After coming home from a long day of work, the last thing I want to do is cook. When I have the time, cooking is great, but sometimes it really is an inconvenience during weekdays. To avoid the ever-looming option of takeout and to skip microwaving a sad frozen puck of a meal, I try to prep over the weekends to ensure I have healthy meals I want to eat at my fingertips.
Especially during the summer, I focus on no-cook meal options. Taking one day to cook (and heat up my little kitchen) definitely outweighs having to cook every single night. While there are options for those who want to strictly go no-cook, it works out easiest in the end to set aside a weekend afternoon to cook and prep for the whole week. Then when you get home from work, you just have to combine, mix, and eat.
How to Get Started:
Buy Containers: When I first started meal-prepping, I didn't have a dedicated set of containers for it. My life became infinitely easier when I finally invested in some glass Pyrex containers, just the right size for lunches and dinners. Eventually (through watching sales at Target) I built up a collection of 20 containers. That's enough to prep both lunch and dinner for me and my husband for a week.
Think of Building Blocks: When prepping for no-cook recipes, it helps to think of the building blocks of dishes. Depending on what you're hoping to eat all week, you might want to cook a pot of grains, legumes, some type of meat, and chop a decent amount of fruits and veggies. I try to cook a large pot of whole grains (usually brown rice or quinoa) along with a slow cooker full of beans (freezing what I don't use). I also prep whatever produce comes in my weekly CSA delivery, which leaves me with peeled or chopped fruits and vegetables to snack on or throw into recipes throughout the week. With basic building blocks, you can easily have food on hand all week to quickly throw into a no-cook bowl, sandwich, or salad.
Have a Game Plan: Know what you want to cook before your prep day, and make sure you have all the ingredients. Choose foods that work well together and can easily be packaged for grab-and-go lunches. For example, if I have a lot of cucumbers and tomatoes on hand (for Israeli Salad), I might choose to make a pot of chickpeas and some whole-wheat couscous for Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Don't cook too much of any particular ingredient though, unless you wish to eat it at every meal. I make a list of everything I want to cook and their cooking times, from full meals to side dishes to baked goods. That way, when I'm running around in a flurry in the kitchen, I can keep track of what needs to be cooked and when, which means I prioritize staples that will go into other recipes (like cooked grains or legumes) or longer-cooking dishes first.
Have Your Kitchen Ready: AKA have your kitchen clean. You'll most likely be dirtying several dishes as you cook, so if you already have a full sink when you start, you'll have a real mess on your hands in the end. Be sure to wash dishes as you go. It will make things easier, and if you have a smaller kitchen (with limited storage), you also might need to re-use that pot or pan for you next recipe.
Be Comfortable: The first time I did an afternoon of prepping, I didn't wear shoes. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but standing up for several hours on a hard tile floor with no arch support can end up being torture for your feet. If you plan on cooking for hours, I recommend wearing shoes and comfortable clothes you don't mind getting a bit dirty. To keep myself focused on the task, I usually have music playing while I cook. If I'm not particularly focusing on a complicated recipe, I might choose a podcast for listening instead.
Putting It All Together: Once I've cooked all of my recipes (and checked them off my list), it's time to put everything together. I set out all of my Pyrex containers on the counter and figure out what combinations to package for the week. If you've cooked a variety of foods, it's easy to get a good dose of vegetables, whole grains, and protein in each meal. Be sure to change things up, and don't put the same side with the same main dish every time. Monotony will make you unlikely to eat your prepped meals and more likely to choose a fast food option instead.
Be Proud: Sit back (preferably with a stiff drink in your hand), and admire your hard work. Enjoy the knowledge that you don't have to cook again for another week.