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intentional living

Tips for Easy Meal Prep When Life Is Busy

*Updated June 15, 2021*Allie and her children around the kitchen counter

We just came out of a busy season of life. Our kids were involved in sports, we were homeschooling, and Brian and I were also building and running a business. So we had a lot of different commitments and many other things happening at once. It was fun, and we enjoyed the busyness; it was just really full.

Allie homeschooling her kids Allie's daughter studying Allie's children drawing

Instead of our evenings being open, we now had a pretty busy schedule. We found that prepping food ahead of time and cooking dinner each night like we had been doing was no longer working for us. What had served us in previous seasons wasn’t serving our family in that particular season.

We were eating dinner early at 4:00 pm before heading out the door and eating unhealthy snacks when we got home. And sometimes we were waiting to eat dinner after we got home, and we’d be famished because it was so late.

We resorted to eating out a lot. We would still try to eat healthily, which got to be expensive. Of course, sometimes, we would get the kids convenient food from a drive-thru, and even Brian and I would give in occasionally.

But that became a problem, too, because I get sick when I don’t eat clean and healthy. Eating this kind of food was causing me to backtrack on the progress I’d made at healing my gut. I share about my health journey here.

Allie building her business while her kids study

This way of doing meals felt messy. I felt out of control and frustrated about how we were eating. We were never sitting down and eating a meal together as a family. I knew things had to change.

Meal prepping was the only solution I could think of to make mealtime better. I’ve done food prepping before, which is not the same as meal prepping. I have a whole podcast episode on how I learned to food prep. You can listen to it here.

I’d prep some basic foods like chicken, veggies, and quinoa, but then I’d have to decide which ingredients I would put together for a meal each day. I knew even that was too much during this season. I needed to have dinner off my mind completely.

Allie listening to her kids read her stories while she meal preps

I was determined to find a way to make meal prepping as simple, practical, healthy, and worth it as possible. Once I did, I ended up liking it so much that I’ve started meal prepping pretty much all of our meals ahead of time, not just dinner but breakfast and lunch too.

So if you’re in a busy season like I am and meal prepping is something you need, but you need it to be simple and easy, I’ve got your back. I figured it out, and now I want to help you. Here are some mom-friendly tips that I found to make meal prep simple and mealtime easy during busy seasons of life.

Prep meals you will enjoy.

I’m a pretty spontaneous person, so one of my fears about meal prepping was that I’d make something, and then when it came time to eat it, I wouldn’t want it anymore. But I found that if I chose recipes that sounded good to me or that I already knew I’d like, I would look forward to the meal and want to eat it.

Spending time prepping meals that don’t really sound good to you and then not eating it defeats the purpose of meal prep. You’re going to end up with wasted time, wasted money, and a fridge full of wasted food because you’re probably just going to order take-out or go out to eat instead.

If you know you don’t like cauliflower, don’t choose meals that use cauliflower rice even if they are healthy. Instead, choose something you know you and your family enjoy.

Allie's kids helping her meal prep

Allie kissing her son while she meal preps

Look for meal prep recipes.

You also don’t want to choose meals that take a lot of time or effort. You don’t need to make a four-course meal every night.

I mean, if you want to, you do you. But that is not how I want to spend my time. So I’m just looking for healthy, delicious meals that I can prep and make quickly.

Pinterest has many good ideas for meal planning, or you can invest in something a little more in-depth. I put my money where my mouth is and purchased Nutrition Stripped’s Master Meal Planning Guide, and invested in this area of our family’s life.

McKell Hill is the founder of NutritionStripped.com, and she has a lot of helpful resources and recipes for eating well. If you’re interested in McKel’s Master Meal Planning Guide, you can find it here!

Allie leaning against her kitchen counter drinking coffee and smiling

Think about the time you have available to cook each day and plan your meals accordingly

If you know that one of your kids has soccer on Wednesday night and another one has dance, and you only have thirty minutes to cook, then don’t prep more than two dishes for that meal. Of course, figuring out how much time you have available to cook will require you to sit down and get an aerial view of your week. Still, the benefit will be that you aren’t pulling out six dishes and trying to reheat them in thirty minutes before you have to hustle everyone out the door.

I only prepare about two to four dishes for each meal. That works for us. But some people like to have one night where they have more dishes, and that’s OK. Just make sure it’s a night when you have the extra time to cook, relax, and enjoy your meal with your family.

Allie drinking coffee and planning her meals

Allie's writing her meal plans

Plan for leftovers

I don’t know who first said, “Cook once, eat twice,” but I’m pretty sure she was a mom.

Even just planning to have enough leftovers for one meal can make a huge difference in how your evenings go. It takes away the stress of cooking every day when you can reheat a meal you’ve already cooked.

Leftovers are especially good for nights when you’re just exhausted or not that hungry. Then, pop the containers in the microwave or oven and call it a day!

You can also put your leftovers in a bowl and eat them for lunch the next day. It’s easier to eat healthy during the work-day when you already have a meal ready to reheat and eat.

Grilling is a great way to make multiple meals at once. So when you’re choosing recipes, maybe pick a couple that you can throw on the grill.

You can cook enough burgers or chicken for dinner and then, during the weekdays, eat them for a delicious lunch. Then, pack up some lettuce wraps with your favorite toppings in sealable containers, and you’re good to go.

Allie pouring ingredients in the mixer Allie laughing with her children around the kitchen counter

Shop for all your meal prep ingredients at once

Make a grocery list and get it done. You don’t want to start prepping and realize that you don’t have what you need, and you have to go back to the store. So, get it all at one time.

You can also pick up the basics your family eats too. I know my family likes watermelon so, even though watermelon isn’t a part of the recipes I’m making that week, I buy a watermelon. You know your family, so get the basic things you know you’re going to eat as well.

It isn’t hard to eat healthier. You’ve just got to make a plan to do it.

Fruit and spread out on the counter

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Use a grocery service.

InstaCart is one that I use, but your local grocery store may also have the option for curbside pick up or delivery.

If you’ve got little kids and taking them to the store stresses you out. Or you only have a small window of time to get your groceries. Or if you hate grocery shopping, then delegate that task, my friend!

Who says you have to do it all? No one. Delegate, delegate, delegate.

Ask a family member, friend, or paid helper to take on the task of grocery shopping for you. Mommy’s helpers are great for this.

You can also ask a teenager or college student in your neighborhood or church if they would like to earn extra money helping you with a household chore each week. They will probably jump at the chance to make a few extra bucks to help cover tuition or buy gas. And you’ll have bought yourself more time and less stress. It’s a win-win all around.

A tote filled with meal prep vegetables

Pick one day a week and spend about two hours prepping meals for the coming week.

For me, it’s typically Saturday or Sunday, so I have enough meals to last through the week. But you can pick any day to do this.

If your weekends are full, you can prep on a weekday evening or early in the morning before you go to work. It doesn’t matter as long as you prep enough meals to last until the next meal prep day.

Suppose you know that you will want to have some flexibility and variety in your meals. Or you have the budget and time to eat out a few meals each week. You don’t even have to have something prepared for every meal. You could just prep three dinners, two lunches, and two breakfasts that you and your family will eat that week.

If you’re not picky, you could even pick one lunch and one breakfast and three dinners or something like that. Whatever works for your family. And like I said before, planning for leftovers will help you cut down on time it takes to prep meals.

You can also divide up your cooking into batches if you want to. For example, I batch in my business, where I only work on one task each week.

I spend one week each month recording all of my podcast episodes and the following week writing blog posts and emails. The next week is creating social media content and so forth. You batch similar tasks together, so you’re focused and not jumping all over the place.

You can do this with meal prep too! Instead of prepping all of your meals on one day, make all your breakfast foods one day, all your lunch foods another day, all your dinner foods yet another day.

Prepping your meals this way will cut down on time it takes you to meal prep. It will also save you counter space and keep you from spending a lot of time cleaning up since you’ll only have out what you need for one particular meal instead of three.

Cutting up veggies

Only prep ingredients that won’t get soggy

You can use your brain on this one, but an example would be salad dressing and toppings. Wait until it’s time to eat your salad, and then put your salad dressing and avocado or whatever else you like on top.

A weeknight meal in our house now looks like me heating a cast-iron skillet on the stove and throwing in the rice and chicken I cooked and the veggies I chopped on Saturday. Then I’ll add in the seasonings and add dressing to the prepped salad in the fridge, and I’m ready to eat.

Essentially, I’m just heating dinner if it’s already prepped and cooked, which saves so much time and energy!

Allie teaching her daughter how to cook a meal Allie and her daughter cooking together Allie's daughter cooking while Allie guides her

Buy meal prep containers.

One must-have for meal prepping is suitable containers. You don’t have to purchase anything fancy or expensive. The main thing is to buy containers that are freezer and dishwasher safe and stackable.

Stackable containers will help you keep everything organized, so it’s easy to grab the suitable ingredient when you’re cooking dinner. When you have a week’s worth of prepped lunches or dinners in the fridge, it’s easy to get your ingredients all mixed up.

If you decide you want to use containers you already have instead of purchasing stackable ones, then label your containers and keep them close together in your fridge.

As you keep meal prepping, you might realize you need more containers. That’s OK. Just purchase some more.

Remember, a simplified, decluttered life doesn’t mean you never purchase things. It just means you’re more intentional about what you bring into your home. And if after a few weeks of meal prepping you see you don’t need as many containers as you thought you did, then Declutter Like a Mother!

Meal prep containers

Get rid of any kitchen supplies that are old, broken, or don’t work well.

Purging will give you more counter space to work with and make it easier to find what you need quickly. If you’re using old appliances like food processors or mixers that are causing you more work, then you’re going to end up thinking meal prep is more effort than it is, and you’re not going to do it. Humans will always want to take the path of least resistance.

Help yourself by investing in new, working cooking tools and appliances and cut down on the amount of time you spend cooking, and that will make it easier for you to get food on the table quickly.

It’s not necessary to have a lot of extra tools to cook, but these are some good items to keep on hand:

  • A good chef’s knife
  • Cutting board
  • Paring knife or kitchen shears for cutting vegetables and herbs
  • Wooden spoons for stirring

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are tools my husband and I have found to be helpful in our meal prep.

Allie's kitchen utensils laid out and ready for meal preppingAllie standing in front of her mixer, smiling at her son

Double-check you have all your supplies on hand.

Keep paper towels or dishcloths for clean-up, spices and herbs, and a cutting board and knives. Look at your recipes and think about what you will need on hand while you’re prepping these meals.

Will you be opening cans of sauce? Okay, then you’ll need a can opener. Will you be using spices and herbs? Then you’ll need measuring cups and spoons.

I like to keep all of my supplies out on the counter, so they are easy to grab as I need them, and I don’t have to take extra minutes opening different cabinets and drawers looking for the right measuring spoon.

Allie reading a meal prepping recipe book

Make space for your prepped meals before you begin.

It’s super annoying when you’ve spent all that time cooking and prepping food only to find out that you don’t have a place in your fridge or pantry for it.

I usually make space on the top shelf of my fridge to store all these meals until they are needed. If you’re making freezer meals, be sure and clear out space in your freezer as well.

It’s helpful to tell your family that this space is for meal prep only because your kids are probably not thinking about meals like you are.

Explaining this to them will help make sure everyone’s on the same page, and you don’t have to go moving random things around when you’re ready to cook.

Allie watching her son cook pancakes

Involve Your Kids in Meal Prepping.

Let your kids help out if they’re old enough. My kids love helping out with food prep and cooking meals.

If you’re making sauce, give them a spoon and let them stir it while it simmers on the stove. If you’re adding spices, let them measure them out and dump them in the pan.

They might even have their favorite spices that they’d like to add to the dish. Ask them!

They can put food into containers and stack them in the fridge or freezer. If you have a million kids like I do, make a little assembly line. Have one kid put the food in the containers, another kid put the lid on them, and another kid carry them to the fridge.

This is a great way to turn this task into a family activity. That way, you don’t feel like meal prep is pulling you away from spending time with your kids.

And you might think your kids won’t want to do this, but honestly, our kids mostly want to be with us, even if it’s cooking meals in the kitchen.

You’re also teaching them excellent life skills like:

1. How to manage their time well

2. The importance of eating healthy.

3. How to save money.

4. How to meal plan

And you’re investing in your own future because when they get older, you can delegate this household task to them, mama. Plus, their future roommates/significant others will thank you. It’s a win-win!

Allie's daughter and son helping in the kitchen

Allie teaching her sons how to use the mixer

Clean Up After Yourself.

After you spend a couple of hours meal prepping, it can be tempting to leave the dishes in the sink and the food residue on the counter. Fight the urge to do this.

Leaving a mess will just make you feel stressed and defeat the purpose of meal prepping, which is not to feel stressed. So, take the time to clean up dishes, cooking utensils, and food prep areas. If you snagged my Clear the Clutter Starter Kit, clean-up would be a breeze since you’ve already cleared unnecessary dishes and cooking tools.

Call the kids in to help you clean and make it fun! Put on your favorite upbeat playlist and make bets on how fast you can knock the dishes out. One Taylor Swift song or two?

Allie & Brian cleaning the kitchen after prepping meals for the week

Make time for what matters to you.

Meal prepping doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s been a struggle for me since I became a wife and mother. Just when I feel like I get the hang of it, life changes, or we’ll get into a busy season, or something will shift that makes me have to change or tweak again.

But I had to get real with myself. If I wanted this busy season, and I wanted the kids in sports, and I wanted to eat together as a family and not spend a million dollars, then I had to compromise somehow.

I know it can be hard to give up time on your weekend to meal prep but remind yourself of your priorities. Remember that out of the one hundred and sixty-eight hours in your week, two or three hours (at most) isn’t that much.

You have to choose what you want and make how you live to line up with that. Otherwise, you’re just floundering through life and not living intentionally.

Allie looking at her son's artworkAllie and her sons sitting together

Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect.  

Don’t overthink it. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by all the options or problems. Just find a solution and decide there’s no other way but to live an intentional life. Remember, mamas; you’re in charge! Be empowered! Get out there and make it happen!


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