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10 ways to simplify meal prep

10 ways to simplify meal prep

If you ever arrive home exhausted and hungry with no idea what to make for dinner, step away from the takeout menu: these simple meal prep and cooking tips are for you.

"Planning is crucial to eating well," says Nancy Waldeck, a chef at Cancer Wellness. "If you're stuck in traffic or detained at work, you will be able to eat almost immediately when you get home if you have a few prepared meals on hand."

  1. Plan your meals for the week strategically. "Look at your week to see when you have the time and inclination to cook," says Waldeck. "You may plan on making a few dishes on Sunday. Maybe a soup or chili, a hummus, a couple of chicken breasts and homemade salad dressing. Decide how to serve them up for dinner and then how to use them for leftover lunches. For instance, hummus goes great in a pita pocket stuffed with broccoli slaw and a quarter of an avocado. Chili can be served up as a topper for a green salad at work."

  2. Write out your grocery list and stick to it. "When you're prepared, you won't have the trouble of trying to remember what you have in the fridge or pantry at home," she says. "This helps avoid that 'I'm hungry at the grocery store,' scenario, a situation that invites you to buy products you really don’t want or overspend on ingredients you do need."

  3. Keep it simple. You do not have to prepare a new recipe five nights a week unless you feel so inclined. Your basic meal building blocks should include 4 to 6 ounces of a healthy protein, veggies (stick with steamed, roasted or lightly sautéed) and a vegetable-based or whole grain starch, like brown rice, quinoa or a sweet potato.

  4. Stock your pantry and freezer. Check out Waldeck's pantry and freezer must-haves to simplify meal prep and grocery shopping.

  5. Up your snack game. "I prepare seven small bags of nuts and fruits every Sunday," shares Waldeck. "I carry one in my purse every day. When I'm rushing around in the morning or its 4 p.m. and my tummy is rumbling, I have a snack I love to tide me over until lunch or dinner." She also keeps an apple or banana in her bag for a portable, healthy on-the-go snack.

  6. Have a chopping party. If you need chopped veggies or fruit for several meals (think apples for snacks, sweet potatoes and onions for dinner), set aside a chunk of time to chop everything at once. Store your sliced ingredients in clear containers or plastic zip-top bags in the fridge. When it is time to heat up your dinner, simply toss the ingredients on a baking sheet to roast or directly into your soup or salad.  Check out Waldeck's chopping tutorials in these quick online classes.

  7. Make a few batches at once. "When you are chopping an onion or pepper for soup, chop twice as much as you need for one recipe," she says. "Go ahead and sauté the onion and pepper (and whatever other ingredient, like celery or garlic), and put half in the fridge ready for another soup, sauce or stir-fry." For grains, Waldeck's motto is "cook once, eat twice or even three times." Make two or three batches of grains like quinoa, farro or brown rice. Use what you need and have the rest ready in the fridge for another meal.

  8. Make your own freezer meals. Freeze soups, stews, casseroles and veggie dishes in individual portions for easy weeknight meals. She advises against freezing cheese, rice or pasta by themselves because they can get crumbly. Finally, label everything with the date and name of the item. "No UFOs – unidentified freezer objects," says Waldeck. "Also, I try to use everything in the freezer within six months."

  9. Make food storage a breeze. Stock up on mason jars for soups, stews and sauces in the refrigerator; plastic or glass containers or zip-top bags for the fridge or freezer; and parchment paper to wrap cheese and meat in the fridge.

  10. Don't forget dessert. Keep some healthy options at home so you don't feel tempted to run to the grocery store for ice cream next time a sweet craving hits. Waldeck recommends frozen fruit with yogurt and cinnamon, a square of dark chocolate (more than 70 percent cacao), dried fruit dipped in melted dark chocolate or these healthy date nut bites.

"Meal prep takes some time and thought, but once you have enjoyed a week or two without having to stop and wonder, 'What’s in the fridge,' you will have embraced a whole new way of eating," she says.

See more ideas to make meal prep even easier.

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