In an ideal world, we’d all have most of our meals prepped and packed on Sunday night. We’d rest easy knowing that we could grab healthy, tasty options as soon as we walked in the door before the hanger sets in. You’d set a pot of stew to simmer on the stove, and cook a big batch of grains to be transformed into bowls through the week. Vegetables would be roasted, greens washed and prepped, salad dressings made and oatmeal cooked and pre-portioned. It’s great in theory, but a real pain in the neck for many (even for the professional cooks among us). What you hope is two hours of prep often turns into an all-day affair, what with the shopping and clean up tacked on to either end.
But there are a few things you can do (or not do, for that matter) to lighten your lift and still get a head start on the week’s meals.
Find your time
The bulk of your prep should be inactive time—i.e. combining rice and water in a pot, slow-cooking something, or throwing a chicken in the oven. You shouldn't plan to make three things that require constant attention. If you’re following recipes, read them through entirely and plan accordingly (although I would encourage you NOT to use recipes in these instances. See below). In addition, advanced meal prep doesn’t always have to happen on Sunday. If Tuesday is a mellow day at work and home, set aside some time to cook that night after the kids go to bed. Early riser? Make a couple things each morning if that’s when you have quiet time.
Shopping can take up a lot of time and energy. Order pantry items (rice, canned beans, frozen vegetables, pasta, canned tomatoes, etc.) in bulk online and focus on hand-shopping for the fresh stuff. Whether you do one big trip on the weekend or pick up a couple of things on the way home from work, you’ll be armed with a shorter grocery list (and might even qualify for the express line).
Flex your pantry
A well-stocked pantry will save dinner (or breakfast or lunch) time and time again. But “pantry” doesn’t just mean dry goods. Your fridge and freezer should be stocked with foods you like, that you won’t whine about eating on lean or lazy days. For me, that means lemons, Dijon, cheddar, frozen sausages and peas, and long-lasting fresh vegetables and herbs like broccoli, sweet potatoes, and flat leaf parsley. Additionally, I'll keep pasta, grains, and canned goods on hand.
If you have the time, by all means, go ahead and take this day/weekend/evening to practice your knife skills. But if you only have an hour or two to get stuff cooked, cleaned and packed up, skip the chopping. Onions can almost always be sliced instead of chopped for soups and sauces. But if you must chop, throw them quartered in the food processor (this is one of our faves) and pulse to your desired fineness. Go ahead and toss the garlic in there too, or use a press. Lots of vegetables lend themselves to roasting or steaming in large pieces (think carrots, cauliflower, broccoli rabe) and with a few swipes of the knife you’ll be ready to go. This is not a time to fuss over the details. The gift is in getting it done, not getting it done perfectly.
Cook in bulk
Make double what you think you need. If you’re cooking for one, cook for two; if you’ve got a family of four, prep for eight. Cook the entire bunch of carrots or broccoli and prep the entire bunch of greens. Remember that the same carrots can taste very different when served alongside a piece of fish and rice than they do when served with burgers and ranch for dipping. I never cook less than 1 cup of grains and 1 pound of pasta. If I don’t get to them by Friday, pack them up in a re-sealable container and stash them in the freezer for a few weeks.
RELATED: Slow-Cooker Chicken and Pasta Soup
Don’t use “recipes”
I may regret writing that (as someone who writes recipes for a living) but the ultimate goal is to cook without a recipe: to look in your pantry, see a bag of pasta and a can of beans, and know that with some olive oil, pine nuts from the freezer and parsley from the crisper, you’ve got a killer 15 minute dinner on your hands. Home cooks can get hung up on following recipes start to finish. But re-heating is actually really challenging, and not every dish is best eaten days later. My suggestion is to break up recipes you like into parts. Love that chimichurri that went with the steak you had last week? Make just that and use it as a salad dressing, sandwich spread, or sauce for roasted vegetables. Only have 10 minutes? That’s all the hands-on time it takes to roast a chicken. Do that on Sunday and treat it like a homemade rotisserie.
Remember that the key to getting homemade meals on the table is just doing it. It might not be seamless or easy at first, but the more you exercise these muscles, the easier it will become—and the more confident you’ll be.