How to Meal Plan and Prep for the Family on the Go
January 11, 2023
It’s the beginning of a new year and you have made a resolution to eat more healthy foods. You take the step to go grocery shopping and stock up with healthy options. You get home after a long and busy day and you feel tired, need to get something together quickly so you can drive someone to basketball practice, have a house that may need some attention, begin to feel overwhelmed and can’t even think clearly on what you want to make for dinner that evening and almost paralyzed in deciding. So you grab the frozen pizza or box of spaghetti and say “tomorrow” to your healthier intentions. This is called decision fatigue and it is a real thing that can make individuals with the best intensions derail quite quickly. There is a way to combat decision fatigue and plan for success.
Meal planning and prepping is a great tool that can allow you to take control back of your busy weekday dinners and follow through on the healthy intentions you set for your family. I am going to take you through my step-by-step process and share my tips on how to help you succeed in planning and prepping in advance.
- Schedule a time for your meal planning 3-5 days in advance (or just prior to your shopping day). For me, it’s Thursday nights. I’m back from taking my daughter to dance, have the kids in bed, and know Thursdays at 8pm are my meal prep time. I make my favorite cup of hot tea and dive in.
- Have a meal prep notebook. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Write down the days of the week you for which you are prepping. Since I plan on Thursdays, I start with Friday and do the weekend and the following week Monday-Thursday. This way I already know if I have leftovers yet in the fridge (and can plan on using those) OR if I need to plan new meals. After my days per week I draw a line in my notebook and under that is where I write my shopping list.
- Pull out your favorite cookbooks, homemade recipe cards, or online recipe holder. Talk about decision fatigue…nothing is more exhausting then having to try and pull out of thin air 7 dinners, lunches for home and school/work, and breakfasts. Having resources that you can simply open a book, flip through a card, or look at your options make this process MUCH easier.
- Find a cookbook you like – go to your local library and page through the cookbooks and see which ones has a variety of recipes that you and your family would like. I’m a fan of the instant pot recipes – quick and easy for us! Bonus, there have been a variety of healthy cook books using this gadget out in the last 5 years.
- Make homemade recipe cards – if you are less into books and more into your own casseroles, soups, and recipes, write them down! Create a homemade recipe book or recipe cards. This will remind you of all the things you know how to (and like to) make. As a bonus, copies of your written recipes it makes a great gift for family and friends who enjoy your cooking!
- Have an online recipe holder – Do you have 500 bookmarked recipe videos on facebook? You see something good and think you’ll go back to watch that when it comes time to grocery shopping? Sounds good in theory, but if you are like me, most of those are never seen again. I found the app Paprika and love using this to import online recipes and organize ingredient lists, instructions, links to the original recipe, and even include photos.
- As you write down your meals, add ingredients to your grocery list. Here’s a tip: can you find a recipe or two that uses the same ingredients? Two different recipes using purple cabbage? Or two different recipes for chicken? This is a meal prep and budget-friendly tip if you are using similar ingredients, you can avoid waste and prep items all together at one time.
- BONUS IDEAS: make notes on how you can meal prep in advance. Can you bake all your chicken breasts together and divide into two containers for meal 1 and meal 2? Can you chop up all the veggies you need and organize those by meal. Making brown rice as a side? Use it for 2 dishes and make a large batch. Have a sauce you are using? Make it ahead and plan to mix it in that day. Make notes so come meal prep day you know exactly what you are doing. It may also help influence which recipes you select.
- Utilize online grocery pick-ups. Ever since I had my second child, I began using online grocery pick-ups. It’s a very quick and convenient way to plan for what you need, search exact ingredients, and I find it helps me stick to my grocery budget because I’m not walking through the entire store seeing all sorts of other items. Plus, a big pet peeve of mine is those produce bags – I seem to always struggle getting them to open to put my cucumbers in. Problem solved. Instacart is available in our area for Festival and Aldi pick-ups and Walmart also has an online grocery pick up option!
- Organize your groceries in your fridge. A great tip I picked up from the author of my favorite cook ahead cookbook (Cassy Joy of FedandFit.com) shared to organize your groceries and meals in your fridge for better and easier access. My two produce pull out drawers now function in this way: All new produce goes into the left drawer. All existing produce from the previous week (if any is leftover) goes into the right drawer. My more stable items (carrots, apples, etc) tend to find themselves in the right drawer. This way I always know what to grab/eat first and plan to use come meal plan the following week. You can even utilize plastic bins and place all ingredients for a particular meal in that bin so you can grab out of the fridge and go during the week.
- Plan to make portions of your meals ahead, all at one time. If you used our bonus tip above, you already have your list ready to go (don’t worry if you didn’t, you can simply do that step here). Cook your protein ahead of time, all together. While you wait for the oven to heat up, chop your veggies. Roast your veggies in advance. While things are cooking, get your sauces made. You’d be surprised how individual parts can be prepped and cooked ahead of time and simply assembling it together the day of still brings out a delicious homemade and fresh taste. And don’t forget to do you dishes as you go. That’s the beauty of taking a chunk of time to do this at once – knock out the cooking (and dishes) when you have the time and energy to do so. In our household this timeframe varies. Sometimes we do it Saturday mornings (my husband and I are both morning people, so why not?), other times we do it Sundays after church. It’s more fun and goes faster if you have someone to help. Put on some fun music or listen to your favorite podcast to make the time more enjoyable (and I love maximizing my productivity that way!)
- Keep a copy of your meal plan on the counter. This way whomever is home first can step in and help – no need to wait just for you to get home and direct the dinner show. The more detailed you can be, the better help you’ll get. I may reference the recipe (book xxx page xxx), notes about what is already prepped in fridge, steps they need to finish or assembly notes. My husband and I thrive with this plan. Most days he is home first, so he can get a jump start on final prep work (which often is 10-20 minutes tops) and my kids and I can have a hot and fresh meal ready to go as soon as we walk through the door.
I can’t tell you the number of times later afternoon meetings, appointments, or sports practices have left us saying “should we just pick something up?” and the answer is always “oh, no we have things prepped and ready to assemble at home in 10 minutes”. It keeps us on track with our health goals, budget goals, and maximizes our family time during busy work and school weeks. The minimal dishes during the week is also a big plus.
If the idea of doing this all on your own is completely overwhelming (I totally see how it would be), but you like the concept, consider getting this book: Cook Once, Eat All Week and Cook Once, Dinner Fix. Cassy Joy Garcia takes ALL of the work off of your plate (no pun intended) and puts it in step-by-step pieces for you to follow. She even includes recipe lists for you. My weekday meals for the last 2 years have primarily come from these two books and it has been a life-changer for us. Plus the recipes are absolutely delicious!
You don’t have to implement this plan from A-Z all at once and right away. Pick and choose portions that may help and slowly build your way up to creating a process that works for you and your family. Have any questions? Reach out to me DrMaryRose@newlifept.com.