For a few years now, I’ve been playing with different ways to make dinner prep for family meals easier. Between after school activities and the fact that my four kids turn into (adorable) monsters from about 4 to 6 pm, taking an hour and a half to get dinner on the table just isn’t an option. I needed to find a method that worked.
I tried cooking a dozen or so meals at once, then freezing them. The oven would cook them easy enough, but we felt like we were always eating leftover casseroles. Yuck.
I tried a system of rotating kids into the kitchen to help cook a meal of their choice, but it was a whole lot more work. Not practical on busy nights.
Then, I tried meal delivery kits. Super convenient, but oof, the expense.
So I decided to DIY my own meal kits, and it’s been a huge success for a few months now. Following my do-one-thing-a-day organization method, I prep dinners for the entire week at once and it only takes about an hour and a half (depending on the recipes I choose). Then, each night, I grab the pre-cut, pre-mixed, pre-prepped ingredients and cook a fresh meal in about 30 minutes. It’s been a game-changer.
But our pizza delivery guy is missing us.
If you’re ready to get organized to prep your meals ahead of time, too, here’s how I do it.
1. Make a plan
The first step is the most obvious: You have to plan. You can’t wing it, or you’ll be ordering pizza and Chinese every other night. The night before I do my meal prep, I sit down with my favorite cookbooks and blogs to pick our meals for the week. I also make notes about what events we have going on each night, because if I know we have to be out the door by 5:30 to get to Scouts, for example, I also know that I need to plan for a dinner on the go one night.
If meal planning is the bane of your existence, we’ve got you covered. Stacie posts a family-friendly meal plan here each week, so you don’t even have to think about it. Just use ours.
Once I choose meals for the week, I look through each recipe to make my grocery list. Yes, I type it up, cecause I’m way too type A.
Related: Cool Mom Eats Weekly Meal Plans
2. Don’t unload your groceries right away.
Once I get home from the grocery store (or invite my Shipt shopper in to drop them off), I don’t unload my groceries. Well, sort of. I take everything out of the bags, but leave them on the table so that I can see what I have, because there’s no point in putting it all away if I’m going to just get it right back out again.
That said, I do organize ingredients by recipe. I also pull things out of the fridge or pantry that I need for each recipe that I already had at home. That way, my prep goes a lot faster once I start and my hands are already messy.
3. Start chopping, dicing, and mixing, one recipe at a time.
I prep recipes one at a time, thinking through which parts can be done ahead of time.
- Chop fruit and veg
- Mix dressings and marinades
- Mix and shape meatballs, hamburger patties, and so on to refrigerate or freeze
I even stuffed the herbed ghee that goes under the chicken breast skin in one recipe, so that all I had to do on the night of was pop it into the oven.
This is the longest part of the process because you’re doing the actual work of getting your meals ready, so feel free to use the time to binge on an episode or two of your favorite show, or listen to a podcast while you chop and dice. If cooking really isn’t your favorite thing, rewarding yourself while you do it will make it way more enjoyable. (Editor’s note: If it’s evening time and you drink, a glass of wine can be nice too!)
I try to do all of this while my kids are at school — it’s one benefit of being a work-from-home mom. If that isn’t an option for you, find another time when you’ll have the kitchen to yourself. I’ve done this while my husband is putting the kids to bed, or on the weekend while the kids are at sports practices. Worst case scenario: I set my toddler up in her booster with some markers and stickers. That buys me at least 30 minutes to focus.
4. Store your ingredients in an organized way, and safely!
As you finish prepping each item, you’ll need to store them safely and neatly. I label freezer-safe bags, then put all of the items for one recipe together in the fridge.
As you work, you’ll need to keep in mind when you’re planning to eat each item to know how to store it. I wouldn’t add meat to a marinade unless you’re planning to eat it the next day, for example. Instead, store the marinade separately in a jar until the night before you plan to cook it. The dressing for a cole slaw will make it soggy if it sits too long, so I store that separately too.
However, dry rubs add great flavor when they sit on meat or fish for a few days, so don’t be afraid to prep those well in advance. Salsas can also be made ahead of time — the flavors come together even better over time.
Prepping for the week means shopping once for the week, which means buying meat for the week. My tip for deciding whether meat should go into the fridge or freezer: check the sell-by date on the package. That’s how long the supermarket can leave the meat in the refrigerated cooler at the store.
If you’re planning to eat the meat by that date, you can go ahead and form the hamburger patties, meatballs, and so on and keep them in the fridge. If not, toss them into the freezer, then pull them out that morning to defrost. That said, if you’re going to put them into the fridge, be sure to write the sell-by date on your food storage bags so that you know what to do if your dinner plans change at the last minute.
Why DIY meal kits are a game changer
When I looked at the cost of delivery meal kits for my family of six, I just couldn’t justify the expense, especially once I realized that I could create my own — for delicious meals like blackened tilapia taco bowls, Thai meatball lettuce wraps, and Southwest turkey burgers — for under $3 per person. So cost was the primary factor.
But prepping ingredients ahead of time for my DIY meal kits also means that my family gets more of my attention during that crazy after-school time when homework is calling and kids need to process their days. It’s easier to have the kids help cook when they want because the process is streamlined — or for me to play Legos or to help with homework or do whatever allows us to catch up on their day while we work and hang out together.
Plus, an unexpected surprise for me is that we eat much more interesting meals. I gear myself up for one big work session, then it’s not exhausting during the week to come up with exciting meals. Plus, the flavors are often so much better because they’ve had time to marinate and blend together as they’ve waited in the fridge. And by just prepping — not cooking — ahead of time, everything still tastes fresh. Not like the endless parade of leftovers before.
Not to mention: I’ve dropped a pants size, probably because we’re ordering way less last-minute pizza than before.
So yeah, this is a system I’m keeping in place. It’s definitely working for us, and hopefully it can work for you too.