Real Food Meal Prep…Without a Recipe

This post is part of our Healthy & Whole series to inspire a lifelong passion for home cooking and a sustainably healthy lifestyle. Today’s guest author is Robyn Downs, author behind the blog Real Food Whole Life. Robyn is devoted to spreading the word that healthy eating can be approachable and enjoyable. Her new guide, Real Food Fix, is designed to put her innovative meal prep solutions into practice: check it out here. Congratulations to Robyn on the launch of Real Food Fix, and thank you for sharing your innovative strategy for real food meal prep!  

After the birth of my daughter in 2012, I was overwhelmed and out of balance. I knew I needed to commit to real food and whole living, but had no idea where to start. Between the demands of work and family, I struggled to find time to get organized. I felt like I needed an extra 6 hours just to meal plan, and those were 6 hours I didn’t have. Also, I hated meal planning.

Fitting real food into my everyday seemed completely overwhelming. Can you relate? I tried complicated meal plans, but struggled with unwieldy grocery lists and cooking new recipes each night. I dreaded grocery shopping. And I felt guilty about the amount of unused food I ended up throwing away each week. Knowing there had to be a better way, I spent several years of experimenting with different systems to cut down on time and effort, yet still allow myself and my family to eat real food everyday. What I’ve found is that simple really is best.

Instead of meal planning separate recipes each night–with ingredient lists that don’t coordinate– I’ve discovered that prepping and planning the meal parts (or “Essential Six” as I call them) allows for a streamlined process without complex meal plans and endless grocery lists. Today I’m thrilled to share some of my go-to strategies and tips to make real food manageable in real life. Read on for how to meal plan and prep without a recipe!

1 | Think of meals in terms of “The Essential Six.”

Think of the Essential Six as the fundamental building blocks of any recipe: sauces, protein, cooked veggies, raw veggies, grains + bases, and toppings + extras. The Essential Six can be combined in an infinite number of ways to create different meal types. Think bowls, tacos, pasta, salads, and stir-frys, just to name a few.

Thinking of meals in terms of the Essential Six allows you to efficiently shop, plan and prep, without wasted time or money, and to create a fridge and pantry of ingredients that go together. It also allows you to efficiently prep without cooking entire meals ahead. If you’re new to planning and prepping, I recommend starting with sauces, since they can be easily thrown together in a matter of minutes and stored for easy weeknight cooking.

There’s nothing better than coming home to a fridge full of premade sauces that you can use to add flavor to just about any dish. Here’s one of of my favorites to get you started:

Try it: Prep a big batch of tahini dressing for DIY Greek Quinoa Bowls ahead (above), then assemble during the week.

2 | Create a stress-free weekly meal map.

I find it helpful to take a few minutes to map out meals each week before heading to the grocery store. Instead of planning for individual recipes, think about meal types such as tacos, pasta, bowls, stir-frys, and salads. Once you’ve decided on the meal types for the week, decide which sauces to use, and which protein, veggies, and grains you have on hand, are in season, or that are on sale at the market.

In addition to planning around meal types, here are a few of my other go-to strategies when it comes to meal mapping:

  • Plan the most complex recipes for earlier in the week when you have the most energy.
  • Make big batches of protein, such as cooked beans, earlier in the week so you’ll have leftovers for dinners or lunches later in the week.
  • Plan super-easy recipes and leftover dinners for later in the week when you’re low on energy.

Try it: Grill a big batch of veggies, prepare a double batch of quinoa, and enjoy  Build-Your-Own Power Quinoa Veggie Bowls (above) in a matter of minutes.

3 | Streamline grocery shopping.

My plan for the grocery store or market each week revolves around the meal types I have planned. You can do the same by aiming to shop about once a week. Making the most out of each trip is essential, so here are some of my go-to strategies to help you get there:

  • Buy frequently-used Essential Six ingredients in bulk when they go on sale, so you’ll always have what you need on hand.
  • Stock up on seasonal produce, as it will be fresher and likely more affordable too.
  • Use fragile produce such as baby greens and herbs early in the week, and save more sturdy produce such as root vegetables for later in the week.
  • Keep a cooler in your car so you can grab groceries any time you’re out and about.

Try it: Next time you’re at the market, stock up on quinoa, black beans, and whatever seasonal veggies you like. Then make these Easy Southwest Quinoa Bowls (above).

4 | Put your slow cooker to work.

The slow cooker is your best friend when it comes to prepping protein in large batches. It’s especially handy for preparing beans and vegetarian chilis that can be used in tacos, bowls, and salads. Here are some of my favorite slow cooker tips:

  • Every slow cooker is slightly different, so experiment with yours to find the perfect time.
  • A 6-quart slow cooker is a great size option even if you’re cooking for just one or two people. It creates leftovers that can be used in multiple meals or frozen in individual portions for future meals.

Try it: Prepare a batch of Slow Cooker Refried Beans (above) to use throughout the week in tacos and bowls.

5 | Make prep an enjoyable part of your weekly routine.

Meal prep doesn’t have to be a dreaded chore. Here are some of my favorite tips to make it fun:

  • Schedule a time that works for you. Maybe it’s during your child’s afternoon nap, a lazy Sunday afternoon, or late at night when everyone’s in bed.
  • If one prep session seems daunting, plan two mini-prep sessions, one for the weekend and one for mid-week to break up the process and to replenish your stock.
  • Set aside a special time to plan in your favorite comfy spot. Create rituals around this time to make it something you look forward to.
  • Play your favorite music or podcast and pour yourself a glass of wine or warm cup of tea during planning and prep time. Then celebrate the time invested by enjoying the food all week long.

Try it: Put on your favorite tunes, pour yourself a glass of something yummy, and make the sauce for this Veggie Noodle Bowls with 5-Ingredient Peanut Sauce ahead for a speedy meal later in the week (above).

Ready to get started?

Robyn has just launched an electronic guide on how to meal prep without recipes: Real Food Fix. In the 100+ page Real Food Fix guide, you’ll get:

  • A streamlined, flexible process to make meal planning & prep fail-proof and fun
  • Over 50 easy-to-make, mix-and-match recipes that can be combined in a variety of ways
  • Over 30 examples of how to use the mix-and-match recipes to create real-life meals for really busy people
  • Tips for success, including how to set up your kitchen, reduce food waste, and more
  • Bonus customized plans for families, couples, and singles plus printable PDFs to stay organized

Check it out here.

Photo of Robyn by KLiK Concepts; all other photos by Robyn Downs, Real Food Whole Life.


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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.


  • Reply
    January 18, 2017 at 4:21 am

    I love having vegetables all cut up and ready to be eaten.

  • Reply
    January 18, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    I am always so much happier when I take the time to food prep!

  • Reply
    January 20, 2017 at 5:32 pm

    I could not love this post more. Thank you!

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