Introduction: Meal Prep Strategies and Flow
I've been meaning to make a rotating meal prep menu for myself for awhile now.
It grieves me how much food I let go to waste. My main problem is that I don't have an exact plan, and so when I realize "Oh, I'm hungry, I should eat something", I'm just too HANGRY to think about cooking.
I've thought about buying pre-made convenience food, but most of the time the ingredient's list scares me and I HATE all the waste from the packaging.
The last few weeks I researched the heck out of meal prep and planning strategies and methods. It seems I'm not the only one with a problem, and blogger after blogger seemed to be hocking their own meal prep menu bundles. Some were all about slowcooker freezer bag meals, or aluminum pan casseroles, while others were all about Keto bowls or snack pack combinations.
I decided to take the strategies and apply them to what my husband and I like to eat, and see if I could save time, energy, and money by coming up with a menu flow to have things quickly available while also reducing waste.
The plan was shop once, cook most things on Sunday, cut a new batch of fresh veggies on Wednesday, and only do quick assembly or mindless dump and cook the rest of the week.
Sunday- Cashew Chicken Salad
Monday- Chicken and Chickpea Moroccan Style Soup
Tuesday- Hummus Crusted Chicken with Arugula Salad
Wednesday- Greek Salad with Hummus Crusted Chicken
Friday- Fried Rice
Saturday- Taquitos with Beans and Rice
Snacks for All Week- Veggie Sticks and Hummus, Spicy Chickpea Nuts, Veggie Sticks and Dill Dip, Cashews, Grapes
Step 1: Chop Ingredients for Multiple Dishes
Chopping produce is one of the most time consuming things about cooking, and it is also the thing that seems to make the biggest mess in my kitchen. Most produce will last 2-3 days in the refrigerator after it has been cut, some things like onions can last a week. I figured I could safely reduce produce prep sessions to twice a week, thereby minimizing the clean-up sessions too.
Things to Keep in Mind:
- Cut things in different shapes and sizes for different dishes (EXAMPLE: onion strips vs diced onion)
- Set aside quantities needed for planned dishes (onion and bell pepper strips for fajitas, carrot rounds for soup, red onion strips for Greek salad.
- Diced onions, peppers, and peeled garlic are good to have even if you don't have a specific menu in mind, as they often go in many dishes.
- Wash and cut greens for salads etc.
- Extra celery, carrots, and bell peppers are great for dips.
- Leftover diced veggies at the end of the week are great in soup. Actually, lots of produce that is just a little bit past it's prime or wilted is great to toss into soup!
- Don't forget to prep non-produce items like grating cheese.
IDEA: I like to make a scrambled egg blend of onions, peppers, and mushrooms. In the morning, I then just have to heat the pan with some oil, toss in a few spoon fulls of the mix, scramble the eggs while it sautes, and mix it all together with a little cheese.
Step 2: Cook Protein for Multiple Dishes
Cooking protein for more than one meal usually isn't any extra work, and frequently it can save you money by purchasing in bulk. I'll often have my husband throw a few extra chicken breasts on the grill and use the leftovers the next day in a salad, or if he smokes a giant brisket, we will not only have the brisket, but brisket nachos and brisket sandwiches the next few days.
I chose to poach some chicken tenders for cashew chicken salad (one of my all time favorite dishes) and then thought I could make extra and use it for soup and taquitos also.
IDEA: Keep the poaching broth as a starter for soup.
Step 3: Bulk Cook Beans, Rice, and Grain for Multiple Dishes
Beans and Rice are versatile, inexpensive and nutritious staples, but they can take a while to cook, so it makes sense to cook them in a big batch at the beginning of the week.
I've been trying to eat more fiber and protein, so I made giant pots of black beans, chickpeas, and brown rice to add to multiple dishes. It took about 2-3 hours to cook all of it in the instant pot, but most of it was hands off.
Chickpeas: Hummus, Hummus Crusted Chicken, Spicy Chickpea nuts, Chicken and Chickpea Moroccan Style Soup
Brown Basmati Rice: Chicken and Chickpea Moroccan Style Soup, Beans, Rice, and Cheese Casserole, Fried Rice, 3 Minute Frozen Microwave Rice Packs
Black Beans: Taquitos, Beans, Rice, and Cheese Casserole
Step 4: Make Too Much and Freeze for Later
Another strategy is to intentionally make too much so there are left-overs with the idea of freezing them for later (that way you don't have to eat soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner multiple days in a row, but instead can pull it out of the freezer a few weeks later when you are hangry).
I froze the extra soup and hummus (Hummus!?! I haven't tried it yet, but people on the internet said it would work..... so... gonna give it a shot...fingers crossed!) in 1 cup silicone cubic rectangles and then transferred them to reusable silicone zip-top bags.
Step 5: Pre- Measure and Mix
Things that are mixed regularly can be measured out in advance to save time and mess. Things like seasoning blends or complicated smoothie recipes work well with this strategy.
I've been making smoothies on and off the last few weeks, and every time I make them I get the chia seeds, flax meal, and protein powder (etc) all over the counter. It also takes a while to drag them out from where they are stored. I assembly lined mason jars for the dry ingredients to streamline the process.
Step 6: Assemble Grab and Go Packs
Assembling portions of food in ready to go bundles for a few days is a great strategy to eat better and save money. I really like to do veggies and dip. This is also a great way to do lunch food for the week.
Step 7: Reincarnate Leftovers
Can you cook extra of one meal and then turn the leftovers into something else? I made extra hummus crusted chicken, and then the next day diced it up for the protein in a Greek style salad.
Step 8: Freeze Convenience Packs
Make a little or make a lot!
It is nice to make frozen convenience food where you get to choose the portion size. Maybe you just need a quick snack, or maybe you have unexpected company, either way having frozen items where you can change the serving size is a good thing.
I made frozen taquitos that can be pulled out of the freezer in any quantity and baked.
I also made a fried rice that I spread out on a baking tray and froze, and then crumbled it into a silicone bag. The idea is to heat up a wok with a little oil, and then toss in the desired amount of the frozen fried rice for a quick meal.
IDEA: Walk the frozen convenience food aisles at the grocery store to get ideas. I did this at Trader Joe's and by reading the labels, it helped me get an idea of what was raw and what was partially or fully cooked before they froze it. I'm thinking of making ice-cube sized herb butter sauce cubes to add to frozen vegetable packs, mini pizzas, potstickers, and chicken pot pies.
Step 9: Freezer to Oven
Unlike the variable portion size of the frozen taquitos and fried rice, this method makes a set serving. It is often used for casseroles and baked pasta dishes like lasagna. I just happened to have a spare tin leftover from a party and I thought it would be useful to save and reheat the beans and rice later with an added layer of melted cheese.
Step 10: Freezer to Microwave
I use to buy little 3-minute frozen rice bags from Trader Joe's, and I thought I should see if I could create my own. I just got these reusable silicone zip-top bags that can go in the freezer, oven, microwave, and even boiling water! I haven't reheated it yet, but I made and froze them for the future.
Step 11: Marinades!
Marinades take a bit of time to get their full benefit and so they are a great thing for meal prep. I tossed some frozen chicken into a silicone freezer bag and then dumped a green-chili sauce over the top with cilantro, red pepper flakes and some other spices and then sealed it up and put it in the freezer. The night before I plan on making it, the goal is to pull it out and place it in the refrigerator to thaw. I’ll see how it turns out, and if it is any good, this would be easy to make multiple at once.
Step 12: Pickle It!
You can extend the life of your veggies by pickling them. My husband has been obsessed with these hot carrots, and I have been making a new batch every 2-3 weeks. He often raids the jar (kept in the refrigerator door) multiple times a day.
Step 13: Plan for Leftover Ingredients
If you are purchasing ingredients for one dish, it is a good idea to have a plan for the extra that is not used. I LOVE Cashew Chicken Salad, but sometimes I don't always use up all the ingredients I buy for it. This time I made a plan to use up everything. For example, I made garlic dill dip with the sour cream and greek yogurt and also used the last of the yogurt for smoothies.
Step 14: My New Toys
I don't know if you noticed, but I bought some new toys for this project:
- Silicone Zip-top bags
- Silicone portion freezer molds
So excited to get to use them!
Step 15: Recipes
I don't really follow recipes, but instead use them as rough guidelines or inspiration. He are links to some of those recipes used in this Instructable:
Instant Pot Black Beans: https://kristineskitchenblog.com/how-to-cook-black-beans-in-your-instant-pot/
Hummus (add jalapeno to make spicy): https://www.gimmesomeoven.com/classic-hummus/
Hummus Crusted Chicken:https://www.gimmesomeoven.com/hummus-crusted-chicken/
Hot Pickled Carrots (and other veggies too!):https://www.instructables.com/id/pickled-carrots/ and also https://keviniscooking.com/authentic-mexican-pickled-carrots/
Spicy Chickpea Nuts: https://www.instructables.com/id/Roasted-Chickpeas/ and also https://www.chowhound.com/recipes/spicy-oven-roasted-chickpeas-30368
Chicken and Chickpea Moroccan Style Soup:https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/lemon_chicken_chickpea_soup/
Cashew Chicken Salad: (I tried to find the original recipe that inspired me, but couldn't, so here is the rough ingredient list/recipe I use)
Toss to combine the following:
- poached chicken breast chopped
- arugula finely chopped
- cashew pieces chopped
- celery stalks finely chopped
- red onion finely chopped
- red seedless grapes halved
- season with salt and pepper
Dressing (whisk together in separate bowl)
- 1 part sourcream
- 2 parts greek yogurt
- fresh lemon juice
Combine the 2 together just prior to serving and scoop into the wide end of romaine leaves*
* If you plan on having leftovers, keep the salad and the dressing separate
Step 16: Thanks for Reading
Whew- I'm a little bit tired but also inspired to do more meal planning and prep in the future.
My freezer and refrigerator is now full of enough quick and nutritious food to keep the Hangry Monster at bay for a while. : )
First Prize in the
Meal Prep Challenge