Meal prep intimidates me—and I'm a food editor. I picture an enormous collection of coordinating plastic containers, meticulously chopped vegetables, marinating proteins all lined up and ready to go, possibly even...spreadsheets. Yet people swear by it, and actually, I bet it is satisfying, and reassuring, to know that you'’ll hardly have to pick up a knife for days, get dinner on the table faster each night, and be fed with delicious food you cooked yourself.

I was already in the habit of planning my meals (dinners, at least), figuring out on Sunday what I'd cook for my family for supper Monday through Friday. Still, I'd always assumed meal prep (as in prepping five nights' worth of dinners all in one fell two-hour swoop) was advanced-level stuff. So, every night, I'd start with my ingredients in their un-prepped form, chopping onions, peeling garlic, breading fish fillets before frying them and so on.

Then, last fall, with my kids starting first grade and pre-k, my husband and I both working all day and me trying to get a homemade dinner ready somewhere in the ballpark of 6 p.m., I added a new step to the routine. After that day's dinner was done, cleaned up and my kids were in bed, I'd parcel out the following day's meal preparation, doing 20 minutes every evening.

That new step, I realize now, is pretty much meal prep, minus the Instagrammable photos and matching plastic containers. And if you're thinking you might want to try it, doing a little bit each night (or even just one night!) could be a good way to see if it makes your life any less stressful. It's definitely helped me have dinner ready more quickly, without having to scramble.

You probably have everything you need already—a big sheet pan, dish or tray to keep prepped main courses on; plastic wrap and aluminum foil for covering; small and large resealable plastic bags for storing cut vegetables; and, a couple of containers with lids. Matching is nice, but um, so are color-organized bookshelves, so...

Here's an example of one week's worth of dinners at my house (most recipes improvised), and what I did every evening before to prep for the next day's dinner.

The Week's Menu

Meatloaf, salad and rice

Breaded and fried cod, cauliflower mash with crème fraîche, salad

Roasted pork tenderloin, roasted Brussels sprouts and garlic bread

Harissa chicken with salad

Spinach and tomato tortellini soup

The Week's Master Meal and Meal-Prep Schedule

Prep for tomorrow: meatloaf and salads
  • Chop onion, garlic and parsley for the meatloaf; mix with milk-soaked breadcrumbs, egg, ground beef and pork, grated Parmesan cheese and dried sage; form into loaf on a rimmed sheet pan. Cover with plastic.
  • Wash and dry three salads' worth of lettuce, tear (don't cut, or it browns) into pieces. Place in a zip-sealed bag in the crisper drawer. Slice red onion for salad and place in small zip-sealed bag inside a plastic container to prevent the entire fridge from smelling like onions.

    Serve tonight: meatloaf, salad, rice
  • Bake meatloaf
  • Dress salad
  • Cook rice

    Prep for tomorrow: cod and cauliflower
  • Pat cod dry, check for bones. Dip each fillet in flour then egg then breadcrumbs. Lay the fillets on a rimmed sheet pan and cover tightly with plastic and then foil, to prevent the fish from drying out. (Note: This prep works with frozen cod, too. You can bread it frozen; it will thaw in the fridge and be defrosted by the time you're ready to cook it the following evening.)
  • Cut cauliflower into florets; wash and lay on a towel to dry. Place the cauliflower in a container with a lid in the fridge.

    Serve tonight: breaded and fried cod, cauliflower mash with crème fraîche, salad
  • Fry cod in grapeseed oil on both sides until crispy and serve with tartar sauce and lemon wedges
  • Steam cauliflower and puree with a few spoonfuls of crème fraîche, salt and pepper
  • Dress salad

    Prep for tomorrow: Brussels sprouts and garlic bread
  • Rinse Brussels sprouts and let them air dry on a tea towel. Cut off the stems/tough bottoms and put them in a container with a lid. Store in the refrigerator.
  • Wash and dry a few sprigs of parsley for the garlic bread. Lay the sprigs between paper towels and place them in an open plastic bag in the fridge.

    Serve tonight: roasted pork tenderloin, roasted Brussels sprouts, garlic bread
  • Season pork with dried oregano, rosemary, salt and pepper; drizzle with olive oil and roast
  • Lightly coat sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast along with pork.
  • Slice a baguette in half lengthwise but don't cut all the way through, so one edge remains attached. Mince parsley. In a small bowl, mix together softened butter, some olive oil, salt, garlic powder and parsley and spread on the inside of the loaf. Wrap in foil and bake for about 15 minutes, then slice and serve.
  • Same oven temp for everything—425°.

    Prep for tomorrow: harissa chicken
  • Score chicken legs, rub in harissa, season with salt and pepper and place into a roasting pan. Scatter garlic over and around the chicken, squeeze lemon juice all over and add cherry tomatoes, halved new potatoes and some pitted kalamata olives. Cover tightly with foil and refrigerate.

    Serve tonight: harissa chicken with salad
  • Drizzle olive oil over the pan and toss all the ingredients for the chicken dish onto it; bake at 375° for about 45 minutes.
  • Dress salad

    Prep for tomorrow: vegetables
  • Mince garlic, dice onion, chop spinach. (Store in refrigerator.)

    Serve tonight: spinach and tomato tortellini soup
  • Soup: Saute garlic and onion in olive oil; stir in broth, canned tomatoes, tortellini, herbs and water. Simmer and then stir in the spinach.

    Prep: none!

    Next Story