The secret to having homemade, healthful, sane, weeknight meals is meal prep.
Getting dinner on the table during the week seems to bring out the crazy around here.Meal prep is something that I resisted for a very long time. I always thought that if I meal-planned, I was doing all I could to simplify our meals. But, as my two kiddos have grown, our schedules have become busier. And sometimes the amount of time we have between when we all get home and when we need to eat dinner just doesn’t allow for doing it all right then.
With the spring weather rolling in, I would much rather spend the late afternoon in the sunshine with the kids than in the kitchen by the stove.
My guys get off the bus at 4:30ish, so by the time they walk in the door, it’s go-time. Add in that they are each in a sport that practices on a different night of the week and my hubs sometimes has work events that tie-up his evenings and our schedule has quickly become a bit messy. And…I’m the manager of it all.
Since I regard dinnertime as the most important meal of our day, it’s not in my blood to let it take a backseat.
Instead, I make sure that I’m prepping for it throughout the week instead of giving up 4 hours on a precious Saturday or Sunday.
So, here’s how to meal prep if you want to ease your way into it.
1. Never prep without a meal plan.
Plain and simple: You MUST decide what you’re serving for dinner throughout the week if you want to meal prep. Prepping without planning is just busy work and setting yourself up to toss out a lot of food.
2. Cook a big meal on the weekend that can do double duty throughout the week.
I love to cook a pork shoulder in the crockpot and then use it a couple of ways throughout the week. You can serve it as BBQ, in tacos, in a grilled Cuban sandwich or in a rice bowl or wrap. And, if you get a large enough cut, you can freeze some of what you cook to make a week down the road even simpler. Other foods that are great to bulk cook are chuck roasts, soups, chicken breasts, and grilled veggies. Check out this post on Fall Comfort Foods for three great soups that could be used for lunches and dinners. Tail gaiting this weekend? Make a little extra and have those yummy delights throughout the week!
3. Prep and freeze some meals to have a stock of ready-to-use main dishes.
Stocking my freezer with a few already prepped meals has been the saving grace for many a busy week in my home. Knowing that I just need to use the stove, oven, grill, or slow cooker to finish the meal provides me a great sense of calm throughout the day whenever I think of my evening.
In my Beginner’s Guide to Freezer Meals, I recommend starting by simply doubling a couple of meals and freezing half of them before you cook them. Are you buying and making a grilled pork tenderloin? Buy two. Once you’ve seasoned them, throw one in a freezer bag, label it with what it is and the date, and throw that baby in the freezer. The same goes for a slow cooker meal. Love a good pot roast? Buy two when they’re on sale, and freeze one. This is one of the easiest and quickest ways to make weeknight meals a breeze.
If you aren’t quite ready to jump into freezer meals, consider prepping your main dishes (at least for the beginning of the week) on the weekend.
One of the least favorite parts of prepping and cooking dinner for me is seasoning meat. You know, taking it out of its packaging, cutting it if it needs that, and then seasoning and marinating it. If you find yourself in the same boat, I highly encourage you to do that part before the week gets rolling. Then, you only need to cook the main dish when you start dinner.
4. Make a large, versatile side dish on the weekend.
I love having brown rice, quinoa, or even a pasta (or zoodle) salad sitting in the fridge. It can serve as a side one night but be the base of a whole dinner the next just by plopping a protein right on top.
On Sunday, you can grill some chicken and veggies and have seasoned brown rice as a side, right? Monday, the night I recommend serving a super easy dinner, you can take that rice and make a quick fried rice stir-fry. Then, not to ignore Taco Tuesday, you can re-season that chicken, add it to the rice with some tomatoes, avocado, lettuce, and chips, and you’ve got a rice bowl ready to go. So, that rice you cooked once is being used three times! How is that for helping with a weeknight meal?
5. Get lunch boxes ready!
Even though lunch doesn’t directly impact dinner, anytime you’ve got a “to do” in the back of your mind, it inevitably impacts the other parts of your day. Since lunches typically get packed at the end or the beginning of a busy day, taking any steps you can to simplify that task adds time back to your day. So, on the weekend, or even the first day that you pack lunches for the week, slice extra veggies, make sure you have fruit readily available, and make an extra set of sandwiches.
Did you know you can make and freeze PBJ sandwiches ahead of time? Yes!
6. Cut fresh veggies.
Sometimes, coming up with creative, healthy side dishes takes just a bit too much brainpower during a busy week. So, give yourself a break a couple nights. Be sure to buy veggies that you and your family will eat raw and prep them (along with a dip if you have a mad dipper in the family) on the weekend.
Get some veggie inspiration from our Kids in the Kitchen: Eat More Veggies Pinterest Round Up. And if you know you’ll be steaming veggies sometime during the week and aren’t using frozen ones, take the time to prep them, too. You can easily cut carrots, snap green beans, or slice zucchini or squash so they’re ready to pop in a pan when you start dinner.
Hopefully, these tips seem totally doable and don’t overwhelm you at all. Start small – getting the hang of weeknight meals with ease can be a lot. I recommend choosing one or two to start with, seeing how they help the flow of your week and adding more as you find you need more ways to simplify.
Whatever you choose, be sure to enjoy your time around the table with your family.