’t *have* to make everything from scratch
in order to “successfully” meal prep.
Making meal prep semi-homemade by starting with a base of rotisserie chicken, or prediced vegetables, even steam-in-a bag microwave rice can give you just enough extra time to make meal prep worth your while! Once it becomes a habit, the time flies by and it’s really just another part of life, like laundry, but more fun because of course, you have to taste test everything.
To start slow, commit to ONE meal-prepped meal per week. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, commit to making it meal-prep and feel it out. Making that one meal ahead of time can be the difference between waking up early to make breakfast, or taking a morning walk instead. You may find that meal prep affords you so much extra time during that week that the few hours you spend on it during the weekend is completely worth it!
Whatever your goal for meal prep, make it your own.
Feel free to experiment, and as always, contact me with any questions! I’d love to hear your feedback and any more questions you’d like to see covered in next month’s Meal Prep article.
Til then, Enjoy!