Parenting

15 helpful tips to make back-to-school meal prep easier

A little bit of planning can make a huge difference.

Family cooking dinner together Credit: Getty Images / PeopleImages

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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

Paprika
Credit: Paprika

The Paprika app lets you plan a whole month's of meals, if you want--and immediately loads your grocery list with all the items you need.

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.

Get the Paprika app

2. Enroll in a grocery service

CrowdCow
Credit: CrowdCow

Crowd Cow lets you plan ahead by bringing the freshest sustainable meat, fish, and poultry options right to your door.

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.

Get Crowd Cow at CrowdCow.com

3. Quality containers

PrepNaturals
Credit: PrepNaturals

These top-rated compartment containers are oven safe, microwave safe, and dishwasher safe.

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.

Get the 5-pack of the PrepNaturals glass compartment containers at Amazon for $30.99

4. A stackable lunchbox

LunchBots bento
Credit: Reviewed / Lisa Lawrence

The LunchBots Bento keeps lunches fresh and tasty.

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.

Get the LunchBots Large Trio at Amazon for $38.99

5. An insulated thermos for hot meals

Funtainer
Credit: Thermos

These vacuum-sealed containers keep soup hot for up to seven hours.

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.

Get the Funtainer 10 oz. food container at Amazon for $14.99

6. An Instant Pot

Instant
Credit: Instant Pot

The Instant Pot is essential for big batch meals.

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.

Get the Instant Pot Duo Nova 6-quart pressure cooker at Amazon for $59.99

7. A set of silicone cupcake liners

Amazon
Credit: Amazon Basics

Perfect for making muffins, egg cups, and for organizing snacks in a lunchbox.

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.

Get the 12-pack of rainbow-colored silicon baking cups at Amazon for $7.99

8. Clear pantry organizers

ChefPath
Credit: Chef's Path

Keep an accurate inventory of your pantry staples with these clear containers.

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!

Get the Chef's Path 7-piece clear storage container set at Amazon for $39.97

9. Sustainable food wrapping

SuperBee
Credit: SuperBee

Beeswax wraps eliminate food waste and plastic waste.

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.

Get the SuperBee beeswax wraps at Amazon for $17.98

10. Reusable lunch bags

Stasher
Credit: Stasher

These reusable lunch bags are durable enough to sustain thousands of uses.

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.

Get the Stasher reusable lunch bags for $11.99

11. An extra large baking sheet

Wilton
Credit: Wilton

Don't crowd your extra-large batches of veggies! Get a super-sized baking tray for a perfect caramelization and crust.

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.

Get the Wilton Perfect Results Premium Non-Stick 21 x 15-Inch Mega Baking Pan at Amazon for $14.99

12. Mason jars

Mason
Credit: Ball

Batch prep and store away with these reusable 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.

Get a 12-pack of Ball 8 oz. mason jars at Target for $10.99

13. An all-purpose chopper

Fullstar
Credit: Fullstar

This countertop chopper does it all, from chopping to dicing to spiralizing.

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.

Get the Fullstar Vegetable Chopper and Spiralizer at Amazon for $15.97

14. Stackable storage bins for the fridge

GreenCo
Credit: GreenCo

An organized fridge is key to meal planning.

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.

Get the Greenco set of six storage bins at Amazon for $29.99

15. Dissolvable food labels

Labels
Credit: Food Labels

Ditch the Sharpie and the masking tape and reach for these labels that stand up to weeks in the freezer, but dissolve easily in warm water.

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.

Get the Food Labels brand dissolvable food labels at Amazon for $12.95

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