Traditional meal prepping has never worked for me.
At least, not the idea of meal prepping I saw on Instagram and read about in books. All I saw were images of grilled chicken and broccoli in perfectly modular lines, specifically portioned out to hit the macros of the day, every single calorie planned out in advance.
That’s not how I eat. I’m busy in a way that changes daily. Some days I’m home all day, others I may be out and about for 15 hours straight, so my activity level vary widely. My moods also change from day to day, so planning the same meals for a whole week is a great way to get me to waste food. I needed a method that would give me the flexibility to make decisions in the morning and on the fly, that I could customize depending on the day ahead.
Here’s a method that finally worked for me. It’s what I call “Flex Meal Prep.” Since I’m an experienced cook, I can wing it most days without too many menu missteps, but if you’re new to cooking, the Whole30 book has fantastic basics. For meal prepping, I recommend keeping it at basics so you don’t lose your mind. I will try 1-2 new recipes at most each prep day. It helps to have some classic recipes in your back pocket that are easy and goof-proof (like slow-cooked salsa chicken – 2 ingredients, chicken and salsa, BAM).
– Don’t sweat the total portions (Since you have 2 prep days, you can always make more if you run out)
– Double or triple the food you’re in the mood for (Plan to make 4-5 portions)
– IMMEDIATELY portion food out after preparing it (Don’t make a big batch and keep it in a tub – That creates a barrier to “grab it and go”)
– Freeze 1-2 portions (Create your own Freezer Stash!)
– Use modular square or rectangular food containers to maximize fridge space (My favorites are glass Pyrex Snapware, Glasslock, Daiso glass containers, and Rubbermaid Lunchblox)
– Label every container’s lid with the date prepped using a whiteboard marker, so you can prioritize which to finish first
Step 1: Decide on 2 days a week (preferably spaced out 3-4 days) when you have the free time to get groceries and cook. These will be your prep days.
Step 2: Decide on 2-3 cooked dishes, 1-2 grains, and a few fresh vegetables/ fruits that sound good to you today. Go get the groceries for those items, about double or triple the amount you plan to eat today.
Step 3: Make everything, and immediately portion it into single servings. Eat 1 today, put 2-3 in the fridge (dated on the container), and put 1-2 portions in the freezer for later. (Soon you will build up a back-stock of amazing frozen meals.)
Step 4: Every time you want to eat a fresh ingredient during the week, like a cut raw vegetable or fruit, prep 2-3 times what you intend to eat in the moment. Portion the extra servings into single serve containers and put these in the fridge. Commit to finishing them in the next 2-3 days.
Here’s the meal I had for lunch, pulled from my Freezer Stash of previously prepped meals:
Here’s how I did it today:
Step 1: WHEN TO PREP. I have plenty of time on my days off, so I’m prepping this afternoon and evening while I relax. I like to give myself 4-5 hours so I can clean and goof off. (Today’s cooking took a grand total of 2 hours, plus 1 hour to clean up.)
Step 2: WHAT TO EAT. I’m going to make myself a protein item, oatmeal, vegetables, and some cut fruit. I’m not going to decide what to make until I get to the grocery store and see what’s fresh and cheap.
Step 3: START SOAKING. Start soaking anything that needs to be softened or rehydrated. If I were going to make beans, this is what I would do first, since they need a few hours to soak.
Today I’m soaking steel cut oats, as soaking makes these fluff up and cook much more quickly. I also decided I was in the mood for some comforting rice porridge with miso, so I rinsed dried shiitake mushrooms and rice and put them together in my rice cooker. I started it with a lot more water than I typically would use for that amount of rice, as it will all absorb eventually anyway.
Step 4: CHECK FOR WHAT YOU HAVE. Look for anything that needs to be used up in your pantry, particularly any fresh goods or a can that’s been sitting around for too long.
Today I need to roast up some yams and carrots I forgot about last meal prep day. And cucumbers I completely blanked about (oops).
Step 4: GROCERY SHOP. Since I’m on a budget I’ll be looking for discounted meats and vegetables that are in season.
Today I picked up zucchini, crookneck squash, chicken thighs, tangerines, 2 kinds of sausage, walnuts, bananas, and grapes.
Step 5: START SLOW COOKING.
Today I whipped up the chicken thighs in the slow cooker with some zucchini.
Step 6: PREP THE REST.
Today I prepared the following:
– Rice porridge w/ shiitake mushrooms and dashi (I’ll add the miso in after I reheat)
– Steel-cut oats with brown sugar, walnuts, & banana (I’ll add banana when I’m ready to eat, to avoid browning)
– Roasted carrots w/ lemon & honey
– Roasted yams
– Pan-fried zucchini, crookneck squash, and onion
– Raw veggies – carrot sticks, cucumber sticks
– Fruit – green grapes, fruit salad
– Portioned out – 1 package salami, 1 cup cheese crackers
Step 7: DIVIDE INTO PORTIONS. That includes any cooked items AND any ready-to-eat items that you purchase. If I get salami or ham, I immediately portion it into containers so it’s ready to go. Otherwise, it will go bad before I remember to eat it all. (I have an awful memory for food in the fridge.)
Step 8: PREP AS YOU GO. If the whim strikes you to prepare ANY food item this week, go ahead and double or triple the amount you portion out.
Step 9: EAT WHAT YOU WANT. Now you don’t have to cook until your next prep day! You’ll be able to do a second, shorter day to prep small items, and then will be able to wait about a week until your next big cookup.