In my last post, I mentioned that I have been commuting quite a bit nowadays for a new opportunity. Part of the reason why waking up at 5:30 am is, let’s say, less painful (although, still not my preference) is because of getting back into the good habits of planning in advance. The minutes spent figuring out what to wear in the morning are gone, thanks to hanging up my outfits for the week in a designated spot of my closet (accessories included) so I can grab, wear, and go. Likewise, the scramble to figure out what to put together for dinner at the end of the day, or saying screw it and stopping to eat at a restaurant on the way home, is reduced, thanks to advance meal prep and big-batch cooking on the weekends.
There are a lot of meal prep resources available out there, so I’ll skip details on any specific processes or recipes for meal plans. The biggest tip that I’ll offer is to stick to familiar and easy-to-make recipes. Soups, sauces, and casseroles that can be thawed, heated, and eaten as-is or quickly added to something, like pasta or rice, are my favorites. I generally cook in quantities that can feed 2-4 people so I can feed the family or have leftovers to take for lunch. Also, I typically focus on making dinners, since they tend to be the most time-consuming, rather than planning for every single meal of the day. I hope to get back to that point someday, but for now it has been one thing at a time. ;)
My meal prep wouldn’t be as successful if not for a few key supplies which I would highly suggest investing in to make your life a whole lot easier.
Plastic Take-out Containers
You bring your Aunt Belinda’s antique bowl to a potluck dinner party. Everyone is having a good time, but at the end of the party you find that your Aunt’s bowl is missing. Little did you know, it was covered with foil and tucked away in the fridge under a mountain of leftovers that could cause an avalanche if moved even a centimeter.
Sound familiar? Yeah, we’ve all been there, but there is a better solution: the humble plastic take-out container.
I don’t buy a lot of takeout anymore, so I buy these clear, round take-out containers in bulk at the restaurant supply store generally once or twice a year. A sleeve each of these heavyweight plastic quart (32oz) containers, pint (16oz) containers, and matching lids (which can be used for all of the containers) costs in the ballpark of $16 (they could be cheaper online, but I have a restaurant store nearby, so I haven’t bothered looking for an alternative that might involve paying for shipping.)
I always freeze leftover soup, chili, stock when I make it in advance. I write directly on the lid with a Sharpie marker so I can remember what I made, when I made it, and any cooking instructions. These containers store very neatly in the freezer and I try to use them over again when possible, all depending on what I stored in them. If they do crack or get discolored, I just recycle them and start fresh with a new container.
FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer System
Last Christmas, Steve bought my parents a FoodSaver system with the intention that they would be able to buy meat in bulk, vacuum seal it (“vac it”) into smaller portions, and freeze until needed so it doesn’t spoil as fast in the refrigerator. Little did he know that I would be the one to get the most use out of it. This base model FoodSaver system ($80 on the FoodSaver website) is similar to the one that we have, although they have ones that have a stainless steel-like finish and more features or accessories that cost more.
Whenever I have leftover produce that is getting to the point where I know that I may not use it before it spoils, I wash, chop, and vac it in individual serving or quart-sized bags so it is ready to go for recipes. I also make whole meal packages that can just be dumped into the crockpot or skillet to cook, or less-complicated meal “starter packs” of vegetables for when I have time to do a few more steps of cooking. I generally ballpark the quantities of the vegetables and shoot to make about quart-sized bags (equivalent of 4 cups).
Now that winter is rolling around, my two favorite packs to keep on-hand and use to make soup and chili are:
- Chopped celery, carrots, onion, and garlic. For a quick chicken noodle soup, sauté vegetables and add 2 quarts of chicken broth, 2 cups of cubed chicken, minced parsley. Simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with noodles of your choice (I like orzo.) For minestrone, sauté vegetables and add 2 quarts of vegetable or chicken broth, a 16oz can of drained and rinsed cannellini beans, a few handfuls of washed and chopped spinach or swiss chard, and 1 cup chopped diced tomatoes (if desired; I like to omit if I’m not in the mood for tomatoes) Simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with noodles (I like ditalini) and top with parmesan and pesto (if desired.)
- Corn kernels, chopped bell peppers, chopped hot peppers, chopped onion, and garlic. For a quick chili, sauté vegetables and add a 32oz can of tomatoes, a 16oz can of black beans, a 16oz can of red kidney beans, and a small package of browned ground beef or vegetarian meat (if you like). Add minced chipotle in adobo and other seasonings to taste (this is a good suggestion for a chili seasoning blend that you can make and store in the pantry). Serve with assorted toppings (the best part), like chopped scallions and shredded cheese.
A must-have for baking, but also an invaluable tool for when I do feel like being a little more precise with my measurements; when I want to know that I have exactly 1 cup of onions in a bag which I’ll vacuum seal and use for a recipe later, for example.
This Cuisinart scale ($40 at Bed Bath and Beyond) is the one I have. It is no-frills and can weigh up to 11 pounds with the ability to switch between grams, pounds, and ounces by clicking a button. Based on the reviews, I saw that others have questioned the accuracy of very light food, such as one or two strawberries, and have noticed that it shuts off very quick. While I agree that the fast shut off time is annoying, I have not had a problem with accuracy. Overall, it is a good value for how much I use it.
Making meals during the week is easy when you do some advance prep on the weekends, and the process is even easier with a few key tools at your disposal.
What other time-saving ways have you found to prep meals in advance? What are some of your favorite kitchen tools to make the work easier?