Updated: Aug 2, 2019
In my post about calendar blocking, I mentioned that I meal prep in order to save myself some time throughout the week, and I got a request to expand on that, so that’s what we’re doing today. I hope you've got a snack, because this is a long one.
Meal prepping is a surprisingly broad topic. Personally, I’ve found that the specific variety of meal prepping that I see most often—the one where a week’s worth of full meals is prepped at once, usually on Sundays—doesn’t really work for me. As with everything else, it’s important to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.
One type of meal prep won’t work for everyone. A lot of what we’ll cover today will probably sound a bit different from a lot of the meal prepping advice that’s out there, and that’s my goal. Meal prepping is great, but it isn’t one-size-fits-all. By exploring and experimenting with different ideas and strategies, you’ll be able to find something that works for you.
What I’ve found for myself personally is that I don’t like to eat the same thing every day, and even though it’s more time consuming, cooking is one of my hobbies so often I do want to cook. Because of this, I’ve tweaked my meal prep approach to work for myself and my lifestyle. Rather than preparing a full week of meals at once, I keep food rotating in and out of my fridge frequently so that I typically have three options: cook from scratch, assemble something new from already prepared components, or eat a fully prepared meal.
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Fully Prepared Meals
One of the few meals that I do prep on occasion is beans and rice. For that, I love my Instant Pot because then I don’t have to remember to soak the beans ahead of time.
Beans and rice are so simple and versatile that I can switch it up a bit each time and not end up bored before Wednesday. There are lots of options for what type of beans to use—I like pinto and black beans—and it’s hard to go wrong with seasonings. I typically use chili powder, cumin, onion, and garlic.
Throughout the week, I can add different toppings to my beans and rice to bring more variety to my meals. I often add avocado, but really you could add lettuce and make it a salad, or corn, salsa, and red onions, or whatever else you find in your fridge that sounds good.
Aside from beans and rice, most of my “meal prepped” food is just intentional leftovers. Rather than one big meal prep on Sunday, I’ll cook two or three times throughout the week and make a couple of extra servings that I store in individual portions to reheat later.
Soup reheats well and often improves after some time in the fridge, so it’s one of the best options when it comes to making extra. It’s also easy to prep sushi bowls in this way. Just prepare extra rice, cut extra vegetables and simply assemble them when you’re ready to eat.
I also prepare extra of my side dishes so that I have leftovers to eat later. Most often, this comes in the form of a giant tray of roasted vegetables, but I also often prepare extra rice or other grains.
Prepping snacks can also be helpful. I know that it’s possible to buy single-serving containers of most foods, but I can do without the excess packaging, so I often buy the regular size and portion out what I want into small reusable containers. This is great if I want to take a snack with me on an adventure instead of stopping somewhere for food, and it also prevents me from inhaling 1000 calories worth of cashews at once, which is a thing I am definitely guilty of.
Most of what I covered in the previous section probably isn’t news to anyone. Cool, you made leftovers. Big whoop, Abby. Well, buckle in because this next bit isn’t something I see often.
Meal prepping is less daunting and more varied if you just prepare some of the components of a dish, rather than the entire thing. If you don’t like the idea of eating the same thing every day, but still want to save time in the kitchen, this is the angle from which you should approach the whole meal-prep thing.
I mentioned in this post the other week that I make some of my own condiments. I know that sounds overwhelming at first, but it’s way easier than you’d think. These quick pickled red onions come together in ten minutes—five if you’re decent with a knife.
This type of thinking is what I use when I approach meal-prepping. What components of a dish could I prepare ahead of time so that I can assemble it in five minutes later in the week?
One of my favorite answers to that question is pesto! I personally love this recipe. If you can grow your own basil, or get some from someone with a garden (thanks, again, mom!), pesto isn’t too expensive and comes together in fifteen minutes with a food processor.
From there, I put the pesto into ice cube trays and freeze it into cubes. After the cubes are frozen, I stick them all in a container and keep it in the freezer. Then I can make pesto pasta any time I want, and all I have to do is boil the pasta, drain it, throw a couple of pesto cubes in the warm pasta, and stir it until they melt. So easy, so delicious.
This approach to pesto means that I have food that is prepped ahead of time, but not in the traditional sense of meal-prepping. It saves me a lot of time in the kitchen, but I don’t necessarily have to eat the same thing all week, or even have any idea when I’m going to have pesto pasta, but it’s there if I decide I don’t really want to cook.
Another condiment-like food that I like to prepare ahead of time is this nacho cheese. Yes, it’s vegan, but it’s delicious. Even if you aren’t vegan, give it a whirl because it’s definitely better for you than the processed orange crap from the store, and this takes fifteen minutes to make. Plus, hidden vegetables.
That nacho cheese is handy because it can be combined with beans (also prepped in advance), corn, tofu, or any number of other things to make nachos, enchiladas, or any other thing that tastes good covered in cheese.
If you’ve never had homemade croutons, they’re a billion times more delicious than the sad bread cubes from the store, they’re super simple to make, and they keep for quite a long time. Just cut up a loaf of bread that went stale, toss it with a bit of oil and some seasonings—salt and pepper are fine if you still feel intimidated by the spice drawer—and bake the cubes at 350°F until they’re golden, about fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally.
Speaking of frozen pesto cubes, don’t forget about your freezer. I love prepping food and freezing some of it because then it’s ready when I want it, but I don’t have to eat it immediately and end up tired of it. Burritos freeze well, as do soups. If you make an extra serving or two whenever you cook and freeze them, before long you can amass quite a few different meal options that are ready and waiting for you in the freezer.
Be forewarned that not all food freezes well. Don’t try to freeze a cucumber, or really any vegetables meant to be eaten raw. Potatoes also don’t freeze well, in my experience. On the other hand, some things, like tofu, are better after they’ve been frozen.
One of my favorite ways to meal prep is to prepare certain components of a dish ahead of time, but leave the assembling for the day of. For instance, if I know I want to make sandwiches with tempeh bacon, I’ll prepare that ahead of time so that when I do want a sandwich, everything is ready to go and I just have to assemble it.
Chopping vegetables ahead of time can be a huge time saver throughout the week. Since marinades work better the longer they sit, throwing food into a marinade on Sunday so it’s ready to cook and eat on a weeknight is also a great idea. Basically, the more of your mise en place that you can handle ahead of time, the more quickly you’ll be able to make food during the week.
One of my favorite prep-like strategies that I only recently started using is to make creative use of leftovers. If you’re looking for inspiration, Lauren at Hot For Food is a master at this. Check out her “Recipe?!” videos.
Leftovers don’t have to be eaten as they are. Recently, I had some leftover massaged kale that I had intended to eat as a salad, but I wasn’t in the mood for salad and the kale was looking a little sad, so I upgraded it and made white bean and kale soup. Because the kale was already washed and torn into small pieces, this cut down on my soup-making time, as did—you guessed it—my Instant Pot.
Rather than seeing leftovers as a meal, see if you can find a way to use them as a component in a new dish. Could you throw those roasted vegetables in a soup or salad? Use that leftover rice to make fried rice? Thinking outside the box gives new life to leftovers and offers a flavor boost to whatever you’re making.
Cooking from Scratch
I know, I know. This is about meal prepping, why are we talking about cooking from scratch? Because I often do cook from scratch, and there are a surprising amount of meals you can make from scratch in just a few minutes, but I’ll keep it short.
There are some foods that don’t need to be prepped in advance and still make for a quick and easy meal. One of my go-tos is a baked russet or sweet potato. Wash it, stab some holes in the skin so it doesn’t explode, coat it with oil and salt if you’re feeling fancy, and stick it in the oven at 400°F for an hour or so. Bam. Potato. Top it with whatever you find in the fridge—salsa, broccoli, sour cream, red onion, corn—and you’ve got a meal that took five minutes to prepare.
I have a short mental list of meals that I can typically throw together in a few minutes using things that I often have on hand, even if nothing is prepared ahead of time. Miso soup is quick and easy, I can usually throw together some sort of taco, and stir frys are fast, even if I have to spend a few minutes cutting vegetables. Also, rice only takes seven minutes in an Instant Pot.
Since it can be difficult to see how some of these tips can come together to create fast, easy, and delicious meals, here are some examples of things that can be prepped partially or completely ahead of time that I eat often as well as how I’ve incorporated them into my life:
Beans and rice:
This is my go-to if I need to pack my lunch for whatever reason. It’s easy to travel with, reheats well, quick to make, and I can mix it up so I don’t get bored. Paired with a piece of fruit and some nuts or pretzels, it makes an easy lunch that takes thirty seconds to put in a lunchbox in the morning.
I personally know that I will never and have never had the desire to prepare my lunch in the morning, so it needs to be prepared ahead of time. This is about the only time I do a true meal prep, make everything on Sunday, and box it up to eat throughout the week.
Before I got my beloved Instant Pot and could make beans quickly, I meal prepped a lot of sushi bowls. I like mine with cucumber and avocado, so I’d prepare the rice ahead of time and divide it into containers, and add the cut up cucumber. Then in the morning, I cut up half an avocado and add it to the bowl, along with some nori, sesame seeds, and soy sauce.
Sushi bowls take a bit more prep in the morning, but it’s still less than five minutes. Sushi rice also only keeps for a couple of days, so sushi bowls require a second prep half way through the week to make more rice if you want to eat them every day. All in all, delicious, but not quite as easy as beans and rice. (If you're confused about the rice thing, sushi rice is a different type of rice than basmati rice, which is what I make with the beans. Basmati rice lasts all week in the fridge. Sushi rice gets crunchy and gross after a couple of days.)
Soylent and protein powder:
Sometimes, preparing food is just out of the question. Soylent is a nutritionally complete drink that you could live on if you really wanted to. It comes in a variety of flavors, some including caffeine if that’s your vibe, and in both a liquid form and a powdered form that just needs to be mixed with water.
During my busiest times at school, Soylent was a lifesaver. It made a quick and easy lunch that I could throw in my bag on my way out the door. I’d also mix it with protein powder to drink as my breakfast on my way from the gym to work when I did the 9-5 thing. Soylent also made an easy meal on the road when my fiance and I went on a seven-week-long road trip last summer.
If Soylent appeals to you, this referral link will get you $10 off, and this gets you $20 off of my favorite protein powder. Neither of these links are sponsored; they’re given out to people who purchase the products, and I really do use Soylent and protein powder in my day-to-day life. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea/Soylent, but if it sounds like it may work for you, give it a shot. Soylent is a huge timesaver for me.
Mashed potato bowls:
Similar to the baked potato I mentioned above, mashed potato bowls are easy to throw together. The mashed potatoes can be prepped ahead of time and reheated, or use instant mashed potatoes if you really don’t want to cook. I love to top mine with mushroom gravy (also meal-preppable), corn, and veggie chicken nuggets.
Seriously, the easiest meal to throw together with whatever you have in the fridge. I typically don’t prep it, but I usually have seitan, tempeh, or tofu that I can throw in a pan with whatever vegetables I have and some sauce. Sometimes I use a premade sauce, but often I just throw together soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sugar, and rice wine vinegar.
Served with rice, which I usually have in the fridge, or noodles, which cook in just a few minutes, stir fry is a great way to both clean out your fridge and have dinner ready in less than twenty minutes.
I eat so many roasted vegetables throughout the fall and winter. I love sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli, but you could throw in carrots, squash, cabbage or any other vegetable that you have on hand. Cut everything into pieces, throw it on a baking tray, drizzle it with oil, salt, and pepper, and roast it at 425°F for 35-40 minutes, flipping everything half way through.
Roasted vegetables keep well all week and can be used as a side for pretty much anything. If you use frozen, pre-chopped vegetables, the prep time is about three minutes, and spice blends—I love cajun seasoning—can mix up the flavor of your veggies with zero extra effort.
The components for tacos and nachos, like beans, red onion, and chopped lettuce and tomato, can be meal prepped, which means they’ll only take a few minutes to heat and assemble when it’s time to eat.
Enchiladas and burritos, on the other hand, can be fully prepared ahead of time. Enchiladas are surprisingly easy. Chances are, your favorite filling—I like black beans and corn—can be made in ten or fifteen minutes. Then just stick it in some tortillas, roll ‘em up, coat it in enchilada sauce, and bake it until they’re warm through. They’ll keep throughout the week and are easy to pull out and heat up at meal time.
Burritos freeze quite well. If you like Chipotle, the ingredients they use in all of their recipes are listed on their website. Make your own version of your favorite burrito fillings, assemble the burritos, wrap them in foil, and freeze them. The frozen burritos can be reheated in the oven in the foil, leaving you with an easy meal that takes no time to make, and pretty much zero cleanup.
I love couscous because it takes five minutes to make. It makes an easy side dish, or it can be topped with some other food that you make. I always have some on hand for when my meal just feels like it’s missing something and I don’t want to take the time to make rice or some other grain.
Soup is one of the easiest foods to make and one of the hardest to mess up. I often make white bean and kale soup, and chili. Miso soup takes about five minutes to throw together from start to finish. Mushroom and wild rice soup is also quite easy and will make you feel like a fancy chef when you taste it.
My Instant Pot is amazing for soup, especially anything involving beans. I can make the beans in the Instant Pot in forty minutes or so, and then just switch to the saute setting before throwing in all of the other vegetables, proteins, grains, and spices.
Also, if you want to change your soup game forever, Better Than Bouillon seriously is a life-changer. That stuff is amazing. It’s so much better than bouillon cubes or the boxes of premade broth or stock. With Better Than Bouillon as your soup base, it’s difficult to make a bad soup.
One of the best things about soup is that it often gets better as it sits and the flavors have time to draw together. This means your meal prepped soup will probably be even better on Wednesday than it was on Sunday. If cooking intimidates you, soups are a great place to start.
If you want to, you can prep your smoothies by putting all of the ingredients into a container and into the freezer until you’re ready to make it, but I typically don’t bother. I do, however, keep frozen bananas on hand at all time. Make sure you peel them before you freeze them. Peeling a frozen banana is not a fun time. Ask me how I know.
I also keep frozen fruit and spinach—which is cheaper than kale and just as good for you, kale just has better PR—around at all times. With all of the ingredients ready and waiting, it’s easy to throw a banana, plus some greens, fruit, soy milk or fruit juice, and protein powder in the blender and have a smoothie in a few minutes.
Sure, cereal is great, but oatmeal is underrated. It’s typically much healthier for you than most cereals, and you can switch up the flavors in any way you want. Plus, it feels a bit less like a depression meal than cereal does, without much more effort.
My go-to oatmeal toppings are a banana, maple syrup, and vanilla soy milk, but it’s hard to go wrong when it comes to oatmeal. Apples, blueberries, cinnamon, brown sugar, chocolate chips, peanut butter, the list is endless. I’ve even heard of people making savory oatmeal. Just pick some of your favorite flavors and stick them in a bowl of oats. It’ll probably be pretty great, and it takes five minutes from start to finish.
A Real World Example
Real life isn’t always as perfect as those pretty stacks of meal-prepped food we often see online. To bring this really down to earth and show you what it looks like in my life, here is what I could do with the food in my fridge right now if I were to make a meal.
Fully Prepared Meal:
If I didn't want to cook anything at all, I could eat the one remaining serving of the leftover white bean and kale soup that I made the other day. I also have one container of black beans and rice that I stuck in the freezer at some point. I don’t have much else going on in the way of fully prepared meals right now, unless you count the frozen dumplings that I definitely didn’t make myself.
As far as pre-prepped meal components go, I have pesto, quick pickled red onions, rice, spaghetti sauce (in a jar), and probably other stuff that I’m forgetting about. With those components, I could cook up some tempeh or TVP (a.k.a. textured vegetable protein) quickly and throw together some tacos, or I could make a stir fry and pair it with the rice, or just cook up some pasta and pair it with either the pesto or the spaghetti sauce.
Having pre-prepped meal components gives me the flexibility to make whatever I’m craving at the moment, but without going to all of the effort of making pesto, or onions, or rice, or whatever. It doesn’t eliminate cooking time completely, but it cuts it down quite a lot.
Cooking From Scratch:
As someone who loves to cook, and lives with someone who loves to cook, we’re always well stocked with plenty of dried grains and beans, sauces and condiments, seitan, tempeh, tofu, TVP, and plenty of vegetables, both fresh and frozen. My options for cooking from scratch right now would be limited only by my imagination and how much time I have.
I could go all out and spend the day making bread and have the world’s best marinated tempeh and quick pickled cucumber sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries and aioli for dinner, or I could make a yellow coconut curry using just what’s on hand and have it finished in twenty minutes.
I know it isn’t feasible, or desirable, for everyone, but keeping an array of pantry staples on hand gives me the freedom to cook quite a wide variety of meals that take anywhere from five minutes to five hours, depending on my mood.
As with anything else, finding a meal prep system that works for you is going to involve both a lot of trial and error, and a lot of practice. Some things won’t work out, but the more you try different styles of meal prep, the more you’ll be able to figure out what strategies are useful for you and what isn’t working. It will be worth it in the end.
Don’t worry too much about getting locked into a meal prep style or plan. How, when, and what I eat changes often depending on my schedule, my energy levels, my mood, the weather, and a dozen other things. I’ve ranged from doing the traditional full Sunday meal prep to preparing absolutely nothing at all ahead of time.
Expect the first few weeks to involve a lot of testing things out. Don’t be afraid to have fun and play around. Meal prepping is great to save time during the week, but there’s a lot to be learned when it comes to food, and stepping outside of your comfort zone to experiment and learn new skills is going to ultimately be much more valuable than having perfectly prepared meals every week.
I’m able to use this kind of flexible meal prep because I have a solid foundation of cooking knowledge that lets me play around with ingredients and make food quickly and easily without a recipe. Learning kitchen basics is an immeasurably valuable skill. Food preparation is rarely an exact science. It’s more of an art that needs to be practiced, but that practice will save you time and effort in the long run, if you want it to.
If being in the kitchen intimidates you, there are a lot of great resources you can use to start learning your way around. Some of my favorites are Mind Over Munch, /r/cooking, The Domestic Geek, and /r/mealprepsunday. I’m also more than willing to share what I know, so I’m always open to any food-related questions that you have. Good luck, and don't be afraid to experiment in the kitchen!