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Meal planning vs. meal prepping, what is the difference? Is there a difference?
Because I have seen people use these two terms interchangeably, I thought I’d clear up the confusion between meal planning (which I do) and food prepping (which I don’t do).
Commonly, meal planning means making a plan what you want to eat for a week (or two weeks or the whole month), then doing your grocery shopping accordingly. It makes sure you have all the ingredients you need for your meals at hand when you need them.
When people talk about meal prepping, it’s usually an all-day event (mostly on the weekend) where they pre-cook and portion their lunches and/or dinners (or both) for the week.
Why meal prepping is not for me
While meal prepping appeals to my organizational tendencies and while I can see how that potentially saves time during the week (maybe), I am not a fan of having prepared food sit and wait in the fridge (unless it’s something that is supposed to marinade like meat or salads).
Leftovers are fine every once in a while, but I am usually a fan of cooking fresh. And meal planning means that I have everything I need on hand, but that I can cook fresh while having some flexibility to choose what I want to eat every day.
I’ve done a little bit of meal prepping (mostly for lunches) when I was still working at my office, but things have definitely changed in the last 18 months. The only meal prepping I will occasionally do is chop vegetables in advance or do any other prep work for the next day’s meal the night before while I am cooking dinner.
Why meal planning works for us
I used to think that meal planning would feel very restrictive and that we’d be ending up having to eat things we didn’t want to eat all the time. And who wants that, right? But I couldn’t have been more mistaken. Meal planning absolutely gives us the flexibility to eat what we want, because guess what? We’re making the meal plan!
We are on a bi-weekly meal plan schedule right now. We used to shop once a week, but since the start of the pandemic, we have switched to bi-weekly grocery runs (usually Fridays, as I am off that day and by shopping on Fridays I can beat the weekend crowds).
The cool thing: by the end of the two weeks, our fridge is virtually empty. We do stock up on pantry and freezer items when things are on sale, but our fridge is always a good representation of our meal planning habits. The bonus is: we hardly waste any food at all.
I actually enjoy the process of writing our shopping list and planning out our meals. Jon and I sit down on Thursday night and write our shopping list together. (I really love that this is a joint effort in our house.) We pick out the meals that we want to cook, I write down the ingredients that we need for the meals while Jon goes through the fridge and pantry to see what we still have or what needs to be restocked.
We’ve also gotten pretty good at planning meals (and buying accordingly) to produce as few “odd leftovers” as possible. If I buy a big bag of kale, for example, and will only use half of the bag in one meal, you can be sure that there is another dinner on the meal plan that includes kale (or I will just add it to another meal – flexibility is key here).
When we first started meal planning, we were on a weekly schedule and we’d plan 4-5 meals per week to leave some room for flexibility like eating leftovers, eating out, or just making a sandwich if we’re not that hungry. At least one of the meals on our meal plan used to be a sort of “backup” meal that we could throw together from staples or stuff in the freezer, which could easily be postponed (or canceled) when things came up. We also rarely ever planned certain meals for specific days, but just used the meal plan as a list to pick something from for dinner.
Things have gotten a little bit more rigid during the pandemic, just because the possibility for major changes in our weekly schedule all but disappeared and we’ve kind of adapted to a more regular meal schedule. We’ve actually started to like the routine. I usually cook 4 nights per week and we get take-out once (usually on the same day). And ever since I started baking fresh bread every Sunday (maybe that should be considered meal prep?), we have had two dinners that are essentially bread with cold cuts and cheese. Sometimes we boil some eggs or make a little plate of random leftover veggies like tomatoes or celery that need to be eaten up.
Honestly, my German heart couldn’t be happier. I grew up eating bread and cold cuts for dinner and I am so excited that Jon has been embracing my cultural habit.
All our weekday meals are usually easy to prepare and quick to cook, so I don’t mind doing that after I finish with work. My preferred prep + cook time is around 30 minutes. I save more elaborate meals that take more time for the weekend. However, I must admit that WFH has also made cooking dinner a lot easier in many ways because I can get something set up and started in the afternoon if there is a need for a little more prep time.
I prefer meal planning over meal prepping, but I definitely use meal prepping strategies sometimes to save time throughout the week.
I know I haven’t talked much about breakfast and lunch in regards to meal planning. Jon hardly ever eats breakfast and I usually have staples: granola with yogurt, steel-cut oats, or smoothies. I tend to stock up on frozen fruit for these meals (so I always have a backup) and buy smaller quantities of fresh fruit that I know I can eat up. Lunch is usually something small (a slice of bread with cheese, yogurt, nuts, piece of fruit) and sometimes leftovers from last night’s dinner (although leftovers don’t last very long in our house, and it’s not because of me.)
Do you meal plan? Meal prep? Both?