It really never ends.
Meal planning doesn’t end when you’ve figured out what’s for dinner. It doesn’t end when you’ve made your lists and actually bought the groceries, either. Now that the food, in its raw forms, is in your home, you actually have to do the preparation.
Simplify the process.
Before dinner time rolls around, there are things you can do to simplify the process. Making a meal doesn’t have to require an hour of prep-time before serving. You’ve probably got other things to do, anyway! If you spend 15 minutes in prep now, you’ll save 30 minutes or more later. When you pick, pack and prep your food for eating, you’ll eat healthier and it will be better for your wallet too!
Preparation Pro Tip #1:
Start with your fruit and vegetables. These spoil the quickest, so it’s in your best interest to make them as easy to eat as quickly as possible. As soon as possible after purchase, wash and chop them up into edible/useable portions. If you have children old enough to use a knife safely, this is a great chore for them. So all those carrots, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, etc — peel, chop, core, and slice into easy-to-grab-and-serve sections. Package them into snack-size containers or baggies, and store in the fridge.
Now, when you’re packing a lunch, you have a small serving size of veggies you can just throw in the lunch bag. Need a snack? Grab the carrot sticks instead of the potato chips. Open that container of cucumber slices for a quick, healthy side at dinner time. Bonus — it’s a lot easier to chop an already-sliced pepper or mushroom into smaller pieces for cooking with, than to start with the whole vegetable.
You can do this with any fresh produce. To keep apples from browning, sprinkle with lemon juice before packaging, or slice without peeling, and use an elastic band to keep the slices together. Keep your berries from spoiling by using vented containers. You may even want to freeze fruits in single-portion-sizes. These make great smoothie additions, or dessert and snack options.
Preparation Pro Tip #2:
Next, move on to snacks. When you divide your snacks into single-serving portions, you make feeding children that much faster and easier. Of course, you can purchase single-serving-size options of crackers and pretzels, but that can get pricey. It’s just as easy to spend 5 minutes to divide up bulk packages into those single-serving portions. Then you can grab what you need and toss into a lunch bag to go, or serve at the table at home. With smaller portions already packaged, there’s less fighting too over who has more — and you can keep to a healthier portion.
You can do this with homemade goods too. If you make cookies, granola bars, trail mix, squares or other snacks, instead of storing them in one large container, create your own single-portion packaging. My personal preference is to use snack-size ziploc bags. You can buy them in bulk on Amazon, cheaply, and they are reusable. Then store your smaller portions in your larger container.
Preparation Pro Tip #3:
Another prep option is your meats and protein options. If you aren’t following a special diet such as vegan or vegetarianism, you probably include meat in a meal at least once a day. If you aren’t including meat, you still need to have a protein in your diet. It’s often much more cost-effective to buy that meat or protein option in bulk format. You have a few options then: you can divide and freeze in portions designed for your cooking options later; you can store in the fridge as is, and divide as you need; or you can freeze whole, cook all, and store leftovers later.
Personally, I divide into appropriate portion size and freeze. Even if I wanted to cook to deliberately have leftovers later, its just as easy to defrost two portions as one. But dividing before I freeze gives me more control over what I cook, and means less potential spoilage and wasted food.
Preparation Pro Tip #4:
Processing your raw, whole foods after grocery shopping is one of the fastest, simplest ways to keep your cooking prep time to a minimum. But it isn’t the only form of preparation you can do. If you truly want to plan ahead, and still control your budget and healthy eating options, you’ll want to explore the world of canning and preserving.
Is canning complicated? Not really.
Canning foods is a time-honored tradition of meal planning. For generations, families have taken the harvest and preserved it in various forms: jams, jellies, sauces, blanched, canned, and frozen options. Canning is often thought of as complicated and time-consuming. And some of it may be, depending on the food you are trying to preserve. But some canning is actually very easy.
The easiest thing to make and preserve is a fruit jam. Usually this consists of your fruit, sugar and a preserving agent, most often pectin. Try a strawberry freezer jam, if you’re just getting started in preserving foods. Wash and cut the leaves off strawberries, mash, add sugar and pectin, divide into clean containers, and put into a freezer.
Another easy preserving option is applesauce. Peel and cut apples, cook until soft, mash, divide into clean containers, and freeze. Applesauce is great to make in a slow-cooker too. You can add cinnamon and nutmeg, or other fruits for a variety of flavors.
Once you get comfortable with the process of canning, experiment. You can make homemade spaghetti sauce, bone broth, salsa, soups, or relishes, and can all of them. If you can find it on a shelf in the store, there’s a homemade recipe option for that.
Preparation Pro Tip #5:
Preparing foods ahead of time to make cooking meals easier is a key part of menu planning. But you can also turn your actual cooking into time-saving preparation as well, through double portions and freezer cooking.
Freezer cooking is when you deliberately make a meal to put into the freezer for later, instead of serving immediately. Even if all you have is a fridge freezer, you can do some freezer cooking, though your space limitations will determine just how much. There are two different ways you can go about cooking for the freezer: double portions, or spend a day bulk cooking.
Double portion freezer cooking is for the busy person who doesn’t have a lot of time for cooking. It’s just as easy to make two for the time you spend in making one. So if you make a casserole dish, make two casseroles. If you are making dessert — double the recipe, and freeze half the batter, or half the finished product. If you are cooking an entree, cook double, and freeze half. Later on, you can use that cooked portion instead of having to cook again.
Use disposable aluminum pans and large freezer-size ziploc bags, for your frozen food, so you aren’t tying up your regular pots and pans. Don’t forget to label and date everything you make. And when you use the frozen dishes, make sure you leave extra time to defrost as well as heat. You can put a frozen casserole directly in the oven, but you’ll want to add on 30-40 minutes (or more, depending on your oven!) to your regular cooking time.
Another option for make-ahead meals is to spend a day in bulk cooking. Many busy moms love this option. They will take a Saturday, once a month or so, and make 10-30 meals to freeze for later. Some actually cooking the meal and then freezing. Others do all the chopping, mixing, and addition of flavors, put into a pan or bag, and freeze that to cook later, in the oven or slow cooker. If it can be found in the freezer section of your grocery store, there’s a homemade recipe to be found as well.
Plan to save!
Meal planning is an awesome way to save time and money, and still make sure your family can eat healthy. But it doesn’t stop with just putting the plan on paper. Meal planning also involves spending a few minutes in preparation. Spend the few minutes in chopping the fresh produce before you put them in the fridge. Divide up the snacks into easy-to-grab portions. The few minutes you spend in preparation will save you so much time later on! You won’t regret that time spent in planning and prepping.