One thing that never ends is the need to cook dinner. It’s become one of the most predictable and difficult questions to answer in recent months. The reality is that when we’re in-season focusing on meal preparation is the best thing I can do to keep our budget on track. But, dinner is often the last thing on my mind as I’m balancing work, running kids around, and whatever the team needs are for the week.
We’ve fine-tuned our meal prep strategy now that our boys are older and Ordell is around more. Since weeknight activities usually fill the calendar at least a few nights a week we’re grabbing dinner in shifts. When this happens I often switch to simple meals that are easy to prep on the weekends and heat up throughout the week.
Here’s My Quick Meal Prep Strategy
Start by surveying the ingredients you already have on hand. For example, the week I’ve featured in the menu above includes a combination of pantry items and a few things from the freezer. In the refrigerator, I had satay sauce and fresh peppers. I had zoodles, frozen chicken breasts, and ground chicken in the freezer.
Pull the pantry items out and pull the meat out to thaw. Anything else you have you write on a note if you are concerned you’ll forget to add an ingredient. This serves two purposes:
- It prevents you from running to the store because you think you don’t have something
- It reminds you to actually use the ingredients you have in your house
Consider your options. I make Satay two different ways but they both start with cooking frozen chicken breasts in the Instantpot with some diced onion until they are ready to shred. I also know that I’m going to want to serve the Satay over brown rice for our boys who prefer that to zoodles.
Now that chicken preparation is part of my plan I need to think strategiclly:
- I can double the amount of chicken and rice for another meal this week
- I can double the amount of chicken and rice for Satay at another time
- I can double the amount of chicken and rice and turn it into something else for a meal later down the road
In all of these circumstances, it takes very little work to double the amount of prepared food. The clean up is the same, and I will have another meal at some point that I don’t have to make. It’s a win-win-win.
Always account for leftovers, but always have a backup plan. With teenage sons in the house and a husband in football season, there are days when I cook what I consider a huge meal and end up making myself a salad while they polish off dinner and make themselves sandwiches.
Then there are weeks where we end up with extra food in the fridge from an event or there is an activity that included dinner. Thankfully, breakfast for dinner is always a hit in our house and the boys are old enough to make the pancakes if I’m not finished working for the day.
This week was a very simple prep week. I put chicken and onions in the Instantpot and then shredded everything and divided the cooked meat in half. One container went into the fridge and the other into the freezer.
- I cooked 2 cups of brown basmati rice and placed the rice in a glass container in the fridge.
- I browned the taco meat and placed it in a container in the fridge
- I also mixed up some muffins and gluten-free scones from box mixes to bake for breakfast while waiting for the rice to cook.
Bonus Chicken and Rice options:
- Chicken and Green Salsa bake
- Chicken “fried” rice
- I can use the chicken in quesadillas, risotto, or calzones
- I can use the rice in stuffed peppers
- I can save for another round of Satay
Thanks to Pampered Chef steamed veggies are the only additional prep work I’ll be doing each night as I pull dinner together. In total including clean up, this took about 90 minutes thanks to an empty dishwasher and minimal need to chop veggies.
Breaking Down the Full Menu Week 1
Saturday/Sunday: Gluten-Free Chicken sausages, pork sausages from the local butcher, and brat burgers. Mashed potatoes, salad, and steamed broccoli will round out the menu for both nights.
Monday: Gluten-Free Satay sauce, Shredded chicken breasts, brown basmati rice, zoodles, diced green peppers, chopped peanuts, pineapple, steamed broccoli. (Make Your own Bowls)
Tuesday: Tacos (Ground beef or chicken because I happened to have both) black beans, corn tortilla chips and guacamole as a side dish. Served with apple slices and plums
Wednesday: This is date night so Ordell and I will eat out. The boys eat something quick. This week it’s chicken patties and fries and probably apples.
Thursday: Leftovers were addressed above in Step Three
Friday: Game Day is always different. Usually, the boys eat something at the field with the coaches and I grab a salad at home. Sometimes they will eat something from the concessions.
Saturday/Sunday: My preference is always to head to the farmer’s market and find something fresh to create. Our market runs all year long and we are members with a local rancher so we receive a discount.
Breaking Down a Full Menu Week 2
This week meal prep was divided into 2 parts. When we got back from the Farmer’s Market we had breakfast sausage and pork shoulder to thaw.
Saturday morning I made Chicken and Green Salsa bake (minus 2 chicken breasts added later that evening) with leftovers from the previous week’s dinners. I also made broccoli slaw, prepped a salad, and spent a little time Clorox wiping out the fridge drawers and shelves.
Saturday evening I made a breakfast casserole for mornings this week while I was cooking the potatoes and pasta for Saturday dinner.
Once the chicken cooled I finished compiling Tuesday’s salsa bake and placed it in the fridge along with the breakfast casserole.
Saturday: Grilled Chicken, Gluten-Free Mac and Cheese, Roasted Potatoes, Steamed Broccoli, Salad. Ordell grilled several extra chicken breasts 2 for Tuesday’s dinner, and some in anticipation of having leftovers.
Sunday: Ordell smoked up a pork shoulder (pictured above) we had leftover roasted potatoes and broccoli and pineapple from satay last week. We also had broccoli slaw and baked beans.
Monday: weekend leftovers
Tuesday: Chicken and Green Salsa Bake, tortilla chips and queso. I’ve linked the original recipe that my family loves. Every time I make this skillet is slightly different depending on what I have on hand. I find this is the perfect recipe to help use up leftover ingredients.
Wednesday: leftovers for the boys and date night for us
Thursday: baked fish, broccoli, fries (I give myself a break with one boxed meal a week. My kids love these Gordon Skillet Crisps which bake up great on stoneware. I’ll make myself baked salmon (gluten-free) to have over a salad and Ordell will usually have a little of both.
NOTE: Thursday is the first meal that I’ll have to do more than pull a dish out of the fridge and heat up some veggies.
Friday: Game Day! (Homecoming)
Saturday: Grilling Burgers we picked up at the Farmer’s Market last weekend
Simple meal prep doesn’t have to include bland and boring meals. It also doesn’t need to involve hours of preparation and clean up on a daily basis. Take some time to think through how you can use the ingredients you have on hand (with the help of Pinterest) to reduce the majority of your meal prep to once a week.
Do you need some cooking inspiration?
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 10, 2019, and has been updated in January 2021 for freshness, accuracy, and completeness.