We were very blessed to have lots of family and friends drop off freezer meals for us or offer to cook in the early weeks of parenthood. But eventually, we had to get back into the rhythm of cooking for ourselves each night. To make matters worse, it seemed most evenings just as I was starting to get dinner going, my son would become clingy and fussy, making it very challenging to put him down. Getting into a good meal prep routine so you can get dinner on the table faster has made our lives much easier. Here are my tips for you.
(*Note: I’ve included a number of links for your reference in this blog, but I am not sponsored by or affiliated with any of the products listed).
1. Keep a running grocery list that you add to all week. When you go to the store, really try to stick to the list.
My husband and I have a shared list on our iPhones (there are tons of apps that serve this purpose, we use Any List). Often we’ll be cooking in the kitchen and realize we’re running low on an item. We use Siri to add it to our list hands free! Then at the end of the week, we already have a jump start on what we need to get for the week ahead.
We usually pick one day a week to do all the grocery shopping and make it a consistent day. This saves us time because we don’t have multiple grocery runs weekly, and saves money because we are intentional about what we’re purchasing.
2. Use resources to take the guess work and thought out of the process.
Use a recipe organization app
(Again, there are tons of options out there. We use a free app called Recipe Box. It’s super easy to save recipes from any website and store them in the app, edit the recipes in case you want to add an ingredient, omit one, or adjust the amount of something. as well as share them with others,)
3. Plan out your meals at least week ahead of time.
Because my husband is so generous, he cooks two nights a week, and I cook the other five (with an occasional date night or take out thrown in). We have designated assigned nights when we each cook (and the other does the dishes). We decide the week prior who’s making what meals and then add items on the grocery list accordingly.
Consider streamlining your process using the same few ingredients several different ways. ( i.e. Main ingredients for the week: ground beef and canned diced tomatoes. You can make chili one night, spaghetti Bolognese, and then perhaps make your own nachos another night.)
4. Keep staples on hand.
That way, if something doesn’t work out with a planned meal, you can whip something else up quickly.
We try to always have certain cooking staples on hand which, for us include:
i. Pantry: Rice, canned beans, pasta, pasta sauce, seasoning packets, canned fruits and veggies, canned soup, tuna, peanut butter
ii. Freezer: chicken, ground beef, fish, veggies
5. Make a list of the meals your family rotates through.
I keep a list in my notes app and have it organized by the main ingredient (chicken, beef, fish, pasta, rice, etc.)
Sometimes I forget about certain meals and it’s helpful to keep a list.
6. Spend about an hour once a week prepping ingredients.
This might include chopping veggies, deboning a rotisserie chicken, or cooking some rice. This makes the actual night you have the meal much quicker.
7. Make double (or triple) of freezer-friendly meals.
I often do this with soups and chilies, but many meals are freezer friendly with proper storage.
I often make three fresh meals weekly, and then rotate out a few meals from the freezer. I use a dry-erase marker to label the lids (wipes off easy with a sponge).
8. Make dry-erase tools your friend.
I keep a set of mini dry erase markers with magnets on the fridge for labeling Pyrex storage containers.
We also have a dry erase weekly menu to plan out each week’s meals. (No one every asks, “What’s for dinner?” It’s written out!)
9. Give yourself a break.
Plan a night to order in, pop a store-bought lasagna in the oven, every 1-2 weeks. You deserve it! And don't forget date night. Time with just you and your partner is critical. If you don't have family nearby, to keep costs down, consider offering to watch a friend's child one night in exchange for them watching your child instead of always hiring a babysitter.
Consider subscribing to a meal kit service. Many services let you try them for free with special promotions, or ask around to see if friends or family have a free week they’d send you (many do). Many services allow you to skip weeks (some indefinitely!) so you can skip them when you’re out of town, or if you just want to utilize them occasionally to spice up your menu. We love Every Plate, and it’s super affordable and family friendly! Again, tons of options here.
10. Reconsider elaborate meals 3 times per day.
You may be the kind of family that likes to have freshly made hot meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week. That’s going to require more prep, than having ready-to go options for breakfast and sometimes lunch.
Try batch baking/ prepping breakfast items such as muffins, egg bites (like mini crustless quiches), breakfast burritos, smoothies and keeping them in the freezer.
Lunch: sandwiches are fine! Try mixing things up by making pita pockets, wraps with tortillas, or toasted open-faced sandwiches (still low-prep). Mini charcuterie boards for kids are great too! Slice up some veggies, lay out some crackers, and put out a dip such as guacamole, salsa, or hummus. Enlist help from the kids to make it fun for them.
Meal prep can seem overwhelming, especially when there are so many other activities and responsibilities competing for your time each day. Be kind to your future self once a week with a little planning and preparation, and hopefully you can establish a system that works for you. Remember, perfection isn't the goal; getting food on the table is. You've got this!