We may have the best intentions to cook ourselves a nice meal, but after a long day at work, it can be challenging to find the time and energy. Planning the night before can go a long way. Hear what best-selling author Sandi Richard had to say about meal prep for individuals and families on the go!

SDTC: What are the 5 essential things we need to stock up on when we hit the grocery store?

SR: Pantry stocking is so personal; however, a few essentials can go a long way.

  1. Spaghetti sauce – Alone or added to sautéed veggies, ground chicken or beef, this turns into a quick meal in minutes and is often a hit with the whole family.
  2. Salsa – Think of this as tomatoes all chopped up for you; it can be used in soups, stews or any tomato-based sauce.
  3. Canned tuna or chicken – Having this on hand means the protein part of a casserole is made easy if you’ve forgotten to take the chicken out of the freezer. You have an instant tuna mac and cheese when combined with cooked macaroni, your favorite diluted creamed soup, and of course, cheddar cheese! If you’re running behind and your teen knows how to make mac and cheese, then they can pull this off on their own.
  4. Pizza crust/Flat bread – A simple and fast way to use up all the leftover meats and veggies from the past couple of days and turn it into its very own fun meal.
  5. Ziploc™ bags – What would we ever do without them and their new Easy Open Tabs? It makes it so convenient for a parent to get a little prep done the night before, Ziploc™ it up and have it ready to go the following day. I am teased about how much I love this brand of bags, and for how often I use them for absolutely everything!

What do we need to consider first when planning our meals for the week?

Your family’s likes and dislikes! If parents want a successful plan, they need to involve the family in the meal planning process right from the choosing of the meals. It becomes a very easy and very respectful process (“Mommy added your pick to the meal plan, so please respect mommy’s choice too!”)

What are some great quick meal options that we can prep ahead of time? 

For breakfast, there are many options that are easy, yummy and healthy. A few of my favourites are Ready-Bake Best Muffins Ever and Almost-Instant Oatmeal. (Ziploc™.com also has a ton of great food inspiration ideas.)

Ready-Bake Best Muffins Ever

Everyone loves a great muffin, and it’s so easy to have fresh and nutritious muffins on the go in the morning. Prepare a large batch of muffin batter and fill paper muffin liners 2/3 full. Freeze them unbaked in tray. Once they’re fully frozen, toss the frozen muffins into large freezer bag. Store in the freezer until you are in need of fresh muffins! Then simply take out the frozen muffins, pop into tin, let them defrost and bake.

Almost-Instant Oatmeal

Combine 1/2 cup quick oats, 2 tsp brown sugar and a pinch of cinnamon into the bottom of small Ziploc™ brand bag. Throw in raisins, dried fruit, and/or slivered almonds. When you get to work or school, empty your mixture into a large coffee mug and add 2/3-cup water. Microwave on high for 2 minutes and it’s hot breakfast on the go!

What are your secret tips for prepping meals in advance?

  1. Take out your equipment and ingredients before you start cooking. Any great chef knows ingredients need to be out and ready or the meal preparation can fall apart. This one simple task keeps your brain organized and can cut your dinner prep down by 30%.
  2. Take five minutes the night before to do just one thing for the next day’s dinner (like cutting an onion, browning the meat, rinsing your lettuce). It will feel like a half hour saved when prepping tomorrow night’s dinner.
  3. Always have your dinner recipe out on the counter before you leave for work. If you get into a traffic jam and the recipe is out, it’s easy to ask a helper at home to get things started.
  4. Freeze flat for easy defrosting. Don’t you hate it when you walk in the door and realize you forgot to take something out for dinner? For easy freezing and defrosting, parents can package meat and freeze it flat in large Ziploc™ brand freezer bags. When meat is frozen flat it defrosts very quickly, eliminating the panic if you need to take it out right when you get home.
  5. Coffee mug dinners. Place an open Ziploc™ brand bag into a coffee mug, then fill with leftover homemade soup, stew, lasagna, or one-pot meals. Seal, and then freeze right in the mug. Once frozen, remove mug. The mug not only makes it easier to fill the bag, but also forms your meal in a mug shape, which makes it easy to dump back into a mug at home or at work for easy microwave reheating.

Bonus tips:

Browned ground beef or chicken is an amazing thing to have on hand for any meal that includes ground meat (e.g., lasagnas, casseroles, tacos). When a Ziploc™ freezer bag is in the freezer with cooked meat, all you have to do is assemble the rest of the meal. It’s a great time saver.

When I come home from the grocery store, I always repackage my chicken breasts in a freezer bag, push the air out and seal it tight. Then, I separate the breasts with my hands from the outside of the bag and freeze flat. Separating makes it so easy to pull out one or two breasts at a time for quick stir-fry or pasta sauces.

Lastly, remember it’s worth taking the time to cut more of what a recipe calls for, such as an onion or bell peppers. If a recipe calls for half an onion, chop it all up and pop the remaining in a Ziploc™ bag. That way, there is no cutting for the next time!

Sandi Richard is North America’s leading meal planning expert, three-time award winning creator and host of Fixing Dinner on Food Network Canada, American Life TV and Discovery Asia. She has written seven international bestselling meal-planning books in her Cooking for the Rushed series and has spent almost two decades researching today’s family. Connect with Sandi on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.