We’ve heard of meal prepping. We’ve also heard of menu planning. But so many of us confuse meal prepping with menu planning. Meal prepping and menu planning go hand-in-hand. But they are different processes. The skill-set and tools we use to do each process is different.
Menu Planning vs Meal Prepping
So let’s make it very clear what is meal prepping and what is menu planning. Now, keep in mind this is the way I define these two tasks. It is the way I teach my children the difference so that when I tell them to help me menu plan, they don’t confuse it with meal prepping. Because menu planning is so much more fun for them and meal prepping is so much more fun for me!
For me, menu planning is planning the meals the family will eat on a daily basis. There are 3 meals a day (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner). And possibly 3 snacks a day (morning snack, afternoon snack, dessert), depending on how you structure your family’s menu. The food served to the family for each meal and snack all goes into menu planning. If you’re a very detailed person, you might even plan what beverage the family will have with each meal.
Menu planning the easiest part of the process for me, because it’s like playing with a jigsaw puzzle. I have meals ready that I need to slot into each feeding session of each day. There’s no need to cook or chop – it’s simply moving food around on a piece paper so that the family get a balanced meal each day.
I am a strong believer that everyone has a limited capacity to make decisions every day. And if we make decisions on too many menial things we leave ourselves empty for the more important decisions. So an added bonus for me is that once I’ve planned the menu, I don’t have to think about deciding what to serve each meal time.
Menu planning can be done backwards or forwards. What I mean by menu planning backwards is that you start with the meals you want to eat and then work backwards cook those meals. Menu planning forwards involves cooking what you want to cook and then menu plan based on the dishes you’ve cooked. I’ve done both.
We can menu plan for a week, a fortnight or even a month! I started with a weekly menu plan, but I can now sometimes do a monthly menu plan if I’m organised enough. Imagine … that’s many decisions I no longer have to make in the month!
Meal prepping, on the other hand, can be split into a further 2 components: there’s preparing the ingredients to make the meal and then there’s making the meal itself.
Preparing the ingredients
Preparing the ingredients involve chopping, dicing and slicing of raw ingredients. A recipe may call for diced onions, or sliced tomato or chopped bacon. Ingredient prepping is the part of the process that I least like. It takes so long and it’s boring. But over time, I realised that many of these ingredients can be prepared well in advance and stored in the fridge or freezer for use later. This means that prepping the ingredients can be done at any time. It doesn’t have to be done immediately before the meal is cooked.
It’s such a simple idea but when I first unlinked the ingredient prepping from the meal cooking itself, it was a lightbulb moment for me. Because it meant that the kiddos can help me prep a lot of the ingredients during the school holidays. Many cooks might spoil the broth, but many little hands make ingredient prepping a breeze! So when I am ready to cook meals, I just defrost the ingredients and use them in my cooking.
Making the meal
Making the meal itself is the process that convert these prepared ingredients into a meal. This is the part that I love the most. I get to transform what would otherwise be boring and bland ingredients into a delicious meal. And the aroma that the cooking process gives off is simply divine! Smelling a cooked dish is one thing …. But smelling the ingredients during the cooking process is so much more exciting!
Once the dishes are cooked in bulk, it is time to pack them into containers or bags and stored in the fridge or freezer. These meals are then used in your menu planning (remember you can menu plan backwards or forwards).
Storing cooked dishes
There are many ways of storing dishes that you have cooked in bulk. You can store the dishes in a container as a dish or you can store them as a meal. What’s the difference? Let’s use the curry chicken as an example. We commonly eat curry chicken with rice and vegetables.
So if we stored the curry chicken as a dish, we will have a container with just the curry chicken, another container with cooked rice and another container with the vegetables to be added to the curry later. On reheat, we would heat up all 3 containers and then assemble into a meal.
If we stored the curry chicken as a meal, we would pack meal-sized containers with the meal already assembled. On reheat we simply take out a container and reheat. That will serve as one meal.
How you store your bulk-cooked dishes will depend on your family. If you have a family where everyone eats a different serving size, storing the bulk cooking as separate dishes may be the better. But if you have a family who eats roughly the same quantity, storing the dishes as individual meals would be more appropriate. You can also do both – store some dishes as a meal and others as a dish.
There is no right or wrong way of storing the bulk cooked dishes – it’s what works for you and your family.