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Beginner’s Guide to Meal Planning: Everything You Need to Know to Create a Custom Meal Plan

Meal prep can feel overwhelming and time-consuming, especially if you’re just starting out. But you don’t need to spend all day in the kitchen to enjoy the benefits of meal prepping. In fact, meal prep can range from preparing ingredients in advance to cooking dinners for the next week—spending as little as 30 minutes planning and prepping your meals can help you save time and money.

There’s no one right way to meal prep—it’s all about what works for your needs, budget, and schedule. Here’s everything you need to know to get started.

Determine the best meal-prep style for you.

Before you start creating your meal plan, you’ll need to do a bit of self-assessment. The easiest way to determine the best meal-prep style for you is to ask yourself why you’re interested in meal planning. Maybe you want to save money, eat better, or waste less—or maybe you just want to have a ready answer to “what’s for dinner?”

Depending on your cooking style, budget, and goals, one of these methods may work for you:

  1. Make-ahead meals: If you have a hectic schedule, cooking meals on Sunday and reheating them at mealtimes can help you make hassle-free weeknight dinners.

  2. Batch cooking: Batch cooking involves cooking multiple batches, portioning them out, and freezing them for future meals. For example, you might double a soup recipe to use in the next month.

  3. Individually portioned meals: If you’re looking to eat better, individually portioned meals are ideal. This offers the convenience of on-the-go meals and is portioned into individual servings. Some examples include overnight oats and salads in single-serving containers.

  4. Ready-to-cook ingredients: If you prefer cooking before serving, preparing ingredients (for instance, chopping vegetables in advance) can help you save time in the kitchen.

Remember: Burnout is real. If you’re just starting out, choose two or three factors that matter the most to you and keep them in consideration when you start choosing recipes.

Create your meal plan.

After deciding which type of meal prep best fits your needs, set aside some time to create a simple meal plan. If you’re not sure how to get started, start with the following:

  1. Choose recipes to prep. If you’re looking for an easy morning routine, try prepping smoothies to save time preparing breakfast. If hectic weeknights make it difficult to prepare healthy dinners, consider make-ahead dinners that can be reheated at dinner time.

  2. Create your menu. If you’re new to meal planning, start with some recipes you’ve cooked before, and add new recipes as you feel comfortable. If you’re short on ideas, check out Pinterest for inspiration.

  3. Schedule your cooking time. Now that you’ve created a menu, you’ll need to set aside time to prepare your meals. If your schedule allows, try meal prepping on the same day you go grocery shopping. While it might not be reasonable to cook multiple meals at once, you might have enough time to prepare some ingredients. 

Take inventory and start shopping.

With your custom meal plan ready to go, it’s time to create a shopping list. Before heading to the grocery store, check what you already have in your kitchen. 

It’s important to stock your kitchen with a wide variety of staples—like spices and shelf-stable grains like quinoa and rice—for easy meal prep. Some other essentials include broth and canned beans, along with fridge staples like eggs, milk, and butter.

To simplify grocery shopping, consider organizing your shopping list by department. Make sure to maintain a current inventory of the ingredients you use most during meal prep sessions, like olive oil or eggs, and add them to your list whenever it’s time to stock up.

Prepare and store your meals.

To optimize your time while meal prepping, start with foods that require long cooking times. If two recipes call for the same ingredient, like minced garlic, prepare the garlic for both recipes at the same time, and then divide it as needed.

In airtight containers, refrigerated chopped vegetables will stay fresh for two to three days. Lettuce, kale, and spinach can stay fresh in the refrigerator for up to one week. Meanwhile, be sure to consume grains, cooked vegetables, and dishes containing meat within four days.

You can easily freeze foods like soups and chilis for future meals. Remember to label and date your containers, and be sure to thaw and consume frozen meals within three to six months.

Remember that practice makes perfect.

After a few meal prep sessions, trips to the grocery store, and new recipes, you’ll discover the meal prep method that works for you. 

Whether you prepare breakfast for the week, cook an extra batch of soup to freeze, or prepare ingredients in advance, spending as little as 30 minutes meal prepping each week can help you cut down on waste, save money, and make healthier choices.

[Feature Image: Unsplash] 


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