Want to learn how to food prep? These 5 Steps to Food Prep are perfect for a beginner who likes the idea of meal prep but isn’t sure where to start. With a little work, you’ll head into your food prep session with a plan of attack to help you make the most of your time.
*Originally published 11/2018. Updated 9/2021*
As a Registered Dietitian and busy mom of 3, I consider food prep to be one of my most important healthy living tools. Even just an hour per week can make a huge difference in helping you make healthy choices during a busy week. If you’re ready and willing to learn, I’m here to help! In this post, I break the process down into 5 simple steps from start to finish to help show you how to do everything from plan to execute.
If this post is helpful to you, you’ll love my Mastering Food Prep course. I cover these five steps in even more detail, plus I talk about food prep beyond dinner, give you tips for adding variety, talk about flexible food prep and food safety and cover some of the most common roadblocks to food prep. I also have an ebook called Ultimate Guide to Food Prep.
Ready to learn? Here we go!
How To Food Prep
Step 1: Make a Meal Plan
This can be full recipes or simply a list of food components. It does not have to be every single thing you’re going to eat next week or even full meals. The goal is to just make a list of food items you could prep that will make your life easier. So, that could be 5 full meal dinners or it could be a few breakfast ideas plus some rice, beans and grilled chicken to use throughout the week.
If you’re new to meal planning and food prep, I wouldn’t recommend putting 5 brand new recipes on your meal plan. A good rule of thumb generally is 1-2 new recipes, 1-2 tried and true family favorites, 1-2 nights for leftovers and 1-2 dinners out. Think about your schedule. If you have a super busy night on the calendar, it might make sense to plan a crockpot meal for that day. Or maybe making dinner isn’t a struggle for you. Maybe you struggle with eating breakfasts in the morning or choosing healthy snacks and you want to focus on prepping on items to help solve those pain points this week.
A few tips:
- If you need inspiration, use Pinterest, google and blogs to search for recipes. You can start a Pinterest board to save recipes you want to try, or screenshot them on your phone and save them in a note in Evernote or Google Keep.
- Check your freezer and pantry to see what you have on hand and search for recipes that include those ingredients.
- Check the grocery ads to see what’s on sale that week and plan around that.
- Remember not to be overly ambitious. Pick a few things, prep them this week and make adjustments for next week based on what you learn.
- While Sunday is a common food prep day, it’s not a hard and fast rule. You can choose whatever day works with your schedule.
Components vs. Full Meals
If you think you want to prep components vs full meals, but aren’t sure how to really narrow down what to prep, think about what you use most during the week. Pick a meat to grill or shred, a few veggies to roast, a carb like rice or quinoa. Or, if you like salads, prep greens and then a protein or two and a couple of sauces or dressings so that you can mix and match things during the week.
One benefit to choosing components over full meals is that you can eat the same thing on repeat if that doesn’t bother you OR you can combine the components in different ways throughout the week.
For example, you could prep shredded chicken, rice, roasted sweet potatoes, and broccoli. Then you could use those to make 3 different meals:
- Night 1: Make burrito bowls with the rice and chicken and top them with beans, avocado, cheese and salsa.
- Night 2: Toss some chicken, sweet potatoes and broccoli in a quick peanut sauce and serve over rice for an Asian spin.
- Night 3: Add BBQ sauce to the chicken to make sandwiches and serve with a side of broccoli.
Step 2: Make a Grocery List
This is a pretty easy one and can often be done right after you make your meal plan. There are even some apps you can use that allow you to save recipes from various sites and then automatically generate a grocery list. I haven’t tried any myself, but these are some that were recommended:
- Plan to eat
But nothing says you have to use one of those. Write a list out on paper, create an excel spreadsheet of your most commonly purchased items and highlight what you need for the week, whatever works for you. I keep the basics in my head, keep a running list of things I run out of through the week on my phone and then add any extra ingredients I want to remember to buy for the week ahead. If you have Alexa, you can also use her to add items to your grocery list and then pull up the list on the Alexa app on your phone while shopping.
Be sure to check your freezer and pantry to see what you already have on hand and don’t need to buy.
Step 3: Make a Prep Plan
This is arguably the most important, especially for beginners because it’s where you write out every single thing you want to prep during your food prep session. If you have components on your meal plan list, add them to your prep list – ie shredded chicken, rice, pancakes, etc.
If you have full recipes, look at the recipes and see what needs to be done. In my example above, I planned to make Carrot Oat Bars. So on my prep plan I wrote 1) Roast Carrots 2) Make bars. I also planned to make Baked Ranch Chicken Taquitos, so I wrote 1) Cook and shred chicken 2) Make Taquitos
If you don’t love leftovers but still want to use food prep, this is where you could look at your meal plan and see what could be done ahead of time to make your weeknights go more smoothly. If you’re making Chicken Fried Rice one night, during your food prep session you could cut the chicken and store it raw in one container and chop all your veggies and store them in another container and cook the rice. Then on the night of, just dump everything in a pan to make the fried rice.
You get this handy template in my Freezer Magic Ebook!
And then take it a step further and break everything down by area of the kitchen. Write out what can be done in the oven, what you’re planning to do in the instant pot or slow cooker, what you’ll cook on the stove and what can be done on the counter. This gives you a visual idea of how much you’ll be using each area of the kitchen…and then you can figure out what order to do things. Remember you can use multiple areas of the kitchen at once….so you can throw something in the oven, something in the Instant Pot and/or slow cooker, start something on the stove and then be chopping veggies on the counter while all that is cooking.
In the image below you can see how I numbered my list as I planned how to get everything done.
Step 4: Prep for Prep
Look at your prep plan and see if there’s anything you could do the day before to make your prep day run more smoothly. Things like roasting carrots for Carrot Oat Bars, making shredded chicken in the Instant Pot or slow cooker so that you can use it to make enchiladas the next day, etc.
Or maybe you look at your plan and see you have a lot of stuff that requires the oven. Take 5 minutes to chop up two trays of veggies and get those roasted ahead of time so you don’t have quite as much to do the next day. You can see what I planned to do on Saturday in the image above.
Don’t stress if you can’t find anything to do ahead of time or if you don’t have time the day before. This is something I just started doing recently and I find it helpful, but I never spend more than 5-10 minutes of active time on Saturday. It’s usually a matter of throwing some lentils in a pot on the stove to cook while I eat breakfast or spending 5 minutes chopping potatoes and sweet potatoes and letting them cook in the oven.
Step 5: Execute Your Food Prep Plan
By the time Sunday rolls around, you should be feeling pretty good about your food prep session. Perhaps you’ve already even prepped a few things. Set aside time for your prep session and get to work! And enjoy the fruits of your labor all week long! Don’t stress if everything doesn’t go according to plan. Food prep gets easier with practice and the more you do it, the more of a habit it will become.
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Here’s my challenge: I have a family of eleven, including six who eat adult-sized amounts. A can’t make one meal in a single batch, but I have to cook everything twice as it is, because I don’t have a commercial kitchen in my house. Ideas welcome. Sometimes it’s all uphill.