Healthy eating and sticking to a specific dietary protocol isn’t as hard as it sounds when we commit to some very simple time and money saving tricks. Some of these will be a good reminder, others may be new ideas. We’ve taken some concepts employed in restaurants and commercial kitchens and applied them for home cooks to learn to be more productive, efficient and hopefully, turn an inevitable task into a good time!
We’d like to take a moment to let our readers know these are tried and true recommendations and we are not affiliated with any of the products or services mentioned. We want to provide ways to help people save time and money with their meal preparations so they feel good about the food they are preparing and not resentful of the process. Meal prep can be a chore, but it doesn’t have to feel (completely) like one!
It all starts with our pre-prep, prep.
- Consider your menu for the week. Create it around the “biggest” meal you typically eat. This will likely be dinner for the family each night. Leftover components can make great breakfasts and lunches, take this in to account. Consider cooking by theme. This will help ensure you have complimentary ingredients on hand and will cut down on waste as we’ll touch on later.
- Write it down. Make a chart or a graph – they needn’t be fancy. But really commit to as many days as you prefer to shop for multiplied by as many meals and snacks you eat per day. This is usually the most intimidating part. Committing to set meals for each day seems very rigid at first, but can greatly reduce anxiety on the subject, as well curtailing “cheat” meals that can adversely affect us, derail our dietary protocol, and probably ding our budget because we dined out instead.
- Engineer your menu like a chef! What can you get the most mileage out of due to portion size the first time it’s cooked – like brown rice or quinoa? Shelf life is extremely important as well. You’re not likely to bring Monday night’s sushi for lunch on Friday! The math can be a little daunting figuring out all your individual ingredient quantities ahead of time, but worth the effort when you’re not running to the store Thursday night because you don’t have enough of something, or need an extra ingredient to make something else work.
- Take inspiration for full meals around a single ingredient you are forced to buy in a larger quantity than you needed for just one meal or dish. When we consider the food we throw away, it’s rarely the whole chicken, or package of steaks. It’s always the half bag of cilantro left to waste away forgotten in the bottom drawer after Taco Night. Or the leftover veggies from dinner that we should have just thrown out because they weren’t quite enough for a full portion! One great example of avoiding this: make a Saturday morning crustless quiche (or three) with those leftover dinner veggies (and proteins, too) that cilantro we mentioned, and even probably the leftover cheese from Taco Night too!
- Organize that shopping list! It sounds a little crazy, but writing your shopping list in order of department, and the flow of your path through the store saves a ton of time running back for the things you accidentally missed on an unorganized list. A lot of grocery stores have mobile apps that will organize your shopping list in such a way, and will even auto-load store coupons and specials right to your phone! Many even have recipe suggestions that will auto-populate your shopping list in their app.
- Set yourself up for success. Make sure before you leave for the store you’re leaving an organized and clean fridge. Make sure you’ve run your dishwasher and it’s unloaded and ready for use. Gather your storage containers and make sure they’re all accessible. Make sure your counters are clutter-free.
Saving time will save you time!
- Most meal prep days start with a trip to the store. Usually the “big” grocery shop for the week. For many families that can be an exhausting exercise in and of itself. With dressing and motivating the troops, the drive, the shop itself, the loading and unloading, we’re talking at least over an hour just to procure what you need! Consider online shopping if you haven’t already. Retailers like Amazon.com and ThriveMarket.com ship almost ANYTHING these days. They have subscription services for the things you use all the time (think toilet paper, laundry detergent, paper towels) that can be set up monthly, quarterly, even yearly. Most of these services end up charging less than brick and mortar stores for the same products and ship for free, so you save time and money. This doesn’t sound like a meal prep strategy at first, but when you cut your grocery list down to just produce, fresh dairy, and proteins, you’re in and out in no time with just a few bags to wrestle. Not starting meal prep already tired is a huge plus in our book! In addition to non-perishables many online retailers sell your favorite pantry staples (again, for the same amount or less than the brick and mortar stores). This wipes out another entire section of the store you can avoid entirely. You can easily get your hour or more trip down to twenty minutes or less!
- The Instant Pot! As we mentioned earlier, we are not affiliated with any product or service. We do however, spend a sizable amount of time prepping and cooking and are in love with any device that makes our lives easier. If you’re not familiar with this gadget yet, it’s part slow cooker, part pressure cooker, all amazing! For a million reasons, pressure cookers sort of lost their appeal, or never gained much among many cooks. This is a self-contained, fool-proof, countertop, digital version for the 21st century! Dishwasher safe so clean up is a breeze, the Instant Pot comes with many pre-sets. Including: rice, beans, soup, and yogurt (yes, you can totally make your own organic, sugar free yogurt, this thing is that cool). Pressure cooking allows for very fast cooking. It can cook frozen proteins in no time. For us that often translates to stocking up on proteins when they’re on sale, stashing them in the freezer, then inevitably forgetting to remove said protein from the freezer before meal time! We’ve all been there. Just check the cooking chart and cook from frozen any number of frozen items. And in the fraction of the time! The Instant Pot comes in a variety of sizes. The list of things this device can do seems never ending. But whole chickens, whole roasts, hard boiled eggs are just a few of things that end up in ours on meal prep day – and like with old school slow cookers or crock pots, you can walk away and not feel compelled to pay any attention to it until the (significantly reduced) cook time is up!
- Prep large batches of produce at one time. Cut up all the broccoli florets you need for the week. Rice the cauliflower you’ll need for the next couple night’s stir-frys. Remember that many veggies cannot be “pre-washed” and stored with much luck. (Think leafy greens). But many other veggies can. No harm in having your mise en place prepped ahead of time, leaving the time spent while preparing the actual meal that much faster. This goes for proteins too! For example, if you know you’ll need cubed chicken twice in the coming days, cube it all at once and store it together. Use what you need as you need it. Strips of bell peppers, cleaned and cut celery, diced onion, cheese you’ve shred, the sky is almost the limit!
- Speaking of mise en place, this system is imperative for efficient cooking. Many a French chef can’t be wrong! Before getting started collect what you’ll need and make sure everything is within reach. This includes all of your ingredients, cutlery, cutting boards, herbs, spices, appliances, and storage containers. Grab a stack of dishtowels for good measure. Failing to plan is planning to fail, after all. Think like a chef – commercial kitchens do not operate flawlessly because they didn’t prepare themselves before service starts. A chef’s station is fully outfitted before the prepping or cooking ever begins. If you ever get the chance to see a chef leaving his or her station multiple times, it’s likely due to the fact they didn’t properly prepare themselves first. You want to save yourself as many unnecessary steps as you can.
Keep it clean!
- Food borne illness and cross contamination is a very real concern, especially during the preparation phase. Food poisoning is a serious, albeit temporary, condition that should be avoided at all costs. It is possible for E. Coli to come in to our lives by way of produce. Keep it bagged up until you are ready for it. And when you are, give it a thorough scrubbing and drying (when able). Salmonella is notorious for finding its way into human lives and intestinal tracts by raw or undercooked poultry. The list of these nasties goes on and on. Reduce the risk by keeping raw ingredients separated until it’s time to cook them. Wash then prep all the produce you need, then refrigerate it immediately if it is not being cooked yet or at all. Then, and only then, work with your animal proteins, washing all tools and surfaces in between. And wash your hands between handling any new food, but you knew that already.
- Clean as you go! If you are constantly cleaning as you go, you won’t finish your project only to find yourself staring at stacks of dirty dishes and a new project to start. Load the dishwasher with unneeded items in between prep projects. There’s an old cliche in the hospitality industry called “full hands in, full hands out.” Meaning, if you’re entering the kitchen, your hands should be full. Leaving the kitchen? Bet you can guess. Same thing while meal prepping. Make every step count, multitask!
Know your limits!
At some point, we all have a set amount of time we are willing to commit ourselves to our healthy diet. Spending hours prepping each week can quickly dim the light of even the most positive attitude and good intentions. Especially if one doesn’t particularly enjoy cooking.
- Come to terms with a few conveniences. But make them worth it. Personally, we buy triple washed leafy greens for example. Of course, it’s less expensive to buy a head or two of lettuce and wash it at home. But unfortunately, without commercial drying techniques, pre-washing and bagging leafy greens at home usually ends up with a bag of wilted, or slimy, lettuce, in half the time. It’s okay to accept the fact that some convenience items are, well, convenient. Just don’t give in to the temptation to buy prepared everything!
- Feeling particularly energetic one day? Make extras! So many things freeze so well, and can be stored for a rainy day. Soups, muffins, frittatas to name a few are a snap to make in large quantities for easy, frozen storage.
Regardless of what dietary protocol you may follow, or none at all, being pragmatic with our cooking makes nourishing ourselves and our loved ones that much easier. And once some, or all, of these tips become more of a habit for you, we think you’ll save yourself time and money, which makes even the most passionate cooks, very, very happy!