I both love and despise food prepping. When done right, it can be a life saver, but when done wrong, it can be a waste of time and money. I’ve had my overzealous times, spending literally all day in the kitchen to prep tons of meals only to watch some of it go to waste. I stand back and admire my accomplishment, shown by mounds of food, and then think, “Well crap, now we’ve gotta eat all that.” And then I’ve had days like yesterday, where by the looks of it I didn’t make much headway, but know the few things prepared will be completely worthwhile, saving me time and money. As we enter week 2 of the 30 Day Clean Eating Challenge, I wanted to share some practical tips, based on my own personal preferences, that have helped save me time in the kitchen when it comes to making our meals, and have helped us eat clean consistently throughout the week. What I’ve found works best for us is to just prep some key foods, which saves me from spending all day in the kitchen, allows some flexibility in the week’s meal plan, and even allows for no meal plan at all, and saves me time when I need it most.
These tips go off a few of my own personal preferences including:
- I love leftovers, but I don’t love my whole meal to feel like a leftover
- I love to eat based off my cravings, so when I prep too many meals for the week, I don’t always get to fill those cravings
- I don’t mind a little bit of cooking each day if it will ensure fresher tasting food and I can adjust the meal to suit specific cravings, moods & unexpected activities
BEFORE ALL ELSE, CLEAN OUT THE FRIDGE
Cleaning out our fridge is one of my most dreaded chores, but so important. Taking inventory of what we have and what’s about to go bad is the biggest indicator of our meal plan for that week, followed by cravings and wanting to try specific recipes. Cleaning out the fridge also makes room for the new, including produce and groceries, and drastically cuts back on waste. Yesterday during my fridge clean out, I discovered 1 old loaf of bread and half a package of hamburger buns from Memorial Day. Both were stale, so I crossed breadcrumbs off my grocery list and made my own.
PLAN YOUR MEALS FOR THE WEEK & MAKE YOUR LIST
After I’ve cleaned out the fridge and taken inventory of what we have on hand, I set out to plan a very rough guide of our meals for the week, knowing that I’m not married to the meal plan. Things come up, invites are extended to do unexpected activities, and moods change, so I personally don’t like to plan out course for course what we’ll be eating for roughly 15-20 of our meals each week. But I definitely like to have some rough idea of what we can eat, and I usually like to try 1-2 new recipes each week. So I jot those down, add in a couple of simple protein or vegetarian meals, plan for a day of leftovers and plan for a day of eating out. Lunches and even breakfast are almost never planned out completely, but I make sure I have key things on hand for each, including a good nutritious boxed cereal, some sort of hash or veggie scramble that tastes great with eggs, and plenty of greens for salad fixings. I try to be realistic about our week’s activities and when taken into account, foods I can actually make from scratch. During slow weeks I can set aside time to make stocks and beans, but during hectic weeks I stock up on pantry life savers like frozen veggies and canned beans.
SHOP & PREP PRODUCE
Our produce will treat us as well as we treat it, so with that in mind, when you’ve come home from the grocery store or farmer’s market, set aside time to clean and prep it for the week. I soak all my greens in a water bath to get off dirt and even snails, and then lay them out on a towel lined counter to dry. A salad spinner works well too, but for large jobs I just use the counter. I rinse off carrots, green beans and any other veggies that need a good wash, soak berries in a water/vinegar bath, and peel carrots or cucumbers for snacks to munch on or juice through the week. When salad and juicing greens are washed, I shred/chop them up into bite size pieces and store. This prep work ahead of time makes the task seem all that less daunting mid week, when I would usually dread rinsing and chopping greens to make a salad. For some odd reason the chore of cooking and eating produce seems less like a chore when the prep work is done this way.
Keep in mind that sometimes, shopping for or prepping my produce happens before I’ve even meal planned. If I happen to the farmer’s market early Sunday morning after church, before I’ve had a chance to meal plan for the week, I will pick up what looks most beautiful and what offers the best value, and meal plan based off my findings.
MAKE FOODS THAT MAKE MY LIFE EASIER
Prepping entire meals, besides casserole dishes and even lasagnas, often feels like a daunting task which requires hours of strategic planning, time I don’t seem to have. So instead, I find the most useful and least resentful use of my time is to prep simple items which take up bits of valuable time and money throughout the week, and leave me vulnerable to eating crappy replacements. So I love to prep simple breakfast items, like Quinoa Granola, snacks like these Carrot Cake Energy Bites, beverages like iced tea and orange juice and grinding coffee beans ahead of time. Simple proteins that reheat well, like Baked Chicken Nuggets or meatballs, are a great food to make in batches, and I also may make big batches of grains like quinoa or freekeh, and put beans or brown rice to soak, or make pantry necessities like stocks and breadcrumbs. Like I said, it fluctuates based on our weekly needs. By setting out to make foods like this, I can also make them here and there throughout the week, as I find the time. If I wake extra early one morning, I may put some veggies to roast, or set up a crock of beans to simmer while I’m home in the morning.
Food prep doesn’t have to happen all at once, but can be tackled throughout the week as you find the time.
SET REMINDERS TO THAW FOODS DURING THE WEEK
Despite my best planning and cooking, let’s be real, some foods just taste better when cooked fresh, while others seem to get better after sitting for a day or two. I love a roasted chicken straight out of the oven instead of reheating one stuck to all sorts of bits of gelatinous goo. Roasts also seem to taste better when eaten right away, and tend to dry out the more you reheat them. So with this in mind, when cooking from my freezer stockpile I try to do my best to take out foods to thaw in the morning, or the night before, writing myself reminder notes or setting alarms on my phone. This could include meats, stocks, beans and other sauces. Of course most thawing can be sped up with a water bath and forgetfulness often leads to this method, but it’s nice to not feel so rushed.
While food prepping in huge batches seems to work quite well for some people, and is even better suited for certain processes like canning and preserving, I personally prefer to spend some upfront planning time over the weekend, make a few easy food items, and then cook here and there throughout the week when I’m already in the kitchen.
The idea is to make your time in the kitchen count for something more than just the meal you’re preparing.
This concept has been one of the most liberating and genius ways of cooking, I’ve learned over the past year. Inspired mainly by Tamar Adler in her book An Everlasting Meal, this idea of cooking came about with one simple paragraph from her book:
“It almost always makes sense, if you’ve bought a slew of vegetables, to cook more than you need for a given meal. If you can muster it, you should go ahead and cook vegetables you’re not even planning to use that night. The chapter “How to Stride Ahead” explains how and why to cook a lot of vegetables at once, then transform them into meals on subsequent days. In it, I recommend roasting because you can fit a lot in your oven at one time and the go do other things. But while you have a pot of water boiling and are standing near it, let it do you proud.”
With this in mind, a few food ideas to cook both on the stove top and in the oven.
GREAT FOODS TO PREP ON THE STOVE TOP
If I’ve set a big pot of water to boil some vegetables like potatoes, I love to dig through my fridge and find others to cook as well. Start with lighter vegetables like cauliflower, then move your way towards darker and more starchy vegetables, adding water as needed, and salt too. What you’re left with in the end is flavorful water that leaves remnants of good taste on each subsequent vegetable it encounters. By the end, if you’re boiling pasta or potatoes, these starchy foods will be well salted and flavorful, needing less butter or oil to make them rich.
If your water isn’t left too starchy, you can add some vegetable trimmings, some more salt and pepper, and simmer some vegetable stock to keep on hand.
Since you already have one pot of boiling water going that you have to watch, boil another smaller pot and cook up hard boiled eggs, or toss in a ripe bunch of tomatoes and blanch to peel the skins, leaving you with the perfect start for Scarpetta’s spaghetti sauce.
Now that you have quarts of stock on hand, you can whip up a simple soup on the stove any day of the week.
Saute a vegetable and potato hash in a big stove top batch, or even ground meat, and keep in the fridge to add to meals here and there as needed. Ground turkey or beef is great for impromptu taco nights, and vegetable medleys like the one from these Vegetable Quesadillas are great scrambled in eggs or served cold on top of salads. The possibilities for the stove top are endless.
GREAT FOODS TO PREP IN THE OVEN
Most of the yummy foods we love to eat cook up in the oven at the 400 degree range. When baking, you need to be precise with your temperatures, but when roasting, I tend to let my oven fluctuate 25 degrees and adjust cooking time from there. So if I know my oven will be roasting a chicken at 425 for the next 60-90 minutes, I’ll set up some vegetables to roast along with them, even though I usually roast those at 400, and shorten their standard cooking time by 5-15 minutes, tasting and poking my way through the process. The idea is to get bold, creative and courageous in batch cooking.
You can poke some holes in beets or sweet potatoes and set them straight on the rack, allowing them to roast for an hour or so.
Dice up squashes, onions and peppers, toss with olive oil and salt & pepper, and place on a baking sheet to cook for 20 minutes or so.
Since you have your baking sheet out, dig through your pantry and put stale bed to bake for croutons or breadcrumbs.
Meatballs are wonderful baked in the oven and avoid oil splatters all over your stove top. I will be sharing a new recipe I came up with over the weekend, which subs out breadcrumbs for almond meal, for those of you watching your wheat/gluten intake.
Again, the possibilities in your oven are just as endless as they are on the stove.
Thinking and cooking this way takes just a bit of practice, but very soon you’ll have the hang of it and will be tackling food prep bits and pieces at a time, leaving yourself feeling triumphant and slightly less exhausted.
There’s not a whole lot of method to my madness, so it’s hard to detail a set routine I follow each and every week. It’s partial planning on my part, primarily making sure I have good food on hand to cook, and partial spontaneous, cooking things as I find the time.
Some weeks I fail miserably and find myself digging through the pantry for munchies or hitting up Chipotle, a little more than I’d like. Those weeks and days are usually a result of over-scheduling though, and not a result of me not knowing what or how to cook. There is a big difference. I allow myself grace and you should too. But with grace comes an awareness that I can always do better the next week, and so I set out to get back on track, an ebb and flow pattern that I’m sure many of you can relate to.
So this is how I cook and meal prep each week. A little chaotic at times, but it works for me and leaves me feeling like less of a slave to my kitchen since I spend bits of time in it each day. Do you meal prep or cook in batch? If so, how does that process work for you and do you have any other tips and advice to share? Would love to know how and where I can improve.