Spending a few hours in the kitchen doing meal prep one day a week saves time and gets dinner on the table faster for days to come.
It starts the way all bad habits do. Slowly. Quietly. Until one day you realize - this is a problem.
That’s how it went with our meals: a bagel on my way to the office, a frozen meal from the store for lunch, take-out dinner from a restaurant. If I did cook, it was something thrown together using mostly processed foods. The majority of the fruits and vegetables I was buying ended up getting tossed. It was definitely time for a change.
In January 2017, I challenged myself to take on Epicurious’ #Cook90, where you cook every meal - breakfast, lunch and dinner - at home for 30 days. (Read about my #Cook 90 experience.) It forced me to start planning out meals and writing weekly menus. And doing that led to the realization that if I started cooking when I got home from work, dinner wasn't going to get on the table until 7pm or later. And in a house with a small kiddo, that's too late.
I took a step back and considered what would make the cooking part go faster. Could I prepare things ahead of time? And if so, what?
I enjoy cooking and like to spend time in the kitchen each night, so while it's fine once in a while, I don't want the majority of our meals to be made ahead of time and either frozen or refrigerated to heat up later. I want to cook with fresh ingredients the night I'm going to eat them.
Doing It My Own Way
I get asked quite often about how I meal prep. To look at the outcome of my weekend kitchen time, the results seem a bit random. Here's a couple of examples from my Instagram Stories:
For me, the purpose of meal prep is to (1) help weeknight dinners come together quicker, and (2) provide me with flexibility. Taking the time to meal prep makes me my own prep cook.
I set aside 2-3 hours every weekend to meal prep. I start by planning out our dinner menu for the coming week, and then base my meal prep on what would help speed up cooking the dishes for that week’s menu.
What veggies need to be chopped for each dish? Can any sauces be made ahead of time? Does anything need to spend a lot of time in the oven? If so, can I make that dish in advance? (e.g. Make the pan of enchiladas or lasagna over the weekend so I only have to bake them the night we’re going to eat them.)
Sample Menu and Prep Work
Here’s an example of how I meal prep for dinner all week.
Over the weekend:
- Make roasted tomato sauce
- Roast 2 bulbs of garlic
- Roast 2-3 cups of veggies
- Make 3-4 cups of mashed potatoes
- Grate 1 cup of Parmesan cheese
- Slice 2 onions and 2 bell peppers into strips
There definitely doesn’t seem like a meal anywhere in all that effort, but here’s how it comes together.
Meal 1: Pasta with peas and garlic bread
That night: Cook pasta. Heat up some frozen peas. Make some garlic butter and spread it on the bread. Broil the bread until the butter is bubbly and starting to brown.
From the meal prep supply: Toss the roasted tomato sauce with the cooked pasta and peas. Stir in ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese and heat on low until everything is hot and cheese is melted. Mash a few cloves of roasted garlic into 2-3 tablespoon softened butter to make the garlic butte
Meal 2: Chicken fajitas
That night: Slice a couple of chicken breasts into strips and cook in a skillet with taco seasonings. Warm up tortillas.
From the meal prep supply: Cook the sliced onions and bell peppers in the skillet with the chicken. Serve cooked chicken and veggies with warm tortillas, shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, and any other fixing you'd like.
Meal 3: Grilled bratwurst with rice and veggies
That night: Make a pot of white or brown rice. Grill sausages.
From the meal prep supply: Heat up half of the roasted veggies and fold them into the cooked rice. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
Meal 4: BBQ chicken with mashed potatoes and corn
That night: Grill some chicken, basting with your favorite store bought BBQ sauce. Heat up frozen corn.
From the meal prep supply: Warm up the mashed potatoes.
Meal 5: Veggie Pasta
That night: Cook pasta.
From the meal prep supply: Heat up the remaining roasted veggies and toss with hot, cooked pasta, 1-2 tablespoon of butter or olive oil and the remaining ½ cup of Parmesan cheese.
And that’s dinner Monday-Friday!
Chances are pretty good that there are leftovers from the week’s meals, so a meal of leftovers becomes Meal 6. I often do a sandwich night (PB&J! Grilled cheese!) for Meal 7 to give myself a night off from cooking.
What I like about this method is that nothing is locked in. Swap steak or shrimp for the chicken in the fajitas. Or make BBQ pork chops instead of chicken. Use any frozen veggies you like.
This is about getting a home cooked meal on the table quickly and easily. And if I can do it, you can do it. 🙂