Easy Meal Prep Makes for 5 Quick Dinners
Looking for meal prep ideas for the week? A pro shares simple tips and recipes.
Healthier, better-tasting meals are easier than you think with help from Yummly! Try it free now.
One thing to know about me: I’m pretty into meal planning. It helps me save time and money, and in the years I’ve been doing it, I’ve mostly avoided resorting to last-minute takeout. (Of course, even the best-laid plans get thrown off if my kid gets sick, for instance.) When I know I have a tricky week coming up, one with lots of events and appointments, I spend a little time on the weekend doing meal prep, cooking several things that will shave precious minutes off my weeknight dinner prep.
But the big thing I’ve learned? A little weekend meal prep makes every week go more smoothly.
Jump ahead to:
Note: The Yummly Meal Planner is available to paid subscribers.
How to meal prep
The basic idea is simple. You cook a handful of items — protein, carbs, vegetables, sauces, and/or seasoning mixes, some in big batches, to create building blocks to play with on busy weeknights. When you have some part of your meal prepared ahead of time, you can skip steps in a recipe, which will save a lot of time. Here’s how I do it:
Choose your recipes. I’m always on the lookout for healthy meal prep recipes. If I see something with sweet potatoes, for example, I’ll put that on deck and search for another recipe that uses them, ideally with different flavors. Then I can cook a bunch of sweet potatoes at once on the weekend and be ready to go. You can do this with almost anything: meatballs, hummus, quinoa, lentils, pesto, you name it.
Gather your gear. You don’t necessarily need to spend money on special meal prep bowls or meal prep containers, but you do need to make sure you’ve got enough mason jars and other airtight storage options. For instance, in the 5-day meal plan that follows you’ll need four large containers (two for chicken, two for potatoes), a small one, and possibly a few mediums, depending on how much you want to do ahead of time.
Block out your time. Meal prep helps a lot during the week, but it does mean giving up a chunk of your weekend to cooking ahead. I like to set aside an afternoon, and spend the hours between lunch and dinner getting stuff done.
Use your gadgets. Got a crock pot, Instant Pot, microwave? You can cook multiple things at once. For instance, I’ll often have a pound of dry beans or a few cups of brown rice going in the Instant Pot while something else is in the oven. And once those things are set up, I’ll chop vegetables and make sauces.
Label, label, label. You’ve put in all this effort. Take one last step and slap a label on each container with the contents and the weeknight you plan to use it. Then when you’re so busy you can barely think, you won’t really have to.
Of course, if you want to add lunch or breakfast meal prep to the agenda, that works, too.
Meal prep recipes for a week
Ready to get started? I’ve put together a sample menu for weekly meal prep, full of ideas for shortcuts and easy meal prep recipes.
One weekend afternoon of cooking
How long does it take to meal prep for a week? If you spend a few hours preparing the following recipes, you’ll be set up nicely for a full week of hearty dinners. If you’ve got the time and inclination, you can also take care of a few other things you’ll need during the week, like peanut sauce and chopped vegetables. You could even cook the taco filling ahead of time.
What’s that saying? Chicken meal prep is the best meal prep. Roasting a nice, big chicken — around five pounds — will give you enough cooked chicken breast, thigh, and leg meat to make at least two meals. Shred some and chop the rest. Pro tip: Whenever I cook a whole chicken, I like to freeze the carcass to make chicken broth later. Double pro tip: When I’m roasting a chicken on the weekend to use during the week, I also roast one to eat for dinner that night. It doesn’t take any more time to roast two birds at once!
Easy shortcut: Buy two cooked rotisserie chickens (they tend to be smaller than roasting chickens).
As long as you’re using the oven for the chicken, bake a bunch of potatoes, then scoop out the insides, add hot milk and butter, and make mashed potatoes. You’ll need around 4 pounds of potatoes to make enough mashed for two quick dinners during the week. Can’t fit both a roasting pan with chicken and a pan of potatoes in your oven? Here are options for cooking potatoes in the microwave, Instant Pot, slow cooker, and air fryer.
I always keep a jar of homemade taco seasoning mix in my cupboard — it makes quick dinners so easy. Use it for tacos, of course, but it can also be a shortcut to fajitas, enchiladas, tortilla soup, and other favorite meals. This version includes ground chipotle, which is optional but I always use it — that deep red powder provides a nice, smoky kick. For this particular meal plan, you’ll need to make a double batch.
Easy shortcut: Buy your favorite taco seasoning mix.
Recipes for a 5-night meal plan
Now that you've got the meal prep in hand, let's see how it plays out in some 20- and 30-minute weeknight recipes.
Monday: Ground Beef Tacos
I like to kick off the week with a crowd-pleaser. With pre-made taco seasoning, I can make a quick filling with ground beef, ground turkey, a vegan meat substitute, even lentils — whatever I have on hand. Because it cooks so quickly, I get all the toppings ready before I turn on the burner: I shred some lettuce and cheddar cheese, dice white onion and tomato, rinse fresh cilantro, and grab a can of black beans plus jars of pickled jalapeños and salsa. It all gets put on the table salad-bar style along with warm tortillas. Everybody assembles their own tacos (or if we have brown rice or quinoa on hand, we’ll make burrito bowls), and leftovers go into a mason jar for a great taco salad lunch the next day.
What goes better with tacos than guacamole? Making it isn’t exactly hard, but it usually calls for a fair bit of chopping. Which is why I love this recipe. Instead of chopping tomatoes, onion, jalapeño, and cilantro separately, you simply combine avocado with store-bought pico de gallo. The fresh salsa already includes all the traditional guacamole ingredients, so it makes for a fabulous shortcut.
A quick Thai peanut sauce, hot water-softened rice noodles, and colorful veggies like cucumbers, bell peppers, and carrots turn your shredded chicken into dinner in 20 minutes. About that sauce: It couldn’t be easier! Peanut butter and a handful of other ingredients go for a spin in the blender. Trying to eat low carb? Swap in zucchini noodles for the rice noodles.
Wednesday: Mashed Potato Soup
I don’t know about you, but when I picture comfort food it looks an awful lot like this 30-minute, creamy, filling bowl of spoonable spuds. To make it, you cook chopped onions until golden, add a little flour (gluten-free is fine), milk, and one container of the mashed potatoes you prepped on the weekend, and simmer. It couldn’t be any simpler. Topping each bowl with shredded cheddar and crumbled bacon adds a yummy contrast.
That soup is definitely on the rich side, so I like to serve it with something bright and acidic to keep me from falling asleep immediately after dinner. This ridiculously easy salad fits that bill perfectly — it’s nothing but a big pile of grated carrots tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, and a little salt. For so little work, the flavor payoff is huge. Pro tip: For a pretty presentation, use a julienne peeler or spiralizer. (Or just shred the carrots in your food processor.)
Thursday: Tex-Mex Chopped Chicken Salad
What is it about a chopped salad that makes it so much more exciting to eat than a garden-variety one? Maybe it’s the way those small pieces let me get more flavors into each forkful. For this quick version, you’ll use the rest of your cooked chicken as well as a couple tablespoons of the taco seasoning, which (cleverly) gets stirred into prepared ranch dressing. Toss it all with chopped lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, and cilantro — and don’t forget the canned black beans and sharp cheddar. A hearty squeeze of lime juice and a cup of crushed tortilla chips keep things interesting. Very interesting.
Just like the best grain bowls, this idea is incredibly versatile. To make it, you’ll put seasoned chickpeas and broccoli on a sheet pan and roast until the chickpeas get crispy and the broccoli softens a bit. While that’s in the oven, reheat the rest of the mashed potatoes you made on the weekend. Put the two together, and dinner’s ready. As for the versatility, you can swap in a different bean, like cannellini, and almost any veggies you like (I’d go with roasted cauliflower, myself). And if you’d really like to shake things up, take the seasoning in a different direction — oregano, lemon juice, and feta make it Greek, or pesto and Parmesan take things towards Italy.
Simplify your life with meal planning
If this little taste of meal planning has inspired you, we have lots more resources and recipes to explore!