8 Meal Prep Tips, Ideas, and Recipes You Can Use to Make Life Easier
Don't make another freezer full of meals until you see these tips!
After a long day of work, running errands, and commuting, the idea of cooking a homemade dinner might sound like nails on a chalkboard to you. After all, who really wants to add more work to an already hectic schedule? That's where meal prep comes in. With a little bit of work completed upfront, you can be rewarded with make-ahead casseroles, cooked proteins, and even breakfast and lunch dishes that are ready to eat and can be stored in the freezer or refrigerator. Just reheat your prepared meals, and you will be ready to eat in about as much time as it would take for your favorite restaurant to deliver a takeout order.
Don't start cooking pounds of chicken or breakfast dishes just yet. Whether you want to cook enough to feed your family for the rest of the week or just want to keep a few casseroles stashed in your freezer for a quick dinner option, these 8 Meal Prep Tips, Ideas, and Recipes You Can Use to Make Life Easier will be just what you need to get started. You'll love having these make-ahead recipes, tips, and more right at your fingertips!
Meal Prep Tips for Beginners
If you're new to meal prep, then you might wonder what you should — and shouldn't — do to make it successful for your household. According to Lindsay Livingston, a registered dietician whose website The Lean Green Bean includes tips and resources for planning meals, make-ahead meal tips for beginners include more than just picking some great recipes. “I encourage people to keep it simple in the beginning and not try to do it all. One thing I teach people is to find their focus area,” Livingston wrote in an email. “Think about what time of day you struggle with the most, whether it's not having enough time to make breakfast or always hitting the vending machine because you never pack a snack and then focus on making things to help with that meal.”
When it comes to make-ahead meals, these recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are just what you need! You'll love making these Make-Ahead Meals: 19 Recipes for Every Time of the Day
Think Beyond Your Roasting Pan
Preparing meals in advance doesn't have to be limited to what you can prepare using only your oven. For example, you can fire up your grill to cook a batch of vegetables, including those in the recipe for Grilled Seasonal Vegetables. The prepared vegetables can be served as the filling for a sandwich or other main course, or even as a side dish. In addition, cooking a roast or other type of meat in large quantities is a great time-saver. After the meat is cooked thoroughly, place it in smaller containers for use in soups, stews, and so many more recipes. Other options for preparing meals in advance include cooking stews and soups in the slow cooker, as well as roasting meat in the oven.
Make Meal Prep Recipes Work for Your Family
Children can be notoriously fickle when it comes to food. How can you balance meal prep with kid-friendly options that everyone will love? Livingston noted it all comes down to how families approach meals. “If you believe in only making and serving one meal, then make a plan and don't let your picky eaters derail you,” she wrote in an email. Livingston also noted that families can use meal planning "to ensure you have multiple healthy options on hand."
Rise and Shine with Make-Ahead Breakfast Ideas
Planning and cooking meals for dinner might get all the press, but there are still plenty of ways to cook in advance by utilizing easy breakfast recipes. “Try making a breakfast casserole on Sunday so all you have to do is slice and reheat throughout the week," Livingston wrote. "You can also make things like waffles and pancakes and put them in the freezer. In the morning, all you have to do is pop them in the toaster to reheat them. You can assemble oatmeal packets ahead of time with oats, nuts, dried fruit, etc., so all you have to do is pour them in a bowl, add milk and microwave, or you can try overnight oats," she wrote. Livingston also noted that smoothies can be a quick and easy option for the breakfast rush, as the ingredients can be combined in advance, then blended in the morning.
Shake up Your Lunchtime Routine
Brown-bagging your lunch to work or school can be dull and monotonous. To keep things interesting for lunch, Talia Koren of the website Workweek Lunch suggested what she described as a "buffet-style" type of meal preparation. "You can cook a bunch of different vegetables and protein options that you can easily put together in a Tupperware before heading to work, but still create interesting combinations you won't get bored of," she explained. While you don't have to plan anything ornate for your midday meal, having an assortment of filling and easy lunch recipes and options will make it more appealing.
Crunched for Time? Keep These Tips in Mind
Your brain says that you want to start preparing meals, but your schedule says otherwise. How can someone who is crunched for time even think of spending an afternoon preparing meals? Koren shared a few tips. “Keep staples on hand like vegetables and meat/fish in the freezer, canned legumes, and quinoa or rice,” Koren wrote in an email. “My other tip is to utilize the oven. Often, roasting everything on one pan in the oven is very easy and has lots of passive time so you can clean while everything cooks,” she wrote.
Use Your Freezer for Long-Term Preparation
Opening the door of your freezer to see shelves filled with pre-made options for every meal may sound like something in a dream, but it is feasible. Ashley Nichols of the cooking school Back 2 Basics Cooking, LLC, in Columbia, Missouri, shared a few suggestions. “When freezer cooking, it is important to make a shopping list ahead of time to skip unwanted trips to the store for missed ingredients. To save money, overlap ingredients whenever possible so that you are able to buy in bulk,” she wrote in an email. Finally, keep in mind that a great new recipe just might not be one will appeal to your family. Nichols advised testing a small batch of a new recipe first before making and then freezing a larger batch.
Learn How to Keep Everything Fresh
Cooking enough proteins and vegetables to last a few weeks is one thing, but keeping your prepared items fresh and ready to eat is another story. As you don’t want to toss out your stash of poached chicken or tray of lasagna due to improper storage, you’ll need to keep a few tips on storing food in the refrigerator and freezer in mind. To see a larger version of the graphic above, click here.
*When storing food in the freezer, use containers that are marked as freezer-safe. Otherwise, the containers may become brittle and break in the freezer.
*Be aware of the proper and safe length of time to store cooked food in the refrigerator or freezer. According to the University of Illinois Extension, cooked meat and leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days, and stored in the freezer for up to three months. Use labels or stickers to write the expiration dates of prepared food so you can stay organized and reduce food waste.
*Use airtight containers to store your prepared food, and keep a tight lid on containers, too. A bowl of cooked potatoes left uncovered in the refrigerator is an invitation for spoilage.
*Check the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer. Your meal prep will be all for naught if your appliances aren’t maintaining optimal operating temperatures, which could lead to bacteria growth. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises keeping your refrigerator temperature set at 40 degrees F or below, while your freezer should be set at 0 degrees F.
*If a prepared meal looks or smells off, or you can’t remember when you cooked it, then throw it away. It is better to discard food than to take your chances by eating food that may be spoiled.
Are you looking for even more easy weeknight dinner ideas? We have you covered! This free eCookbook has plenty of recipes that everyone will love. Get started by taking a look at these 12 Easy Weeknight Dinners: Dinner Ideas for Any Night
Discover Recipes That Will Make Meal Prep a Breeze
Cooking large batches of chicken, vegetables, and so much more can go a long way to making meal planning a breeze, as these recipes are easy to make and can be made in advance. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be easy to make when you use prepared breakfast dishes, chicken, ground beef, and more that you have cooked in advance. After the food is cooled, you can stash your prepared food in the freezer or refrigerator so that it's ready to eat. If you'd like, you can even label the containers with notes on how to reheat and serve each dish.
Waffles (pictured below): Get your morning off to a great start when you make a batch of these delicious waffles! This easy recipe can be reheated in a toaster, then topped with syrup or sliced fresh fruit.
Slow Cooker Italian Style Pot Roast: Add some nostalgia to your weekly meals with this easy take on the classic pot roast. You'll put your slow cooker to work with this recipe!
Black Lentils: Whether you're a vegetarian or just want to add a few meat-free options to your meals, this easy recipe for black lentils is just what you need. You can serve this recipe for a few days, too.
Lasagna al Forno: When it comes to meal planning recipes, there's nothing quite like lasagna! You'll love having a tray of this comfort dish in your refrigerator or freezer. This recipe can be made with ground beef or vegetables.
Poached Chicken Thighs: Did you stock up on chicken thighs on sale at the grocery store? Then you'll want to get cooking with this easy recipe. You can use the chicken thighs in a number of your favorite recipes, and even store the cooked chicken for use in stir-fry, soup, and other favorite meals.
What is your favorite tip for meal prep?