weekly meal planning, it's time to get down to actually putting the meals together. Now that the plan is made, each day's recipes have been printed, and the needed groceries acquired, its time to assemble each day's meal bag.
Start With the Bags
We started by getting nine moderately sized gift bags, one for each day plus two extra. We needed the extra bags because we're doing the prep on Saturday morning, but we're planning from Monday to Sunday. That way we've got enough for the overlapping days. We also got a box of sandwich bags and a box of gallon sized freezer bags.
First, we took seven freezer bags and marked them with a number, 1-7, to correspond with the numbers we wrote on the printed recipes. We made two number 6's and two number 7's, because they are the extra days. You can number the gift bags, too, although we don't. You'll see why you don't need to, as we go along.
Prepping According to Plan
When assembling the meal bag, take the a gift bag and corresponding freezer bag and set them aside. I put the freezer bag on the counter and the gift bag on the kitchen table for easy access. Next, grab the recipe that goes along with those bags. For example, Monday is day #1 for us so, to prep for Monday I would grab the printed recipes and bags that all have #1 printed on them.
Look at the printed recipes for that day and see what ingredients need to be refrigerated and which ones don't. Ingredients that need refrigeration are going to in the freezer bag. Those that don't need to be refrigerated will end up in the gift bag.
The goal is to make cooking easier and faster the day you are cooking it. We're deferring the prep time from the day we cook to the day we prep. Figure out how much measuring and prep work you can do ahead of time, and what will just have to wait. For dry ingredients, once you measure and prep an ingredient, it can go into a sandwich bag, and then into either the gift bag or the numbered freezer bag. By putting it into a cheap sandwich bag, first, you can reuse the numbered freezer bags without having to wash them each time. We want to make things easy, not fill up the local landfill single-handed.
Also look and see which ingredients are used at the same time in the recipe. Those that can be stored in the same bag. For example, if you're adding a bunch of herbs and spices in the same step, those herbs and spices can all be combined in the same sandwich bag.
Preparing the Ingredients
Prep the ingredients the best you can. For example, chopping or grating vegetables before hand, putting them in sandwich bags, and then in the freezer bags. Canned goods, that closely match the amount you need for the recipe, can just be put in the gift bag. You don't need to open the cans. Any amount that you don't need can be refrigerated for use, later, the day you cook that meal.
Liquid ingredients aren't going to fit in a bag very well. I worry the sandwich bags will leak. In those cases you can just leave those ingredients for the day you cook, or put them in some other container. We've started experimenting with prepping sauces and dressings and putting them in small jars or used and washed cottage cheese cartons in the refrigerator. I'll put a piece of masking tape with the number of the day on them, just like the bags. So far I've not found a case where I needed to use more than one per meal.
Some cooking could be done on the prep day, if want. Be careful about that, though. Most food doesn't last as long in the refrigerator after it is cooked. Where possible, I try and avoid freezing anything that needs to be cooked that week. I don't want to spend time defrosting it the day I'm cooking, or remember to take it out of the freezer the day before.
Storing the Meal Bags
Once the prep is done, and the ingredients are sorted, put the printed recipes for that meal in the gift bag. The gift bag can then go to the pantry and the freezer bag put in the refrigerator, until needed.
That's it! When the evening meal comes long, just get the appropriate bag and follow the directions in the printed recipe. Much of the prep work has already been done so, it won't take as long to put together. If you've done the prep right, you know you've got everything to make that meal because it's already in one of the bags.
We've been doing the “meal bag” thing for about 3 weeks now, and so far it's worked out pretty well. The only downside are those days when I feel like experimenting in the kitchen. I'm not as spontaneous with ingredients as I used to be. In fact, I kind of have to “plan” my cooking experiments more than I used to. There's something to be said for being able to look at the available ingredients and put something tasty together.
Still, I think the meal bags are working out better overall. There's less stress of “what to make,” or “I'd like to make THIS tonight. Do we have the ingredients?” We know we do because it's all in the bag. As a side effect, I think it's helping us to rotate our food storage better and control our weekly grocery costs. We not as eager to rush out and buy something from the grocery store on a whim if we've already got it on hand. Last week we planned meals that only used ingredients from our food storage, so we didn't have to go grocery shopping at all. I don't want to that every week, mind you, but it was comforting to know we could.
Photo credit: Maira Kouvara