I love the idea of meal prep. The neat, orderly containers, all ready to go for the week, lined up and snapped for Instagram posterity. Having everything ready to go before the week even begins. It’s like a dream, right? And sometimes, I manage to actually do it. But more often, I am not able to spend a few hours in the kitchen on a single day. Sometimes, pain gets in the way; sometimes, it’s kids who are teething or sick or just ornery; sometimes, my calendar just won’t cough up a single extra hour, let alone three.
So it rarely happens here.
And yet, starting lunch and dinner from scratch every day is daunting. Having something you know you can fall back on when there’s no time or energy is priceless. I’d like to share how you can handle this so you have at least something ready and waiting in the fridge or freezer.
Maximize the time you already spend in the kitchen.
This is something that I picked up while working in restaurant kitchens. There, multitasking is a necessity, and all the cooks have multiple things going on at any given time. At home, we can use the idea on a smaller scale to help make the best use of valuable minutes.
It doesn’t give you a glorious heap of ready-cooked food all at once, but it helps in a really practical way. Especially if you have an Instant Pot (Amazon affiliate link) or other electric pressure cooker, make a habit of using it when you’re in the kitchen anyway. Even if you don’t, keep notes on things that are pretty much “set and forget” for reasonable periods of time. This is the idea that I think makes the most difference, so I’m going to be a little more specific. Having a couple things you can use as kitchen timers is really helpful here, since you may need one for what you’re actively cooking and one for the stuff simmering in the background.
- Hard-boiled eggs. If you have an Instant Pot, these could not possibly be easier; you put them on the trivet with water underneath. Six eggs, six minutes at high pressure, six minutes of natural pressure release, then quick release the rest and put them in a cold water bath. It takes about a minute to get them into the pot and you then have 10-15 minutes before you have to deal with them again. You can make grilled cheese or saute fish or any number of other things in that time. You can make them on the stove top, too.
- Brown ground beef. This does take a little stirring, but not a whole lot. You can freeze the beef in packets and add seasoning later for tacos; throw it in spaghetti sauce (from a jar, gasp); mix with sloppy joe sauce; use in quesadillas; etc.
- Cook chicken breasts or thighs. Again, the Instant Pot is invaluable here; you just chuck them in with liquid and press a button. You don’t even have to thaw them. Do something else for half an hour or so while they come up to pressure and cook. I like to cook in chicken broth (thanks, Better Than Bouillon) and save it – then I can just add noodles, cooked chicken, maybe some parsley if I feel fancy, and have soup for a meal. The chicken can be used for tons of stuff; chicken salad, tacos, enchilada filling, salad topping, etc.
- Roast veggies. This is especially easy if you have veggies you don’t have to chop, such as small potatoes (ha!), carrots, tomatoes, precut broccoli or cauliflower, small eggplant, etc. If you have a mandoline, prepping some into strips or slices is a little faster. I like to put parchment paper on a half sheet tray, toss the veggies with olive oil and salt, and roast at 400F – but you can fiddle with the temperature if you have something else in the oven. It helps to have everything be nearly the same size. You may still want to check in occasionally and remove stuff that looks done. During CSA season I can do two sheet trays at once and have lots of delicious vegetables to use as a side, in a salad, to puree for soup, put on sandwiches, in pasta, or whatever. I’ve never had enough to freeze, alas.
- Make a quick bread or one-bowl cake recipe. These are usually simple enough, especially if you measure ingredients by weight. It makes cleanup significantly easier. Trust me. The smell will warm up your whole house, and I always feel particularly accomplished when I have something home baked to give my family.
I hope you can use some of these ideas to make mealtimes a little easier by having premade components on hand. Learning to multitask in the kitchen is a really valuable skill, and if you start out with simple things you can develop the habit without becoming overwhelmed.
Make extra servings when you’re cooking anyway.
Scaling a recipe up, for most of us, is a pretty efficient use of time. It doesn’t take too much longer to chop three onions than it does one. I’m one of those picky people who don’t really enjoy eating leftovers, so just making larger quantities doesn’t always work – but knowing how to repurpose certain foods really does help. And there are some foods that I think are just fine as-is; maybe there are a few for you and your family, too. Here, chili, enchiladas, and lasagna are all welcome for encore performances. Some other things that I don’t want to eat again right away can go into the freezer instead and come back out later. And some, like a beef roast, roasted veggies, or sauteed chicken breast, can transform into sandwiches, nacho topping, hash, salad component, taco filling, etc.
Stock up on shortcuts.
Did you know they sell frozen diced onions? They do, and they’re just fine for many recipes where there’s no need for deep caramelization. While my former professional cook self might throw in a token protest about developing levels of flavor, the fact is that many of us just throw stuff into a slow cooker or pressure cooker and call it a day. Why not save some work if you can? It’s not just the chopping time here but the cleanup of the counter and cutting board. You can also buy frozen julienned bell peppers (at Trader Joe’s, and some other stores); frozen chopped herbs in cubes with olive oil. There’s pre-cubed cheese (personally, I don’t love the pre-shredded, because it’s got anti-caking stuff on it, but I mean – if it works for you, buy it), herbed butter, mashed potatoes already made for you. I really like Better Than Bouillon, since so many recipes call for broth or stock, and I never manage to make it often enough. All of these things are of reasonably decent quality and are comparable in price to their fresh counterparts. Well, except the mashed potatoes, but if it’s your comfort food, you can justify it. At least I can.
Throw a few premade things in your cart, too.
If pizza rolls are wrong, most American kids don’t want to be right. Birdseye makes Steamfresh veggies, and offers several varieties already mixed with pasta and sauce. They’re cheap enough for most food budgets, especially with a coupon. Maybe your family likes frozen pot pies or take and bake pizzas. And don’t forget the king of this category: The rotisserie chicken. You can do so much with a rotisserie chicken it’s almost silly NOT to buy one. (At Costco, in particular, the chickens are so inexpensive they’re almost a gift.) I’ll have a separate post with ideas for a rotisserie chicken soon, but it makes a perfect dinner after grocery shopping. Everyone is too tired to cook after grocery shopping. It’s not just you. Buy the chicken. Eat the chicken. Relax.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful. I firmly believe that learning to multitask in the kitchen is a life-changing skill, and you can start small and build your confidence. Thinking ahead and using good shortcuts can save time and energy so you can use your resources for other things. Do you have any favorite tips to share?