11: Meal planning vs. meal prepping

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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?

  1. I do a bit of both (and actually blogged about all our food habits a while ago) but have scaled back lately as my career has ramped up unexpectedly.

    When I worked part-time, I used to do two mornings a week (2 x 2 hours) of meal prepping. I would usually prepare a meal for that current day + the next, making extras to freeze for leftovers and prepare things like homemade granola bars or roast veggies or cut-up fruit for kids lunchboxes.

    Now, I really just do things day-of, often without much forethought. I think all those years of meal planning has made things rather intuitive and we naturally run on a 2-3 week cycle of our favourite meals. I like to shop at least twice a week and buy small quantities, so it’s easy to make sure I have specific ingredients on hand and things stay fresh. I love my fridge to be virtually empty (my husband loves it full, but I typically win!!).

    The other thing I’ve changed lately is cooking things in the late afternoon. With more work responsibilities, even though I work from home I try to save all the prep (lunchboxes AND mail meals) and cooking until AFTER the kids get home. I can still be available for them, but can also get supper ready while they do their own thing. So far, it’s working really well! And I don’t have to reheat anything (I still try to make extra for leftovers and/or to freeze.

    1. I agree, all the years of meal planning definitely automate things a lot over time. I am glad to hear you can benefit from that right now :)

  2. I meal plan, although our “meal plan” doesn’t deviate much week to week (Mondays are always pasta nights, Tuesdays are stir-fry or curry of some sort since Wednesday is grocery day and I like to use everything up). I don’t meal prep, unless you count tripling pasta sauce to put in the freezer for later.

    1. That sounds like a good plan – we have a lot of the same types of meals that repeat every two-week cycle.

  3. We meal plan, for sure. It sounds a lot like your system, actually. We sit down on Friday nights, plan out meals for the week, and go to the store together. I love our Friday night grocery store dates!

    1. Oh, I love that you also plan and grocery shop with your husband. (We just plan together right now – during the pandemic, I started doing the shopping by myself so we would minimize exposure).

  4. Dinner used to be a dreaded chore around our house, but just this year we’ve been able to figure out a decent schedule. I cook twice, and make enough (even if I have to double the recipe) for dinner the following night as well. That’s four dinners. One night is takeout, one night my husband cooks, and one night we just do whatever- leftovers, something frozen, etc. We could be more organized, but this is so much better than what we were doing, so we’re thrilled.

    1. It sounds like you have a good routine down now!

  5. I think that the key to meal planning is doing it most but not all of the time. I agree 100% that the meal prep thing of doing everything on Sunday gets pretty gross by Thursday.

    I keep (or at least try to keep) the freezer stocked with breakfasts and dinners (just for myself, my family has different go-to’s than I do). Dinner is always a challenge and about the best that I can do is kind of have an idea of what we might want to eat for 2-3 days out of the week and then hope for the best. The biggest roadblock to dinner right now is having older kids with lots of nighttime activities. The only “solution” is for the kids to grow up, and I’m in no hurry for that so I’ll take our less than ideal dinners.

  6. So interesting to read. I think I knew the different between planning and prepping. I would love to do a bit more meal planning but my husband operates differently. When Covid started I drew up a plan of everything we could cook with the ingredients in the house and he could choose one because I was tired of discussing daily. It worked for a while.
    As for meal prepping I rarely do that. Only when we want to eat omelets I usually cook more potatoes the day prior because I find its a waste of energy to cook 2 potatoes. And I sometimes freeze some veggies I can’t use up and they are usually cut and ready to go. But I don’t think that really counts as prepping.

  7. So I have a different interpretation/application of meal prepping. For me, it involves doing some of the work in advance – mostly chopping veggies/meats/etc. I used to always do this when I was working in the office. We got home from work around 5 and Paul is hungry so ideally needs to eat around 5:30 so it was necessary to have the chopping done ahead of time. So I followed the prep dish approach where I would list out the tasks I could do ahead of time for each meal and I usually did that on a Sunday. In the WFH environment, this hasn’t been necessary because I can use my lunch break or can do the chopping when I get done with work since Phil does pick up and drop off about 4 times/week. When I go back to the office in January, I will have to get back to doing more meal prepping, though. Meal planning ABSOLUTELY has to happen and I do not understand how people don’t do that?? I have to know what we are eating so I know what Phil needs to buy. Maybe that is why we have so much food waste in the US? People are just willy nilly buying groceries without knowing what they will use/need?? It really boggles my mind. I’ve meal planned for years and can’t imagine going into the week not knowing what we will eat….

    1. I absolutely agree that chopping/preparing food in advance counts as meal prep (and you’re smart to do this!). I just think most people think of meal prepping as preparing ” ready to eat” meals/food in advance.

  8. You would keel over if you saw my fridge. Classic meal prepper. It’s just me. I don’t mind eating similar / the same things day after day (I take after my father in this). So on the weekend – usually early Saturday morning – I take an hour+ to roast a bunch of veggies and some tofu for lunches for the week. Yes, it stays good in my fridge for that long. I also get my breakfasts ready to go. And here’s the weirdest thing – I’ve continued during COVID and WFH. Why? Because I’m usually so busy during the day that I would forget to eat if it wasn’t prepped and waiting. And I can’t skip meals (medical reasons) so… back to meal prep and just grabbing and eating. I’m glad you’ve found what works for you though! :) Oh, and I also rarely waste food, and I almost never eat out. What can I say? I’m weird!

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