Just the term "meal prep" conjures up images of hours in the kitchen, piles of dirty dishes, and the same food eaten day after day after day until it's gone. It doesn't have to be that way! Follow this easy technique and leave the stressful days of meal prep behind you.
Confession: I don't believe in "meal prep." When I hear the term meal prep, I think of a bunch of uniform containers, set out on the counter, with the exact same foods in them like this:
...and I don't know about you, but by the time Thursday rolls around, the last thing I'm going to want to eat is the same thing I ate on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
So, how do we manage to eat healthy, eat a variety of flavors and foods, and not spend hours each day or each weekend in the kitchen?
Ingredient prep is the new meal prep
Just the term "meal prep" conjures up images of hours in the kitchen, piles of dirty dishes, and the same food eaten day after day after day until it's gone.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Instead, I practice what I call "ingredient prep."
For my weekly meal prep, I don't make meals. I make ingredients. That way, I have much more flexibility each day when putting my meals together.
Think about it like this: if I make a giant batch of chicken fajitas, with chicken, peppers, onions, and sauce, I am now stuck with chicken fajitas until they're gone, regardless of if I want to eat them every day or not.
But if I cook a big batch of plain chicken breasts in my Instant Pot, I have chicken for the week. I can turn it into chicken fajitas if I want to.
Or I can turn it into Chicken Poppyseed Casserole, Cashew Curry Chicken Salad, or Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowls. Or, I can just shred it on top of some lettuce with some veggies, pickled red onions, and balsamic and have a salad.
The point isn't what I turn it into. The point is what I don't turn it into. Because it's not already made into any one thing, it can be anything.
Here are some other examples of weekly meal prep items I make and suggestions of what to turn them into:
Oven Baked Spaghetti Squash can be made into Chicken Poppyseed Casserole (with your IP chicken breasts!), Pepperoni Pizza Pasta, or mixed with some spinach and cherry tomatoes and topped with eggs for a healthy breakfast option.
Starting with basic items chopped and cooked gives you the freedom to flex your meals around what you feel like eating, without having to spend hours cooking dinner in the kitchen each night.
Efficiency is key
Any type of work in the kitchen can get away from you if you let it. The goal is to be as efficient as possible, and still come out on the other side with a reasonable amount of food to get you through the week.
There's definitely an art to it, and it can take some practice - but I promise, it will get easier and easier the more you do it. You'll start to find routines and strategies that work for you and the things you are prepping.
Make a plan
Before I start ingredient prep, I make a plan. I start by taking inventory of the things I'm trying to get cooked. This is going to vary depending on what you're cooking, but let's just go through a sample one together so you can see what I mean. (This is a fairly typical list in my kitchen, by the way.)
Things I want to have made:
- Hard boiled eggs
- cooked sweet potatoes
- cooked chicken breasts
- baked spaghetti squash
- steamed broccoli
- Cilantro Lime Dressing
Kitchen tools I'm going to use:
Now, I want to spend NO MORE than 2 hours in the kitchen getting all of this cooked. To do that, I need to be efficient with my time, and cook things in a logical order. Here's how I'm going to do it.
Have a strategy
You have to think about the things you're cooking, and what the most logical order is for what you want to to cook and how you want it to go.
Preheat oven and prep spaghetti squash.
The only thing I need the oven for is the spaghetti squash, so I'm going to start by preheating that to 350°, and getting my spaghetti squash set up for baking.
I know I want to cook my eggs, my sweet potatoes and my chicken breasts in the Instant Pot. Eggs and sweet potatoes use the inner rack, chicken breasts do not. Sweet potatoes leave the rack messy, eggs do not - so there's my order.
Eggs on rack, sweet potatoes on rack, remove rack and cook chicken directly in pot.
Eggs into the Instant Pot; spaghetti squash into the oven.
From heat up to pressure release, the eggs will take about 10 minutes total. Once I pop them in, I'll head over to my preheated oven and put in my spaghetti squash and set a timer on the oven for 30 minutes.
Set up steamer for broccoli.
I'll set up my steamer pot and turn it on high to get the water boiling.
Remove eggs, plunge in cold water, set up sweet potatoes.
When the eggs are done, I'll release the valve, rinse the pot, and put the sweet potatoes in immediately. Those will take closer to 25-30 minutes.
Start steaming broccoli.
Once the potatoes are in, my steamer pot water is probably boiling, so I'll go ahead and throw in my broccoli.
Prep for dressing.
While my broccoli is steaming, I'll start getting all my ingredients into my food processor for my dressing. I might have to abandon this one for a minute, but that's ok - it's not cooking, so it can wait.
Take out spaghetti squash.
Before the potatoes finish, the spaghetti squash has beeped and is done, so I'll take that out of the oven and set it aside, and turn the oven off.
Oh look, the potatoes are done! I'll have to wait about 10 minutes for the natural release, but I accounted for this in my 30 minute cook time.
Remove broccoli from steam.
While I'm waiting, I'll remove my broccoli from the steam so it doesn't turn to mush.
Remove potatoes; start chicken.
Once the potatoes are done with the natural release, I'll take them out, remove the rack, rinse the pot, and add water or broth with my chicken breasts and get those going.
Those will take about another 30 minutes total to cook if I'm using natural release, which is what I prefer - it results in a more tender, shredded style chicken instead of a firmer chicken breast.
Finish dressing; wrap up and storage.
I'll use this 30 minutes to finish making my dressing, peel my hardboiled eggs, and store everything I've already cooked in containers in the fridge.
By the time the chicken breasts are done, everything is put away, and all I have to do is store those and wash the inner pot. And I'm done in less than 2 hours. Weekly meal prep is done.
Worth It Wednesday
We all start out the week with steam and energy. But by mid-week it's easy for life to take hold. We get tired, we get lazy, and we don't want to cook.
Well, guess what? You don't have to. If you do decide to cook, it can be completely minimal - you can simply heat up some of the things we already made. Here are some ideas of what I would make from the foods we just prepped:
Make a quick batch of Tahini Butter for the sweet potatoes. Serve them topped with chicken.
Shred some chicken on top of a salad and top with the Cilantro Lime Dressing.
Drizzle broccoli with some olive oil and sprinkle with EBTB seasoning.
Toss some spaghetti squash with ghee, garlic, lemon juice and salt with some chicken breasts or a bag of frozen, pre-cooked shrimp for a simple picatta.
If you have some down time during prep, take it one step further. Chop some raw veggies like peppers and onions, and you can do an easy skillet meal with some sausages one night.
Keep It simple
It doesn't have to be complicated. Don't over think it. Just having the healthy ingredients cooked and on hand will help you make leaps and bounds when it comes to making better food choices.
You don't always need a recipe or a complicated ingredient list to make a healthy, flavorful meal.
We prepped some protein (eggs + chicken), veggies (broccoli, squash, potatoes), and some healthy fat (homemade dressing). We've got the makings for a variety of meals for the week, without the added stress.
Make it fun
Try to make your weekly meal prep time fun. I love to turn on some music loud - it helps me keep moving and motivates me to keep going.
You can also set a timer for yourself and turn it into a game - can you beat your prep time from last week?!
- Keep it Simple. Don't overthink the foods you are prepping. Keep them simple and easy. All you're looking to do here is to have some ingredients on hand that you can later turn into a variety of meals.
- Make a Plan. Set out all the things you plan on cooking/getting done during your meal prep time. Look at the kitchen tools you need to use (oven, Instant Pot, stove, food processor?) and get them out/preheated/ready to go.
- Make a Strategy. Once you've got all your ingredients and tools ready, you need to figure out the most logical and time-efficient order to cook them in. For example, things that need to cook the longest should be started first. Things that use the same kitchen tool should be ordered in a way that minimizes mess and cleaning between cook times.
- Make it FUN. Nothing is worse than feeling like you're being punished by being in the kitchen. Find what makes it more enjoyable for you and do that thing. Maybe it's turning on some loud music, maybe it's putting on a timer and giving yourself a limit to keep things moving.
- Don't stress. Remember, we do meal prep or ingredient prep to make life LESS stressful, not more. If you don't get it all done, it's ok! You can always pop some chicken into the Instant Pot or steam some broccoli mid-week.
- Practice, practice, practice! Weekly meal prep gets easier and easier the more you do it. Eventually you'll create a habit out of it and get into a routine. Trust yourself and keep working through it. You've got this!