Planning is the key to dietary success, but amid busy lives it can be challenging to find the time to plan and prepare a weeks' worth of meals.
The good news is that you don't need a nutrition degree, nor a thousand small containers to effectively plan and prep your meals.
In fact, smart meal planning will save you time, energy and money while also improving your nutritional intake.
So, if one of your goals is to be a whole lot healthier in 2021, here are the simple steps to meal plan like a pro.
Make a time when you know you will do it
While many of us have the best of intentions to meal prep on the weekend, if you are especially social or keen for some weekend down time, weekends are not always the best time to commit to regular meal prep. Rather, early in the week, when we tend to be at home or do our household shopping is the best time to meal prep. Allocate an hour or two to using as much of the fresh produce as you can and preparing a few meals at a time that you can either freeze or enjoy throughout the week. Since you have just shopped you will be across what foods you have ready to go, and it also means you can prepare food before you pack everything away, again making the shopping and food-prep process a lot more efficient.
Adam Liaw's red wine mince on toast is perfect for batch cooking. Photo: William Meppem
Cook once, eat twice
If you spend much time in the kitchen cooking, you will be well aware of the effort required to prepare a single meal – after collecting all the ingredients and prepping them, you're often left with unused ingredients and you may get a meal or two out of all your effort if you are lucky. On the other hand, cooking smart and always making a recipe work across at least two meals is extremely time efficient. Whether you make a mince dish, pasta or casserole, all you need to do is cook larger portions and freeze the extra meal or two to use the following week. You'll also have less food waste as a result.
Start with your proteins
The protein-rich foods we base our meals around can easily direct our meal prep efforts. Whether you have lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs or legumes on hand, you can work out your meal. Eggs translate into egg sandwiches, eggs on toast, quiches, frittatas and baked goods. Chicken breast means pies, casseroles and stir-fries, or mince can be turned into pies, pasta, Mexican food and burgers.
Danielle Alvarez's lemony chicken and orzo stew makes the most of frozen spinach. Photo: William Meppem
Keep a range of vegetables handy
Fresh, frozen and canned vegetables all play critical roles in meal planning. Canned goods can bulk up soups and pies, frozen foods can be added to any cooked meal to bulk it up, or act as a side dish to proteins, while fresh vegetables can be used in staple meals and frozen to prevent food waste. Then, at the end of the week, any leftovers can be made into a hearty soup, frittata or bubble and squeak.
There are two ways you can consider lunch part of your weekly food prep. You can use leftovers from meals and pack them immediately after dinner so you always have lunch ready to go. Or you can keep a supply of tinned fish, hard-boiled eggs or cooked chicken breast to add to salads, soups or sandwiches. This is a much cheaper and lower energy lunch option than the average order from a cafe or food court.
Chickpea tikka masala is perfect freezer-friendly fare. Photo: Goran Kosanovic
Build your supplies
You know what it's like when you have a fridge and freezer stuffed full of food – you have no idea what's in there and end up throwing most of it out. Preparing food in advance means you also need somewhere easy to store it, and you will need something to store it in. It may sound ridiculously simple, but it's best to set aside some time to clear space in your fridge and freezer, and to clearly label your meals and invest in containers to store the foods you prepare. This way you will regularly work through the meals you have stored and be less likely to become weighed down with old food and plates of leftovers not stored properly.
Susie Burrell is a nutritionist and dietitian.