5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Meal Prepping
With this framework, you can come up with a doable plan no matter who you're feeding.
Meal planning is like exercise — sometimes it's a struggle to do it, but once you’re done you feel great. And as you do it more and more, it becomes part of your daily routine and is easier to maintain. Meal planning gives me piece of mind throughout the week; I just open my fridge or freezer, and I know I have meal options ready to go. And once you master meal planning for yourself and family, you will find that this skill helps you in all aspects of cooking, especially if you are entertaining.
But where to begin? Here's an easy way to wrap your mind around meal prepping. Each week (usually over the weekend) I ask myself the following questions.
Who Am I Feeding?
This may seem like a silly step, as often it is the same answer every week, but it is good to get into the habit of identifying who you are cooking for and what their needs are. Are you cooking for yourself? Your kids? Are they in school or at home? The answers will help you identify how you need to cook that week. For me, I’m cooking for me and my boyfriend half of the week, and add in his two sons the second half of the week. When it’s just the two of us, I usually plan breakfast and dinner with some sort of light snack in the afternoon. When the boys join us, its breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack and a dessert. With this information I’m able to plan my week.
What Am I Making?
Now’s the time to choose your recipes. Whenever you come across a recipe that you like, save it! (You can do that on the Food Network Kitchen app, by the way — even if the the recipes aren't from Food Network!). When you are super busy, the best way to plan out the weeks’ meals is to work off of the recipes you already know are winners. Food Network Kitchen is a great option for this because you can bookmark your favorite recipes, but you can also save recipes on your computer, mark recipes in cookbooks, or print recipes out and save them somewhere in your kitchen. My mom and I even created a book at home, now known as "The Book," where we write down favorite meals and recipes. Whatever your system is, make sure to have easy access to these items.
What Do I Need to Buy?
I keep a shopping list template on my computer that's broken down by grocery-store categories: Produce, Dairy, Meat, Baking/Dry Goods, Frozen, and Bread. Within each of those categories I always have certain weekly staples. For instance, we always get bananas, oranges, grapes, a green like kale or dandelion greens, bread, pasta, cereal, milk and eggs. A rotisserie chicken is also a fantastic purchase — it can become endless meals. Serve it as a main protein, or shred it for a salad, soup or stew. Once your list is done, check in on your fridge and pantry before heading to the store to note any items you already have. You can purchase almost everything a week in advance. Just make sure you are looking at the expiration dates as you shop, to get an idea of how long the food will be freshest.
When you return home, I like to take the time to clean any produce and store things well. Clean your herbs and greens and wrap them in paper towel and place in a reusable zip-top bag. This will hold the greens all week but also will make prep faster on weeknights. Make sure your bread is wrapped air-tight as well.
What Is My Cooking Schedule?
Usually on Saturday or Sunday (whenever I shopped) I choose one larger recipe to make that I know will give us leftovers; that could be a lasagna, a big pot of tomato sauce and meatballs or a braised pork butt that can then be shredded and turned into tacos, enchiladas, or added to soup. Then over the weekend, I do other prep like cutting vegetables and lettuce for salads, shredding chicken, and hard-boiling eggs. I store these items in the fridge so that I have a meal ready quickly if needed. Then I read through the recipes I chose and identify things I can make ahead. If it’s a soup, stew or braise, I know I can cook that a few days in advance. If it’s a roast chicken with roasted vegetables, I know I can chop the vegetables 1-2 days in advance. If it’s a casserole you can make that the day before and store it in the fridge. You can also take advantage of your freezer — I have a class on Food Network Kitchen that breaks down how and what to store in your freezer called "Everything You Need to Know About Freezing Your Food." Just make sure to remove any meals you froze the night before and place them in the refrigerator so they are thawed the next day.
During the week, I use the prep I did over the weekend to make the meals I already choose and shopped for. No need to make more stops at the grocery store, and no need to wonder what I’m making — I have a plan and I follow it.
What Can I Do for Next Week?
If you follow the steps outlined above, you probably will find that you don’t have to do as much cooking in the latter half of the week. During this time I like to go through the fridge and pantry and do a little organizing. If I’ve had something in the pantry for a while, I put it front-and-center so I make sure to use it next week. I go through the fridge and freezer to see what meals might be left and also compost anything that has spoiled. This way, when I start this process all over I’m ready!