How to Make Meal Prep More Efficient

Ever since our first child was born and Sarah and I went through a financial turnaround, preparing meals at home has bene a big part of our daily routine. Even with three kids and with both of us having busy professional and community schedules, we make a concerted effort to prepare almost all of our meals at home and to have family dinners together as often as possible, probably six days a week on average. It saves money, ensures at least a somewhat healthy diet, and also gives us a chance to come together as a family pretty much every day.

The thing is, as our children have grown up and their schedules have become more convoluted and also as our own lives have become more challenging in different ways, we’ve had to develop a lot of different techniques to be able to continue to pull this off. There are many evenings where we are utterly threading the needle to have a family dinner together simply because of all of the time constraints.

Because of that, we’ve come more and more to rely on advance meal prepping in various forms. We very rarely decide at 5:30 at night that it’s time to start preparing supper – it simply doesn’t work out well for us with the various activities everyone is involved in. There just isn’t adequate time for that.

Instead, we use a lot of different strategies that minimize the actual final meal preparation time on those busy evenings so that we can keep having family home cooked meals. I thought it might be worthwhile to walk through some of these strategies, as most of them can be pulled out as needed when they match what you need.

Why do this? As I noted above, home food preparation saves a ton of money and it’s often both tastier and healthier than eating at a restaurant. So why doesn’t everyone do it? The big reason people often turn to takeout and delivery and restaurants is time – it takes time to cook at home. Over time, if you rely on restaurants too heavily, you start to lose basic kitchen skills and it becomes even harder to prep meals at home.

How does that time constraint even line up at all with an extremely busy family, then? That’s really what this article is about. So, let’s dig in.

The Meal Plan Is Central

The only way that we’re able to pull off a variety of home cooked meals in the evenings is by making a very careful meal plan so that Sarah and I both know what’s coming up each night during the week.

For us, this usually starts by writing out a full weekly plan on a whiteboard that hangs on the wall in our entryway. We list all of the activities that people have throughout the week as well as the meals throughout the week.

Those meals keep in mind the time constraints of a particular evening. If we have no time at all other than a half hour window to eat, then we know that we’re going to have to rely on the slow cooker. If there’s a small window of time for one parent to do meal preparation, then we plan for a very simple meal with easy preparation. If there’s a larger window, then we have more flexibility. If there’s a window for some prep (or just to put something in the oven), then some activities, then a window to eat, it’s a good time to bake a casserole.

Within those constraints, we figure out a few specific meals to eat. Usually, I do this by looking at the grocery flyer for our preferred grocery store (Fareway) and figure out meals that work in our time constraints that use the on-sale ingredients from the flyer. For example, if I see that pasta sauce is on sale (or tomato sauce and diced tomatoes), that’s often going to be a week where we have a couple of pasta meals. Which ones fit into our time constraints? Spaghetti is really fast, so we might have it one night. Lasagna requires some advance prep but mostly just sits in the oven for an hour, so I can make that on a “casserole” night, plus I can probably make 4 lasagnas if I do the assembly the night before or early in the afternoon and freeze 3 of them (we’ll get back to that extra meal prep later).

This kind of time-oriented meal planning is essential for our ability to pull off meals throughout the week.

Breakfasts Are Super Simple Affairs and Lunch Is Usually Leftovers

During the week in particular, breakfasts are super simple affairs, like oatmeal or cereal or scrambled eggs, while lunches are almost always leftovers (for Sarah and myself) or school lunches (for the kids).

This means that (a) breakfast planning is really easy and doesn’t require a whole ton of thought, and (b) we plan to make somewhat larger dinners than necessary to provide leftovers for Sarah and myself.

Sarah and I both do keep a few shelf-stable items for lunches when we don’t have leftovers to take. I like making soup or a simple tuna salad sandwich on such days; Sarah usually has soup or a freezer meal that she keeps at work. Those are just backups, however; our primary option is leftovers.

We Prepare a Grocery List and Shop for Groceries on the Weekends

Sarah and/or I usually prepare our “week ahead” schedule on the whiteboard on Saturday or Sunday, which includes a meal plan, as noted above. We’ll have four or five meals on the whiteboard that require ingredients to be purchased, so we’ll go grocery shopping on Saturday (or sometimes on Monday, because Fareway is closed on Sundays).

We make the grocery list directly from the meal plan (so it naturally includes on-sale items since that’s how we made the meal plan), then verify that we have enough items for breakfasts and backup lunches, then check on our household supplies. Anything found wanting goes on the list.

Then, when we get to the store, we stick to that list like glue. We go through the aisles with an understanding that everything we need is on the list so there’s no other purpose in being there other than to put items from the list in the cart and get out the door as soon as possible. This means a lot fewer incidental purchases and thus a lot less expense on groceries.

Most Time-Intensive Meal Prep Tasks Are Done on Preceding Days

One of the most common things you’ll find me doing later in the evening on most days is doing meal prep tasks. I’ll take some specific task related to a meal in the future, like chopping up vegetables or sautéing onions or cooking beans or cooking rice, and do it now so that I just have a container in the fridge that I can just dump right into the recipe when it’s time to go.

In fact, that’s what our actual meal prep on busy evenings will sometimes look like. I’ll just pull a few containers out of the fridge, dump one of them in a pot or even sometimes in a large microwaveable bowl, start heating it up, then add another container’s contents in a bit, then maybe another, and when it’s all hot and mixed together, I serve it.

For example, I might want to serve some stir fry over rice for a meal. I’ll cook the rice the night before and store it in a container in the fridge. I’ll also chop all vegetables to the appropriate size and put them in the fridge the night before, and set out the sauce I want to use. When it’s time to eat, all I have to do is add a bit of oil to a pan, turn it on high, dump in vegetables, toss the rice in the microwave, and everything is done in like five minutes.

It’s very rare that refrigeration of ingredients has any adverse affect on a meal, and sometimes it improves things (chili, for example, is usually better after refrigeration).

Sunday (or Sometimes Monday) Involves a Lot of Advance Meal Prep

Sometimes on Sunday evenings or Monday evenings, I’ll do almost all of the meal prep for the whole week all in one batch, spending an hour or two in the kitchen just chopping vegetables and cooking beans and things like that, putting everything in a bunch of labeled containers in the fridge. (The “labels” are usually just masking tape and marker.)

I’ll assemble full casseroles. I’ll basically have everything ready to just dump in the slow cooker with liquid and turn on low for a slow cooker soup. I’ll make sauces from scratch and put them in the fridge. We’ll often not use these items for three or four days, but knowing the prep work is done so that the final assembly is as easy as I can make it is wonderful.

In fact, this is often more efficient. If I need to chop an onion for three different meals, it’s way easier just to chop three onions at once and put the onion in three different containers. If I need beans for three different meals, it’s easier to just cook enough beans at once to satisfy all the meals.

You don’t have to spread out the meal prep throughout the week.

We Often Prep Extra Duplicate Meals for the Freezer

There are a lot of meals for which we simply make extra copies and store them in the freezer.

For example, whenever we make a pot of soup, we almost always make a ton of that soup, a triple or quadruple batch that fills up a pot or a slow cooker. Then, after we’re finished, we’ll store the leftover soup in a freezer container and pop it in the freezer.

If I’m making lasagna, I almost always make three or four pans of it at once. The first assembled pan goes in the fridge because we’re probably using it in the next day or two; the other two or three pans go in the freezer to be used in the next month or two.

This process works best for soup and casseroles, but we also freeze bags of extra rice, extra chopped vegetables, and so on. If I have a couple of hours and a bunch of onions, for example, I’ll often chop them up and put them in freezer containers and pop those in the freezer (this is often “podcast listening time” or “audiobook listening time” on a weekend day).

The Slow Cooker Is Essential

Sometimes, we recognize that our window of family time together in an evening is very small and there’s basically no time at all for any prep work. On those days, the slow cooker is absolutely essential, as I can start it early in the day and then come home to a finished meal that’s immediately ready to serve.

We usually use it to prepare soups and stews. We simply add the ingredients to the slow cooker in the morning before work begins (or I do it during my lunch break) and let it cook on low all day. When everyone’s here, we simply pull out the crock, put it on the table, hand everyone a spoon and a bowl, and eat. If there are leftovers, they go into a large meal container for a future dinner or individual meal containers for future lunches.

The slow cooker at our house is used this way once or twice a week, at least, and sometimes more than that during the busiest periods.

If We’re Using a Freezer Meal, We Pull It Out Two Days Early

Sometimes our meal plan includes freezer meals, but we’ve learned the hard way that if you pull freezer meals out of the freezer and put them directly in the oven, they’ll take forever to cook.

Instead, we’ll usually pull a freezer meal out of the freezer two days in advance and leave it in the fridge for two days to thaw. For some things, like casseroles, three days is fine. You have to give frozen items a lot of time to thaw.

I’ll often pull out casseroles and other items from the fridge an hour or two before they’re going to cook just to let them rise in temperature a little before cooking, meaning that they’ll cook a little faster in the oven or on the stovetop and get more evenly heated in the oven.

I’ll often write “pull meal x out of the freezer” on the whiteboard on the day that the meal should be pulled out of the freezer and add it to my to-do list for that day so that I don’t forget to do it.

Our “If All Else Fails…” Meal Is Pasta with Sauce

If for some reason all of the other strategies here fall apart, we always have an abundance of pasta and pasta sauce in our cupboard, along with flash frozen vegetables in the freezer. We can always assemble a pasta with sauce and vegetables dinner at any time.

This is our final fallback for a number of reasons. One, it’s incredibly easy to prepare – I can do it almost without thinking. Two, it’s very fast to prepare, as I can get it to the table in about 15 minutes if needed. Three, it’s incredibly inexpensive, as we can feed our family for about $1 a head. Four, it’s fairly healthy compared to a lot of things we could have – I’m not going to proclaim that it’s perfect, but it’s pretty good as things go. Five, we can often buy the ingredients in bulk. Six, our entire family likes it, though some will grumble if we have it too often.

I highly encourage busy families to have a “fall back” meal like this one that they know everyone likes that can be assembled super quickly, then make sure you always have plenty of the ingredients on hand.

Final Thoughts

These individual strategies all come together to ensure that our family gets to have a family dinner together most nights of the week. My estimate is that six out of seven nights of the week, at least four out of the five members of our family are able to gather around the dinner table for dinner together, and typically four nights a week all five of us gather around for dinner. Most of the time, we eat at home with home cooked meals that are inexpensive and reasonably healthy.

That does not happen with our busy schedules without some smart meal preparation tactics. It’s only because of those tactics that we can maintain a family dinner tradition.

I hope that you find some of these tactics and strategies useful. The biggest part of all of this is simple: think ahead. If you know that you’re going to need a quick meal on Wednesday, think about what that’s going to be now rather than later. Buy the stuff on Saturday, prep the ingredients on Monday, and you’ll leave yourself just tossing it together in a few minutes on Wednesday.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.