UNITED STATES—Cooking for many of us is something we dread, for others it’s something we love, and for those in between rather you like it or not, you have to eat so get used to it. I’m someone who knows my way around a kitchen, and while not an established chef, I’m able to care for myself without relying on others to cook for me. So the question that I get asked all the time is not how to cook a particular dish, but what ingredients are needed to cook that dish.

Yes, it may not make much sense, but the key of this column is to discuss the notion of meal preparation. Cooking a meal might seem like a task, but it is the actual prep work that goes into making that meal that leaves so many Americans frustrated or exhausted. The key is to prepare your ingredients in advance. The worst thing you can do is attempt to come home from a long day of work and jump right into the kitchen without feeling a bit of exhaustion along the way.

Zip-lock and freezer bags should become your best friends. They are vital to keeping things organized, plus they help with the storage of your food items. There is nothing worse than looking at a fridge of food having no idea where what is or what you plan to do with eat (beyond eat). With meat that you’re NOT planning to use right away, freeze it. However, be certain to ensure you properly portion things out so that you’re not cooking more than you have to. This is vital when you’re talking about things like chicken, pork chops, ground beef, lamb and fish. Set aside what you plan to cook and put the rest away.

Veggies, these tend to be my worst nightmare. 1) Because they have a short shelf-life 2) I just hate seeing a fridge full of veggies and not having a clue of what I plan to use them on. Why is this important? If you don’t plan in advance there is a very strong possibility you will be tossing many of those veggies in the trash because they spoiled or got mold on them. When I start to chop up, rinse and store my veggies ideas for meals come to mind. Something quick like a stir fry or the one meal so many of us fear: the salad. A fresh salad beats a prepared salad in my book. What you pay for a salad at a restaurant or the grocery store you can easily do at home.

However, don’t simply look at those veggies that you have chopped up as something that needs to be cooked, they can be used raw, not only in a salad, but also in a smoothie. In addition, you take one day during the week, let’s say 3 to 4 hours at most, you can start your meal preparation for the entire week. Why is this smart? Well if you’re someone who has a pretty hectic schedule, meals for yourself, the kids and the entire family can be prepped and ready to go at least 3 to 4 days in advance. Who doesn’t love that?

The question that I often hear is what about the freshness of the dish? Well don’t focus on the notion of heating up everything in the microwave. That tends to happen all too often and it cooks the meal a lot faster than what should be completed. You can easily transform that frozen dish or refrigerated dish to something hot and fresh by tossing it into the oven on low heat for several minutes. Something else to be aware of is when you prepare your meals and dishes in advance it prevents you from overeating, teaches the importance of food portions and you can also teach your kids at an early age the art and the importance of cooking.

I mean you could eat out every day of the week your entire life, but I wonder just how healthy that is for the body in the long run. At the same time, if you start that meal prep after you bring fresh groceries into the home it makes things easier. When you cook the meal you save a lot more money than when you pay someone else to do it. Let’s be honest who doesn’t like saving money.

Written By Kelsey Thomas