As a busy parent, it can be a challenge to find the time and energy to create healthy meals your family will enjoy—especially on days when you need to be in three places at once to cope with the chaos! That’s where meal planning comes in. And although it can seem like a daunting task, it doesn’t have to be. Our Easy Healthy Meal Prep for Busy Families article offers simple and realistic strategies that can help you save time and money while you put nutritious meals on the table.
With a collection of make-ahead recipes and healthy eating hacks at your fingertips, you can feel good about the food you’re serving your loved ones—even on the busiest of weeknights (no takeout or personal chef required!). Keep reading to learn about easy healthy meal prep to say goodbye to the stress of meal planning and hello to a healthier, more organized way to feed your busy family.
Why Meal Prep is a Game-changer for Busy Families
Meal prepping can make your life a lot easier. It can help you save time, save money, eat healthier, and reduce food waste. That might sound like an impossible dream—or something only those with the luxury of time you don’t have can pull off. Between soccer practice, dance recitals, grocery shopping, and everything else you do just to get through the week, it’s fair to wonder: who has the time and energy to meal prep a week’s worth of healthy meals for their entire family?
For busy families, the whole concept of healthy meal prep can feel like a lot of work. Especially when your social feed is full of influencers who’ve made it their full-time job to paint a perfect picture of weeknight dinners and hot breakfasts that only look effortless because they spent hours on behind the scenes food-styling and prep.
So, before you even start, it’s important to know that meal prep is an art that exists on a spectrum. And it is possible to find your own approach to make meal planning work for you.
Just because the search results page for “how to meal prep” is flooded with images of countertops covered with pre-portioned meals in segmented containers stacked for fridge or freezer does not mean that’s the only way it can be done. A lot of that content comes from people who count every macro and calorie in every meal—or who are marketing their services as health coaches, personal trainers, or personal chefs.
You do not need to spend an entire day of your precious weekend cooking to enjoy the benefits of meal prepping! With a few tips and a little planning, we can make healthy meal prep easy—and realistic—for you and your family.
Taking Inventory: Knowledge is Power!
Knowing what you have is a smart place to start. From kitchen equipment to pantry, fridge, and freezer staples, knowing what you’ve got to work with is key—so take an inventory! Your “What we have” list will keep you from over-buying at the grocery store, so you save money and reduce food waste. And it can give you a nudge when you ask the dreaded question: “What are we having for dinner this week?”
Keep a list of pantry staples and write in one-off ingredients as you need them. You can do this on your phone and optimize it in your favourite organization or productivity app—or you can go old school and stick to a pen and paper. If you prefer paper, we recommend writing your staples in pen in a notebook, and checking them off in pencil. This will save you from having to write out your list of staples every time you run out. (And you don’t risk losing your list in a sea of sticky notes at the bottom of your bag!) You could even make a printable list of items that you can cross out or check off from week to week.
When it comes to ingredients, start with simple, staple items that have a long shelf life, such as whole grains, beans, lentils, and a variety of vegetables (frozen is fine!). These ingredients can be used in a variety of dishes and can be mixed and matched to create different meals throughout the week. When it comes to making meal prep easy, versatility is your friend!
Meal Prep Tips from the Parents of Silver Hills
It’s one thing to make something look easy in an edited cooking show or video on social media. We wanted to give you real-life examples and ideas you can actually use! So we asked the parents on our team for their tried-and-true tips they use in their own busy lives to help make healthy meals for their families. Here’s what they had to say:
“When it comes to weeknight meals, make double! Extra portions from last night’s dinner make for easy lunches tomorrow! “ – Stacey
“I like to plan out the menu for the week and do the grocery shopping on the weekend. It works for us, because between school and sports and more, we are winging meals a few nights a week” – Jen
“I buy in bulk and freeze the extras, and I like one pot meals and crock pot recipes for the simplicity.” – Lisa
“Leverage what your kid loves and find a way to incorporate it into different meals.” – Ven
“Keeping your fridge organized so you can see what’s in there is a great way to minimize food waste and avoid any surprise science experiments in the back of the fridge. Other than that, soup is our saviour in the colder months—I like to pour extra soup into muffin tins and freeze for a quick, already portioned meal later.” – Rachel
“I usually have a go-to list of staple meals that our family loves. But I also like to make extra grains such as rice and quinoa, they can be added to nearly any dish!” – Chrissy
“Look at your busiest days of the week and make sure you assign quick meals for those days. We look at our family calendar and say, “That’s a grilled cheese on Squirrelly night” knowing it’s an easy, ready in minutes meal everyone loves (and in a worst-case time crunch, we can eat them on the way to evening extracurriculars!)” – Amber
Healthy Meal Prep How-to: 5 Simple Steps to Start (or Scale)
Meal prepping doesn’t have to be complicated. Let’s break it down:
- Make a meal plan or a menu for the week and keep it simple.
Include recipes and ingredients that everyone in the family likes to eat…or at least most of it. (Plan to have leftovers from dinner—this makes for a super easy lunch the next day!)
- Write a grocery list before you go.
Keep on top of your inventory of staples, and try to include ingredients that can be used in lots of different recipes.
- Carve out prep time.
Finding time in your busy schedule can be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to meal prepping. Find a solution that works for your schedule and how you work best—it doesn’t have to be on the same day you do your planning and grocery shopping. Or eat up your precious weekend time with the kids. Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, figure out what works for you and roll with it!)
- Prep the basics.
Doing the prep work ahead of time makes assembling meals easier—everything is ready when you go to cook. Silver Hills Dad, Ven, embraces his picky kid’s limited likes and keeps a batch of their favourite sauce in the fridge to add to whatever is on tonight’s menu. Or learn from Silver Hills Mom, Chrissy—as she preps quinoa and rice for a few meals ahead so that there’s one less thing to cook after a long day.
Batch Cooking and One Pot Meals
Lisa loves big batches and one pot meals for a reason—less clean-up on cooking day and heat-and-eat speed later in the week.
To make meal prep more efficient, try to batch cook items such as grains and beans—or entire dishes that freeze or last a few days in the fridge. Cook a large batch on the weekend and store them for use throughout the week.
Batch cooking basics or doubling a freezer-friendly family favourite and portioning it into meal-sized containers saves time and effort when you have minutes to spare or you’re too tuckered out to cook a whole meal from start to finish. Then you can just grab a portion to reheat for dinner, or pair a speedy dish or sauce with a batch-cooked container of beans or rice.
The One Pot Method isn’t limited to actual pots—it can mean anything from easy sheet pan meals (where you roast everything on one baking sheet together), to using your biggest sauté pan or a wok to turn veggies, tofu, and sauce into a speedy stir-fry, to slow cooker dump dinners (keep reading to learn more about these in the Assembly Line Method below!)
Using just one pot, pan, or appliance to cook your entire meal saves on cleaning time and makes the cooking process less overwhelming.
The Assembly Line Method
Another tip is to use the Assembly Line Method for meal prep. This means prepping all your ingredients and dividing them into containers or bags. The simplest version of this is washing and chopping fresh vegetables like carrots or celery for grab-and-go snacking, easy lunch packing, or faster stir-fries. It could be grating cheese for quick quesadillas, or portioning bulk proteins into meal-sized containers (like a half a block of tofu for a weekday morning tofu scramble). Or you can go all the way to dump dinners (an inelegant term for when you prep all the ingredients for a one pot meal, pop everything in a zip-top bag to freeze it until needed, then dump the whole block in your slow cooker in the morning so dinner is ready when you come home).
Whatever your assembly line looks like—from pre-packed meal kits to simple veggie processing—this method makes it easy to grab a container and quickly assemble a meal, either at home or on the go.
How to Make Meal Prepping Even Easier
Here’s another helpful healthy meal prep hack! Create a weekly menu that doesn’t change (or changes minimally) week to week. Assign certain recipes to certain days and keep the schedule. (Silver Hills Bakery co-founder/co-owner Kathy Smith uses Millet Monday and other designated days as a go-to way to narrow down the weekly menu. “What are we going to have with millet?” can be easier to answer than a broader pile of possibilities).
Whether you try Millet Monday, Tofu (or Taco!) Tuesday, turn every Wednesday into a make-your-own-pizza night (check out our easy plant-based pizza bagels recipe), or make up your own, this trick relieves a lot of the pressure of deciding what to eat each day while still giving you the freedom to plug and play when you feel inspired.
Remember: There’s no rule that says you can’t have the same menu this week as you did last week. Especially if it’s filled with your family’s favourite dishes and you’ve got picky eaters!
Speaking of Picky Eaters…Include Everyone in the Meal Planning Process!
Ven makes note of his son’s favourite foods and looks for creative ways to incorporate them into different meals throughout the week. After all, meal prep isn’t just a job for mom or dad—let the kids get them involved in making the menu too! This works perfectly for staple weekly meal schedules because kids get to help cook the recipes they choose! And as they make this meal each week, they will start to gain more cooking confidence and experience in the kitchen. Pretty soon, the kids will be making dinner for you—all on their own!
More Easy Meal Prep Tips for Beginners
- Plan your meals in categories with versatile ingredients in mind.
Think about what you’re going to do for the protein, for the veggies, etc. What’s in season? What’s on sale? And most importantly, what’s common across the meals your family loves to eat most? Stock up. Then look for ways to mix, match, and combine these ingredients throughout the week.
- Avoid long and messy clean-ups with simple hacks.
After all the prep and cooking, the last thing you want to do is clean up a huge kitchen mess. Simple hacks like lining your baking trays with parchment paper can save time and help you skip some scrubbing. (Plus, parchment paper is biodegradable—so you can toss it in your compost bin instead of sending it to the landfill!)
- Freeze your veggie scraps to make your own veggie broth.
Then freeze the broth! This doesn’t just give you flavourful, low-sodium broth that’s prepped, portioned, and ready for fast soups and sauces. For pretty much pennies, you also get the most out of every scrap of the food you purchase—and helps cut down on food waste, too. (And that’s as good for the planet as it is for your pocketbook!). Check out our Healthy Eating on a Budget article for this easy recipe and more budget-friendly tips!
Easy Healthy Meal Prep for the Win!
Meal prepping can be a simple and effective way to save time and eat healthier. For beginners, start with staple items and use batch cooking and the one pot and assembly line methods to make the process more efficient. With a little planning and preparation, meal prepping can help you provide a week’s worth of healthy meals in no time at all!
And don’t forget—you can always start small! If a week’s worth of meals sounds out of your league, just try some of our healthy meal prep tips for one or two of your family’s busiest days. That might be all you need to take the edge off the chaos. And you can always scale up once you find your groove.