Tired of takeout or a last-minute stop at the grocery store? Try these meal planning ideas to make dinner prep a breeze.
Answering that "what's for dinner?" question day in, day out can get pretty exhausting, TBH. (That's probably why so many meal delivery services are doing booming business.) But if you'd rather DIY your dinner prep (and don't want to keep ordering takeout), smart meal prep ideas and tactics can help you stay fed without scrambling to figure out what to do with limp produce drawer leftovers.
Benefits of Meal Plans
It may feel like you're making things complicated by planning your meals in advance and working out your grocery list. But meal prep can have huge payoffs in time, money, and reducing waste. Check out some of the benefits of meal planning:
You'll reduce food (and budget!) waste
Food waste is a major issue, with literal tons of past-its-prime food getting tossed every day. By planning a menu that makes use of everything on your grocery list, you'll get the most out of every dollar you spend on food. (And with grocery prices on an upswing, you'll definitely want to use every morsel you pay for.)
Minimize grocery store trips
Ever had some dinner inspiration, only to realize one key ingredient is missing from your kitchen? Great meal planning will ensure that you have everything you need on hand for that week's meals—so you only have to hit the grocery store once a week.
Be prepped for busy days
By planning ahead, you can look at the calendar and plot out the easiest dinners (like slow-cooker recipes or pre-prepped, build-your-own-bowl-type meals) on days when you've got too much on your plate.
Make dinner faster
Some of the best menu prep ideas suggest setting aside a few hours a week to bulk prep ingredients—making it easy to simply reheat and mix and match ingredient building blocks to make several new dishes.
Weekly Meal Prep Ideas and Strategies
Menu planning may seem complicated, but if you follow a few smart strategies, you'll get up to speed in no time flat.
Take it easy to start
Before you buy a bumper crop of kale and peppers for your first go around, ease yourself into meal planning. "Start with fewer meals that require lots of different fresh ingredients—one or two recipes per week that might require a lot of fresh ingredients, and three or four that are comprised primarily of pantry or frozen ingredients," says Kylie Perrotti, founder of Tried & True and author of The Weekly Meal Plan Cookbook. "It can be daunting looking in your refrigerator, seeing piles and piles of vegetables to get through, and even more so if you get busy and just don’t feel like chopping or prepping fresh ingredients."
Stock up on shelf-stable staples
A well-stocked pantry and freezer can be the springboard to a whole lot of creative meals. Perrotti's a big fan of canned beans for their versatility. "You can make a filling dinner using up any of those leftover vegetables in your fridge by just frying up the aromatics—leeks, onion, peppers, ginger, or celery—in a little oil, adding spices, throwing in some filler if you have it—like potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and then adding a can or two of beans and enough liquid just to cover them–usually 4–5 cups water or store-bought stock."
Simply simmer, then add in leftover greens or herbs at the last minute. "The options are endless, and I guarantee you likely have ingredients for some variation of quick brothy beans on any given day of the week, whether you plan it or not," Perrotti says.
Grains like quinoa and farro can be the base for quick and healthy meals. "You can pair the grains with beans, chicken, tofu, fish and finish with a dressing," says Nicolle Walker, executive chef and owner of Love and Plates
Shop in season
Using seasonal ingredients usually means making meals that suit the current weather—and ingredients that can last a bit longer in the fridge. "Using what is currently available in your area is always going to be fresher than what gets trucked or flown in from other areas," Walker says. "When produce makes it to your grocery store from out of town, it has been picked and harvested up to two weeks previously, which means that the flavors and nutrients are greatly diminished. Additionally, you are supporting your local economy when you eat in season. You are helping to keep your neighbors in business."
Use fast-to-expire produce first
Save the shelf-stable meals for the end of the week, and opt for the fresher recipes right after you grocery shop. "Plan your meals according to the shelf life of your vegetables," Perrotti says. "Delicate vegetables like asparagus do not last long in the fridge. Hardier vegetables, like carrots and cabbage, last quite a bit longer."
Prep mix-and-match meal building blocks
Prepare a few key ingredients ahead of time to help streamline your dinner prep. "Pick two proteins, three vegetables, and either a grain or a green salad," Walker says. "Prepare two to three pounds of each protein—you don't need to portion it out, just have it cooked and ready to go—roast or sauté your vegetables, and cook your grains in stock and herbs. This gives you the building blocks to create meals all week long that can be different at every meal to avoid boredom."
Cluster recipes around similar ingredients
Recipes may use a lot less of an ingredient (particularly herbs and veggies) than you can buy in the store—as anyone knows who's tossed out a bunch of wilted herbs or a soggy pepper can attest. So if you're going to splurge on fresh basil or a multi-pack of peppers, look for recipes that'll use up most (if not all) of your produce before it goes bad.
Organize your fridge to make meal prep easier
"When you are putting away your groceries, group them by recipe so that it is easy to grab everything when it's time to cook," Walker says. That'll help ensure you don't end up with a little lost lemon drying out in the back of your fridge.
Invest in a few key tools
While the ingredients are important, having the right tools on hand can help make meal prep a real breeze. Walker swears by the Instapot for prepping large quantities of meat, and recommends investing in containers of various sizes and good knives. "A sharp knife is essential to making the work feel easier," Walker says. "If you are working with dull knives, your cutting and chopping will take significantly longer and be more dangerous, which can be frustrating and make you give up the process."
Perrotti recommends a cordless food processor to make it easy to chop and blend anywhere in your kitchen, and a dutch oven or other ovenproof pan.
Work in a "dump" recipe
Some dishes present great ways to use odds and ends of herbs or vegetables, or leftovers from previous meals. It's the perfect meal right before you grocery shop, to help clean out the bins and make room for next week's bounty.
"Salads, soups, stir-fries, and frittatas are all great ways to salvage the past-their-prime herbs and vegetables in your crisper," Perrotti says. "You can chop up old herbs and toss them with greens or you can add them to a food processor with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard for a quick herby vinaigrette. Soups are a great way to save your wrinkly vegetables from having to meet their demise in the garbage can."
Perrotti tosses older or wrinkly veggies into a big pot with a whole chicken covered with water to make delicious chicken soup and minimize waste.
Have some fun with sauces and spices
Adding a different spice or sauce to your same basic chicken recipe is a quick and easy way to mix things up—so seek out some options to add to your spice rack or pantry. "Once you have some nice spice blends, you’ll be surprised at how quickly dinner comes together on nights you just don’t feel like cooking," Perrotti says. "I always carve out an easy day in my meal plan where I cook meat or plant-based protein in a store-bought simmer sauce or spice blend. I’ll pile it on rice or noodles and serve it with a simple salad or steamed vegetables on the side.
She suggests a few options to get you started:
Brooklyn Delhi’s Tikka Masala simmer sauce
Grumpy Ginger’s Malaysian Red Curry
New York Shuk’s Shawarma Spice
Make a little (or a lot!) extra
If you're already putting in the effort, go ahead and expand the recipe beyond what you'll need for dinner, Walker suggests. "That will give you leftovers for either lunch or dinners for when you just don't want to, can't cook, or need something on the go." (The freezer and freezer-friendly bags are a great way to stash leftovers for longer than a few days.)
Lean on Taco Tuesdays and Pizza Fridays
Getting people fed easily (and deliciously) is the key goal for meal prep—and trying to come up with totally fresh meal prep ideas week after week may be trying a little too hard. "Meal planning doesn’t mean you have to cook five-star dinners every night of the week, or find seven distinct recipes that use a ton of different ingredients," Perrotti says. "It’s really about learning how to effectively stock your pantry and refrigerator with a good mix of fresh and shelf-stable items so that you can always cook something in the event your meal plan goes off the rails—and trust me, it will occasionally!"
If you're looking to get a little more variety into your menu planning, Perrotti suggests taking three or four key recipes and simply tweaking them a bit each week, by using different meat and veggie combos, different sauces or spices, or other elements to mix it up and keep boredom at bay.
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