More on meals and meal prep

A new grocery store just opened in my suburb — it’s about a 4 minute drive from the house. This is exciting for shopping convenience of course, but also because it makes last minute trips possible. People who read last week’s time logs will recall that my daughter started a recipe on Sunday, then realized, several steps in, that we were out of flour. I took her to get it, but this was a 30-plus minute excursion. In our new world it will be sub 20. Maybe even less.

Anyway, the new store (and this week’s Best of Both Worlds topic) had me thinking about meal prep and organization.

I get antsy when people say they are “saving time” by prepping ahead. Sometimes they are, but often what people are doing is moving work around. This may have its benefits, but I’m not sure it’s a clear-cut win. In some cases, people actually add to the total time because they will, for instance, cook something elaborate on Sunday, freeze it, then have to thaw it on Thursday AND they decide to do some side dishes, which take time. Maybe everyone is eating better, but this doesn’t save time vs. just cooking something simpler.

However, this past week I did try one experiment in meal prep — for my lunches. I cooked chicken with rice and a jar of an Indian sauce for Sunday dinner, but instead of just cooking one package of chicken, I cooked two. Then I didn’t mix the second package in with the sauce. I put it in a Tupperware container in the fridge, then pulled it out over the next four days to make myself a curried chicken salad for lunch.

It was tasty! I didn’t save time, as in the past I’ve just used canned chicken to make the same thing, but it did taste better. And since I’d already cooked the chicken I didn’t need to think about what to eat for lunch.

Our household approach for most nights is just to cook something easy at dinner time. Monday tends to be pasta. We use jarred sauces jazzed up with extra veggies and Italian sausage. Wednesday is often breakfast for dinner, which I now have the three older children do (one makes pancakes/waffles, one cooks bacon, one cooks eggs). Friday is make-your-own-pizza with pre-made dough, and then various toppings. Every meal is served alongside cut up fruits and veggies.

One upside of being a big family is that going out to dinner is so ridiculous, on both a financial and logistical level, that we tend not to view it as a back-up option. So we are always cooking. Just not very elaborately most nights. It seems to work pretty well.

What’s for dinner in your household? Have you ever prepped ahead for lunches?



32 thoughts on “More on meals and meal prep

  1. I don’t prep ahead but I plan ahead! I rotate the same few items for lunch and stay stocked. I make sure to know what’s for dinner and plan more elaborately on days I’m off/off early and plan for leftovers or quick meals on my late nights. It works well and reduces my cognitive load when I’m tired after work.

    1. @Michelle – I do like knowing what’s for dinner. It also makes grocery shopping more efficient. I’ve been encouraging my husband (who tends to do our big shop each week) to think through actual meals as opposed to just getting what we always get.

  2. We used to prep lunches for two days at a time. It’s always salad with chicken so we couldn’t do more than one extra day without the salad wilting. The only thing it saved time on was washing one less cutting board over two days so it wasn’t really worth it.

    The time cooking is less of an issue than figuring out what to cook. My husband and I are health nuts and our girls are picky so it’s tough and takes some mental space. We’ve made it easier by having the same thing for breakfast and lunch everyday…..dinner is partially scheduled with shrimp tacos on tuesdays, eat out saturday and at least one salmon meal in there. I would like some variety but we are pretty limited given everyones preference.

    1. @Jen – yep, we are limited too given everyone’s preferences. As it is I wind up putting chicken nuggets in the oven for the 8-year-old half the time. Sometimes for the 11-year-old too. You have reminded me that I love shrimp tacos so maybe I can add that to the rotation for four of us…

    2. I make a big batch salad on Sunday with vegetables that last longer and use it for a few days through the week. Not sure if that’s your thing, but sharing for anyone who finds it helpful:

      Kale, shredded purple cabbage, shredded carrots, pumpkin seeds, blueberries. Then add crumbled goat cheese, a protein, and dressing (Cilantro from TJs is a fav) when you’re ready to eat.


      I make non salad vegetable lunch prep, by doing something similar to this method – boiling a large pot of water and blanching broccoli/cauliflower/Brussels sprouts/green beans in a batch, then topping with a protein and a sauce or dressing or salsa side. If your kids aren’t horrified, you can use that same boiling water for pasta after = no extra dishes, minimal extra water boiling time. I buy the veggies pre cut from Costco. Takes maybe 10 minutes, but lasts for days.

      1. @Kat – I could see combining this with like a pre-cooked grain + precooked protein and a sauce and having like different options every day.

  3. I’m a meal planner but do very little prep in advance. But then I love to cook – I find the 6-6.30 slot in the kitchen on my own incredibly peaceful and meditative and find this helps me to end my working day with a change of scene. I know you and Sarah are not chefs so it’s very different but, for me, it’s almost the equivalent of your running time.

    1. @Louise – I can totally see that cooking could be peaceful and fun – as long as everyone else who is not helpful is out of the kitchen! I don’t mind cooking when I have the right conditions.

  4. I’ve also just decided on 3-4 easy lunches to bring that don’t require any cooking and rotate through those. I buy lunch 1x per week most weeks, and often have 1 day where I can bring dinner leftovers.

    Dinner is a big pain point for me right now. I think this is normal for our stage – 2 parents working outside the home and a 4 and 1.5 year old, but I wish it were better. Part of the problem is that my husband hates the idea of meal planning. For now we eat at home together, mostly the same thing, so I’m trying to be fine with that. Hopefully it will get better when I’m less tired.

    1. @Amanda – (and btw, this is a different Amanda than the one who works until 5:30 and has 6:00 activities – I can see that with emails but I am realizing other people reading the comments can’t!) Is your husband cooking? Do you switch off or is it mostly you? You could always eat whatever on the nights he cooks (chef’s choice) but plan ahead for your two nights just so you have stuff in the house that you find reasonably interesting. I don’t make elaborate meal plans, but even just knowing to pull the chicken out of the freezer in the morning so it thaws and checking that we have rice in the pantry makes cooking feel like less of a lift later.

      1. We both cook about 1/2 the time, but our schedules are a little unpredictable so we don’t exactly know who’s going to be cooking which night until we see who gets home first. But, what you suggested is essentially what we do. We have sort of a rotation of meals and generally have the stuff on hand/ready to go. The other issue is that he does the grocery shopping and does not like a list, lol. But we also have a subscription for the local grocery store that does free delivery so I could always do as you suggest and order my ingredients if they don’t get bought during the weekly run. I just would need to actually think this through and then follow through on the execution…

  5. Reading your time logs, I know your family has more activities than mine, and I’m impressed with how you prioritize family dinner. Any ideas from Laura or readers for evenings where there isn’t time to cook?

    I usually need to work until 5:30, with extracurriculars starting at 6p most weeknights. We’re hungry before 7:30 when those wrap. I’ve added bagels with lox and yogurt parfaits to our rotation versus only relying on the crockpot. Would love any other ideas, as I know this problem isn’t unique to me.

    1. @Amanda – are you commuting home at 5:30 or are you working from home most days? If working from home it is sometimes possible (if stuff is pre-prepped) to turn on the oven at some point and then 20 minutes later turn off the camera on zoom, go stick a sheet pan in the oven, and then have it be done at 5:30 when you are. I find that eggs are really quick – maybe you could have some items (spinach, sausage, whatever) ready to go, or even eggs cracked into a bowl in the morning and then you can turn on the stove and make an omelet in like 5 minutes. There might be cheap and reasonably healthy delivery options too — a bag of sandwiches shows up at your door at 5:15 or something one night a week. Do that, yogurt/bagels, a night of eggs, a sheet pan night and some crock pot stuff and it could work…

      1. I’m reading through the comments and I’m in a similar position to Amanda. Washers to add that your tips to plan one night of delivery, omelette night, and the sheet pan during zoom call are all helpful!

  6. I find it helpful to do a partial meal prep, much like your chicken for salads. Once a month or so, I’ll toss some chicken in the crockpot, then shred it/ place in bags/freeze. When it’s time to make dinner I can just grab a bag of cooked couched to add to a sauce/ turn into fajitas/ throw into soup. I do the same with wine duces chicken and a small pork roast. Ground beef gets mixed half and half with cooked lentils before freezing. None of this takes a lot of time, but it absolutely makes meals easier, both by cutting down on prep and by giving me a little mental boost because one step is already out of the way.

    1. Yup, definitely batch cook things like sausages or chicken in the oven (or ground meat), slice, freeze flat in servings. Then, pasta is boiled, microwave cooked meat to defrost, as jarred sauce.

  7. I’ve been using a meal matrix as well and it does make decision making easier when you know I cook a fun new recipe on Sunday after I have been to the shops, a portable dinner on Monday as T has scouts, breakfast for dinner, pasta, Asian, pizza, and clean out the fridge on Saturday.

    We don’t have great local dinner options – our sushi is lunchtime only, Chinese is rubbish, fish and chips is an occasional thing, so we often have lunch when we are out and about on Saturday or Sunday.

  8. Pre-prep usually consists of making soup for a few days. We serve soup, and then it’s no big deal if they don’t eat (or eat very little) of the vegetables served with the meal. We also meal plan in advance, to take the thinking of of it when you only have 20-30 minutes to get something on the table. It also helps when coming duties are shared, you don’t have to call the other person to find out what you’re supposed to make.
    We have some dishes that are in weekly rotation (tortilla wraps with cold fish/meat and a range of veggies & sauces, spaghetti) and the rest depends on who is making the menu, and how much brainspace they had.

    1. @Nele – I could see making a soup – maybe if I have a light Tuesday or something I could make it for lunch and then eat it the rest of the week…

  9. I tend to keep our meals simple too: Monday: chilli (slow cooker), Tuesday: prawn fried rice, Wednesday: slimming ready meal, Thursday: burgers, Friday: homemade pizza (make the dough in the breadmaker), Sat: steak/date tea and hot dogs for kids, simple chicken dinner – the kids seem happy enough, we eat pretty healthy and prep and cooking doesn’t seem to take too long.. I work from home so I just make simple lunches like sandwiches, soup, salad etc..
    works for us – as I have 3 kids and work full time this feels like a good balance for me!

  10. We have settled on a pattern in our house for five of the seven nights: Sunday is a roast, mince Mondays, boy night Tuesday because I am not here they can do what they want, Thursday is Asian, and forkless Friday (chopsticks and spoons allowed), We have had a lot of fun with deciding what to do on Friday.

    1. @naomi I like the forkless Friday idea. We do Finger Food Friday for our movie nights, where we put many things on sheet pans for the oven or the air fryer. This consists of pizza rolls, chicken nuggets, potstickers, taquitos, meatballs, jalepeno poppers, etc. Paper plates and toothpicks are even better because, no dishes! With 6 kids, it’s a nice break on all fronts.

  11. I know the prep I do Sunday doesn’t always save time, however it makes my life easier during the week. The time I put in Sunday is worth it to me

  12. I like to plan and I like variety, I also like cooking but don’t have a lot of time for it most evenings – so I plan a month of meals at a time and then rotate that menu for a few months before adding in some new dishes and retiring any that haven’t gone down well with the fussy teen. I also have some freezer food, eggs and canned baked beans available for evenings when he rejects a meal (normally that he ate quite happily a few weeks before!) and then he cooks an alternative for himself. I kept thinking he’d grow out of being so fussy when he was older – but am still waiting for this to happen and he’s now 16!
    I don’t precook at all but if we have left overs I put them in the freezer as individual portions and will then have them for lunches when working from home. If it fits when I am preparing veg for roast dinner on Sunday, I will also precut veggies to use Mon – Thur – we are far more likely to eat more nutriously if I do this and less likely to order takeout – but it doesn’t always fit in…

  13. For me, the planning is more important that the prep. I have a 3.5 year old and 9 month old who get home from daycare around 5, and we try to eat at 6 to allow for early bedtimes. If I get my shit together and think a little bit before 4 p.m. when my brain is fried, then we’re good – I’ll put the rice in the slow cooker or pull out the chicken or whatever and it flows fairly well. We’re not picky and are definitely in a season of “spaghetti and frozen meatballs is a meal”. If I’m slammed with meetings until 5 and basically get up because the kids get back home (husband picks them up), then chaos ensues.

    Also, I heard this on a podcast and fully agree – breakfast for dinner is not an easy meal at my life stage. It sounds like you and your family have a great system going, but for me – it ends up being a bunch of small prep that often needs to be timed well to feed various family members. I made eggs, bacon, hashbrowns and sweet potatoe fries yesterday. I probably could have left out one of those things (and one of my children just ate the white part of the egg…) but it was more work than I remembered. I am very pro-pasta and dump-a-sauce.

  14. I prep meal components so that it saves weeknight time, which is in short supply. We buy ground beef and sausage in 5 pound chunks, brown it all at once, and freeze it in 1 pound containers. If I do the browning when I’m already in the cooking dinner or washing dishes, then I am actually saving a little time. Now, instead of cooking beef for nachos, we just thaw it in the microwave and dinner is ready in 10 minutes.

  15. I came to share my warm weather lunches: Mason Jar Salads! You build a salad upside down in a wide-mouth quart jar. You start with dressing, add your sturdy ingredients like carrots and beans, then other veggies/protein and then finish with your lettuce. When ready to eat, I shake and dump! I use romaine and have had no issues with making them Sunday and still delicious Friday. I do store anything crunchy like nuts separately. The other advantage of this is that you can use an entire pepper, cucumber or can of beans etc without having leftovers. In the morning I add a jar to my lunchbox and I’m done. I’ve done this for at least 5 years May thru September (I like warm lunches in the colder months). There are lots of recipes online if you want to get creative but I basically use the same ingredients and switch up the dressing. It takes 45-60 minutes on a Sunday or Monday morning, but I have healthy, filling lunches for the week. I’ve recently seen some videos popping up of oven meals prepared directly in meal prep containers so I’m excited to try some of those as my salad season winds down!

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