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Sunday, April 8, 2018

meal prepping to make an easier work week

I have struggled for years to maintain a weekly routine of preparing meals ahead of time. I started a few years ago taking one weekend a month and cooking up about 8 meals and freezing them for the month. That worked for a while... until I had a third child and just did not have that time anymore it seemed.

Finally this school year I'm on a solid routine of prepping meals on the weekends for the week ahead, as well as packing snacks and other healthy items for the week. I'm even packing lunches ahead for my husband and myself. It's life changing over here! It makes our work week much easier. It alleviates some stress in our home. It is definitely making us eat healthier, by far.

Make your family health and nutrition a PRIORITY:
It's not easy though. Those who say to "just do it," well they may not have children or maybe they don't run to sports or things on the weekends. It's NOT easy... but it's become a priority for us to meal prep food and snacks on the weekend to make our lives happier and healthier during the week. It HAS to be a priority or it won't happen. That's something I've learned over the last 4-5 years of tryyyyying to get it right.

Now that I've finally gotten it right for about nine months, I'm so much happier with how things are going. But before getting started on this post I want to be clear: it doesn't just happen, it's not easy, it's something that takes effort and time, and something that I MAKE happen and choose to make happen on a weekly basis.

For me, a family of 5 and working full time, it takes me about 3 hours a weekend to prep for the week ahead including 2-3 dinners (we eat leftovers), snacks for me and kids, and lunches for me and husband. Kids eat lunch at school. I do this on Sundays typically, but if we have something going on on Sunday it'll move to shopping Friday night or Saturday afternoon if needed.

The biggest reasons to meal prep:
  1. Saves time. During the week is when I need time saved, I don't have extra time to cook and I miss my kids since I'm working all day. 
  2. Saves money. You aren't going out to restaurants as much this way.
  3. Healthier nutrition. We are much healthier eating more fruits, veggies and snacking on things that are good for us.

Prepping Before You Meal Prep:
These are things that help me before I even step foot in the kitchen to cook.
  • Make a plan. Talk this out with your partner. Make sure you're on the same page about prioritizing the meal planning and shopping. Figure out a time in the weekend when it's least disruptive to the rest of the family to go out shopping or to be meal prepping. For me, this is first thing on a Sunday morning I'm sitting in the kitchen making my grocery list, looking at cookbooks, and writing a calendar for the week. My kids are either sleeping or watching TV slowly waking up so nobody misses me. Then when grocery shopping, I've gotten it down to a science: we are 5 minutes from the store so round trip it's only one hour of me shopping. I go during the baby's nap time and when the big kids are outside playing with Dad typically. Talk it through so that it works for your family.
  • Gather your cookbooks. Go through them. One by one, flip through them and put post-its on recipes you think you'd like to try. Tip: don't pick recipes with random spices and things you don't typically have on hand, or you won't make them. By flipping through the recipe books ahead of time and noting the things your family may like, you are saving time weekly when it's crunch time to make a grocery list and get out the door. I have tons of cookbooks, I narrowed them down a few years ago. After flipping through them and seeing that my family really won't eat some of these meals, I donated the cookbooks so less clutter. I have standby books. I also have a yellow binder of recipes I've found online, in magazines, etc. I categorize them by breakfast, side dishes, salads, dinner meals, pasta, etc. Having a space to go to to get recipes is the first thing. If you don't have cookbooks like the old fashioned ones of us, then have some web sites saved with recipes.
  • Keep a grocery list on the fridge. This is a lifesaver! I make my list as we go through things in the week. When we finish the butter, it goes on the list right then. When I notice snacks are low for kids, I put that on the list. You won't ever remember everything if you don't write it down. Sometimes we keep a notes list on our phone and share that between me and my husband. 
  • Calendar- I keep a weekly calendar on the fridge to write out where we will be, activities, sports, events, and basically noting when will we actually be home to eat dinner, and which nights will be leftovers or takeout depending on what's going on. I prep 2-3 dinner meals a week, then we figure out more on weekends. For us, this works, as we like leftovers and also as we are busy and usually out to eat once a week somewhere. I don't always stick to the nights that we eat things, but at least I have an idea of what's coming. This saves the "what's going to be for dinner?" chaos at the end of a night. Knowing ahead of time is helpful for all of us.
  • Stock up- I buy two jugs of chicken broth, make sure the spices are full, always have pasta and sauce available as a backup meal if something doesn't go well. I buy two of every frozen veggie so there are always those as side dishes in the freezer. We ALWAYS have breakfast for dinner items available and sandwich bread and peanut butter for those super busy nights. Stock up on things and freeze them- there's always a second loaf of bread in our freezer for example, and we keep extra sweet potato tater tots and mac and cheese on hand just in case. 
  • Gather the containers. You need LOTS of ziplock and tupperware or reusable glass containers for this to work. Prepping many meals and snacks ahead of time means you run out of containers, so make sure you have plenty of extras - including small ones for prepping salad dressings for salads or snack bags for kids' crackers, etc. 
  • Clean out the fridge. I do this weekly before going grocery shopping. Toss out old food, things that are expired, etc. It makes it easier when you return to put things away and start putting away prepped meals.

Favorite cookbooks include anything by Rachael Ray and Pioneer Woman! These are amazing deliciously yummy recipes, but also QUICK and easy to follow. 

Grocery Shopping
Once I have some meals in mind and my grocery list and calendar set up for the week (this part takes me 15-30 minutes. It obviously is easier and faster once you have a routine down), I am almost ready for the grocery store. 
  • Organize your list: I write my list lately in four quadrants or boxes on my paper. I start with one square of the fruits and veggies we need for the week, as that's the first stop in the grocery store that I head for. I then have a second quadrant for frozen veggies and meats and cheeses. Then another quadrant for dry items like cereals, broth, pasta, bread, or ziplock bags and toilet paper etc. The last one is for milk, yogurts, etc. section. By making my list this way, I get in and out of the grocery store MUCH faster. 
  • Work it out: I also think of grocery shopping as part of my workout for the day. I walk fast, zipping up and down aisles, and I aim to get out in an hour so I can get back to cook meals. 
  • Shop solo, ditch the kids! It's a good self-care to go shopping SOLO- don't take your kids, you deserve the hour to think clearly and not waste time redirecting kids while getting food in the cart. 

Prepping Dinners:
  • Clean up FIRST: I start with a clean kitchen. If there are dishes in the dishwasher: empty them first. If the sink is full: load the dishwasher. Clear the counter of papers and other things that accumulate. Otherwise, a messy kitchen that's going to get messier leads to you getting frustrated and wasting time.
  • Start the dinner meal first. I start with getting at least one dinner started in a crockpot - like barbecue chicken for example - as I'm cutting up veggies and fruits for the week's snacks. Meals take longer, so get them started first. I try to meal prep when I come home from grocery shopping. Prepping meals, lunches and snacks takes me 2 hours - and that does not include prepping lunches for two kids, they eat at school... so I can see that this would take a lot longer if you were also prepping lunches for kids. It's a time commitment, not going to lie or sugar coat that... but it's WORTH it if you prep and feel better throughout the week. 
  • Prep after shopping. If you can prep right after grocery shopping that's SO helpful, as everything is out and fresh in your mind. It also happens more if you do it ASAP. After MONTHS of throwing out hamburger or chicken, or tossing salad ingredients that never got made into a salad... wasting money of course... I have gotten into the rhythm of prepping on weekends after shopping, it's a time commitment altogether with shopping, but it works for us. While I'm prepping my kids are playing outside, cleaning up toys, watching a movie for rest time, napping, or hanging with Dad. Sometimes they help me with cooking, they love that. So it works for us. Find a time that works for you. This may be trial and error, but don't give up! 
  • Start slowly. Don't think you are going to prep 7 nights of dinners... you don't need that, especially eating leftovers. Prep 2-3 meals for dinners, that you intend to eat for lunch or leftovers also. Aim for one meal this week to get yourself going. 
  • Think simple: I make a lot of casseroles, soups, and pasta dishes, or chicken with veggies. Those are easy to make ahead and refrigerate well. If you have too much... cut in half and freeze some for another night in a few weeks.
  • Plan for easy nights. I include one of my dinners to be something simple: grille cheese, salad, tacos, pasta, breakfast for dinner, quesadillas, ETC. That helps in the beginning. 

Tip: Invest in a great cutting knife, peeler and cutting board. This will make your job easier in the long run.  

Prepping Lunches:
  • Easy salads. I make salads every week for me and my husband to have a few times a week at least. I mix up what type of salad every week so we don't get bored. I make some random concoctions! I also get several salad dressings on hand and little containers so even that part is prepped ahead and in the fridge for grab and go. That's my goal: quick, easy, healthy. Grab and go, or else my husband especially won't have time and choose to take something good. I mix up fruit and veggies, sides like walnuts and craisins, etc. You can research recipes for salads, too, if you get bored. 
  • Soups and veggies with chicken are easy. I then usually try something like soup or stew, and then rice and chicken sausage or barbecue chicken with veggies for lunches. Something easy and healthy, but different each week. 
  • Buy more. When shopping I try buying extra- so two packages of chicken sausage so I can make some next week if needed. 

With our new house came a new big fridge, which has been life changing also. We have plenty of drawers and spaces to keep things for the week. I keep my husband's lunches on one side, and mine on the other so we can keep track of what we have and grab and go easily on the weekdays.

Prepping Snacks:
Another thing I've been prepping the last few months and it's making a huge difference in our ability to eat healthier fruits and items is prepping snacks, too. My kids LOVE having a choice on what they get to pick. They know they have to pick something healthy from the fridge drawer and then can grab something like crackers or pretzels in the cupboard. We used to waste soooo much time having them pack their own snacks during weekdays, now they literally open the fridge and 1 minute later they are packed and I know they're eating something healthier. 

I also eat granola and yogurt with fruit in the mornings, so I started chopping my fruit on Sundays and putting into individual containers for the week. This has saved me time every morning on busy days when I'm trying to get myself and three kiddos ready for drop offs. It sounds simple, like why wouldn't you have time to cut up some strawberries and blueberries for a dish of yogurt? But you know how it goes, we DON'T so then we skip it and don't end up eating the healthy stuff. 

My kids have a drawer in the fridge of their snacks, and I have a drawer of mine. 

Items we typically use for refrigerated snacks:
  • cheese sticks
  • cheese and turkey pepperoni
  • apples
  • clementines
  • carrots
  • cherry tomatoes
  • pepper sticks 
  • cucumbers
  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • watermelon
  • cantaloupe
  • raspberries 
  • smoothie yogurt drinks 
  • yogurts 
  • celery with peanut butter 

I've found great snack containers in the baby section of Wal-Mart or Target, they are good size for kids and clear covers so they can see what's inside before choosing.

Tip: pack dips like hummus, ranch, guac, and salad dressings ahead of time, too. Don't think that's easy enough to do on the weekdays. The goal is EVERYTHING ahead of time.

The next thing I intend to try is packing ahead of time the dry snacks like crackers, pretzels, goldfish, tortilla chips, raisins etc. into smaller containers instead of having to do that daily.

Meal prepping is saving my sanity during the week. It makes life easier, more enjoyable and we eat healthier. 

Because I've prepped ahead, we don't worry about if we have food or what's for dinner. We don't waste time cooking at night, instead we play with our kids and talk about our days more. On really busy nights when we have like 30 minutes to do something before an appointment or game, we KNOW we have food in the fridge to heat up. It's been a win-win for our family.

Yes, it's time and it's a commitment. Yes, it costs money, we're spending more money weekly to get these fruits and veggies. BUT we feel better, we prioritize where our money is heading and don't spend as much money eating out. I hope to be honest with readers so that you aren't thinking this is an easy fix... it's not. It has taken our family YEARS of trial and error, as well as making more money to be able to buy the foods we know are healthier. But it's worth it... so that's my hope is that you realize your family's food intake is a priority and you CAN get there. Start small... what I'm sharing with you today of prepping meals, lunches, snacks etc. is years in the making... I have failed at this many times and just now getting it right. 

You can get there! Happy meal prepping, moms!

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