HOW TO MASTER MEAL PREP
Putting whole, healthy foods on my family's table is Priority Number One for me when it comes to how I manage our meals. And as self-appointed Head Chef, I know how challenging it can be to cook up a fresh and balanced plate every night, especially with a toddler wrapped around your ankles. That's why meal prep is a key part of my strategy when it comes to balancing a healthy lifestyle and...well...LIFE.
As I began to write this post, I realized just how much meal prep info I have to share, so I’m breaking it down a few installments to make all that knowledge easier to digest. If you aren’t getting CultureKitty in your inbox already, now would be a great time to subscribe so you don’t miss any of these info-packed posts. Just click here to get back to the main page. There's a place to subscribe in the side bar on the right hand side. I’ll hang out over here until you’re done… Got it? Good! Now let’s get prepping!
Meal Prep Part One: Equipment
You don’t need a big, fancy kitchen to meal prep successfully. When I first started, I lived in a small apartment with a tiny kitchen which possessed a single, unreliable oven. I had a broiler pan, a baking sheet, and some basic pots and pans. That was it. Hence why I’m breaking down this list of tools into meal prep necessities and a wish list. If you have the space and circumstance to fully equip your kitchen, then awesome! But if not, you can still prep like a pro.
Must-Have Kitchen Tools
Oven – Whether it’s a Wolf or whatever came with your crib, you’re about to do a lot of roasting. My current oven is the only one I’ve ever owned that doesn’t lose heat, so I understand the frustration of having to constantly adjust cook times and temperatures. If this sounds like you, an oven thermometer is also a necessity, as it will ensure that you can plan ahead properly. (More on that in my next post!)
Stove – I’m really only saying this in the name of being thorough because…DUH. Gas or electric, four burners or six, it really doesn’t matter. As long as it works, you’re in business.
Baking sheets – One will do, but two is better. You’re looking for something with an edge (otherwise your veggies will roll off) that can tolerate high heat. You can also use the broiler pan that came with your oven, Pyrex casserole dishes, or even a brownie pan. Be creative!
Blender – I use my Vitamix every single day, whether it’s for morning smoothies or meal prep. If you have the scratch, it’s worth the investment. If not, a second-hand Oster from your mom’s basement will totally do. After all, you’re cooking for yourself, not Padma Lakshmi.
Unbleached parchment paper – While cooking with aluminum foil likely won't give you Alzheimer's, a teeny bit will leech into your food. But if I’m not going to put it on my pits, why would I put it in my toddler's tummy? I also find that parchment browns my veg much better. That’s not to say I never use foil, but parchment is my go-to.
Basic cooking utensils – You’re going to be doing some flipping and stirring, so you’ll need a good set of tongs, regular and slotted spoons, a wooden spoon, a whisk, and a pancake/hamburger flipper. OXO makes my favorite utensils.
Pots & pans in various sizes – Generally, one large and one small of each will do. I personally like the pans with a ceramic coating because they’re easier to clean, but most of my pans were $3.99 at Marshall’s when I started out so you can always make do.
Cast iron cookware – These pans are perfect for searing and browning and you literally wipe it clean when you’re done. And did I mention they're dirt cheap? I got my Lodge skillets at Home Goods for less than $15 each.
Food storage containers – Ideally, you want rectangular, glass containers that are all one brand so you don’t have to go hunting for the right lid. I speak from experience – I didn’t buy mine all at once and now I play musical lids every damn time. Costco stocks some nice, large sets of glass storage containers. Finally, while glass may be healthier, it isn’t in everyone’s budget. Any container with a lid will do, whether it’s a jar that held pickles in a former life, or a cheap Ziploc plastic container. If it can successfully contain food, then it will do the job.
Double, convection, or toaster oven – You’ll cut down on time and improve your results if you can bake at multiple temperatures at the same time. Any of the above can work well, including the budget-friendly toaster oven. A hundred bucks or less will get you a decent-sized model that not only enables you to meal prep, but can also reduce wait time when that frozen pizza craving hits. (Wait…did I just say that out loud?) Some even come with rotisserie options so you can cook a whole chicken, or smart phone apps so you can start cooking when you leave the office and arrive home to a hot meal.
Instant Pot/Multicooker – If you want to meal prep, you’ll also want to ask for an Instant Pot for your next birthday. It cooks a wide variety of foods to perfection in so little time and with so little cleanup, making it perfect for upping your meal prep game. Going shopping? Check out my guide on how to choose an Instant Pot.
Food Processor – Fat balls and certain sauces can be made most easily and quickly in a food processor, although it’s really only necessary if you also like to bake. Otherwise, you can totally make do with a blender.
Pans and Skillets in More Sizes – If you have a basic large cast iron skillet, build on your set by getting a small one. Ditto for your pots and pans. The secret to meal prep is cooking as many things as you can in a single cook session, which means more sizes = more food.
Meal Prep Part Two: Multitask Like A Boss
Now it's time to get down to the nitty gritty. What follows is a basic shopping guide and a step-by-step playbook on how to multitask successfully to get the damn thing done. I know you're busy, so lets get to it!
How I Shop
I look forward to Sunday mornings all week long. Not because I get to sleep in – I have a toddler so it’s 7am errrrrrrday – but because Marin County has its ginormous farmer’s market at the Civic Center. It's a legit tourist destination showcasing hundreds of vendors from butchers to bakers to berry farmers. I try to do most of my grocery shopping there for the freshest, most interesting ingredients at the best prices. My fully-stocked fridge makes Sunday afternoon the best time of the week to prep but I don’t want cooking to cut into precious family time, so I need to get it done during my son’s 90-minute afternoon nap. And let’s be honest: who wants to spend more than 90 minutes chopping , searing, and doing dishes?
So to keep my prep time minimal, I don’t usually go to the market with specific recipes or meals in mind. Instead, I aim for a mix of fresh ingredients that can share a stove or oven. Generally I'm shooting for one or two big batches of protein and 3-5 veggies and a sauce or garnish. I shop based on what's in season, as that generally means I'm getting the freshest, least expensive produce.
Here are some of my staples:
Proteins: ground meats (grass-fed beef and bison are favorites), chicken thighs, pork tenderloin, eggs
Sauteeing veggies: kale, purple or red cabbage, onions, zucchini
Roasting veggies: delicata, butternut, or spaghetti squash, zucchini, beets broccoli, green beans, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, garlic.
Raw veggies: carrots, celery, jicama, salad and juicing greens (lettuces, spinach, kale), radishes.
You'll notice that I grouped the veggies based on how they're cooked. I should emphasize that while I cook around what can share an oven or stove, I'm not really thinking about that while I shop. Again, I'm just looking for the freshest produce at the best price with an emphasis on what will hold up well in the fridge. With a few key pieces of equipment, it usually all works out.
How I cook
Multitasking is the key to getting my prep done in no more than 90 minutes. It would likely take all day if I cooked everything in succession, so my goal is to have the oven, stove, and Instant Pot going at the same time.
Step One: Preheat the oven(s) and divide up my ingredients
I'm fortunate to have a double oven, so I generally heat one at 425 for roasting vegetables and cooking chicken, and the other at a lower temperature if I'm going to do a roast or cook something slowly. This is the very first thing I do because I don't want to waste time waiting for my oven to heat once my ingredients are prepped. Since I do my cooking while my son naps, I will often preheat my oven right before I take him up the stairs so it's ready to go.
Next, I take everything I want to cook, spread it out on the counter, and sort it according to cooking method. So there's a pile for raw, a pile for stove top, and a pile for oven. This helps me decide what to prioritize in terms of washing, chopping, etc and which to cook first. My rule of thumb is that ingredients with the simplest prep and/or longest cooking times are cooked first. For example, sweet potatoes cook for an hour and require almost no prep, so I'll pop them in the oven first with cauliflower and broccoli, which both require only washing and basic cutting as opposed to chopping.
Step Two: Prep ingredients for roasting and get the Instant Pot going
Now that I've identified ingredients based on cook priority and prioritized them, I prep ONLY the ones that will be cooked first. Again, the key to getting this done is upping your game in the multitasking department. You don't want to spend 30 solid minutes washing, peeling, and chopping with nothing cooking. This is also a great time to pop a batch of eggs or spaghetti squash into the Instant Pot because they require almost no prep.
I prioritize oven and Instant Pot because they don't need babysitting. That means you can turn your attention to the stove and cutting board while they do their thing. Or not. If you're small household or short on time, you've already got as many as four things cooking. That might be enough for you! In that case, turn your attention to cleanup and you'll have completed your meal prep in as little as 30 minutes.
Step Three: Fire up the stove
Now look at your ingredients: what can go on that stove with the least amount of prep? Ground meat, pre-washed braising greens, or bacon are all good examples of ingredients to start with.
Step Four: Wash, chop, season, repeat.
With all of your cooking appliances working for you, it's time to start prepping the more labor-intensive stuff. That means foods that cook in two steps (think sear and roast), or items that require a lot of peeling and chopping, like butternut squash. The goal is to have them prepped and ready when your first batches of food are cooked so you can just cycle foods through your appliances.
Greens and leafy vegetables are a big priority at this point because they require washing and chopping or tearing, but they steam sautée very pretty quickly. That frees up up that pan and burner to cook something else.
Try to use the same pans and baking sheets wherever possible. I don't EVER do this with meats (why risk food poisoning?), but there's no reason that the pan you just used to cook kale can't be emptied and refilled with cabbage. The same goes for your baking sheets; just slide the parchment off, lay down a new layer, and put the next batch of veg on top.
Step Five: Sauces, dressings, and purees Once all of your ingredients are safely on the stove or in the oven, it's time to whip up a quick dressing, sauce, or puree. These add instant variety to the items you've cooked, and this is where your blender or food processor comes in. Just throw in your ingredients, press a button, and you've insured your tastebuds won't get bored during the week.
Step Six: Cleanup Since you've been recycling your equipment whenever possible, your cleanup should be relatively quick. Once everything is in the oven and your sauces are safely refrigerated, start washing everything that's no longer in use. If you're using glass storage containers, you can dump in hot ingredients to cool (sans lid) without worrying that your container will melt or leech chemicals into your food. And with the baking sheets and pots emptied, they're free to be cleaned.
A typical prep session
Now that I've outlined the basic steps, here is an example of my workflow so you can see these principles in practice:
My son starts rubbing his eyes, so I preheat the oven to 425 and do his nap time routine. When I come downstairs, the first thing I do is put a dozen eggs in my Instant Pot to hard boil. Then I prep sweet potatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower and toss them into the preheated oven.
With the oven and Instant pot doing their thing, I can turn my attention to the stove. I toss a bunch of kale into a sink full of water to be washed. While that's soaking, I slice an onion and put it on the stove at low heat to slowly caramelize. I also pop a pound of ground bison into a hot pan with some basic spices to brown.
With my kale clean, I tear the leaves from the stems and sauté it. I stir the bison. Meanwhile I slice and wash a head of cabbage. It's ready by the time the kale is done, so I pop the kale into a container and throw the cabbage into the pan. I stir the bison again and prep a bowl of ice water for my hard boiled eggs. Then I cut a spaghetti squash in half and start peeling some baby beets. In a few more minutes, the bison is done. I put it into a storage container and the pan goes to soak in the sink. At this point the eggs are also done, so they go into the ice bath. The squash replaces them in the Instant Pot. I start peeling and slicing some baby beets.
Now my veggies are done roasting so they come out and are put into containers along with the cabbage, which is also done. I finish peeling and slicing the beets, re-use one of the baking sheets, and pop that into the oven. They'll be done around the same time as the sweet potatoes.
While those things are cooking, I whip up a quick batch of Melissa Joulwan's Sunshine Sauce, then soak the pitcher part of the blender. The spaghetti squash is ready, so I yank pull it out of the Instant Pot to cool. It's now cleanup time so I throw whatever I can into the dishwasher and then wash everything except the cutting board and knife I'm using exclusively for vegetables. If I have time before the sweet potatoes and beets are done, I wash, peel, and slice some carrot sticks to be snacked or cooked later, placing them in a container of water so they stay crispy.
Now my sweet potatoes and beets are ready. So out of the oven and into containers they go. I pull the onions, which are now beautifully brown. I wash the remaining dishes, and I hear my son wake up. 90 minutes have elapsed, and the only thing left to do is put my containers of cooling food into the fridge.
In case you lost track, I just cooked 11 different things: cabbage, kale, caramelized onions, ground bison, cauliflower, broccoli, beets, sweet potatoes, spaghetti squash, carrot sticks and Sunshine Sauce.
Sound too complicated? Don't have a solid block of 90 minutes to spare? I'll be back Friday with a Plan B, plus tons of helpful tips and resources to help you up your multitasking, meal-prepping game.
Meal Prep Part Three: Plan B
While getting your prep done in 90 minutes sounds totally doable, there are going to be some weeks when you don't have that much time. That's when Plan B comes in handy.
Plan B: Prep While You Cook
If you've been following my meal prep guide, then you know that the key is multitasking. So why not put your newfound skills to work while you're cooking a regular meal? Here's the basic strategy: make something that requires little prep, cooks for a long time, and is larger than your family can finish in one meal. Meanwhile, throw a bunch of starches and veg in the oven and Instant Pot, and by the time dinner is ready you have tons of prepped food.
Meat loaf, for example, is a great multitasking meal. It cooks for a long time and it freezes well, so you can prep two pans worth, then bake one and freeze the other. Ina Garten has great instructions on how to do this in her Make It Ahead cookbook. (I use paleo-friendly ketchup on top to cut out the processed sugar.) So let's say you're making the meatloaf and you've got one in the oven and another in the freezer. For my family of three, that's at least four dinner servings of protein that I no longer have to think about. You can stop there, but you're probably going to want a vegetable and maybe a carb to go with your protein. So if you're smart, you've already preheated your second oven or toaster oven. Now you can quickly wash an extra large batch of sweet potatoes and pop them into the hotter oven. They'll be ready at around the same time as the meat loaf, and since you've made more than you'll eat tonight you'll have extra for other meals. You know what else goes great with meat loaf and sweet potatoes and cooks at the same temp as your yams? Brussels sprouts. Probably smart to make an extra large batch there, too.
Now it's decision time: you've got extra portions of three different things. Do you feel like cleaning up now so you don't have to deal after dinner, or do you want to cook something else? Let's say you decide to keep going. You throw some eggs or potatoes into the Instant Pot, and some broccoli and delicata squash into the oven. Worst case scenario, you'll have to excuse yourself from dinner to quickly yank something from heat.
Check out what you've been able to accomplish just while making dinner: you've made four nights worth of protein, three vegetables, and either two starches or a starch and a batch of hardboiled eggs. This frees you from having to cook for at least one other night that week, and it means you've got a fridge full of veg ready to be eaten.
Truth: if you're new to meal prep, you probably won't be able to get it all done quite as quickly right from the start. But while there's definitely an adjustment period, there are five key tips that will help you get up to speed more quickly.
Keep chopping to a minimum. If you can cook something whole, then do it. Not only will this save precious time, but it also makes the ingredient more versatile. Carrots, for example, can be roasted whole and served as a side, or sliced and dropped into a soup.
Keep seasonings simple. Before I roast my veggies, I generally just give them a quick toss in oil, sprinkle them with salt, and throw them into the oven. This is another trick for making your ingredients more versatile. You can season them as you please when you reheat them.
Par cook when you're short on time. If you don't have time to to do all that roasting, cruciferous and root vegetables can be par boiled for about 3 minutes. When you're ready to eat them, all you have to do is pop them in the oven or sauté pan - no prep required - and they'll cook in a fraction of the time. Added bonus: your veggies won't get soggy in the fridge.
Don't forget the raw. Don't underestimate the versatility of a snacking vegetable. Carrot sticks or broccoli florets can be enjoyed raw, steamed, roasted, stir fried, or sautéed. If you only have a small window of time, just prep some snacking vegetables and be done with it.
Don't take on too much. In the beginning, I'd try to add an actual entree (like meatballs) to my meal prep process. I ended up screwing up whatever I was trying to cook and having multiple pots still going when my son woke up from his nap. Our food ended up overcooked, and I had a big mess on my hands. Cooking a fully formed meal while you prep really only works if you're in Plan B mode, or if you have more than 90 minutes.
When it comes to meal prep, I've learned mostly by doing. But the techniques and information described in the following cookbooks really helped me up my game.
Make It Ahead by Ina Garten - Not only does she describe entrees that can be made ahead for entertaining, she also includes recipes you can mix up and freeze raw, along with adjusted cook times.
The Whole 30 by Melissa Hartwig - Not only is this your Whole 30 bible, it also includes handy charts of basic cook times and temperatures, plus some really great sauce recipes.
Well Fed by Melissa Joulwan - Consider this a best-of collection of recipes from Joulwan's excellent paleo blog. Many of my favorite sauces come from this book, and there's a whole section about meal prep.
How to Cook Everything Fast by Mark Bittman - Everything in this book can be cooked in under an hour, making it an excellent primer in kitchen multitasking. While many of the recipes aren't super healthy, I find it easy to skip or substitute ingredients.