Wouldn’t it be great to always have an answer to the question, “what’s for dinner?” Or even better – what if you knew that many of the fresh, healthy ingredients you need to prepare that dinner will be chopped, sliced, or already cooked before you get home tonight?
Does this sound like a domestic dream-come-true? It is… but it’s a dream that you can achieve. And you won’t need to a personal sous chef.
I’m asking you to be your own sous chef – with a family meal planning and meal prep routine.
I realize that I’m asking you to create a new habit for yourself, which is a big deal. And I’ll be honest – like all habits, this one takes time and practice to become routine. But if you can spend just a little time on the weekends, making a list of weekly meals, and then preparing some fresh ingredients in advance, you’ll create added convenience for yourself all week. And you know that sinking feeling you get when someone asks the dreaded question – “what’s for dinner?” – you won’t feel that anymore.
Family meal planning helps us eat healthier meals, waste less food, and save money all week. We eat a lot less takeout, prepare meals faster, and eat more fruits and vegetables. And we still have lots of variety – we don’t eat the same leftovers all week, and we still have the flexibility to go off-plan once in a while. My system is simple to learn, works with either pen-and-paper or digital tools, and is easy to turn into a habit.
Meal prep takes meal planning a step beyond dinner, and enables you to prepare highly-nutritious and packable breakfasts and lunches for the week ahead, in one session. No more rushing around to pack last-minute lunches. Meal prep saves even more money and keeps your family healthy by helping you avoid heavy restaurant meals at lunchtime.
In this four-part series, I’ll take you through the why and how of meal planning and meal prep, and walk you through some important steps that will help you plan meals for the coming week, shop strategically, get dinner on the table faster, and prepare healthy breakfasts and lunches in advance.
- Part One: learn about the benefits of meal planning and meal prep, and how it will have an impact on your week, your wallet, and the world.
- Part Two: I’ll walk you through my step-by-step meal planning system that makes weekly meal planning fast and easy, every time. I’ll also provide some handy meal planning templates to either download and print, or use online.
- Part Three: Learn tips and tools for weekly shopping trips – how to make shopping for groceries faster and easier, and how to bring those delicious ingredients home and prepare them in advance to help speed up cooking all week.
- Part Four: I’ll show you how to start a meal prep routine – learn how to pack delicious, nutritious lunches and breakfasts for the week.
Are you ready to free yourself from dinnertime dread? Are you ready to eat healthier meals all day with less effort during your busy work week? Yes? Let’s get started!
What is meal planning?
At its most basic, meal planning is simply writing down (or adding to a calendar) a list of meals you plan to eat during the upcoming week (or more than a week.) It’s best to stick to dinners when you’re first starting out with meal planning, but you can also include lunches and breakfasts. It’s not all or nothing – you can start with dinners now and add lunches and breakfasts later.
What is meal prep?
Meal prep is an extension of family meal planning, wherein you prepare and package meals (usually lunches and/or breakfasts) for yourself and your family in advance. Meal prep can be as simple as making a lot of leftovers from one weekend meal, and portioning the food into containers for lunches each day of the week. Or you can make an extra dish during the weekend and put it in containers. Sometimes it’s as simple as assembling some salad ingredients in Mason jars. The important takeaway is that the meals are ready to reheat, or ready to take with you in the morning.
Why is meal planning important?
Before we get to the how of meal planning, let’s talk about why it is important.
Save mental energy.
Simply writing down the dinners you plan to make during the coming week saves mental energy. You won’t have that “what’s for dinner?” conversation with yourself every late afternoon! Having a plan helps reduce stress, and your whole family knows what to expect on the table each night.
When meals are planned in advance, you can get most of your ingredients in one shopping trip. If you’re like most people, you would appreciate spending less time driving, shopping, waiting in checkout lines, and unloading groceries. You’ll save this “overhead time” each time you avoid a trip to the store.
You can also save time if you cook a meal that you can eat twice in the same week. Be sure to include a meal in your rotation that makes a larger quantity, and have the leftovers for lunch or another dinner during the week.
If you’re ready to take meal planning to the next level, and prep ingredients in advance, you can save even more time throughout the week. Meals can be prepared faster if you don’t have to chop or slice ingredients every time you cook. Think about how easy a stir fry would be if you kept an instant brown sauce in your refrigerator, and had all those sliced vegetables ready to throw into the pan. In the time it takes to steam some rice (20 minutes), you could make a delicious homemade stir fry meal. It’s probably faster than delivery!
Making fewer shopping trips saves time, but it also saves money. How? Can you remember a time that you’ve walked into a store with a list, and walked out with exactly that many items? No? That’s because grocery stores know us pretty well as consumers, and they design their stores to promote impulse buys. I know what they’re doing, and I still succumb to a beautiful display, or a new product (on sale!) that I just have to try.
If you’re planning meals in advance, you can take advantage of buying in bulk. Eating chicken dishes twice this week? Buy a family pack of chicken breasts and save money. Are canned tomatoes used frequently in your meals? Buy a case.
Eat less takeout.
We enjoy eating in restaurants, and we enjoy takeout. But most takeout choices are not so great for our health. By planning meals in advance, we avoid defaulting to takeout when we don’t know what to make.
Eat more variety.
Family meal planning is not about eating the same thing all week. By planning in advance, we’re able to work in a large variety of vegetables and fruits into our meals.
Reduce food waste.
Roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away. (Chandler, A. (2016, July 15). Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste. The Atlantic.) When you also consider that 12 percent of American households ,experience food insecurity this is an even more sobering statistic. (Poverty and Hunger Fact Sheet. Feeding America, September 2017.) Meal planning helps reduce food waste by helping you plan when you’ll use the ingredients you purchase, reducing the amount of produce that goes bad before you can use it.
But… do I have time for this?
You might be wondering if weekly meal planning and meal prep will take a lot of time out of your weekend. Yes, it will take time. You’ll be spending some time on the weekends planning meals and chopping vegetables, but you’ll be doing this in only a couple of sessions – not every weekday before each meal. By eliminating the tasks of cleaning vegetables and your cutting board, finding a space on the counter for prep, and doing the prep itself for every meal, you’ll multiply the time you save throughout the week.
Even if you are busy on weekends, I’ll bet you can find 20 minutes to write down some meals you could make next week. If that’s all the time you have, start there. You don’t have to start meal planning and meal prep all at once. Reminder: twenty minutes is just one episode of a lot of shows on Netflix. Put one on in the background and go.
It’s a good place to start.
Are you ready to make a difference… by making dinner?
If you’re ready to have more time to focus on your family, conserve resources by wasting less food, save money, and enjoy cooking more, it’s time to learn how to make a difference…. by making dinner. Helping people cook more homemade meals and eat more meals together is why I started Birdseed Kitchen. I believe with all my heart that cooking for people we love, and sharing meals together, are some of the best ways to love and serve the people we care about. I want to show you how to make home cooking a part of your lifestyle.
Next week, we’re going to dive into the details of how to create a weekly meal plan. I’ll walk you through the steps to creating your own customized meal plan, and share some useful tools that will make it even easier next week (and thereafter.)