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). I originally wrote this post in 2018, but I’ve made some post-pandemic updates here throughout in April 2022.
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 at that time, 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 gluten-free pizza night in our house so that our son has something he enjoys taking for lunches during the school week. It’s a great social connector too because my parents join us. Jeremy and I aren’t feeling great eating pizza, so we make this dish instead and spice it up with our favorite Justa Pasta marinara used as our pizza sauce.
Our anchor nights have shifted over the years as our family needs have ebbed and flowed with commitments and schedules. Right now, while I’m running two companies, we order Stella’s Kitchen for Monday and Friday night dinners for Jeremy and I. We make the kids something super simple these nights. 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 (or in my instacart cart as the case may be…). And pulling together meals for only 3-4 nights each week leaves me less overwhelmed by scratch cooking.
Which brings me to a really important part of meal prep: staying organized. And, The List.
Pre-pandemic, we networked our grocery lists via Google docs. This allowed both Jeremy and I to keep track of needed staples each week. 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 did help 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).
These days, Instacart is our main source of grocery shopping outside of our seasonal CSA, ButcherBox.com and Trader Joes. I can simply add something to our cart when we need it, no list needed. I particularly enjoy the Costco delivery via Instacart because they do not use extra bags or packaging, just re-purposed boxes. I go through different seasons with Trader Joes. Currently, while our CSA is off season, I’m finding a quick Saturday morning run for only what I need the coming week to be helpful and budget-friendly.
I have found that if I do go to a physical store, it’s much less overwhelming if I make a quick run for a short list. I can buy much smaller quantities, which saves money and also cuts down on things that go bad before we ever eat them.
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.
These days, we are really enjoying Stella’s Kitchen as our breaks. If I’m not going to cook it, her meals are as close to my standards as anything I’ve found, and definitely trump take out from both a financial and health perspective. For our family, easing into Monday and easing out on Friday when we are all exhausted is a big help.
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 love to have pre-made, home-cooked sauces ready in my fridge and making them on Sundays gives me a leg up on the week. Peanut, carrot ginger and lemon tahini are our favorites. Most can double as a salad dressing or add some interest to a super kid-friendly meal like grilled chicken and broccoli. Having a sauce on hand helps me to stay interested in more simple kid-friendly meals, which saves the additional time to create something more complicated or spicy.
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 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, fill up waters, take their Florasophy. It always feels better to have company and it can be a lot of work to cook from scratch. I often delegate the grilling to Jeremy and he also tackles the dishes. 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. Different seasons hold different challenges, and I find making seasonal updates to our weekly options really helps to keep us eating with the seasons and not burned out. Right now, our meals are decidedly simple. But they’re homemade and for us that’s important. You can find some of our favorite seasonal recipes here.
Author Lee Carson is a writer, health advocate, principal and co-founder at both Hyatt Training and Florasophy. 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.