How to ensure a successful meal prep day
By dedicating a day to cooking freezer meals and other recipes in advance, you will save time, money, and stress. Here are some ideas for doing it efficiently.
Preparing meals in advance saves a lot of time, money, and stress, particularly in households where adults work outside the home and there are hungry kids to feed. But it requires hard work, too, because you have to find the time and energy to make all those meals.
The best approach is to schedule a weekend ‘meal prep day,’ when you dedicate a full day (or even half day) to cooking massive quantities of multiple meals. You do it all at once, then you can relax knowing the freezer is stocked and there’s always a great meal on hand.
Writer Trent Hamm shares some great strategies for a successful meal prep day on The Simple Dollar. I’d like to share some of these below, as well as my own suggestions.
Plan in advance. This is so important! Don’t rush into a meal prep day. You need to prepare for it by listing exactly which recipes you’ll make, the number of batches, and what you need to buy. Check your pantry and fridge for ingredients that need to be used up and plan to incorporate those.
Shop in advance. Make sure your grocery shopping is finished by the time meal prep day rolls around. You want to be able to start cooking early in the day because it’s a big task.
Do some tasks ahead of time. Look at your recipes and see if there’s anything you can do a day or two before, if you’ve got extra time. For example, Hamm describes chopping a large quantity of onions, sautéing them, and refrigerating until cooking time. While this could be done on meal prep day, it saves a good chunk of time and effort and makes the process go more smoothly.
Choose recipes with overlapping ingredients. See if the same ingredient is called for in the various recipes you plan to make, such as onions. Instead of chopping an onion for each dish, chop all the onions required for the day’s cooking at once, then divide into appropriate amounts. This is particularly useful for finicky ingredients like fresh minced garlic and grated ginger root (if you’re into Indian food).
Make soups and stews thicker than usual. If they’re destined for the freezer, vegetables tend to leak their moisture into the surrounding soup or stew, which means it’s much more watery when you reheat. Add less liquid to avoid this problem.
Protein doesn’t mean meat. You’ll save a lot of money by using vegetarian sources of protein, like beans, tofu, tempeh, paneer, and eggs. Dishes made with these ingredients freeze and reheat beautifully.
Make sure you have containers. You don’t want to find yourself with not enough containers for storage at the end of a big cooking day. Also, make sure there’s room in the freezer for all the meals. If you have a chest freezer, then you can cook a month’s worth of food; if you’ve only got the top part of your refrigerator, you’re likely limited to a week’s supply. You can store some dishes in the fridge for a few days before cooking. (Do this anyways so you have food for dinner on meal prep day.)
Label everything. Do not put anything in the freezer without a label! No matter how confident you are about identifying frozen foods, they have a knack for resembling each other. (I once briefly mistook a frozen placenta for a flank steak. After thawing slightly, the placenta went back in the freezer until I was able to bury it outside and we had beans for dinner.) Use masking tape and a marker. Hamm writes:
“If I made a batch of root vegetable stew, I’ll mark it with something like ‘1/24/2017 – Root Vegetable Stew – V’ with the V in a circle if the stew is vegan. I’ll often put another strip on the item and describe what needs to be done to finish prepping. For example, on a pan of lasagna, I might write ‘Bake 350 F for 50 min uncovered after 1 day thaw in fridge.’ The goal is to minimize the amount of thinking or work that I have to do when I pull that item out to use it.”
Cook foods that can be mixed and matched. You don’t always have to make full meals. Another great approach is to cook/prepare large batches of ingredients that can be assembled into a variety of meals over the course of a week. For example, if you eat meat, roasting a free-range chicken will give you material for days, for dishes such as risotto, quesadillas, salad, soup. Cook a giant pot of beans, a pot of spiced rice, a pan of boiled eggs, a pan of oven-roasted veggies. Wash and dry salad greens, make a jar of vinaigrette, slice vegetables and store in towel-lined container in the fridge. These can be used for salads or quick stir-fries or omelets.
Go beyond stovetop cooking. Meal prep day can include baking (loaves of bread, cookies, granola, muffins) and freezing raw pizza dough or parchment-wrapped logs of cookie dough. Hamm suggests preparing freezer containers with the contents of soup and slow-cooker stews, so that all you have to do is thaw at night, dump it in, and let it simmer all day.
You can even freeze sandwiches for lunches. Just leave off the condiments and layer cheese and deli meat (I use vegan substitutes) in a sliced roll. In the morning, add a slice of lettuce and a slather of mayo or mustard, and it will be thawed by lunchtime.
Hopefully these tips will get you thinking about how to streamline food prep. I know that changing my own approach at home has made a world of difference in recent weeks. If you have any other advice, please share in the comments below.