Many seasoned Whole30’ers tell us that a meal planning and meal prep routine are keys to sustaining their new healthy habits in their life after Whole30. In our new #MyMealPrepMethod series Whole30 alumni, Whole30 Certified Coaches, recipe creatives, cookbook authors and other friends of Whole30 explain how they fit meal planning and meal prep into their weekly routine.

Today we’re hearing from Autumn Michaelis, the home-grown food blogger behind Whole Food For 7. Autumn is a Whole30 Certified Coach with a background in Exercise Physiology (BS, ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist), and she has coached over 1,000 people through the Whole30. Currently, Autumn is the Coaching Coordinator for the Whole30 HQ team. She and her husband have 5 boys, who range in age from 7-15. Autumn loves making whole-food eating for families approachable. Click here to follow Autumn on Instagram.

Picking Recipes for the Week

I sit down with a few cookbooks each week. The Whole30 Fast & Easy, Danielle Walker’s Eat What You Love and Michelle Smith’s Good Food Cookbook are some of my favorites. I pick out about eight dinner recipes I want to cook for the upcoming weeks, plus a few breakfast and lunch ideas. This will be enough for two weeks of meals, as some nights are just leftovers or something on the fly.

Out of those eight dinners, about three are either picked out by my kids, or are at least “kid-friendly.” I don’t do exclusively kid-friendly meals, but I do try to alternate things I know they’ll like with new-to-us meals. I will normally snag one or two of the kids to help me pick recipes, because they are more likely to eat the meals they picked. Kids are naturally drawn to photos, so they like to sit down and flip through the books with me and point out the things that look good.

Of course, sometimes when I ask them what I should make for the upcoming week, they just say, “hot dogs.”

Creating my Shopping List

I fold a plain old 8.5 x 11 piece of paper in half. On one side I list out which recipes I’ll make. On the other side, I write a grocery shopping list. First, I shop my own fridge and pantry, crossing off anything I already have, so I don’t waste money buying duplicates. Then I organize the remaining items by store.

I typically shop at 2 or 3 different stores each week to get the best deals on items. Where I live, we don’t have the stores that are popular with the Whole30 community like Trader Joe’s, Costco or Whole Foods. I usually shop at Winco, Sam’s Club and occasionally our local natural food store.

I write down each store I plan to visit, and I list each item under the store where I plan to purchase it. I even try to order the list according to where I’ll find it in the store.

Grocery Shopping

I try to shop first thing in the morning, because I hate crowds and lines. I also try to shop earlier in the day as it’s hot right now, and loading groceries into and out of the car in the heat makes me a bit grumpy.

I will typically take 1 or 2 kids with me to the store. I like their company and want them to learn how to shop, but bringing the whole crew can be challenging! When they were little, I used to have take all five of them with me, but now my older sons can babysit the younger ones while I’m gone.

My son holds the list, tells me what I need next, and then crosses those items off the list as I toss them into the basket. Even my kids love checking things off a list! Sometimes one will read and the other will put items in the basket, and I’ll just steer the cart. If I’ve got an older kid with me, I let him steer the cart while I wander the aisle. Sometimes we’ll use this time to work on skills like price comparison; I teach them how to compare price per ounce to get the best deal on items.

Once we’re home with the groceries, everyone pitches in to put them away.  We have two fridge/freezers—one inside the kitchen, and the other in the garage. It’s hard to keep that many perishable items in one fridge for such a large family. The kids help me bring the groceries inside the house and I direct them to where it should be stored.

I never meal prep on the same day that I grocery shop, because the grocery shopping trip usually takes 3-4 hours of my day, and I’m wiped out. After I grocery shop, I go do something fun or restful with my family for the rest of the day.

Meal Prepping

I don’t have one specific meal prep day, I have a meal prep rhythm. I call it, “Make Something Extra.”

Every time I cook, I make something extra. And, I rarely make a single batch of anything. I typically make two to four times the amount the recipe calls for.

If I am making chili for my family for dinner on a weeknight, I might triple the recipe, making 7-8 quarts of chili at once in my Instant Pot. After all of the ingredients are cooking in the Instant Pot, that’s when it’s time to make my “something extra.” Usually there is a moment when the recipe is simmering or roasting. Instead of using that 20 minutes of time to scroll Instagram, I evaluate what we need, like breakfast for the next morning or more homemade salad dressing, and get to work.  I also try to include my kids helping in the kitchen on a regular basis. You can read more about how I do that here.

Once the chili is finished in the Instant Pot, I’ll portion out some of it to serve immediately, and some of it to freeze. By the time I’m finished in the kitchen for the evening, I’ve made dinner for that evening; a second portion to freeze for the future; and my “something extra” for later in the week.

Almost everything cooked freezes well. With five kids, we have busy evenings and we tend to have quite a few, “oh crap” days. That’s what I call the days when I need to pull dinner together in 15 minutes. I get into my freezer and bring dinner together from extras or leftovers that I’ve frozen. This means less food is wasted, and it’s a good way to save money.

Cleaning Up

I don’t clean up as I go because my focus is on maximizing my effort and time while I’m cooking. We clean up after the cooking is done, and my kids and husband help with clean up. The kitchen isn’t big enough for all of the kids to be in at once, so we have a chore chart that breaks up the work. Whichever kid is zoned for the kitchen that week, he knows that he’ll help load and unload the dishwasher and wipe down countertops.

Why #MyMealPrepMethod Works for Me

I landed on my “Make Something Extra” rhythm based on trial and error, after my family switched over to eating more Whole30-ish as a family. When you eat how we do, you have to transition to more from-scratch meals and not as much convenience food, especially if budget  is a factor. I tried doing big day or half-day long meal prep sessions, and it didn’t work for me. Weekends are so short, and giving up such big blocks of time was making me frustrated and bitter. I would go into the weeks feeling not-rested. Sure, my meals were completely prepped, but I was tired. I had to make it sustainable for me.

I discovered that breaking it into chunks on a daily basis allows me to meal prep in an efficient way. Within an hour I can get dinner on the table, with enough leftovers for lunches or the freezer, plus a condiment or a breakfast casserole.

I recommend that people try different methods on for size. Figure out what is realistic and fits your lifestyle. There is not one method that’s any better than another; It looks different for everyone. However, I will say that with the clients I’ve coached, having a solid meal planning/prepping method is one of the key factors to long term success with changing your relationship with food!

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