15 helpful tips to make back-to-school meal prep easier
A little bit of planning can make a huge difference.
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Imagine a world where you only make one trip to the grocery store per week, you always have the ingredients you need on hand, and you’ve forever silenced that nagging voice in the back of your mind that asks the question, “What’s for dinner?”
Having a meal plan reduces so many daily stress points. Meal planning not only saves you time, but it's essential to keeping a family food budget under control. If you haven't already gotten on the meal planning train, back-to-school is the perfect time to start. Here are some of our favorite things to help you get organized and to knock this meal-planning thing out of the park.
1. Get an app
Our favorite meal planning app is Paprika. Many apps will give you a pre-selected database of recipes to choose from; Paprika differs in that it lets you search and save your favorite recipes from any website or blog. Since you can include recipes that you already know are winners, you have a better chance of your family actually eating the well-planned meals you’ve prepared. It also has a super-handy color-coded calendar to enter breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, and it uploads all of the ingredients from the recipes you select for the week to a customizable shopping list that you can carry on your phone.
We also love that this app doesn't confine you to your phone, like many others do: It allows you to store recipes on your phone, tablet, and laptop, making for easy and relaxed planning wherever you feel most comfortable to search, while also keeping it mobile when you're out and about.
2. Enroll in a grocery service
Let's get real, grocery stores just don't always have the best meat selection and if we want to save time, a trip to the butcher probably isn't something you can add to the schedule. Crowd Cow lets you plan ahead by bringing the freshest sustainable meat, fish, and poultry options right to your door. We love the high quality, humanely-raised, hormone-free craft beef and meats from Crowd Cow, and their seafood, poultry, and pork selections make for excellent variety. This service delivers some of the highest quality meats around that come from standard-focused independent farmers and co-ops. And with customizable, family-sized options you save extra time by making fewer trips to the grocery store.
3. Quality containers
Oven-safe, microwave-safe, freezer-safe, BPA-free, and a breeze to clean: These top-rated compartment containers hold about 30 ounces of food and have locking tops that keep your food fresh and bothersome leaks at bay. We personally like the highly-rated two compartment containers so that fruits and veggies are always fresh even when they are sitting alongside your beef bourguignon. If your kids like every component of their meals separate, they also come in bento-style, or if you are a one-plate kind of planner the most popular set is the five-piece single-compartment glass containers.
4. A stackable lunchbox
Our favorite lunch box is easy-to-clean, dishwasher-safe, and seals up super-tight so it doesn't leak. It's strong and durable and has a lifespan that stands up to bumpy rides in the backpack and careless tosses on the playground. The tight seal also ensures that meals stay fresh, meaning that pre-made sandwiches taste like they were just made and fruits retain their pop and crispness in this container, which means you can pre-prep a few school lunches a day or two in advance. They are also stackable, so splurge on a few—the time you save will be worth it in the end.
5. An insulated thermos for hot meals
Hot soups and mac and cheese will hold their temperature for hours in one of these colorful containers. And since they come in almost any branded cartoon or superhero you can think of, kids will love them—possibly ensuring that they won't complain if they have to eat mac and cheese with peas three times in a week.
6. An Instant Pot
The Instant Pot has forever changed batched meals. This life-changing pressure-cooker really can do it all, and since it takes all of the stirring and continuous checking of cooking out of the equation, it will save you a ton of time. This is a versatile do-it-all machine that makes everything from perfect hardboiled eggs to curries to enchiladas in no time, allowing you to make big batch meals that you can portion out and eat throughout the week.
7. A set of silicone cupcake liners
These colorful cups are lifesavers for making sure you always have cupcake liners on-hand. They are perfect for making egg breakfast cups or a week's worth of muffins, we also like that they can also be used to hold small snacks within storage containers and that they give a bit of colorful life to things like nuts and cut veggies.
8. Clear pantry organizers
An organized pantry is essential for meal planning. Keep an accurate inventory of your pantry staples with a set of clear canisters. These make it easy for you to see exactly what you have on hand with a quick glance. And these come with chalkboard labels to make sure you never confuse your bulgur with your quinoa again!
9. Sustainable food wrapping
There is a reason why there is so much buzz around beeswax wraps. A sustainable and reusable alternative to plastic wrap, it's made from materials you can feel good about, like bee’s wax, jojoba oil, and organic cotton. Once you’re done with your wrap, just wash it with dish soap and cool water (hot water can melt it), then let it air-dry to use it again. Eliminate food waste and plastic waste and spend less cash with one of these wraps in a variety of cute prints.
10. Reusable lunch bags
Plastic bags are flimsy, wasteful, and we're always running out of them. Invest in a long-term solution with these non-toxic reusable silicone lunch bags that are durable enough to sustain thousands of uses. They are dishwasher- and microwave-safe, and—amazingly—you can use them to sous vide without requiring a vacuum sealer. They come in a variety of sizes and colors, so each family member can have their own.
11. An extra large baking sheet
When your large batch of veggies have enough room to roast, that's when you're really cooking. An extra-large tray makes enough room for sheet pan meals, cookies for the bake sale, or a week's worth of roasted broccoli, without over-crowding and inadvertent steaming—allowing for the perfect caramelization. Pro-tip, be sure to measure your oven before buying: This pan is 15" x 21", so just be sure it can fit in your oven.
12. Mason jars
Batch prep smoothie ingredients and pop them in the freezer for a week's worth of dump-and-blend smoothies. Make up a week's worth of overnight oats for a quick-grab breakfast. Or get on the canned salad trend for a healthy week of lunches. Mason jars are versatile and essential to meal prep.
13. An all-purpose chopper
Say farewell to endless chopping and teary onion-eyes. Most of us have never mastered the knife skills of a "Top Chef" contestant, and this will ensure you never have to. As cool as furious knife-skills may look, let's all just cut ourselves a break. With four interchangeable blades, you can chop, julienne, slice, and spiralize to your heart's content. The best part? At under $16 it's way more affordable than a Japanese knife set.
14. Stackable storage bins for the fridge
No one has time to rifle through a messy fridge when they have meal-planning to do. Make it easy to see exactly what you have on hand with these stackable fridge organizers. These BPA-free bins are easy to clean and let you maximize fridge space, while keeping everything thing compact and tidy.
15. Dissolvable food labels
Put an end to mystery meals! Meal prep is all about making things in advance, but all that preparation won't do you any good if you forget what is in your carefully portioned containers. These dissolvable food labels will help ensure you know exactly what is in your freezer and exactly when you put it there. You can finally ditch the Sharpie (which never washed off anyway) and the masking tape (which always left a gummy residue). The labels will dissolve easily in warm water, so they are perfect for reusable containers.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.