When hunger hits, having a fridge and pantry stocked with nourishing foods that are ready to eat, or cook, can mean the difference between noshing on something nutritious and hitting up the drive through for a fast food fix. In addition to helping you eat better, food prep can save time, money, and help keep things sane in the kitchen.
Along with a little meal planning, spending as little as one hour in the kitchen each week can help set you and your family up for a week’s worth of healthy eats. This food prep guide has everything you need to know to get started: beginner tips, equipment essentials, a step-by-step outline and even some food prep hacks for when you don’t have a full hour to spare.
1. Find what works for you. Some people will shop and prep all of their food for the week in one afternoon. Others find it more manageable to prep the night before for the next day.
2. It’s okay to start small. If you’re new to food prep, begin with prepping just one series of meals–say, salad fixings or breakfast egg muffins you can eat throughout the week. Once you’ve mastered that, add on one more.
3. Prep before putting the groceries away. If you have the time and can save yourself the hassle of having to put all everything away twice, do it!You’ll be more motivated to prep foods while they’re still sitting on the counter.
4. Keep your meal plan and recipes within arms reach. You’ll most likely need to reference them at least a couple of times as you go.
5. Remember, it’s not all-or-nothing. Don’t think you need to wash, chop and pre-cook everything for an entire week in one-go. Prepping and portioning food for cooking later, or even for one weeknight meal is better than doing nothing at all.
Glass and/or plastic containers (with lids!): Clear containers are preferable as they allow you to see what you have which reduces the likelihood your freshly prepped food will be forgotten. Go for glass if you’re planning to reheat in the same container. Wide-mouth mason jars are inexpensive and great for storing chopped fruits and veggies or salad fixings. Less expensive, plastic containers are good for storing foods that won’t be heated in them–just opt for BPA-free.
Plastic bags: Gallon-size are perfect for storing large quantities of fruits and veggies, marinating meat or freezing leftover soups and stews. Sandwich and snack-size bags are ideal for smaller quantities. Freezer bags are thicker than regular plastic bags making them more resistant to moisture and oxygen, making your food less likely to get freezer burn.
Disposable freezer pans: These are great if you’re planning on freezing ready-to-bake casseroles, pasta dishes, marinara and more.
KITCHEN APPLIANCES, POTS & PANS
Slow cooker: Slow cookers are great for preparing lean protein (such as chicken breast, beef round, pork loin etc…) as well as hearty soups, stews and even casseroles.
Rice cooker: A versatile piece of kitchen equipment, rice cookers can also be used to cook quinoa, dried beans and lentils bigger batches of oatmeal, steamed veggies (if yours has a steamer rack)
Griddle pan or indoor grill: Indoor grills and grill pans are great for smaller living spaces, those cold, dark months, or when you just can’t commit to firing up the outdoor barbie.
Immersion Blender: A must-have for pureeing soups and sauces without making a mess of the blender
Food processor: Even a small food processor with the right attachments can save lots of time slicing, dicing, mincing and shredding. It also opens up a whole new world of delicious recipes, like homemade pesto and more.
Basic cookware: Don’t feel like you need a full set of shiny, new cookware to get started. One skillet, a soup pot and 2 saucepans will go a long way. Cast iron pots and pans can be a great, inexpensive addition to your kitchen, too!
THE SMALLER STUFF
Measuring cups and spoons
Sharp knives: A basic chef’s knife and paring knife will be able to handle most of what you need to cut
Spatulas and mixing spoons
Ramekins or mini prep dishes
Mixing bowls: At least a few of varying sizes–ones with lids are great for storing fresh fruits and veggies
4-sided grater: Great for everything from zesting citrus to shredding cheese or cabbage
Cutting boards: You can never go wrong with having a couple of different sizes but large boards make especially great prep surfaces
Markers: Sharpies for marking up plastic baggies; dry erase markers also work well for glass containers
Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and parchment paper: Line pans with foil or parchment paper for less mess; cover bowls or prep dishes without lids with clear plastic wrap.
Scrap bowl: Save yourself from making dozens of unnecessary trips to the trash or compost bin. Toss food scraps into an empty bowl on your counter as you go and dump it once when you’re done!
Dough scraper: This handy-dandy bread-making tool is also great for scooping up food scraps from the countertop and transferring your prepped food into storage containers
Once you’ve planned out your weekly meals, done your grocery shopping, and got all of your tools in place, set aside a chunk of time to devote to food prep. While everything may not finish cooking in 60 minutes or less, here’s an overview of what you can tackle in just one hour.
1. Tackle time-consuming proteins Get your meat marinating (just freeze if you won’t be cooking it within a few days) or pop some chicken in the slow cooker with a little bit of broth for easy shredding/chopping in 3-8 hours time.
2. Get your grains and beans cooking Cook up a big batch of brown rice, quinoa or some dried beans to eat or cook with throughout the week. Just add water and let your rice cooker do the dirty work. Once your grains and legumes have cooked and cooled, either transfer them to a large container or divide into individual servings (typically 1/2–1 cup) topped with your batch-baked veggies and proteins for balanced, on-the-go meals.
3. Wash, peel and chop fresh fruit and veggies (with the exception of berries which are best if washed just before eating). Chop like ingredients in one fell swoop. For example, if you need 3 diced onions for 2 different recipes, dice them all at once and divide as needed. To save on food storage containers, consolidate chopped produce that can be cooked or eaten together. For salad fixings, put washed greens into an air-tight plastic bag to keep crisp and divide veggie toppings into individual containers for fast salad assembly later.
4. Batch-bake veggies and proteins Pre-cooked veggies and protein make great brown bag lunches and quick dinners after a long day. Preheat your oven while you prep your meat and veggies.
Prep-ahead proteins: fish, chicken (whole or sections), pork or beef tenderloin, hard-boiled eggs
Oven-friendly veggies: potatoes, asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, winter and summer squash, cauliflower, eggplant, green beans, bell peppers
5. Pre-measure and group together recipe ingredients Measure out recipe ingredients ahead of time and consolidate produce that can be cooked or eaten together, such as stir-fry veggies, salad fixings or fresh fruit. Label containers and food storage bags with the recipe name and/or day of the week you’re planning to cook it.
6. Tackle the little stuff–if time allows Make homemade marinades and salad dressings for later in the week. Measure out spices, squeeze and zest fresh citrus, chop fresh herbs and garlic in advance.
No time for a full-on prep session? If you don’t have a spare hour or two to get a week’s worth of prep out of the way at once, here are 5 simple tips to cut down on cook time during the week:
1. Tackle the biggest time-saver first If dinner is your biggest obstacle during the week, spend a few minutes prepping some lean protein and low-maintenance veggies that you can batch cook later on.
2. Opt for pre-chopped fruits and veggies Fresh, pre-chopped produce is great but don’t forget frozen which can be just as convenient and easier on the wallet.
3. Prep the night before It’s perfectly okay to divvy up your food prep into several smaller sessions. Keep your weekly meal plan in plain sight as a reminder for what you need to prepare for the next day.
4. Make use of your frozen leftovers We all have weeks where food prep just isn’t possible. Seek out your stockpiled frozen soups and stews to help get you through when things get especially busy.
5. Divide and conquer Divy up food prep duties between family members or roommates. If they’re going to partake in eating, it’s only fair!