Meal Planning vs. Meal Prep
Meal planning and meal prep are regular parts of my weekend routine. They’re the steps that make getting weekday lunches and weeknight dinners to, well happen. It also reduces the amount of time spent at the grocery store. People often lump these two subjects together and for good reason—they go together like peas and carrots. But there is an important point that sets them apart.
The Difference Between Meal Planning and Meal Prep
Meal planning and meal prep work together to pretty much serve the same purpose: get healthy lunches and dinners on the table a little easier and faster. So, let’s define and contrast the two.
Meal planning is the process that asks and answers the question: “What’s for dinner?” This is done by choosing recipes or dishes that best fit your family’s needs and schedule. Whereas, meal prep is a step (or two or three…) in the meal planning process. It’s the final step that puts your plan into action by getting ingredients ready and meals cooked and made for the week ahead (think: cooking up a batch of shredded chicken, dicing up the onions and tomatoes, and making a skillet of ground turkey to assemble into meals throughout the week).
A Closer Look at Meal Planning
Meal planning is asking the question “What’s for dinner?” once for the whole week, instead of every night, and then shopping for the ingredients you need for each meal. This is how I approach meal planning.
How Many Meals do I need to plan for? Use five dinner meals as a jumping-off point, but then look at your calendar (and take stock of your known habits) and subtract meals accordingly. For example, we always eat out on Friday nights so I don’t plan a dinner meal for that day. Wednesday night is almost always mommy/E date night, so normally no meal is planned. Get my drift?
What Type of Meals do I need? Keep an eye on your weekly calendar and assess what evening challenges and opportunities you have for the week and define what types of meals you need. So, besides the things above, Monday E has gymnastics and Tuesday she has swimming so, Monday we go straight from school pick-up to gym and then home for dinner. Dinner has to be waiting for us when we get home so I look for crockpot meals or Instant Pot for Monday night dinners. Tuesdays we need something before swim so again, must be done.
Creating a meal template is also a clever way to narrow your search for recipes. We love tacos, so we have them at least once a week.
What is my Plan B? I keep a list of go-to meals and ingredients in a notebook. These are things that my family loves and we most likely have the ingredients on hand because of No. 4.
Keep Items Stocked. I keep pantry and fridge staples stocked for a variety of meals, i,e. ground turkey, pasta sauce, rice, frozen veggies, chicken breasts. These can be used in almost any meal and is always good for a Plan B.
Think Ahead. I plan meals that can easily be reheated for lunches or leftover dinner. Inevitably my husband will eat leftovers on Wednesday when he gets home from working out. Also, I plan meals that involve the same ingredients, i.e., ground turkey = tacos and pasta bake and sloppy joes.
Whew! I know it sounds like a lot, but it helps so much in the end and saves time! Once you get in the swings of things. Here is what I use to plan our meals. Nothing fancy, but you can download it here.
I also keep a list of our go-to meals in my planner so that in case I forget my list I have one on me and can just wing it!
Meal Prep Puts the Plan into Action
Ok, so how does meal prep differ from meal planning? Prep involves setting aside some time, be it an hour or just 20 minutes, to literally begin prepping the upcoming meals. This can mean different things for different people, and it all comes down to what you’re cooking and what is the most helpful approach for your needs and schedule.
Most people think of meal prep as preparing entire meals ahead, portioning them into individual containers, and then stashing them in the fridge or freezer. It can also mean making a pot of grains, baking a few sweet potatoes, poaching a few chicken breasts, chopping up a bunch of vegetables, or making a sauce or dressing.
I personally, do not meal prep completely. I used to. My husband and I would cook tons of chicken breast and veggies and such and portion it all out. It works for some people. For me in this stage of life, I just prefer not to spend the time. I know what I am going to make ahead of time and stick to it. About the only thing I prep is fruit. I cut up bananas and freeze them for shakes and pre-cut all our fruit so that E can easily get what she wants from the fridge. Sometimes I will make bigger batches of things, but that is about the extent of it.
The key is to just have a plan and stick to it. Whether its preparing for the week on Sundays or choosing simple lunches and breakfasts that can be thrown together easily. For instance, I can make a dozen baked egg cups on Monday morning and have them for breakfasts all week.
If you want to see my meal and recipe book, drop your email and I will send it your way!