7 Meal Prep Shortcuts That Will Save You So Much Time

On its face meal planning and prepping sounds intimidating. For many, planning just one meal is terrifying, so the concept of shopping for, cooking and prepping breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks for an entire week is enough to make them cringe and grab for the nearest takeout menu.

When done thoughtfully and strategically, meal planning and prepping could actually be the healthy eating hack your schedule has been seeking. Meal prepping is empowering and can help you eat healthier even on the busiest weeknights. But eating healthy is only the tip of the iceberg: Meal prepping can also help you save money if you plan to repurpose ingredients from other recipes for various meals, and if you know the exact amounts to buy of pricier ingredients like chicken, fish and meat. It can also help save time, especially when you spend just one day a week cooking every week. By prepping in advance, you'll shave off about 45 minutes from every busy workweek night so you can work out, spend time with loved ones or have some time for self-reflection.

Meal prepping can also help control your weight, of course. Whether you are looking to lose weight or maintain your current weight, keeping portions in check is one of the biggest hurdles people with weight issues struggle to overcome. With meal prep, every week you will box each meal and snack, making it a handy tool for managing portion control without having to think through every single meal. You'll also be able to get more done with less effort. Cooking a double batch and freezing half for a later date, for example, is a great way to save "future you" time. It takes substantially less effort to cook extra muffins or chili than it does to cook a new recipe every night of the week, after all!

For those struggling with time management or dealing with an over-packed schedule, meal prepping can also help decrease stress. Cooking every night, whether for yourself or an entire family, can be extremely taxing. You need to select a recipe to cook, have all the ingredients available, cook the dish, serve the meal and clean up, all after a full day of errands, work or chores. Meal prepping allows you to skip over these steps without worrying about that burning question that inevitably comes along every night: What's for dinner?

But First…

There's a lot that goes into meal planning and prep. To avoid feeling overwhelmed before you even grab the first cooking pan, it's important to have a strategy and understand your strengths and weaknesses before you dive into shopping and cooking. The first thing to decide, for example, is whether you want to cook everything on one day or break it up into two days. Some people like to get it over with in an afternoon, but for others the idea of spending so much time in the kitchen is a buzzkill.

From there, determine which meals you have to prep. Do you go out with clients for lunches or have access to healthy snacks at work? Those meals you can skip. After you select your recipes, put together your shopping list and check the pantry to ensure you don't accidentally rebuy an ingredient you already have.<pagebreak>
When you're ready to start cooking, pick the order. Slow cooker recipes should go first, then those that take longer to cook such as lasagna or chili. If you're working toward weight loss, your last step is to properly portion your meals out. It's a step that people often forget, but taking the extra time to create a balanced, properly portioned meal pays off in the end.

Master These Meal Prep Hacks

While meal prep does require that you spend some time in the kitchen, there are tips and tricks that work wonders to help save time and money (and sanity) as you put together your meals. Go into it with a good attitude, throw on some upbeat music, think about how happy you'll be when all your meals are prepped, delicious and ready for you to eat and you'll be a meal-prep fanatic in no time at all.
  1. Go with the flow of the supermarket: To be the most efficient with your food shopping list, write it out the way the supermarket flows. Almost all supermarkets have you enter at the fruit and vegetable section so this is where you should start before continuing per your specific market. This way you will remember all your items and be more efficient. The worst thing you can do is forget something in aisle one when you're already in aisle 11! After a few visits you'll be an expert on where to find the canned goods, meats, herbs and other items, so taking the extra time to organize your list based on how you shop is worth the hassle you'll be saved by bopping back and forth across the store to find items.
  2. Go simple to make more: The simplest dishes can be made into many more meals, so be creative as you think about the variety in your menu. Take grilled chicken, for example: You can make add it into a sandwich, top a salad, add it to a quesadilla or make a chicken salad. Black beans, steamed broccoli, quinoa or hardboiled eggs can similarly be made in bulk and then used as the base or a complement to a larger meal. There's nothing that sends people to the drive-thru faster than getting bored eating the same meal three days in a row, so look for simple ways to change things up.  
  3. Select easy-to-clean recipes: Who likes doing dishes? You can minimize them by commiting to cook one of your meals in a slow cooker. Chili, chicken and vegetables and roasts can all be prepped beforehand and tossed in the cooker before work on Monday, then eaten throughout the week. Thanks to a renewed interest in the trend, you can also find many sheet pan recipes online, all of which leave you with just one sheet pan to clean when you're done.
  4. Freeze leftovers in single-serve containers: Instead of freezing extra food in a large container, which forces you to defrost the entire batch when you're ready to eat, place your portion in a single-serve container, instead. That way, you can easily defrost it overnight and have it ready to go for a lunch or dinner the next day. When you suddenly need an extra meal during the week, you'll be happy you had the foresight to make this simple adjustment.
  5. Freeze extra herbs: To minimize food waste, do not discard any fresh herbs leftover from this or that recipe. Instead, toss 1/3 cup of olive oil with two cups of fresh herbs in a blender and blend until smooth. Freeze the mixture in ice cube trays and, once frozen, remove each cube and store in a resealable plastic bag. Label the bag with the name of the herb and store in the freezer for up to two months. Later, this paste can be used as a quick way to add flavor to fish and chicken, or to make a tasty salad dressing—no extra chopping involved.
  6. Stash freezer smoothies: Make prepping smoothies even quicker by placing cut up fruit, vegetables and herbs in individual resealable bags. Each bag can be stored in the freezer for up to two months and make for a quick and easy breakfast for those mornings when you're running so far behind schedule. When you are ready to make a smoothie, pull out your individual bag, place the ingredients into the blender, add ½ to ¾ cup of your favorite liquid (skim milk, 100 percent juice or almond milk), blend, toss in a to-go cup and go. Your belly will thank you for not skipping breakfast or a snack.
  7. Meal prep snacks: While snacking gets a bad rap thanks to the idea that a good snack equals mindless munching, snacking with purpose can help keep your body fueled between meals and effectively curb any "hangry" cravings that send you to the first sweet or salty snack you see in the vending machine. While there are many simple grab-and-go foods to stock up on for healthy snacks, (think single-serve Greek yogurt or pre-portioned nut butter packets), those items are often overpriced for the amount of food you get. You can easily prep a few portion-friendly snacks to last throughout the week by buying individual ingredients and using your own reusable containers. Try prepping energy bites or balls, trail mix, ice pops made with Greek yogurt and fruit, or chopped vegetables and homemade hummus.
The most important thing to remember about meal prep is that it must suit your lifestyle in order to work. If you dread cooking all of your meals on Sundays, break it up by doing all of your chopping Sunday and cooking throughout the week. If you hate the idea of boring meals, experiment with spices or homemade condiments to make the same meal in different ways. The only meal prep strategy that is worth following is one that you will actually use. Try any or all the above hacks, a bit of trial and error, and hold onto the tips that make your life easier so you can eat healthier and live a less stressful life.