On any given week, meal prep can be a challenge. Finding the time to plan, look up recipes, shop, and cook seems impossible at times. During this recent pandemic, although we may find that we are home more often, we are encouraged to not go to the grocery store as often. And even if we do make it to the store, due to higher demand and/or popularity, you may find some food is just not readily available.
Another challenge we encounter is that we tend to make the same meals each week and get more variety when we go out to dinner. In our current situation, many restaurants are either closed, only offering a limited menu, or are cost prohibitive. So, how can we make delicious meals at home?
Recently the podcast, 15-Minute Matrix, had an episode about meal prep in less than ideal conditions. You can listen to episode #131 to hear the entire podcast but we’ve outlined some of the broader takeaways here.
If you are a novice in the kitchen, cooking may seem overwhelming; however there are a few tips that may help alleviate these feelings.
- Unless baking, consider most recipes as guidelines. Baking is very precise, so it is hard to improvise. Cooking, on the other hand, can be improvised and customized once you nail down a few simple cooking concepts.
- Let go of expectations of perfection. You pay a lot of money to eat food at a restaurant because chefs are trained to make delicious food. Most of us are not professional chefs, so do not set the expectation that your food will taste restaurant quality.
- Learn to be flexible with ingredients. Instead of going to store for specific ingredients, go to the store for ingredients from a general category. [See tip # 1]
- Rethink your concept of the dinner plate. If you typically have a piece of meat, a side of vegetables, and a side of starch, try to imagine some of those ingredients in a stew or a casserole. This will be helpful if you are looking to save money by purchasing less expensive or fewer cuts of meat or you are cooking in bulk. [See tip #2].
- Make it once but serve it twice. If you are using an ingredient in one meal, consider what other meals you could use that same ingredient. [See tip #3].
- Share ideas! A lot of us are cooking at home more than ever. Talk to your friends and family to see what great ideas they have.
Smart Meal Prep Tips & Tricks
Tip 1: Ingredient type versus specific ingredient*
- Root vegetables: potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes, beets
- Beans: red, navy, pinto, black, garbanzo, fava. Beans are so versatile that you can sub any type of bean in a recipe.
- Grains: rice, quinoa, farro, barley, millet, amaranth, bulgur
- Greens: spinach, kale, swiss chard, arugula, radicchio, bokchoy
- Herbs and spices: delicate (parsley, cilantro, chives, dill); hearty (thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano); warm (cinnamon, allspice, anise, nutmeg, chili, garam masala; vibrant (coriander, cumin, fennel, cardamom)
Tip 2: Rethink your plate
- Casserole: egg noodles, gravy, chopped spinach, and steak
- Omelet: salmon, cream cheese, red onions, spinach
- Soup: roasted chicken, carrots, onions, and brown rice
- Stuffed potatoes: ground turkey, chopped broccoli, shredded cheese
- Salad: greens, veggies, protein (ie. chicken, chickpeas), croutons
Tip 3: Make it once, serve it twice
- Serve mashed potatoes as a side dish and use the leftovers as a topping for a Shepherd's pie
- Double the rice! Make fried rice and add extra rice to chicken soup
- Roast a chicken and serve some as your main protein and use leftovers in soup or a chicken quesadilla
- Make roasted vegetables as a side, use the leftovers on a pizza, serve over whole grains or toss with pasta and sauce
*To read more about simple ingredient swaps, see Bon Appetit’s How to Make Do with Smart Swaps