Five Food Prep Tips for Beginners

It's a distress call heard in homes across America, most urgently around the dinner hour, and usually within moments of flinging open the refrigerator door and assessing the paltry contents inside.

This distress call might be emanating from your spouse or children; it might even be coming from you.

Like all distress calls, this one signals a situational crisis that can be answered and addressed—in this case, with five simple food prep tips.

That's right: simple. You might be a novice to the kitchen and even feel constrained by a limited range of recipes. That's okay. These simple tips—along with a creative boost from a revolutionary fresh meal planning tool—will help bolster your kitchen confidence and silence those distress calls once and for all.

Tip 1: Food prep doesn't mean only cooking

Let yourself off the hook right from the start. Food prep for a healthy eating plan doesn't have to mean preparing three dinners ahead of time (although wouldn't that be nice to see upon opening the refrigerator door after a long day at work?). As anyone who spends even nominal time in the kitchen knows, cooking requires a great deal of cutting and chopping. And washing vegetables and fruits doesn't trail far behind. When you define “food prep” your way, the skills you master will last you a lifetime.

Tip 2: Any time invested now will save you time later

If this sounds like another way of saying, “Start small,” you're on the right track. Even if you carve out, say, two hours of free time one week (see next tip), you might not be able to block out this kind of food prep time on a weekly basis. Shift your thinking right now in a small but monumental way: Regard your food prep time—no matter how limited it might be—as an investment you'll value later. Already, you're in a great position to commingle these first two tips. Say that you want to slow-cook a marinara sauce for later in the week, but the thought of assembling the myriad ingredients is causing you to procrastinate. Chop the fresh basil, onions and sweet peppers and store them in the fridge. Then line up the assorted spices and canned, pureed and crushed tomatoes on the counter the night before. Now all you'll have to do is put all of these ingredients in your slow cooker when you're ready—effectively taking the heat off you.

Tip 3: Block out time (or actively look for time) for food prep

Time can be a fleeting commodity, so you have to grab it when you can for food prep. It might be on a leisurely Sunday afternoon. It might be on a Friday or Saturday night, while you're pacing the floors anyway, awaiting the return of your youngsters. It might even be during your weekly “phone visits” with out-of-town friends or family members. (Stirring a pot with a wooden spoon is quieter than you might think—and a rubber spatula is even better.) Expect to fall into a pattern faster than you think because prepping food for a healthy eating plan pays huge dividends—and maybe even a few compliments to the chef.

Tip 4: Choose one major dish that would make the biggest splash in your week

Admittedly, this is the ideal. (After all, tip No. 1 is still a guiding food prep principle.) But one major dish can go a long way. Unless you have a healthy eating plan idea you're eager to implement, think in terms of baking a roaster chicken, turkey tenderloins or salmon filets—a substantial dish with leftovers you can chop up for other meals and snacks throughout the week. This is food prep that would earn any beginner admittance to the “veteran” league in no time.  If you’re short on time, eating the same few meals over and over again will speed up your portioning and prep process greatly.  The easier you make it for yourself, the more likely you are to stick with it.

Tip 5: Capitalize on oven/stove time

You'll do more than conserve gas and electric energy when you piggyback on oven and stove time; you'll save your own energy later in the week, too. For example, if you're roasting a chicken, consider baking a vegetable medley alongside it. And if you're heating up your kitchen by steaming some crab legs on the stove, you might as well boil some eggs to chop up later for a salad. Don't be too hard on yourself if you're hard-pressed for ideas. You can still make good use of the time that chicken takes to reach its best, most succulent state by cutting up celery sticks for snacks, tossing together your own, inventive trail mix, or surprising your loved ones with some homemade muffins in the morning.

Reach for a magical companion

Give yourself time to adapt to the mind-set of a healthy eating plan “food prepper,” remembering that the only “rules” are those you set for yourself. Your segue will be infinitely simpler—and more fun—with Meal Plan Magic.