Easy Ways to Hack Your Meal Prep
Monday through Friday I'm busy. Like busssssssayyy. So, needless to say, when the weekend comes around, the last thing I want to do is spend a bunch of time slaving away in the kitchen. It's just not on my priority list. And, if you're reading this article, my guess is you're looking for the best and easiest ways to streamline your life as well. Because, really, who isn't? If I could work smarter, I wouldn't have to work harder. That's my motto, ladies (and gentlemen)!
So let's talk about meal prep. What do you immediately think of? Dishes piling up in the sink? Tons of chopping, slicing & dicing? Long grueling hours looking in on the oven, waiting for things to cook? That's fair - because I think of that, too. But, life doesn't have to be that way. So, let's talk about some easy ways to create food for the week. Keep in mind: there is no right or wrong way to meal prep. These are just ways that work for me.
Make a grocery list and a meal plan.
You can't go into each week blind. You don't even want to go into meal prepping without a solid concrete plan. I find that the easiest way to meal prep is to start with a solid grocery list. I usually use the same grocery list each week because I'm a boring eater and I usually get the same things. Even if you like a large variation in your daily foods, I'm going to guess that you usually go back to some solid classics. That's where meal prep comes in. If I start from the same list each week, I know exactly how much I go through each week, so I know how much to buy. There is nothing worse than buying too much/too little food. If you're constantly changing your grocery list, then you can't keep a concrete count on how much food you'll need for the week.
If you're stuck on where to begin, I love some of these pre-made planning sheets, or you could easily create your own. Start with the fresh fruits and vegetables. Then, add your proteins (Do you like chicken, fish, beef?) Then add your pantry staple items, such as rice, quinoa, or baking ingredients. If you're more into grab-and-go foods, then make a pass through your frozen foods aisle. Contrary to popular belief, foods are frozen at the peak of their freshness, which means that they are a great choice if you don't want to get fresh. This is especially important if you're getting fruits that are out of season (such as berries). You can also leave these vegetables or fruits in your freezer until you're able to get to them. This makes them much more affordable if you're buying in bulk. It also makes the perfect ingredients for smoothies.
Lastly, you should include some pre-packaged items as snacks. I'm a big fan of Thunderbird bars, as well as RX Bars, for quick grab and go snacks. These should be the last things on your list, because you want to be eating as much whole food as possible. The less that you can eat from a box or package, the better.
All of these items should have a purpose for the week. This is where your meal plan comes in. There are several different ways to meal prep:
Batch-cooking: This is my personal favorite way to prep. I make large batches of everything and mix and match throughout the week. This is the perfect choice for the person who gets bored easily of the same meals and wants a little bit of variety.
Make-ahead meals: This is what people generally think about they think of meal prep. This is a great option if you don't get tired of the same thing or you need to grab and go from the fridge.
It's important to know what kind of person you are and what your time restraints are. For me, personally, I'm a batch-cooking loving human. I don't like to eat the same things, and I like to have all my food ready. Not to mention, I'm commonly eating out of my car or in a place where there isn't a microwave handy. If you know how you want to prep, you'll know what to prep.
Hack #1 - Buy your food pre-prepped.
It's really not that much of a hack as much as it is just smart thinking. Or really, cutting corners when you can. Like I said previously, if you can buy in bulk, do it - it is the most cost-effective option. But, buying in bulk usually means that you're left with more than you need. Buying food frozen means that it won't go to waste each week and will be ready and available when you are. But, the best part about frozen food? It's pre-prepped. Sure, a bag of frozen diced butternut squash might be slightly more expensive than the squash on the produce shelf, but consider this. How effectively can you wield a knife? (Spoiler alert: 10/10 will cut hand off.) How long will it take you to remove the skin, scoop out the seeds, and dice the squash? And then bake it? What is your time worth? For me, the impending cost of the emergency room visit far outweighs the slight extra that a bag of frozen squash costs. The same goes for other frozen fruits and vegetables, such as: broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peas, and corn.
Schedule the time & make the most out of it.
Start with the items that take the most cooking time (for me, this is usually baked sweet potatoes). If you can put more than one item in the oven at the same cooking temp, do so. While those items are cooking, start prepping other items for your steamer or Instapot. Items like rice and quinoa can be made in batches and left to a timer. While all of this is cooking, prep any ingredients to use later in the week (these come in handy for quick ready-to-cook meals during the week!). This is a good time to prepare foods for snacks during the week, such as chopped vegetables or nuts, that can be portioned out for later in the week.
Hack #2 - Cook on autopilot
I can't say enough good times about my steamer and my slow cooker (or Instapot!). When in doubt, these kitchen gadgets make it almost foolproof to make easy vegetables, rice, or meats. In the case of vegetables, these set-it-and-forget-it steamers mean that you can work on other items of your meal prep without having to worry about checking on burning vegetables. If you're adding meat (such as salmon) to the steamer, you don't have to worry about turning it black. The Instapot is another genius invention. I love prepping whole chickens in my slow cooker, but sometimes, I don't have all day. If you don't have one already, an Instapot cooks much like a slow cooker, but since it is under pressure, can do it much quicker! It's also much more versatile than a standard slow cooker, as it can be a rice cooker and steamer, all in one!
When it comes to meal prep, work smarter, not harder!
Ready meals for cooking.
You might not have a ton of time at night to make dinner, but that doesn't mean that you have to reheat pre-made dinners all week long. One of the simplest tasks for meal prepping is simply preparing the items to cook with that you know you will need during the week. Much like a sous chef, if you dice and prep your vegetables, pre-cook your proteins, you can combine all of the ingredients together in a quick nightly meal. It doesn't have to be fancy, but keeping a variety of items prepped and ready to cook means you can have a hot, fresh meal ready in under 20 minutes.
Consider during your next meal prep:
Dice vegetables, such as onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes for quick stirfry or omelettes
Dicing sweet potatoes or butternut squash for hashes
Sautee ground meats for quick protein adds to sauces or in salads
Hack #3 - prep & freeze your food
If you're afraid that you're going to prep too much food and it will go to waste, have no fear! Any food that you prep can always be frozen. But here is the trick. Freeze your food lying flat. The last thing that you want, after you spend so much time slicing and dicing is for all your food to freeze together in one lump. Then, a small handful of onion turns into a fist sized chunk of crying. When you freeze your food, place it in a Ziploc bag and then lay it flat in the freezer. By the next day, the food should be substantially frozen without sticking together! Once it's frozen, you can reorganize your freezer however you like. This is the perfect way to store frozen foods for quick meals during the week, smoothies, or as a way to prevent waste from too much prep!
Hack #3 1/2 - Freeze your fresh spices
Here's another thing that I hate buying because I hate when I waste fresh spices. There's just something about fresh basil that tastes so much better than the dried alternative. But, if you buy a pack of it, likely you are only using a small fraction. So, dice up your fresh spices, add them to an ice cube tray and fill with water, ghee, or a small amount of olive oil. Not only will they freeze and preserve the flavor of the spice, but you'll have an easy to use, pre-measured little ball of oil and spice that you can drop into anything that you're making!
I use this same trick frequently when I cook large batches of sauces. If you're worried about it spoiling, you can freeze the leftovers and you only need to break out however many "cubes" you need to add to dinner! So simple!
Get down with batch cooking.
If you're like me, you don't like to eat the same thing every day. To be honest, I don't blame you. So, the easiest way to prevent that (and meal prep efficiently!) is to batch cook! What is batch cooking, you ask? Well, instead of making 5-6 lunches with a side of broccoli for the week, I make a large bowl of steamed broccoli. And then... I just leave it in the fridge. Then, I can use it however I see fit during the week. It also helps me prevent waste, since I can toss broccoli in with different meals, eat it as a side, or freeze it for later! This way, nothing goes to waste! I batch cook most of my meal prep. On a standard week, I'll cook the following and leave it in the fridge for healthy staples:
2-3 different veggies (usually cauliflower, broccoli & shredded brussels sprouts)
Grilled meats (including: chicken & pork)
Sautéed ground meats (including: ground turkey, breakfast sausage, and/or ground beef)
Keeping these common pre-cooked ingredients around means that I can mix and match easy meals throughout the week, with almost no cook time.
Portion foods out.
If you know that you're going to be batch cooking, take it one step farther and portion your foods out. Invest in a solid food scale and some good meal prep containers and go to town! Remember: It might be one added step now, but it saves you so much more time in the future. The likelihood that you're going to correctly portion out your snack when you're stumbling bleary-eyed into the kitchen in the morning is slim. Even worse, if you're running late, you'll find that you don't have time. So, organize the foods that you will eat as snacks or on their own now.
Hack #4 - Invest in a good food scale
I can't say this one enough. But if you're looking to be consistent with your food prep, you have to own a good food scale. Eyeballing is not enough and often leaves to overeating. Weighing your food is also the easiest way to be consistent each week.
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Photography by David Lemon Photography