By now, you’re probably bought into the idea that meal planning and food prep will save you time overall (in fact, by my calculations, doing my Sunday food prep, which you see on Instagram and Facebook, saves me about 5 hours per week!). But I often hear from clients that once they actually get in the kitchen to do the food prep, it takes them hours and hours. And let’s be honest, no one has hours and hours to spend in the kitchen!
I generally make 12 – 14 meals in advance (leaving room for the inevitable grilling nights where we buy fresh ingredients, the occasional order-in nights, the frequent no-break-midday smoothie lunches, and the sporadic just-don’t-feel-like-a-real-meal-so-throwing-veggies-and-eggs-together-and-calling-it-a-meal dinners). It takes me 90-120 minutes, including dishes, to get them all done!
I care a lot about being efficient with my food prep, because my life is full (like I know yours is, too). And I’ll let you in on a little secret … I actually don’t enjoy doing my food prep … it’s just something I know I need to do to accommodate my schedule and live my life the way I want to live it (which means finishing work at 7:30pm and going to bed by 9pm, leaving little time to cook, eat, and unwind). Those 5 hours I save equate to 5 more hours of much-needed sleep during the week … and that is SO worth it!
Here are 10 strategies that help me save time with the act of food prep itself. Enjoy these food prep tips!
- Don’t follow (too many) directions. Don’t overcomplicate your food prep by choosing fancy recipes with 29 steps (unless you happen to have a lot of time and enjoy things like this). In fact, don’t feel like you need to follow recipes at all! This post will help you get even more creative with simple ingredients (most of which you can find in the pantry!). Start simple for most of what you’ll cook, plan to make things that you have made regularly and easily in the past, and if you really thrive on variety, stick to just one new recipe per week!
2. Use your whole kitchen. As I’m planning my meals for the week, I’m sure to have one thing that can be made in the Instant Pot (here’s the one I have, and here are 20 of my favorite Instant Pot recipes) or crockpot (here’s the one I have, and here are 20 of my favorite crockpot recipes), one thing that cooks in the oven (here are my favorite one-pan recipes), and one thing on the stove. This is critical – let’s say you planned to make 3 meals, and they all cook in the Instant Pot. Sounds like a good idea, except that you likely only have one Instant Pot! That means you have to wait for the recipe to cook, clean it out, add new ingredients, wait for it to cook … and repeat. That takes way too much time. Use your whole kitchen!
3. Go straight from grocery store to cooking. When possible, I go straight from the grocery store into my food prep. Just think – unpacking groceries, loading them into the refrigerator, and then (later) taking them back out to get ready to cook probably takes 15 minutes total, right? That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but 15 minutes per week, 52 weeks per year, equals 13 HOURS per year! That’s a big deal! So, don’t even put the groceries away – just lay them out on the counter and get chopping.
4. Mise en place. You’re not putting your groceries away, but do you just strew them out all over the kitchen? I find huge value in organizing the ingredients in clusters according to what I’m cooking. So, if I’m going to cook a chicken vegetable soup and a turkey breakfast hash, I’ll have my onion, garlic, chicken, pepper, zucchini, carrots, and celery all in a pile in one place, and my turkey, sweet potato, brussels sprouts, and Chinese five spice in another pile separate. This is called “mise en place,” which means “everything in its place,” and it saves a TON of time without having to shuffle back to the pantry or refrigerator multiple times.
5. Sequence items carefully, and label them. I always start with the item that has the longest cooking time, and work my way backwards, ending with anything that is raw (like veggie packs!). For example, if a soup needs to cook in the Instant Pot for 30 minutes (which really means about 45, since it takes time to pressurize), and roasted vegetables need to cook for 22, I’ll be sure to start with the soup. Then, once it’s cooking, I’ll move onto the vegetables, to ensure that I have no downtime as I’m prepping. Once I decide on the order, I label the piles of ingredients with post-it notes (“1,” “2,” “3,” etc.) so that once I start cooking, I don’t have to think or calculate – I just go!
6. Set a timer. I firmly believe that a task will expand to the time you allow it, and if I let myself take all day to food prep, I probably would feel like I needed that much time. For me, 2 hours is the absolute max I want to spend in the kitchen on Sundays, so I’ll set a timer for that amount of time. I work well under a deadline, and when I see that timer counting down, I speed up to ensure I finish everything on time!
7. Utilize two cutting boards. I have one big wooden cutting board for all of my vegetables, and I don’t wash it the entire time I’m food prepping. No need to even rinse when all that’s touching it is vegetables. I have another, smaller, cutting board, with a separate knife, for meat, and if needed, I’ll just rinse or wash that one between items.
8. Place a large bowl for trash / scraps in front of you. Now we’re getting into the professional stage, and while I know it sounds silly, even walking over to the trashcan repeatedly (I’m guessing 30-40 times during a food prep session) can add up! So, I place a large bowl on the counter and put all trash and scraps in there. Then, I just have to empty it into the trashcan once when I’m done!
9. No phone. We all know what a rabbit hole our phones can be, so set a “no phone allowed” rule during your food prep time. The exception is if I have headphones in and am listening to music or a podcast, which is a great way to pass the time, but I am NOT scrolling through social media or checking emails during this time.
10. Lay out Tupperware as soon as what you’re making goes into oven. I firmly believe in storing things in individual servings (if you store a soup, for example, in one giant tub, then serve what you assume to be a serving whenever you want to eat, you’re likely to overserve portions and then wind up with a miniscule amount leftover that doesn’t suffice as a whole meal). If a chili makes 5 servings, I ladle it straight from the crockpot into 5 Tupperwares (I like these glass snap-lock containers). As soon as the chili (or whatever item you’re making) goes into the cooking apparatus (Instant pot, oven, etc.), I put the number of Tupperwares right where the previous pile of ingredients was, so I know that as soon as it comes out, I can serve into the appropriate number of dishes.
OK, does that sound like overkill? I hear you. But if you follow these food prep tips, I guarantee you can become a food prep ninja, making far more than you previously thought possible in a shorter amount of time. Saving time and getting healthier at the same time sure sounds like a win to me!
For more meal planning tips and food prep tips, including a detailed overview of how to customize your plan to your personal needs, as well as a meal planning template and dozens of healthy meal planning recipes, check out my Meal Planning Mastery webinar here ($5)
Now it’s your turn … What’s one tip that saves you time as you food prep? Which of the above tips are you most excited to try?