I used to prep a ton of food every Sunday to get us through the week and I found it to be not only exhausting, but I never knew exactly how much to prep and often found that we ended up with too much and it got discarded or stuffed in the freezer only to be forgotten, accumulate freezer burn, and get thrown away. So I stopped entirely, and we ate a lot of boring, harried and unsatisfying meals and more take out than we should have.
In the new year, my goal is to get a better handle on prepping some food at the beginning of the week to make it easier to eat healthy, homemade, nutritious dishes more often than not. Recently, my husband was out of town for two weeks and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, which I spent cooking and stocking our fridge and freezer. A few people have commented on or asked me about it so I thought I would share some of my strategies:
Every week, I wash and cut fresh veggies like cucumber, red pepper, celery and zucchini. I also buy pre-washed baby spinach, snap peas and carrots, and rotate in some other produce that can create the base of different meals, like a head of green cabbage, a bunch of swiss chard, zucchini, butternut/acorn squash, beets, etc. Whatever is seasonal (and therefore less expensive) goes into the rotation.
I always make a bunch of hard boiled eggs (here is how I make a big batch at once with minimal hands-on effort) which are great to throw in salads, make into egg salad, tuna salad, or grab for a quick breakfast or snack.
I also usually make several chicken breasts in the crockpot (cover halfway with water or stock, add salt and pepper, and cook on low for 6-8 hours), which go in the fridge for the week. Having cooked chicken on deck has rescued meals more than once: I shred them for salads (or enchiladas or “BBQ”), quick fry them to crisp the outside and serve as the main protein for dinner or chop them up for soups and stir fry.
I often prepare some sort of starch as well, either as part of Sunday dinner, or another dinner early in the week, with enough for leftovers. Lately, my choice has been roasted sweet potatoes (I use this method, and cook them for about an hour or until caramelized around the edges)
Condiments & Pantry
I always make sure to have a big jar of homemade salad dressing (I use this recipe)
I try to keep as many variations of nuts, seeds, and dried fruit in my pantry, as well as nut butters, sugar-free jams, and dark chocolate for healthy snacks (I eat a metric ton of trail mix).
I also keep rolled oats in the pantry, which I used to eat almost every morning for breakfast. I don’t eat them so much any more but if your body is more tolerant of grains than mine, it’s a cheap, healthy, nutritious and versatile ingredient to keep on hand for breakfast and snacks.
I really can’t tell you how much I rely on the freezer for healthy meal planning, especially in the colder months. Here’s what I freeze:
- Anything broth-based (soup, stew)
- Anything that combines lots of different ingredients and cooks in a pan (stir fries, curries)
- Pancake-y things (zucchini pancakes, latkes; if the latkes fall apart upon defrosting, consider sautéing them into a hash and top with an over-easy egg)
- Chopped, steamed and cooled veggies
- Cooked grains, like brown rice, frozen in small portions
- Sweets, especially cookies (I almost always have these on hand and defrost them one at a time)
- Breakfast-friendly bars, breakfast cookies and breads – enough so that I don’t run out and end up having to buy an expensive energy bar for breakfast instead.
Time Commitment & Storage Space
I used to try to prep a full week’s worth of dinners, and ingredients for most lunches too, every Sunday and it was terrible. It ate up half of my day, was not worth the time or the effort, and we ended up not eating a lot of the food as plans and tastes changed throughout the week. For me, I think one intensive food prep day every 4-6 weeks works better than trying to make time for a smaller one every week. This works especially well in the winter, when freezable soups, stews and crockpot meals are more in season, and I can have many meals on hand that simply need to be defrosted and served with about an hour’s notice.
I should also mention that having a second freezer helps quite a bit too, and is an affordable and worthwhile investment once you consider how much you’ll save on take out. You don’t need a full freezer or a single family home with a basement to do this; I live in a condo and keep a mini freezer in the guest bedroom closet.