Ah, planning. The first and most important step to meal prep. Also known as the most tedious, annoying, all around worst part of the week. Just kidding. It’s not that bad.
There are quite a few things to consider when planning your meals for the week, and if you’re just starting out it might feel overwhelming. I’ve done my best to break down the planning process into more manageable steps (steps within steps within steps). If you trust me and put in the leg work before even hitting the grocery store, it will pay off big time. Let’s start...
1. Create a list of foods you enjoy. This will act as your guide for all future meal planning. A healthy lifestyle involves eating a varied and balanced diet - meal prep should not only take this into consideration but also make it a lot easier. So, I challenge you to create a comprehensive list of foods you know you enjoy from each of the following categories:
- Whole Grains
- Healthy Fats
You can download my template here with more details on each food group and examples to help you get started. For more information, please visit the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Once you have your list, keep it handy - you’ll be referencing it shortly.
2. Determine how many meals you will prep. For this step, you’ll want to consider what your schedule is for the week. Do you have lunch plans with friends, work meetings, night class? Do you have a weekly pizza night with boo? Is there anything at all that might fall during or just before your meal times?
Consider how many of your meals are already planned and how many you still need to prepare. From that total, I suggest subtracting 2-3 meals because, let’s face it, things come up. And sometimes those things are pizza.
(I’ll let you in on a little secret...I really want pizza right now.)
Also, keep in mind for the next step what types of meals you need, i.e. breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks.
3. Plan your menu. Once you know the meals you’ll want prepared ahead of time, it is time to set your menu. In my opinion, this step is make or break. What you decide for your menu for the week is the key factor in what I consider a successful meal prep. Which to me means that you:
> Prepared enough food
> Enjoyed your meals
> Had little to no waste at the end of the week
To plan your menu, you’ll want to pick items from each of the categories in your prepared list of foods that you can mix and match to make different meals. I suggest picking 2-4 items from each category but you can tweak it to fit your preferences. For instance, I often plan for more veggies and less dairy. When picking your items, think about how you might use them in a meal or snack and aim to have at least 2 uses for each item to cut down on waste.
An example thought process might be the following. You really want quinoa this week, what other foods pair well with it? You might pick beans, corn and tomatoes to make a Mexican inspired dish or you might simply put it on top of greens with chicken and nuts. So now you’ve added beans, corn, tomatoes, greens, chicken and almonds. How else can you use those? You can pair the chicken with tomatoes and greens for a simple sandwich - add whole grain bread to the list. Almonds can be paired with greek yogurt for a great snack - add yogurt to the list. So on and so forth.
This takes practice! Especially if you’re not used to making your own meals in general. Lucky for you, the internet is filled with inspiration for simple meals! I do have one note of caution. Batch meal prepping is not the time to try out a new recipe. Why make a bunch of servings of something you’re not even sure you like? It’s a recipe for disaster (see what I did there?). If you do decide to make a full recipe as opposed to individual ingredients, make sure it is one you know you like and will want to eat over and over. For me, that is my Slow Cooker Spiced Coconut Oats!
4. Prepare a shopping list. This should be relatively simple from the menu you’ve put together for the week, but there are a few additional factors you’ll want to consider. I dive into this in my next post! Meal Prep Step 2: Shopping.
NOTE: I mention preparing for the week ahead throughout this post, but this process can work for any amount of time from a few days to a few weeks. Meal prep on a weekly basis just works best with my schedule. Feel free to do what works best with yours.