Overwhelmed by the concept of meal prep? You’re not alone. Fear of spending hours in the kitchen is one of the most common concerns we hear from readers.
Most people have become accustomed to eating whatever’s convenient, fast, and filling, and aren’t sure how to include meal prep in their already hectic lives. They’ve come to the conclusion that in order to eat well, they have to reorganize their entire schedule to make room for time in the kitchen. Luckily, that isn’t true! Although “fast food” isn’t often health supportive, it doesn’t mean that eating to nourish your body has to take a ton of time.
In fact, with just one or two prep days a month, you can create dozens of freezer meals that will be ready in minutes.
One Day of Meal Prep for Two Weeks of Food
Last week, I talked about visiting my college-aged daughter and her request for fast, easy meals. This led to my new Chana Masala recipe and a whole list of prep tips to share with you!
First, let me assure you that even though I made two weeks worth of food in one day, I didn’t spent every waking minute in the kitchen. These meals mostly involve quick prep, such as chopping a few veggies, and then the rest is simply waiting for everything to cook.
During that waiting time, you can prepare a different meal to freeze but you could also take a walk, watch your favorite show, tend to your garden, or anything you want! Prep time never needs to eat up your whole day. It can actually be a fun way to spend time with your family on the weekends.
Priorities for Meal Prep
I had three priorities when deciding what to prep for my daughter. First, I wanted the meals to be delicious. This is a given. Nobody wants to eat mediocre food. Second, I wanted to make sure they were affordable. Prepping meals a few weeks in advance means you’ll only need to go grocery shopping one or two times per month. While this saves time, it does mean your grocery bill doesn’t get to be spread out over several trips.
A good way to cut down on costs is to take stock of the seasonings you already have at home (soy sauce, curry powder, ginger, garlic, etc.) and focus on recipes that include those ingredients. Then you only need to purchase proteins, legumes, and veggies. You can also buy ingredients that will work in several dishes. For example, one bunch of celery, one head of garlic, and one bunch of carrots will easily make three or four dishes.
The final thing I included in my meal prep priorities was making sure the meals would keep for several weeks in her freezer. When using the freezer to preserve food, it’s important to consider how you will reheat the meal when ready. For example, storing a whole batch of soup in a tupperware container might be easy at first, but then it will take forever to melt and reheat the soup again at meal time. Instead, try to freeze things in one or two servings. We used zip-top freezer bags this time, but you could also use reusable silicone containers.
For sauces and salad dressings that might be served in even smaller amounts, you can freeze them in ice cube trays for convenient portioning. Once they are frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag for easy access.
So, what did I make for my daughter’s freezer?
- Slow Cooker Herb Roast – I bought two pork shoulder roasts (6 1/2 pounds of meat) for $20, which meant each serving ended up costing less than $1. Then, I simply cut them into manageable chunks and pressure cooked them for 75 minutes. You can follow the seasoning instructions for Shredded Beef (Always Delicious page 148)
- Red Lentil Soup (Always Hungry pages 283 – 284)
- Broccoli Cheddar Soup (Always Delicious pages 256 – 257)
- Cuban Black Bean Soup (Always Delicious pages 253 – 254)
- Mexican Shredded Chicken (Always Hungry pages 241 – 242)
- Mediterranean Chicken (Always Hungry pages 245 – 246)
- Herb Roasted Chicken Thighs (Always Hungry page 241)
- Marinara Primavera with Beef (Always Hungry pages 234 – 235)
- Chana Masala
- Coconut Curry Sauce (Always Hungry pages 266 – 267)
- Ranchero Sauce (Always Hungry pages 272 – 273)
- Ginger Soy Vinaigrette (Always Hungry pages 267 – 268)
- Prepared Ginger – I peeled several inches of ginger root, pureed them with water, and froze each portion in an ice cube tray for easy use. See Chef Dawn’s Tasty Tip (Always Delicious page 289) for more info on prepping ginger.
Meal Prep Tips
Most of our meals freeze well, even Huevos Rancheros sauce. Just prepare the sauce, freeze, and add the eggs at meal time. Soups aren’t the first things people think of when they think of freezer meals, but they’re actually incredibly convenient and versatile. You can change up how they taste by adding a variety of protein options (beef one night, tofu the next). They work as a quick, one pot meal.
If you have a soup, protein and sauce made ahead then all you have to do is add some veggies and perhaps a slow carb. That means adding a bit of fruit for dessert or just veggies if your soup is already a slow carb, bean soup.
While I like to prep parts of meals, you can instead freeze whole meals that will be ready to go with a simple reheat. I find that adding at least something fresh to a reheated meal makes it more satisfying though. Even adding a fresh salad with a pre-made dressing will do the trick.
A simple, inexpensive way to prep for meals is to buy or prepare a large portion of protein, perhaps when you find something on sale. If you make it with salt and pepper, or other basic seasonings, then you can change up by adding more specific seasonings when you reheat it or as a topping. For example, the roasts that I bought will make enough for multiple meals. You don’t need to feel like you’re eating the same thing every night though. Simply keep the roast in the freezer and season it with whatever you want at meal time, or use it as a part of the meal. A roast seasoned with pesto will be a radically different meal than a roast seasoned with Coconut Curry sauce.
Another option is to use the protein as part of the meal. If you have a protein already made, just add it to a soup, a casserole, or as a side dish. Or instead, use our AH-friendly tortilla or chapati recipe and turn it into a quesadilla (Always Hungry p. 246). That’s a grab-and-go lunch that is as delicious as it is easy. Our simplified meal plans have some helpful examples of how to do this.
Fattier meats tend to be less expensive than leaner cuts. In addition, buying large portions when they are on sale will save you even more. These are great for freezing and then cooking in an instant pot or pressure cooker. The meat will become tender and incredibly satisfying, ready to soak up whatever seasonings you add. An added bonus of using one of these cooking methods is that the meat doesn’t need a babysitter! Just put it in the instant pot-style pressure cooker and walk away.
Pre-made food also means that you’re more likely to eat at home when you are tired and unprepared to make dinner rather than going out. That saves money too.
For even simpler meal prep, you can focus on preparing sauces rather than whole meals. You could easily make five or ten sauces in an hour by simply adding ingredients to mason jars, blending with an immersion blender, and storing in the fridge. Then at meal time, all you need to do is prepare the protein of your choice, add some cooked or raw veggies, and add the sauce to both. Instant meal.
What are you favorite meal prep tips? We’d love to read about them in the comments below!