Vegan (And Gluten-Free) Meal Prep 101
If you are looking to eat more healthy foods, spend less money on groceries and less time trying to figure out what to eat when you’re crunched for time, meal prepping is a great option! Nothing is worse than trying to figure out what to prepare when you’re hangry or tired so I’ve been researching meal prep basics and here’s what I’ve learned.
Benefits of Meal Prepping
- Save money – groceries are expensive so planning your meals in advance can help you save money by avoiding impulse purchases in the grocery store, and on food waste for ingredients that don’t get used before they spoil. If your meals are planned, then you can stay focused in the store on what you need rather than getting distracted by convenience items. Also, if you have meals made ahead of time, you won’t be tempted to buy takeout.
- Avoid decision fatigue – if you can organize a grocery list at home, you don’t have to make so many decisions in the store. And if you’ve made meals in advance, that’s one less decision during your hectic day.
- Less waste – there is so much food waste in the US. I am guilty of buying produce that didn’t get used before it went bad or other ingredients that looked interesting in the store, but once I got home I didn’t have a plan for it. Meal prepping would have helped me avoid throwing away food (and money).
- Eat a better variety of foods – we all get in food ruts. I know I do, especially with lunch. All spring and summer I have been eating salads for lunch because I have been too lazy to come up with any other ideas. Sometimes I would eat some leftovers, but it’s been salads nearly every day. My kids also tend to eat the same foods, usually veggie burgers, every day and I feel like they would be more likely to eat a bigger variety of foods if meals were made and available. We were relying on Dr. Praeger’s veggie burgers and vegan chick’n but those have become nearly impossible to find now so we need options for hungry teens that need to eat quickly and get back to online classes.
- Health – this is probably tied to variety, but I tend to eat healthier if I plan my meals in advance. I’m less likely to eat junk for lunch, which means I’ll be less likely to get hungry again before dinner.
A Beginner’s Guide
- Start small – You can meal prep for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snacks and desserts! Obviously you don’t have to meal prep for all of these and if you are just getting started you might opt to prep for the meal that is the most challenging in your day (for me this is lunch).
- Next, determine which method will work best for you:
Leftovers – this just means when you make a meal, such as dinner, you cook a little more and have leftovers for lunch or dinner the following day.
Ready-to-cook ingredients – this works well if you like to prepare meals just before serving. This could mean chopping up vegetables in advance and storing them until you are ready to use them. You could also prepare proteins, such as marinating tofu in the fridge until meal time, or pre-cooking grains such as quinoa or rice. I’ve done this some with salad ingredients when I didn’t want to assemble a salad in advance. Chopping onions, carrots, bell peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes can save a lot of time when it comes to assembling a meal.
Batch cooking/freezing – this is when you make a batch (or batches) of a meal, such as a lasagna or chili, that is stored in the freezer until ready to use. I like to make batches of different sauces, some of which go in the freezer but most are in the fridge until needed. I almost always have a homemade pesto sauce in the freezer for nights when time is limited. You could also make a batch of overnight oats, baked oatmeal, waffles, or energy bites for a quick breakfast. For freezer meals, a lot of recipes online will indicate whether something freezes well. If not, check the comment section because it’s a pretty frequently asked question.
Make-ahead meals – if you have just a bit of time, make a single meal and store it in the fridge until mealtime. When I know I won’t be home during the usual time I set aside for making dinner, I will make something that I know will reheat well for when I get home.
Portioned meals – these are probably what you are familiar with seeing on Instagram and for good reason, they look so organized and photogenic! These are the most convenient because you can just grab-and-go! Honestly, this is a goal for me…
3. Now that you’ve determined which method(s) work best for your lifestyle, it’s time to make a plan! Spend a few minutes thinking about how to organize in a way that works for you. Choose which meals to prep and find recipes. I would suggest starting with recipes you have made and liked in the past with maybe a couple of new recipes to try. Try to keep it simple in order to save time and aggravation. Consider recipes you have made in the past that reheat well. Also, think about what produce is in season or on sale. Set aside a time to do your meal prep and how you’ll make it more enjoyable. For me, I like to either listen to music or find a podcast while I cook.
4. Before heading to the store, write down or use an app to create a grocery list. Look in your pantry to see what you already have, then you can fill in the gaps when you add items to your list. I like using the OurGroceries app because it allows family-sharing and everyone can add to the grocery lists. Take a moment to check the store’s sales ad and your coupons.
5. At the store, try to think about pantry staples and filling in any gaps you have in your pantry. Rice, pasta, quinoa are good grain options for make-ahead meals. Proteins like tofu, tempeh, TVP, and seitan (if you don’t have to avoid wheat) are affordable options. Keep in mind what produce is in season or on sale, but be open to substitutes. Sometimes the store will be out of kale, or maybe the broccoli doesn’t look so hot this week so be open to buying a different green or Brussels sprouts instead. Ideally, with meal planning you’ll be more able to stick to your list and avoid impulse-purchases or ingredients that end up being wasted.
6. Containers – there are so many options now from plastic ziploc containers and freezer bags, glass jars, plastic and glass containers with and without dividers. There are containers specifically designed for salads and cute bento-style boxes. Whatever you choose, make sure you have enough and that you have all the lids. Be sure also that your containers are freezer and microwave-safe. Metal containers are nice, but cannot be used in the microwave.
Keys to Success
Variety – if you think you’ll get bored with eating the same exact meal all week, prep ingredients that are more suited to mix and match. Maybe cook some tofu ahead of time that can be used in a variety of dishes throughout the week. Mix up the grains, veggies, or sauce to give some variety. Make sure you try new recipes each time to avoid falling into a rut.
Try to calculate how many meals your family will need. Math, I know… but if you have 2 people and you are prepping for one meal for five days you will need less time and groceries than a family of 4 prepping for 2 meals for 7 days.
Meal prepping should make your life less stressful. If you find it’s causing you more stress, take a break or try a different method of meal prepping. Re-evaluate your choice of recipes and maybe try to find something that is more simple with fewer steps. Instead of prepping entire meals, maybe think about which components you could make in advance.
Set aside time to prep – if you only have a few minutes, prep what you can. But if you are going to prep full meals in advance, find a block of time when it’s most convenient for you. Even if you spend one or two hours meal prepping at once, it’s still probably less time than you would spend making each meal individually.
Something is better than nothing – if all you have time to make ahead are a few components for a meal, that’s better than nothing! I make sauces and dressings ahead of time. Then all I need to do is cook tofu and that’s a protein done!
Food safety – I tend to try to stick to 3-5 days for food in the fridge for safety, but check http://FoodSafety.gov for more information.
Tips and Tricks
- Scrap bowl – place a large bowl in your work space for tossing scraps (and trash if you aren’t composting). This will minimize cleanup and trips to the trash bin. Also, not having a lot of scraps and trash in your work area will help you stay organized on meal prep day.
- Make sure you have room to prep – clean off some counter space because nothing is more irritating than trying to cook with clutter.
- Do the dishes first – before you start, make sure you have a clean knife, cutting board, pans and bowls, and of course, your meal prep containers (and all the lids!).
- Make the most of your resources – try to avoid recipes that compete for space and resources. Utilize your stovetop, oven, and Instant Pot if you have one. Try to reuse pots, bowls, pans, etc. during your prep day to cut down on dirty dishes.
- When choosing recipes, consider ones that have compatible ingredient and equipment needs. If two recipes require tofu, then you can cook tofu all at once. If you can chop or cook components of recipes at once, that will be a big time-saver!
- When choosing recipes, think about what reheats or stores well. I don’t like making salads ahead of time if they have cucumbers because I find it makes the salad watery. Examine what recipes you’ve made or eaten in the past that made good leftovers and use that as a starting point.
- Again, start small! Try cooking a meal and use the leftovers for lunch the next day. Or, cook one meal ahead of time. You don’t have to start your meal prepping journey with preparing every meal and snack for your whole family for the entire week.
- Make it fun! Listen to music or a podcast or watch your favorite show while you work. Have a little snack as you prep your meals. If you like working alone, kick everyone out of the kitchen. If you like help, get your kids or roommates/spouse/friends involved.
Meal Prep Ideas
I try to combine a protein + grain + vegetable for our dinners. Ideally, lunch would be something similar but maybe smaller portions. Breakfast for me is pumpkin baked oatmeal – I make a batch and store it in the refrigerator.
Some of my most recent favorite meals that would be great for meal prepping:
Beans and Rice – instead of tofu, I use impossible sausage
Quickie Red Beans and Rice – I use impossible beef
My Pinterest is here and you can see what recipes I’ve tried and liked on my “Ate that” board.