If there's one kitchen skill that you need above all others, it's planning.

It's true, all the knife skills in the world won't help you if you don't have a plan.

Just ask a chef. Restaurant kitchens only survive through multiple layers of menu planning, careful ordering of ingredients, and the most efficient use of labor. Meal prepping goes on all day long, as prep cooks make sauces, chop vegetables, and cook food to be assembled at serving. If it weren't for prep, we'd all be waiting for hours to get our food.

Plan to Eat Better Food

If you have a goal of eating more healthfully, meal prep is an essential step. By stocking your pantry and fridge with foods that fit your plan, you will set yourself up to succeed. Hunger is coming, and meal planning is the best way to keep your hunger from driving you to order take out every night.

Most people go to the store and buy the same things over and over. If you want to eat more healthfully, or stop spending money on prepared food, you definitely need to take some time to at least jot down a plan.

Plan For Flexibility

The great thing about cooking for yourself is that you can do it your way. Do you like to keep it loose, or have recipes to follow? If you are new to meal prepping, you may want to ease into it gradually, by prepping basics for three or four meals. Plan in some variety, too. That's why it's better to make components, like cooked chicken or beans, then assemble them with new flavor profiles each night.

With this basic outline, you can assemble your cooked proteins, veggies, and starches into something different at each meal. I'm talking about stir fries, bowls, soups, pastas, sandwiches and more. For a stir-fry meal, all you need to do is toss your portion of protein and veggies in a hot pan, warm up and drizzle with a stir-fry sauce, and serve over re-heated grains. For soup, heat the prep in box of stock from the pantry, maybe add a can of diced tomatoes, season with herbs. Bowls are the ultimate prep meal- just spread re-heated grains in a bowl, top with proteins and veggies, add some crunch from the pantry with nuts or seeds, and sauce with bottled dressing. Cook some pasta while heating protein and veggies in jarred spaghetti sauce, or simply toss pasta and veg with pesto and warm through. You get the idea. Pantry plus prep equals fast, good food.

Greek Chicken & Potato Bowl
Greek Chicken & Potato Bowl
| Credit: Chef John

Doing the Math

Take a look at your week. How many days are you going to be home for dinner? Four? All seven? Write down that number. How many people will you be feeding? Remember that number, too.

Pick a day to cook. Do you have three hours on Sunday? You can get the basics done. Five hours on Friday? You should be able to get in your basics plus a sauce and a dressing, maybe even a dessert.

The Foundation: Build a Pantry

Your pantry is going to be where you plan for some spontaneity. You can make sauces as part of your meal prep, or you can buy them and have them on the shelf. You can even skip prepping your veggies on prep day and just use frozen.

Sauces: Spaghetti sauce, jarred pesto, salad dressings, curry pastes and simmer sauces, salsa, soy sauce and Asian marinades, hot sauce

Frozen vegetables: Frozen veggies are already cooked, so keep your family's faves on hand.

Pasta and Grains: keep an assortment of dried pastas—these days you can go for whole-grain, gluten-free, or high-protein pastas, so shop accordingly. For a treat, buy frozen tortellini or ravioli. Cook and toss with jarred sauce and your prepped proteins and veggies.

White rice, quinoa, and bulgur all take 15 minutes to cook.

Stocks: boxed stocks, combined with prepped proteins and veggies, make soups fast.

Canned salmon and tuna: in case you need a quick lunch or dinner.

Cheeses: Hard cheeses like Parmesan or Cheddar keep well, and a sprinkle over a pasta or veg is all you need.

Bread, Pizza crusts, and crackers: These staples make meals easier. Prepared pizza crusts are a favorite time saver of mine, just spread with pesto or tomato sauce, top with veggies and cheese, and bake.

Your Basic Prep: Proteins

Proteins: Meat, Seafood, Beans, Tofu

You know your family. Are they big eaters, or small children? For most adults, plan on 4-6 ounces of meat, seafood, or tofu per person, per meal, or ¼ cup dried beans. That means 4 people eating four meals at home need 16-24 ounces of meat or tofu per meal, or 1 cup dried beans, cooked, per meal.

For four meals, plan to cook 16 servings of protein—it's easiest to simply roast chicken, beef, salmon, or sliced, marinated tofu in the oven, then portion into four containers. Soak and cook some beans or lentils to add plant-based protein to your meals and keep costs down.

Your Basic Prep: "Starches"

Starches: grains, potatoes, cauliflower rice

Plan for 1/4 -1/2 cup dry grain, per person, per meal, or 1 medium potato or a cup of cauliflower.

Whole grains are a healthful addition to your meals, and cooking one big batch of grains on meal prep day saves time all week-long. A pot of cooked farro or quinoa can also do double duty in breakfasts and lunches—you can heat the grains with milk and maple syrup in the morning, or toss them with bottled vinaigrette, beans, and veggies for a lunch.

Boiling or roasting potatoes on prep day gives you options—you can make a quick potato salad, warm them in a curry sauce, or microwave them with frozen broccoli and a sprinkle of cheese.

If you are eating low-carb, prep cauliflower rice, zucchini noodles, or roasted sweet potatoes to stand in for rice and pasta.

Your Basic Prep: Vegetables

Vegetables: Roasted veg, par-cooked veg, cut up veg for stir-fry or steaming

Plan on a cup per person, per meal.

In wintertime, crank the oven to roast your proteins, and throw in a pan or two of your favorite roasted veggie for the week. Roasted Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, and other favorites take on a caramelized sweetness in the oven, and you can store and reheat all week.

Many restaurants "par-cook" or blanch vegetables, so they only need a quick reheat. Using par cooked veg in stir-fries makes them lightning fast.

In summer, you may prefer to simply trim and cut your veggies and keep them in zip-top bags, to steam, stir fry, or eat raw.

Your Basic Prep: Salads and Dressings

Plan to make or buy salad greens for each meal. Pre-washed greens come in 4-5 ounce bags which provide side salads for four people.

Making your own salad dressings saves money and gives you more control over the ingredients. This can be as simple as putting olive oil, vinegar, and crushed garlic in a jar to shake, or you can make a creamy yogurt or tahini dressing to last the week. You'll be more motivated to eat your salad with a good dressing. Try these easy DIY dressings:

Your Basic Prep: Sauces

While your pantry should contain jars and bottles to use in a pinch, making a batch of sauce for the week is a smart move.