After six years of cooking clients weekly meals as a personal chef, there are many ways I’ve found to shorten the time, expense, and effort involved in family meal prep. Each family is different, but there are a few core concepts that never change. If you’re interested in family meal prep in your home, here are some tips to get you started!
Invest in high-quality containers with lids that can go from freezer to oven. There’s nothing better than opening a neat and organized fridge, fully stocked in easy to see glass containers. I always recommend a variety of Pyrex containers, but any high-quality brand works as well. You want to choose a container that can go in the oven so that you don’t have to dirty another pan when re-heating. And if it’s freezer-safe, that’s a huge plus. You can make a large batches of stews or casseroles and freeze one for later. And the lids are crucial so that you can stack your meals directly on top of one another in the fridge of freezer.
Check your pantry and fridge before making your meal plan. If you’re anything like me, there are ingredients in your kitchen that you’ve already forgotten about. Maybe it’s that extra box of pasta you bought when it was on sale, or a bag of frozen peas hidden in the back of the freezer. Not only will this prevent you from buying something you already own, but it also prevents you from throwing out food. Most people implement family meal prep to save time AND money, so this step is crucial.
Make a realistic weekly meal plan. Your weekly meal plan shouldn’t be too elaborate and should also have built-in flexibility for any last-minute change in plans. If you know that your family enjoys going out to eat at least one evening, build that into the plan. Either skip a meal for that day, or make something you can pop in the freezer if you go out unexpectedly. Each family’s plan will look different. Some people like to plan every single meal, whereas most of my clients would rather have a mix of meals along with snacks, side dishes, and fresh fruit to get them through the week. They know that if I cooked every single meal, ready to go, something would probably be wasted due to busy schedules and last-minute plans.
Multi-task ingredients. This is especially important if you’re cooking for the entire week. When you’re planning your meal plan, think about ingredients you could cook once, but serve twice or more. Grains especially are good for this. If I’m making rice to go with a chicken curry, I go ahead and put a fried rice dish on the menu as well. Baked potatoes with one meal are perfect for Broccoli Potato soup another night. Cook once, eat twice!
Make a detailed grocery list and check it against your pantry again. This means thinking through every ingredient you need for each dish. There is nothing worse than having to run to the store in the middle of cooking. If I put something on my list like “ingredients for spaghetti bolognese,” I’ll inevitably forget something basic like the pasta itself! So even though it feels obvious, making a list of every single ingredient will streamline your family meal prep experience. And once you’re done, it’s always a good idea to check it against the pantry again. For client’s, this means I will frequently text them the day before asking if they are still stocked up with olive oil, peanut butter, or whatever common ingredient they might have used since the last time I was there.
Keep sauces or garnishes separate. After cooking for over twenty weekly clients throughout the years, I’ve found that keeping things separate works the best for family’s with kids. Even good eaters occasionally have a picky day, so if you keep the bolognese separate, you have the option of plain pasta for that night. It’s also good if one of the kids is sick or has a picky friend eating over. And since garnishes usually consist of fresh herbs or nuts, these are usually best to add after the dish is heated. It keeps everything tasting as fresh as possible!
Keep major cleaning for the end. Half of you will ignore this, but hear me out! If you are truly meal prepping, not just making dinner, it is way more efficient to save most of the cleaning until the end. You may need to clean a pot or tool here and there, but if you save most of the cleaning until the end, you will use save time and water. Plus, you will be able to use a lot of the bowls and possibly even pots for multiple uses without washing them. If you toss squash in a bowl with olive oil and herbs before roasting, do you really need to wash it just to do the same thing with brussel sprouts? When I cook for a family, I focus on one thing at a time. I cook everything and only when I’m done, do I turn to the sink.