I’m not a person who believes in “meal prepping.” Possibly because – at my core – I have a very hard time dedicating a precious day (that could be spent playing), or an afternoon, to cooking a boatload of food to eat, reheating…later. There is little joy in leftovers for me, and eating them for an entire week in different reheated formats sounds like my worst nightmare. I like cooking! I like taking a moment at the end of the day to evaluate what I’m wanting and needing, to use my hands, to feel the warmth of the oven and smell the smells. And by the way, cooking something is part of the act of nourishing ourselves. Ayurvedic medicine universally recommends eating freshly prepared foods for each meal for just this reason. The touching, smelling, interacting and being part of the process of feeding ourselves is just as much the nourishment as ingesting the meal we sit down to. The same deep emotional, spiritual and physical nourishment doesn’t happen when we pop something in the microwave. And so, cooking something each day (at least once) is part of my strategy for self-care.
All of that said, as a *busy* person, the concept of meal prepping and the reasons why modern households do it makes sense to me. My workdays run anywhere from 2-16 hours each day, and while a lot of that work is cooking almost none of it is for me. Time is short, the desire to eat a homecooked meal is real, and the ability to break that bank for takeout each night isn’t. But I’ve figured out a few simple little ways to help me avoid meal prepping, and reveal the time in each day to cook. we still typically eat 2-3 home-cooked meals each day around here. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not magic, and you CAN do it at home too.
Below are my top hacks for how to cook healthfully every single day, with minimal effort, and maybe even less time dedicated than if you were to set aside a day or an afternoon to meal prep. Read on.
For as many recipes as I write, I very rarely use them myself when cooking at home. Specifically, because a recipe somehow traps me into an ingredient list, a process, and an outcome. Rather than purchasing and prepping ingredients for a specific recipe, I keep blueprints in the back of my mind as I’m shopping, and cooking. A blueprint is a rough outline of a meal that I know is well within my grasp, and one that can be twisted and tweaked in one million directions depending on what I have on hand, how much time is available, and my mood/cravings/nutritional needs. Many many MANY of the recipes on this website can easily become blueprints.
For example, “tacos,” “egg meals,” “pizza” “pasta,” “grain bowls,” “sheet pan dinners,” and “bake” – are all meals that can come together quickly with the same general process, even if the ingredients shift. On very busy weeks, I will write down in my calendar which blueprint I intend to use on which night or day, just to keep things straight in my brain. (This helps me roll forward Cook One Thing leftovers too!) And the more you cook this way, the more you’ll start to see meals as blueprints and opportunities for confidence, and less as occasions where you need direction and guidance from a recipe. All of a sudden “pancakes,” “frittata” and so much more become blueprints too. I have a great sense for how long each one of my “blueprints” takes, and a strong idea of what ingredients fit best where so when dinner comes around, I can pluck one from my overloaded brain and make it happen with little effort. Think about the meals you enjoy eating, and can make them quickly with little brain power – those are your blueprints, and they’re your best friends when you’re trying NOT to meal prep.
So, if I’m not using recipes, where do I get my shopping list? From the simple categories that I know we want and need to eat from: grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables and pantry staples. They’re pretty simple, actually and so is my shopping process. Before I buy groceries, I take inventory of our pantry to see what I’ve got on hand. Those “categories” that are lacking are what I’ll fill in. I try to have at least 3-4 options in each category on hand at all times. So for grains, maybe I have pasta, basmati rice, ramen noodles, and quinoa. Done! For proteins, I like to have eggs (always) as well as a couple of meat options and two plant-based options – beans or tofu typically. It’s pretty easy to stock up for weeks on these three since the ingredients can live in dry storage or the freezer for long periods of time, so really most of my grocery shopping ends up being a seasonal vegetable and fruit refresh. My policy: if it’s on sale, and front and center in the store, it’s in season and exactly what I want on my plate. This approach means I rarely end up over shopping, or wasting ingredients, means my shopping trips are quick because I’m circumnavigating the store (instead of diving into the center aisles) and means that I have more clarity on what I have to work with even without a recipe. And, it means that my grocery runs are rather budget-friendly. Sometimes, if I’m craving something specific (say, fish or seafood, or cheesy pasta) I’ll let it drive my choices in other categories, buying ingredients that go well with that thing (for example, asparagus goes particularly well with lovely salmon filets AND cheesy pasta) and hence my week’s meals begin to take shape.
It’s a promise I’ve made myself: I’ll “Cook One Thing,” each day. Sometimes it’s making a pot of pasta or a big batch of grains or beans. Other times, it’s roasting a huge sheet pan of vegetables, or a roasting a whole chicken to use through the week. Whatever it is, it’s typically enough to serve the meal I’m going to eat next and one or maybe two meals after that, but never a whole week. Then, that one thing gets rolled forward into the next meal along with the One Thing I’ll cook tomorrow…and so on. For example, the little jar of chermoula I made on Monday for eggs, combined with the leftover farro that I made on Tuesday for grain bowls became the base and topping for this Roasted Winter Veggie + Farro Hash when I popped a sheet pan of chopped veggies in the oven for a few minutes. Ok, yes, then I fried a couple of eggs and let some onions sauté themselves while I waited for the veggies to cook, but those 20 minutes were a lovely time to catch up with myself.
In fact, I wouldn’t have time to cook the way I do without them. Instead of taking my precious time each week to meal prep, I *outsource* the job to two specific devices each week and man do they work hard. My InstantPot is critical in making big pots of beans, soups, stews, and even the occasional braise, taking hours off of the time that I would be cooking myself and literally doing the heavy lifting for me. All I do is take a peek into the pantry and fridge, spend a few minutes chopping or prepping something, toss it in the pot, and walk away. I go back to work. I stretch, and I call a friend. I do anything but cook. And our meals are homecooked anyway.
The second device that is pulled out literally daily in my home is a rice cooker. It makes porridge, and grains at least once if not twice each day. I dump in the grains (soaked overnight depending on the variety), rinse, add liquids or other ingredients if necessary, and walk away – again, to go about my business while the cooker makes the base for my dream meals for me. Many days, you’ll find the rice cooker sitting on the countertop keeping rice or grains warm, so we can do something simple like fry eggs and make a rice bowl in minutes which (ahem) is one less meal-prepped lunch we get to skip (hallelujah!)
It’s true – I’m a chef, and I have a lot of recipes and cooking wisdom under my wings that make it pretty easy to make really impressive meals in not much time. But cooking elaborate, exciting meals each day takes a whole lot of effort that’s not necessary to keep our house healthy, nourished and well. After a long day, an elaborate meal is almost never what I want to eat, or piece together, but a bowl of something simple and delicious is. So, I keep a little running list of recipes that excite and delight me, and try to weave one or two in each week when I have adequate space to make cooking a fun activity. Usually, it’s a weekend, or a special dinner guest, that inspires me to pull out the big guns but honestly, the simpler the meals, the simpler the preparation the better they are – for my health and mental wellbeing.
I hope these little *hacks* are helpful! And that they give you some confidence, comfort and joy in finding new ways to cook simply, everyday!