I have started a new practice - shopping for and prepping a week's worth of meals at one time. I feel like I've gotten pretty good at it, so I wanted to share with you how to prepare meals for a week.
Why I Plan Meals in Advance
Recently my doctor threatened me with a choice: get my triglycerides numbers down, or go on cholesterol medication. She gave me two months to fix my diet and see if it helps. Nothing else in my past has ever motivated me to eat healthy like that choice has!
The hardest part of eating healthy, for me, isn't an issue of willpower. It's not having something ready for dinner. Then we fall back on delivery (pizza), takeout (Chinese), or going out. Occasionally I can still eat healthy in those circumstances, but it's rare.
I started looking for healthy meals. I perused Cooking Light and similar. But I realized that I really could use most of my existing recipes. I just needed to stick with them and plan ahead when creating a weekly meal plan.
The other thing I wanted to do was save money on the cost of food. Obviously it's more expensive to eat out than cook at home...unless you're comparing Krystal burgers with homemade lobster, that is. Seriously, though, I can even cook shrimp twice a week and still be way under what it would cost to eat dinner out 2-3 times a week.
So my goal became planning for a week's worth of meals on the weekend, and doing enough prep that each easy dinner takes no more than 20 minutes each weeknight. It might be in the oven longer...but I won't be in the kitchen longer.
Step 1: Meal Planning
The first step is reaching this goal is to plan out a week's worth of meals. For me, this means main dishes for six nights. We can always eat leftovers one night, or have one night out (by choice, not because there's nothing but cereal in the house!)
Because of my need to eat healthy, I'm trying to load my meals with chicken, fish, and shellfish. I still eat red meat, cream, and cheese, but in smaller amounts.
An example menu with some of my favorite meals is below. (Bonus - I linked to the recipes for you!)
Sunday - grilled chicken with the sauce from this recipe, plus broccoli florets sauteed in olive oil
Monday - chicken tetrazini (recipe) and salad
Tuesday - lightened-up shrimp scampi (recipe) and garlic bread. I'll skip the garlic bread but my family likes it.
Wednesday - bourbon-glazed salmon, roasted asparagus, and white rice
Thursday - white chicken enchiladas and Spanish rice
Friday - curry shrimp or chicken over rice. No recipe needed here - I just use two jars of premade curry sauce. Occasionally I will make chicken korma from scratch if I have the time and interest.
Of course, I don't repeat it week after week because it gets boring. I try to add new recipes, but maybe just 1-2 a week, because it's harder to learn a new recipe that cook one I've made dozens of times already. Either way, I'm usually looking for easy meals, especially for weekday evenings.
The beauty of this plan is that on Sunday morning, I can cook all the chicken for the week, cook the rice, and chop and store all the produce. More on that in the next step :)
Step 2: Meal Prep
I start by making a grocery list and hitting the supermarket on either Saturday or Sunday morning, before the crowds get there. If I'm really trying to cut costs, I will go to Aldi and Winn Dixie. If time is of more concern in a given week, then it's Publix to the rescue.
Sunday is definitely the major work day, but it's much better than trying to do it all on a weekday. Shopping, cooking, and prepping usually take me half the day. Then I can play, craft, or nap, assuming there aren't any kids' sporting events to attend.
The first thing I do is start 2-4 cups of uncooked rice (depending on my meal plan needs) in the rice cooker. I don't go for a lot of small appliances in the kitchen, but I love my rice cooker. It leaves the stove and oven free for everything else.
I then store the rice for use later in the week. Curious about how to store and reheat rice so it still tastes good? Check this post from Southern Living.
For the meals above, I cooked 12 chicken breasts. That's a little more than needed, but it gives me some extra to put over salads for lunch, if I want. I do these in batches of 4 breasts at a time. It takes around 20 minutes per batch.
How do I cook it? Click right on over here to find out how to make chicken breasts actually taste delicious. It's actually really good and I'm so glad I found that post.
While the chicken cooked, I chopped all the vegetables and peeled the garlic for Sunday's sauce. I would like to store them all in mason jars (less waste, fewer chemicals than plastic), but I didn't have quite enough, so I also used zip-loc bags. The cherry tomatoes and shredded carrots just went into the container along with the rest of the chopped vegetables.
Keeping them all together in one container makes it easier to find.
Finally, I cooked the spaghetti noodles for the tetrazzini, and chopped some of the chicken. The noodles and the chicken for the tetrazzini went into the casserole dish, and the rest of the chicken into a mason jar to save for the enchiladas.
Step 3: Cooking Each Dinner
The goal is to make each weeknight fast and easy, so here's how that plays out.
Sunday - I have a little more time since it isn't a weeknight, but this was still easy. I made the sauce from the recipe above. The hardest part of this normally would be peeling the garlic, but that was done. Once the sauce was ready, I microwaved the pre-cooked chicken breasts then added them to the sauce for about 3-4 minutes. I also sauteed the broccoli in a separate pan, which was easy because it was already chopped. This took maybe 20 minutes total.
Monday - I cooked the sauce for the casserole. I had to run to a meeting, so I asked my teenager to add it to the casserole, top it with cheese, and cook it for 25 minutes. My time was about 10 minutes, and I'm sure his wasn't more than another 10 minutes.
Tuesday - This one I pretty much cook at once, but it's so easy. Angel hair pasta cooks in 4 minutes, and everything else just gets thrown in the pot. I buy uncooked shrimp that has been peeled and de-veined, so I don't have to do any of that. The garlic bread comes frozen from the supermarket and just reheats in the oven.
Wednesday - This one I also cook mainly during the evening, because it's easy. Throw together the sauce, throw the fish in the oven, and you're done. And roast the asparagus in the oven at the same time. Since I already washed it and snapped the asparagus on Sunday morning, there's nothing to it.
Wednesday night I also put the second bag of shrimp in the fridge to thaw.
Thursday - honestly this one probably takes the most time. I could actually roll the enchiladas Sunday morning, but I don't have enough room in the fridge to store two casserole dishes. (Maybe I need something that will let me stack them without smushing the food!) But the chicken is already cooked, so I just mix it with the cheese, roll it into the enchiladas, and put them in the dish while the sauce simmers. The rice is also easy; I just have to remember to start it early enough. I'll post my easy recipe for the rice soon and link it in.
Friday - you can't get any easier than this. Saute the shrimp in a bit of oil, then pour the jar of curry sauce over it and let it simmer a bit. (Not too long, so the sauce stays thicker.) Then serve it over rice that I cooked earlier in the week.
Saturday - leftovers or eating out. This week we'll probably go out to dinner for my middle child's birthday. Which most likely means Mexican!
How to Prepare Meals for a Week by Planning Ahead
Of course, we don't eat the same meals every week. This plan was just an example. Here are some tips on planning out your meals.
- Choose 1-2 meats that you can buy and prep in bulk. Add in one meal that is something different for variety (such as the salmon, here). You may also want to choose meats that are going to be on sale when you're shopping.
- If your family likes a starch with meals, choose something you can use for multiple meals, but cook once. Good examples are mashed potatoes, pasta, and rice.
- Think through what needs to be kept frozen so it's still usable at the end of the week. Make yourself a note to thaw that food a day or two in advance of when you plan to cook it (like my second bag of shrimp).
- Try to intersperse flavors. If you are having Asian food twice, don't do them on back to back days. If you have two shrimp dishes, separate them by a couple of days.
- Clean out the refrigerator before you go shopping. See if there are ingredients you don't need to buy, and make space for all of the food you're buying and prepping.
- Consider using an Instant pot or making a slow cooker recipe, but only if you find that easier to do. Some people love them and some hate them!
Have you tried this approach to meal planning and cooking? If so I'd love to hear your experiences! Or if you have a different approach to how to prepare meals for a week, I'm all ears for that too. I know mine is good but it's not perfect, so I'm sure we can learn from each other!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.