It's not easy to make good food choices when you lead a busy life, and let's face it, we're all leading busy lives! Juggling the demands of friends, family, faith and career, life can often get in the way and make it difficult to find the time to prepare healthy, nourishing meals for your family. But what if I told you there was a way to save both time and money, prepare healthier meals and at the same time preserve your sanity?
There is indeed a way and it's as simple as undertaking a little advance meal planning and prep work. With the Dashing Dish resources at your fingertips (stay tuned this Friday when we share our new pre-made meal plans), as well as the following tried-and-true tips and tricks, you'll be an old pro in the art of meal prepping more quickly and easily than you might've imagined.
Let's get started!
1. Work with the time you have. Setting aside a 1-2 hour block of time to plan and prep your weekly meals all at once works great for some people while others may find it easier to split up prep time into several 30-minute blocks throughout their weekend or week. Work with the time that you personally have in your schedule and don't feel that prepping everything in one sitting is your only option. To make this a long-term change, you will need to make sure that it fits into your personal lifestyle so feel free to tweak as needed to make it work for you.
2. Put the Dashing Dish member tools to good use. Both the Calendar & Grocery List tools were created precisely for the purpose of making meal planning and grocery shopping an absolute breeze! Simply add the meals and snacks you want to eat that week to the calendar and grocery list and then access your grocery list (printable or via DD app) while you're shopping to ensure you have all of the ingredients you will need to prepare them. The DD grocery list even displays ingredients by category so you can check all of the produce items off your list in one fell swoop for example vs backtracking multiple times for those bananas and sweet potatoes at the very end.
Now, if you're really crunched for time and/or the thought of meal planning just seems too intimidating for you, you can always download one of the pre-made weekly meal plan/grocery list combos I put together and post to the DD blog on Saturday mornings. Easy peasy!
3. Batch prep ingredients by category. This is by far the biggest time saver for me, particularly when my meal plan includes several dishes with like ingredients. If you're not sure where to start, you can't go wrong with Sarah's 5-Step Meal Prep method which consists of prepping meats first followed by starches/baked goods and then finally fruits and vegetables.
Meats/Proteins: Cut off excess fat, portion and cut up meats for the recipes in your weekly meal plan. You can then take this time to hard-boil eggs, brown any ground beef/chicken/turkey you'll need as well as pre-cook chicken to be used in a variety of different recipes. My go-to for batch cooking chicken is Easiest Crock Pot Pulled Chicken which only requires adding a few simple ingredients to your crock pot before you "set it and forget it". If you have an Instapot or pressure cooker, this recipe can be made even more quickly at just 20-25 minutes cook time! See this DD blog post for more how-to tips to convert recipes from Crock Pot to Instapot/pressure cooker.
Starches and Baked Goods: Using pre-ground almond flour, coconut flour and/or oat flour, you can then prep and bake any baked goods/snacks in your meal plan. Some DD favorites include Clean Eating Blueberry Muffins, Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein Muffins and No Bake Cookie Protein Balls. You can also start cooking any quinoa, potatoes/sweet potatoes, rice or pasta at this time that you'll need for recipes and/or meal accompaniments throughout the week.
Fruits and Vegetables: Last but not least, it’s time to prepare your fruits and veggies. Wash and dry all of your produce first and then start slicing, dicing, chopping and/or spiralizing your fruits and veggies for recipes as well as snacks. If you have a food processor or blender with a pulse mode, you can also use these to make quick work of chopping/dicing a variety of different vegetables.
You will truly be amazed how quickly your DD recipes will come together with everything prepped and ready to go!
4. Take shortcuts whenever possible. That's right I said it. Whether you're new to meal planning or you just don't have the luxury of time, feel free to take some shortcuts to minimize your prep time and clean-up. After all, if it means the difference between unhealthful eating and healthful eating, isn't it worth it? One such shortcut that saves a lot of prep time is buying pre-cut/pre-prepped vegetables and fruits such as shredded carrots, cut vegetables (such as the pre-cubed butternut squash for 15-Minute Cheesy Butternut Squash Pasta) and spiralized zucchini, cucumber or sweet potato noodles. Another shortcut would be buying frozen vegetables vs fresh since they are pre-washed and chopped and you can be assured that they won’t go bad if you don’t get around to using them. Cauliflower rice is one pre-prepped frozen vegetable that I buy frequently. Last but not least, line your baking pans with foil and use crock pot liners when possible for quick and easy clean-up.
5. Double up your prep and freeze. Freezing is a great way to preserve foods longer and truly goes hand-in-hand with batch prepping. Does your family love Baked Mac and Cheese, Buffalo Chicken Enchiladas and Homestyle Lasagna as much as mine does? Next time you prepare them, make a double batch and freeze one for an even quicker and easier weeknight meal in the future! Of course you can use any glass or metal baking dishes you already have for freezing but you could also use inexpensive disposable baking pans covered with foil to avoid tying up your regular bakewear for an extended time. The disposables can either be washed and reused if desired or tossed for easy clean-up.
For freezing, dishes can either be cooked fully prior to being frozen for the utmost convenience (just thaw and reheat!) or frozen prior to baking so that they can then be baked fresh when you're ready to enjoy them. You can then just thaw the prepared dish and bake according to regular directions or bake straight from frozen by covering the dish with foil and adding roughly 45 minutes to the normal cook time. The foil will prevent burning, aid in more even cooking throughout and can be removed the last 10-15 minutes for a more traditionally browned top.
See the Preparing Freezer Meals in Large Batches post for what I made and froze before Madeline was born!
6. Store already-prepped meals ready to cook. Traditionally, I have set aside some time on my Sunday afternoons to prepare and cook all of our meals for the week which are then portioned into individual plastic containers for the ultimate in grab-and-go convenience. Alternately, after prepping your meats/proteins, grains/starches and produce, you can then portion/measure out whole recipes complete with any canned goods, liquids and seasonings into food storage bags or containers to make weeknight cooking a snap. This tactic is especially suited to crockpot and one-pan/one-dish recipes where all ingredients are combined from the start and which may otherwise require too much advance prep to be truly convenient for busy weekday mornings. For example, One Pan Roasted Balsamic Chicken & Vegetables is a favorite in our household and can make for a quick weeknight dinner so long as the chicken, veggies and seasonings are prepped in this way beforehand. This tactic can also be used for other DD recipes as well but be sure to keep the cooking process in mind and keep any ingredients separate that need to be added at different points in the cooking process vs all together.
7. Make your lunches, leftovers and snacks easy to grab-and-go. Salads, soups, sandwiches and leftovers from dinner make weekday lunches easy when they're stored in individual portions. Likewise, making up snack-size bags of fruits, veggies and other snacks to take with you ensure that you'll be eating healthfully all day, even when those between-meals munchies strike.
Meal planning and preparing ahead of time really do play such an important role in finding success in a long-term healthy lifestyle AND they carry the not-to-be-understated value of saving you precious time during the busy workweek as well. Using the time you have in your personal schedule, utilizing the Dashing Dish Calendar and Grocery List tools at your disposal and the meal planning and prep tips I've shared here, I'm confident that you have everything you need to get started. Cheers to your best year yet!