What is Meal Prep?
Meal Prep is a humble concept that's gotten a lot of attention lately. Simply put: Meal prepping means preparing meals ahead of time in order to maximize ingredients and doing the bulk of your chopping and cooking at one time, rather than spending time each day making food. This strategy can be a timesaver (and money saver) if done effectively because it helps eliminate last minute stops to the gas station before work to grab a sandwich for lunch or spare you from setting back your meal plan if you are on a special diet for health reasons and settling for the easiest option available. Planning your meals in advance and making them all at one time means that you are far more likely to actually use the food you're buying and cut down on the waste you throw out at the end of the week when your berries start to get a little furry.
What Food is Good for Meal Prepping?
There are a lot of pretty astounding numbers out there when considering how much food waste we generate as a country. Are you ready for it? The number is around 40%. Imagine almost half the food you see at your grocery store now sitting outside in a dumpster. If you're not cooking for a large family, sometimes it can be a struggle to feel like you're able to use up ingredients effectively, so timing your cooking schedule around when you buy your products and what you need to use up first is key. This is ultimately a case of being honest and realistic as far as what you will actually COOK vs what you will actually EAT, and making a commitment to figure out where you are more likely to make an unhealthy choice and be more proactive in preparing for a worst case scenario.
There are certain ingredients that are of course going to be a little hardier and stand up to being refrigerated better (like beans and grains), but don't let one internet grocery list deter you from giving meal prep a shot if it seems like these items don't fit your taste or lifestyle. Make a list of some favorite meals you enjoy and see if you can determine any common ingredients (don't forget what you already have in stock). If you don't have a way to microwave your food or just don't want to heat your stuff up, you can still have plenty of great cold options that aren't just limited to a limp lackluster salad- like our Glazed Meatballs with Soba Noodles!
The Cost of Meal Prep:
A huge allure (or constricting factor) as far as meal-prepping goes is the idealized image of 18 perfect identical matching containers stacked neatly in a refrigerator ready to be pulled at a moment's notice. In reality, you already likely have a ton of mismatched plastic containers ready to tumble out of your cupboard at a moment's notice. Sure, it might not feel necessarily glamorous storing a future supper Cool Whip container, but that doesn't make your effort to plan ahead of any less impressive. Go you! If ugly containers are a serious deterrent for you, finally get around to recycling what you have lying around that you're never going to actually use and invest in some quality glass containers that won't get discolored or smelly and can stand the test of time (at least until you drop them a few times).
As mentioned before, start with making a list of some meals you genuinely enjoy making (and more importantly, eating) and start there. Assess, assess, assess! Assess what you have already. Jar of tomato sauce? Bag of frozen shrimp? Some apples on their last legs? Try to think of ways you can incorporate those ingredients first before you go out and buy what you don't need. Even better, the glass jars you now have available might make a perfect vessel for the rest of the meal-prepping, with a glass spaghetti jar = the perfect container for some Four Bean Salad!
Depending on where you live, the trip to the grocery store alone is going to feel like a chore if you're the kind of person that would rather swing by a drive-thru or sit down to have dinner at a restaurant rather than wash a load of dishes on a weekend. This is the kind of activity that really benefits from being strategic. Take the time and be a little extra and super meticulous when you inventory- who wants to have to make multiple trips to the store to grab just one or two ingredients that you left out because they swore they had a bottle of olive oil at home?
Another way you can make your meal prep adventure more successful is by maximizing your cooking time and getting comfortable multitasking. Did you catch a sale on pork tenderloin, so you stocked up to have it a couple of times during the week? Consider cooking it all at once so you can just divvy it up as needed, then season once your initial cooking is finished. If you're making something that needs to marinate in its own special seasoning like our Al Pastor Kebab Salad Bowls, try doing all your other grilling at once, just separating the meat from the vegetables. Another tip could just be throwing a metal colander over the noodles you have boiling so you can steam your broccoli during the last 5 minutes.
What Spices Can Do to Inspire Your Creativity:
If you're not a stranger to meal prepping and various meal prepping guides swirling around on cyber space, a lot of the articles (especially those focused on getting all your groceries under a certain dollar amount) will make a point to skip out on including any seasonings or spices, often making the point that you probably already own salt and pepper at home. While that may be a fair point, the thing that's missing from that logic is just how revolutionary using a new seasoning can be when considering the food staples you've always reached for. Sometimes the choice of how you season your food is what it takes to make a dish feel uniquely your own, and avoid feeling like your meals are redundant. Spices can help inspire creativity and help you reconsider your old standbys- If you are in the habit of reaching for the same 20 things in the same 7 aisles when you go grocery shopping, you can consider the ways that varying spices are going to unlock different flavors for you. Depending on your mood and how much variety you crave, you could take the same ingredients, portion out what you need for each meal, and totally reinvent them. Peppers, onions, and steak make a perfect fajita with Fajita Seasoning one night, but they could also go into your stir-fry later in the week. Don't think of it as "using up" ingredients, make the switch to thinking about it as just shopping from what you already have.
How Long Can I Keep Meal Prep in the Fridge?
Great question. Assuming that you are preparing and cooking all your food on a Sunday, chances are you could definitely stretch out your cooked meals through the rest of your workweek comfortably. Sometimes some meals are better kept prepped separately and assembled when you actually intend to eat them, however, and that could just be a matter of your texture preferences (I'm picturing soggy croutons drowning in some dressing in a bowl of salad that's been made three days before). That doesn't mean you can't meal prep that however! You can just make sure to portion out your ingredients then store them in separate containers until you're ready to go- just throw your croutons in a resealable bag or chop up your wetter ingredients (like cucumbers and tomatoes) and put them in an old plastic leftover Chinese food container separate from your lettuce. Another strategy for preparing your salads are layering them in a mason jar, keeping the wet ingredients, more resilient vegetables (like carrots), and dressing on the bottom, with the more delicate and crunchy ingredients on top.
But I Hate Re-Heating Food!
If you're a stickler for having a "fresh-cooked" meal and hate the idea of eating anything for dinner that comes from a microwave, another pretty ingenious option for meal prepping could also be just having prepped meals that are ready to be thrown in the crockpot. Simply prepare your meals by chopping, measuring, and combining everything, then throw in some sort of freezer-safe vessel (a popular one is a zippered plastic bag) that can ready to be thrown into the freezer. Thaw the meal in the refrigerator a day in advance, then dump it in the crockpot in the morning and have a meal ready for you when you get home. A great example of this would be something like a pot roast that has lots of hardy vegetables, but you can really try experimenting with other meals that are a staple in your house- just be mindful of delicate vegetables prone to overheating/turning to mush (like peas) or dairy products that might curdle.
Throw an Herb on it:
A small change that can make a big difference as far as your enjoyment of a meal can simply be the consideration of GARNISHING. Seriously. There's a lot of science behind how eating while distracted diminishes your perception of taste. Just pause what you are doing, throw something exciting to look at on top, and eat. Even something small, such as emptying your food out of your ugly Cool Whip container onto an actual dish from home will help the meal feel more special and satisfying. It's definitely easier to say that while working at Spices Inc World Headquarters where we have gorgeous plates and silverware at our disposal, but getting yourself a "fancy plate" for lunch doesn't have to be expensive- just go to a local thrift store or cheap dollar store and buy a plate that is beautiful enough it makes you excited to eat off of it.
If not that, maybe eat out of the container you brought but take time to wipe down the sides and carry a few springs of cilantro or parsley in a plastic bag or their dried counterparts when you're ready to eat. Taking time to transition from "Everything Else" to "Food Time" is going to make eating a much more satisfying experience, whether you are meal prepping or not. Sitting down as a family, away from the TV and screens, might seem a little antiquated or preachy, but even if you don't have a family it's worth taking time to make eating feel like a real pleasure and a treat for yourself. When you don't have money to buy fancy food, think of how much it can change the experience if you go from eating carrots and celery out of a damp resealable bag to plating your carrots and celery on a dish with a small dish of dip and making it feel like a "crudité" experience you look forward to.
Meal Prepping: Not So Complicated After All
There you have it: if what you're looking for is a new system to make your weekdays run more efficiently, meal prepping may be the answer for you. No, you don't need to download any PDFs or have a special grocery list from the internet (though those things can be handy if you don't have any taste preferences).
But it could be that you already HAVE all the tools at your disposal! You might not even need a grocery list that runs two columns long! Just by using the ingredients you're already familiar with and getting creative with how you season it and spice it might make the difference on how you view eating a week of "leftovers." All you need is a little inspiration, coordination, and some time!
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