Meal Prep Basics - Before You Prep, Take 5 To Read These Helpful Hints
Article written by Lexi Cahill. Lexi recommends some of her favorite products from our trusted partner Amazon.com.
The idea of meal prepping can be overwhelming and daunting to people who have never tried it before, and although there is an art in the the practice, it is actually much easier than most would believe. Here you’ll find everything you need to know about the basics of meal prepping to make your life easier and your meal prepping experience better.
The Right Tools for The Job
Much like anything else in life you do, you need the right tools to successfully and efficiently meal prep. There are a few things that will be absolutely necessary from day one (containers, mixing bowls, knives, and a cutting board) and others that you can acquire along the way to assist in your meal prepping (a scale, rice cooker, crock pot, food processor, and foil baking sheets or pans).
If you don’t already have high quality food storage containers, you’ll want to invest in some. The best containers you can get will be BPA free, microwave, dishwasher, and freezer safe, and will be stackable for easy storage. For each person that you’re meal prepping for, you’ll want at least 14 containers (this is assuming that you eat 3 meals per day and will each eat at least one meal per day at home). Under these conditions fourteen meal prep containers will easily hold all of your “on-the-go” meals for the week, but if you intend to eat all of your meals out of the house you’ll want at least 21 meal prep containers. For a family of four this could mean a total of 84 containers for the week, so you’ll want to make sure that you’re investing in quality containers that also won't break the bank.
2.) Mixing Bowls
Almost of the recipes you’ll find online involve the mixing of two or more ingredients together. This is why having a few large mixing bowls is crucial. Whether you prefer glass, stainless steel or plastic mixing bowls, you’ll want to make sure that you have at least one set with a few different sizes. You’ll find that you need larger mixing bowls for main ingredients such as meats and vegetables, and smaller mixing bowls for spices and dressings.
3.) Sharp Knives
If there’s one main staple in every professional chef’s kitchen it’s a set of sharp, high quality knives. You won’t need professional grade knives but it will be helpful if you invest in a good set of sharp knives and a knife sharpener. As knives are used and abused, their sharpness can drastically diminish, but many people go on struggling to use them because they don’t want to spend more money on another set. This problem can be solved very easily; by investing in a quality set of knives AND a knife sharpener from the beginning you can rest assured knowing that even though your blades will dull over time, you have the power to bring them back to life and make them as good as new for years to come.
4.) A Good Cutting Board
All cutting boards are not created equal! Here are the pro’s and con’s of the most popular cutting board materials. It’s up to you to decide which material is a better fit for your family. Do you prefer the natural self-healing qualities of wood, the durability of glass, or the safety of rubber?
a. Wood - Wood is self-healing and thus small cuts into the wood will close up on their own. Unfortunately wood can also contain toxins or allergens depending on where they come from and how they are treated. It is also porous, which means that bacteria from the food you’re cutting on the board can enter below the surface and multiply. Once the bacteria permeates the surface it is likely that it will never again be a truly clean cutting surface.
b. Plastic - Plastic cutting boards are unlike wood in that they are non-porous. Bacteria can still grow and multiply quickly in the small cuts and imperfections of a plastic cutting board if not cleaned and disinfected almost immediately. On the other hand, you can use harsher chemicals on plastic to assure that is has been cleaned thoroughly. Plastic will also cause relatively little damage to your knives.
c. Glass - Cutting boards made from glass are relatively easy to clean compared to wood and plastic, but easily damage knives. When using a knife against the hard surface of glass you increase the chance of dulling the blade by denting, rolling, or chipping the knife edges. If you’re chopping your ingredients rather than slicing them, you run the risk of chipping the glass of the cutting board and contaminating your food.
d. Steel - Steel cutting boards are durable and about as easy to clean as their glass counterparts but, like glass, are also hard on knives. When using a steel cutting board it is guaranteed that your knife blade will dull quickly. In addition to dulling, there is a good chance that the hard surface will chip or dent the blades as well.
e. Rubber - The cleanest and most forgiving cutting board material is rubber. It is nonporous so bacteria will not be able to seep into the material but it is also self healing so small cuts will close up on their own. They will protect the integrity of your good knives and they can handle harsher cleaning chemicals. Another major plus of rubber cutting boards is that they are typically, by nature, non-slip which makes your meal prepping a safer experience. The one downside to rubber cutting boards is that they can get fairly expensive, but for a quality product that is protective to knives and against bacteria, they are well worth it.
Meal prepping isn’t just about saving time and saving money. It’s also about making sure that you’re eating the right amounts of food throughout the day. It assures that you aren’t starving your body of precious nutrients and also that you aren’t stuffing yourself. You can overeat and ruin your diet no matter what kinds of foods you’re eating. Ten pounds of fruits, vegetables, and meats is still 6 pounds too many for the average person. This is where the importance of a quality food scale comes into play. There are two different types of scales you can buy; mechanical and digital. A mechanical scale is better if you’re looking for something that requires no batteries, and has a higher weight capacity. A digital scale is better if you’re looking for something that provides distinct accuracy and can easily switch between different measurements.
6.) Rice Cooker
Carbohydrates are a necessary part of any diet, but conforming to a healthier lifestyle often means switching from refined white grains to whole grains in your meals. For some it means drastically cutting down on their pasta intake or removing it from their diets altogether. If you decide to do this, you’ll need to replace those carbohydrates with more nutritious options, such as sweet potatoes, bananas, milk and, of course, whole grain rice. Cooking rice correctly can be a challenge, though. Boiling rice on the stove often leads to overcooked, undercooked, watery, mushy, or sticky rice. The beauty of a rice cooker is that it produces perfectly cooked rice every single time, without having to babysit a pot of boiling water. An added bonus to owning a rice cooker is that you can use it to steam your vegetables to perfection as well. Boiling vegetables leads to the removal of nutrients while steaming them on a stove is a delicate process that takes time,precision, and patience.
7.) High Capacity Slow Cooker
It’s likely that if you’re new to meal prepping it’s going to take you a few hours the first few times you do it. Don’t be discouraged by this, the more you practice the more efficient you will become. In the meantime it’s helpful to utilize a high capacity slow cooker. It can take care of cooking a few meals for you while you work on cooking the rest. In addition to saving you time, using a slow cooker can also save you money and is actually a healthier cooking option. Since they slow cook, you can purchase less expensive and tougher cuts of meat because they will inevitably be softened by the time they are done cooking. They also use less energy than your conventional oven so your electric bill will be lowered. When you cook in a conventional oven you often have to add butter and oils to your meals to keep them moist and juicy, but a slow cooker uses the foods own juices to cook it thus keeping it healthy without sacrificing the succulent flavors.
8.) Food Processor
Cutting, chopping and preparing vegetables can be one of the most time consuming parts of meal prep day. Investing in a food processor will cut this time in half. Rather than wasting your time chopping vegetables into tiny pieces for your recipes you can cut them into larger cubes and toss them in your food processor and at the press of a button the machine will do all of the hard work for you. The more time you can save yourself in the kitchen preparing your weekly meals the more likely you are to stick with meal prepping in the long run. Besides chopping veggies isn’t the only thing a food processor is good for, it’s also helpful in making your own sauces and dressings, grinding up meat, chopping nuts, mixing homemade nut butters, making creamy dessert delights and so much more. It’s kind of an all in one miracle machine!
9.) Foil Baking Sheets & Pans
Cooking meals for the entire week uses a lot of dishes all at once, so speed up clean up with the help of disposable foil baking sheets and pans. This will save your sanity without costing you much money. Having a few of these on hand and available on meal prep day will also assure that you won’t have to continuously stop prepping and cooking to wait for your last dish to finish baking so that you can clean your single baking sheet or pan because you need it for your next meal. While one meal is cooking you can assemble and store the next until you’re ready to put it in the oven. When all of the meals are cooked and put away clean up is as easy as throwing a few foil sheets and pans away. They can also be recycled to help reduce unnecessary waste. If you choose to recycle them just make sure that the majority of the food has been rinsed from them so that the recycling plants can reuse the foil.
Tips for Before you Cook
Planning ahead means more than just deciding that you’re going to start meal prepping. It means looking up recipes for foods that you and your family will enjoy, and grocery shopping for the items that you will need to make those recipes. Seasoned meal preppers know that choosing recipes that offer a variation on the same or similar ingredients helps to keep their wallets full and their food waste down. Once you know what you want to cook for the week you can make a concise shopping list that will make sure you spend a minimal amount of time searching at your local farmer's market, or grocery store and more time doing what you want to do.
Infuse Oils with Spices
Adding spices to your food effectively adds more flavor and excitement to your meals. To add a more mature flavor to your meals try infusing your olive oil with the different spices you want to incorporate into your dishes. Infusing oils is fairly quick and simple.
How to Infuse Oil with Spices - Put a large saute pan over medium heat and add your oil (as much as your recipe calls for) let that warm up and then add your ground herbs and/or spices (as much as your recipe calls for) and cook together for 5 minutes. Stir continuously! You will get 5x the flavor from the same amount of spices (think sodium!) by infusing with oil.
Clean out your Refrigerator & Freezer
Before you even go shopping you’ll want to make sure that you have a clear and clean space to store all of your fresh goodies. Cleaning out your refrigerator to make sure that there is an abundance of room first for the raw ingredients that you get from your grocery haul, and then for the meal prep containers full of your delicious meals for the week when you’re done cooking, is one of the quickest and easiest steps for a successful meal prep experience. Throwing out old and rotten food not only creates more space in your refrigerator but also cuts down on the spread of bacteria. If you plan on meal prepping for the entire week it will also be helpful to clean out your freezer. You may want to store the meals that you won’t be eating until the end of the week in your freezer to keep them fresher. Unless you have more than one refrigerator to store your family's weekly meals in you’ll need the extra space from your freezer anyway.
Buy in Bulk
I mentioned earlier that you want to choose recipes that are fairly similar in ingredients and here’s why. When your recipes share a basic ingredient list, you can buy in bulk. When you buy in bulk, you save money. When it’s possible to buy all natural, organic and grass-fed products you’ll want to use those in your recipes to insure you’re being as healthy as possible. This can get expensive if you buy a little at a time, but when you buy in bulk even the prices on these high quality foods goes down. Shopping at your local farmers market is a great way to be sure that the ingredients you’re buying are fresh while also avoiding the inflation costs of the grocery stores.
Clean your Workspace
Have you ever been sitting at your desk at work surrounded by papers, post-it notes, binders, folders and pens and been too overwhelmed by the clutter to function efficiently? The same idea applies to cooking. If there are dirty dishes in the sink, pots and pans scattered in different cabinets and every cooking utensil you own shoved into a catch all drawer there is a good chance that your meal prep experience is going to be awful. You aren’t going to be able to find the measuring cups, spatula, or whisk which will frustrate you. You’ll have to pull out every single pot and pan before you realize that the size that you need is sitting in the sink dirty, which will waste time and infuriate you. With all of this going on you probably aren’t going to be able to concentrate on the food cooking, which means you could burn it. And all of these things could easily be avoided by simply tidying up your kitchen before you begin cooking.
Time to Cook
Now that you have all of your meal prep appliances, your recipes picked out, your ingredients purchased, your oils infused, and your refrigerator, freezer and workspace clean it’s finally time! You’re ready to cook! Keep in mind while you're cooking that even seasoned meal preppers spend hours preparing their food for the week so don’t expect to be done in an hour. Remember you’re cooking for the whole week, not just one night. And don’t worry if it takes you longer than you expect to cook and store everything, the more you practice the faster you’ll become. Just think of all the time you’ll be saving every evening for the next week! Most importantly remember that you’re doing this for your health and the health of your family so enjoy and HAVE FUN!