It can be daunting to get organized with meal prep and planning. For all of us. Throw in additional family members and busy weeknights filled with activities, and it can be even more challenging to stay the course. Having support, a plan of action and a clear tie back to your goals and values can help to stay on track. The other night a friend (who is trained as a professional chef!) was telling me how she struggles to organize her family meals throughout the week, and she inspired me to share a few of my tips and tricks for keeping us on track with our goal of eating minimally processed, scratch-made meals (and not loose our minds).
My scratch cooking journey started several years ago, and to be fair, it was forced upon me. Our oldest was found to be allergic to corn and 9 years ago, nearly all processed foods had some sort of corn in them. What I learned when I started making all of our bread, snacks, etc. was that once you get used to making things, you memorize the recipe. The hardest part about scratch cooking is making things you’ve never made before.
I apply this same principal to meal prep. Making new recipes is much more time consuming than preparing meals you’re familiar with. For me, for our family, I am willing to trade in variety for home cooked meals. Which leads me to tip #1.
Certain nights of each week get a specific item. Each week. Sundays are pizza night (scratch-made of course, check out how the Hyatts do pizza). Thursdays are burger night. On Friday, we make taco salads with the unused ground beef from burger night. Each week, I’ve already got three of the seven meals planned. It requires no thinking, simply making sure necessary items are on my grocery list.
Which brings me to a really important part of meal prep: staying organized. And, The List.
Network your list
It takes a village for most of us to stay organized. Jeremy and I have a networked google doc for both our New Seasons and Costco lists. With both of us accountable for adding things that we notice are out, it takes the pressure off making a monster (error-free!) list the night before. I do most of the shopping, but having dual accountability to keep our lists up to date really helps us to make sure we’re getting the necessary items on each trip (it’s a jungle out there and extra trips to the store for forgotten items really eat up time). You can share this list with anyone who supports your family. We didn’t have a networked list back in the days that we had a nanny, but it would have really helped for her to also add items to the list that we need!
I also like to keep a sample of the items I regularly buy each day I shop (within this networked list). Tuesdays I buy XYZ regularly. Fridays I buy ABC. So I can double check and make sure I’m covered for those anchor meals each week.
Shop twice each week
Shopping twice each week has helped me to not feel so overwhelmed at the store. I’m only ever needing to buy produce for a few days, or a few meals. It’s helped me realize I can buy much smaller quantities, which saves money and also cuts down on things that go bad before we ever eat them. My shopping days are Tuesdays and Fridays.
Be it frozen chicken breasts, a spare loaf of bread, or leftovers from the slow cooker, having some basics on hand in the freezer is really helpful to fill in meals for the week. When I make our slow-cooker chicken thighs, I easily have three more nights of meat ready to freeze and then thaw on demand. This really helps to lighten the planning load when I have one less night to think of for a couple weeks.
Plan a break
One of the biggest curbs I’ve found for the weeknight take-out splurge/exhausted panic is to have a night set aside as part of the plan to eat out or get takeout. If the splurge (both financially and nutritionally) is already planned, we’re less likely to loose focus on other nights.
One of the very first things I learned in my very first cooking class was that dressings and sauces should be made from scratch whenever possible. Shelf stable items almost always have extra stabilizers and unnecessary ingredients. I keep one of the following sauces made up in my fridge at all times: Fit Kitchen’s lemon tahini sauce, Samin Nosrat’s peanut sauce or my own cashew cilantro green goddess dressing. Each one can double as a salad dressing or add some interest to a super kid-friendly meal like grilled chicken and broccoli. Sometimes I’d like to throw in the towel on kid-friendly meals, but having a sauce on hand helps me to stay interested in the meal, but not spend the additional time to create something more complicated or spicy that wouldn’t be kid-friendly in our family.
Prep before 5
I do try to accomplish some organization around dinner each morning. I think through what it is, put chicken in the marinade if I need to, or just have a general game plan. Depending on what the night looks like (hey coach! Let’s DO schedule that sports practice right at dinner time! That would be awesome!), I may chop veggies, wash lettuce and prep as much as humanly possible so we can just cook when we walk in the door at 6:15 after practice while the kids shower.
Ask for help
I started the post with the word daunting for a reason – because it CAN be overwhelming until you get into practiced routine. Like all big undertakings, it’s helpful to have support – which can take many different shapes for all of us. I love the nights that Jeremy and I get to be in the kitchen together. He’s often prepping coffee for the morning and setting the table while I finish up dinner. Or the kids help to make part of dinner and fill up waters. It always feels better to have company, and to be fair, it can be a lot of work to cook from scratch. I often delegate the grilling to Jeremy and he also often tackles the dishes. Some nights we flip for who wrangles the kids through the shower and who gets to peacefully put the kitchen to bed with finishing dishes and counter tops. At the end of the day health is a huge value for our whole family, so we all pitch in to make it happen.
Aside from our anchor nights, the list of meals that all four of us will eat and that I can prepare easily is not really all that large. So while I have anchor nights, the other meals that I’m planning out generally fit within a range of curated options. Fall and spring are intense with evening sports for us. To avoid the impromptu stop at Chipotle, I have two “on the go” dinner options that we’ll cycle through each week. They’re simple, but they’re homemade and for us that’s important.
Author Lee Carson is a yoga teacher, health advocate and co-owner of Hyatt Training. She believes in a minimally processed whole-foods approach to nutrition, and loves sharing ways to use food and movement as catalysts and tools for optimal health. Learn more about Lee, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more nutrition-related posts like this one, follow this link.