You’re an always-on-the-go mom juggling days at the office with evenings shuttling the kids to soccer practice and dance class. Or maybe your kids are off to college but you spread yourself thin with work deadlines, volunteering with your favorite charity, and fitting in a gym session each day. With so much going on, who has the time to think about food, let alone prepare a balanced meal? If you’ve had enough of take out meals and the freezer aisle, an easy solution to the time crunch dilemma is committing to meal prep. Have peace of mind knowing that a healthy meal is waiting for you right when you get home.
Meal prep is trending with busy families, and it’s important to know that it’s more than just writing a menu based off of your grocery store purchases. While this is a helpful start, reserving several hours on the weekend to prep, chop and cook is the key to meal prep success. Sunday is ideal so your meals stay fresh during the week, as each meal can typically last for five to seven days in the refrigerator. The amount of meals you choose to prep ahead of time will depend on your schedule and your family, so it may take some trial and error to figure out exactly what you need. This might require some self-discipline and motivation, but you’ll be thankful you took the time when you don’t have to scramble to make lunch or prepare dinner every day.
Before you get started, make sure you have everything you need to turn your groceries into a week of meals. Tupperware and Mason jars will be your best friend when it comes to storage, and all sizes of storage bags will be useful too. Having a Sharpie and labels on hand makes organization a breeze. Labeling each item with its name and preparation date makes it easier to see what you have on hand, when you need to use it by, and it limits unnecessary shuffling through your refrigerator or freezer. Keeping a folder full of favorite family recipes is also convenient when planning the week’s menu.
Meal prep can be done several ways and will depend on your preference. You can choose to prepare the whole meal all at once, as you would do with soups, chili, lasagna, and other one-pot meals. If you choose this method, try making two batches and freeze the second one in individual portions (with labels, of course) so it can be reheated as needed. Another method is to cook and store each item individually so you can put together quick meals on the day you need it and change it up so your palate doesn’t get bored. Brown a pound of ground beef and use it one night as tacos and another night as sloppy joes. Take another pound and pre-roll meatballs or pre-form hamburger patties and store them in the freezer for when you’re in the mood. Cook several pounds of chicken breasts and have it to top salads for lunch or to cook fajitas for dinner. Keep cooked rice or potatoes and a variety of prepared vegetables in containers in the refrigerator so you can mix and match as you desire.
If you’re storing your meals in Mason jars, the trick is properly stacking the ingredients to limit extra air without packing the jar too tightly so the food stays fresh. You always want to start with the dressing and add a solid vegetable that can stand up to liquids, rather than the leafy greens, as the next layer. The best use for Mason jars is storing full meals like pasta salads, veggie salads and parfaits. Use Tupperware when storing individual pieces of a meal like meat, starches and vegetables. One of the best things about Tupperware is how easy the containers stack in the refrigerator or freezer to minimize storage space.
Certain meals will require freezer time so they don’t spoil. When freezing meals for the week, just take one meal at a time and add it to the refrigerator the night before you need it. Furthermore, when freezing meals it’s best to slightly undercook veggies to prevent a mushy result when reheating.
Committing to meal prep can help reduce stress, making time management and life much easier. A healthy lifestyle is just a meal plan away.
Recipe: Mason Jar Pasta Salad
Prepare enough of these pasta salads for lunch or dinner to last you the whole week and you’ll never stress over not having time to prepare a healthy meal each day. You can always mix it up by trying out different vegetables and sauces.
1 wide mouth or decent sized Mason jar
2 oz. Italian dressing
1/4 cup onions, chopped
1/2 cup green peppers, chopped
1/2 cup red peppers, chopped
1/4 cup black olives, sliced
A few slices of pepperoni
2 oz. cooked pasta, drained and rinsed in cold water
Pour dressing into the bottom of jar. Next, in order, add onions, green peppers, red peppers and black olives. Add pepperoni and top with cooked pasta. Seal lid tightly and store in fridge for up to seven days. When you’re ready to eat, shake the jar.