While getting your prep done in 90 minutes sounds totally doable, there are going to be some weeks when you don’t have that much time. That’s when Plan B comes in handy.
Plan B: Prep While You Cook
If you’ve been following my meal prep guide, then you know that the key is multitasking. So why not put your newfound skills to work while you’re cooking a regular meal? Here’s the basic strategy: make something that requires little prep, cooks for a long time, and is larger than your family can finish in one meal. Meanwhile, throw a bunch of starches and veg in the oven and Instant Pot, and by the time dinner is ready you have tons of prepped food.
Meat loaf, for example, is a great multitasking meal. It cooks for a long time and it freezes well, so you can prep two pans worth, then bake one and freeze the other. Ina Garten has great instructions on how to do this in her Make It Ahead cookbook. (I use paleo-friendly ketchup on top to cut out the processed sugar.) So let’s say you’re making the meatloaf and you’ve got one in the oven and another in the freezer. For my family of three, that’s at least four dinner servings of protein that I no longer have to think about. You can stop there, but you’re probably going to want a vegetable and maybe a carb to go with your protein. So if you’re smart, you’ve already preheated your second oven or toaster oven. Now you can quickly wash an extra large batch of sweet potatoes and pop them into the hotter oven. They’ll be ready at around the same time as the meat loaf, and since you’ve made more than you’ll eat tonight you’ll have extra for other meals. You know what else goes great with meat loaf and sweet potatoes and cooks at the same temp as your yams? Brussels sprouts. Probably smart to make an extra large batch there, too.
Now it’s decision time: you’ve got extra portions of three different things. Do you feel like cleaning up now so you don’t have to deal after dinner, or do you want to cook something else? Let’s say you decide to keep going. You throw some eggs or potatoes into the Instant Pot, and some broccoli and delicata squash into the oven. Worst case scenario, you’ll have to excuse yourself from dinner to quickly yank something from heat.
Check out what you’ve been able to accomplish just while making dinner: you’ve made four nights worth of protein, three vegetables, and either two starches or a starch and a batch of hardboiled eggs. This frees you from having to cook for at least one other night that week, and it means you’ve got a fridge full of veg ready to be eaten.
Truth: if you’re new to meal prep, you probably won’t be able to get it all done quite as quickly right from the start. But while there’s definitely an adjustment period, there are five key tips that will help you get up to speed more quickly.
- Keep chopping to a minimum. If you can cook something whole, then do it. Not only will this save precious time, but it also makes the ingredient more versatile. Carrots, for example, can be roasted whole and served as a side, or sliced and dropped into a soup.
- Keep seasonings simple. Before I roast my veggies, I generally just give them a quick toss in oil, sprinkle them with salt, and throw them into the oven. This is another trick for making your ingredients more versatile. You can season them as you please when you reheat them.
- Par cook when you’re short on time. If you don’t have time to to do all that roasting, cruciferous and root vegetables can be par boiled for about 3 minutes. When you’re ready to eat them, all you have to do is pop them in the oven or sauté pan – no prep required – and they’ll cook in a fraction of the time. Added bonus: your veggies won’t get soggy in the fridge.
- Don’t forget the raw. Don’t underestimate the versatility of a snacking vegetable. Carrot sticks or broccoli florets can be enjoyed raw, steamed, roasted, stir fried, or sautéed. If you only have a small window of time, just prep some snacking vegetables and be done with it.
- Don’t take on too much. In the beginning, I’d try to add an actual entree (like meatballs) to my meal prep process. I ended up screwing up whatever I was trying to cook and having multiple pots still going when my son woke up from his nap. Our food ended up overcooked, and I had a big mess on my hands. Cooking a fully formed meal while you prep really only works if you’re in Plan B mode, or if you have more than 90 minutes.
When it comes to meal prep, I’ve learned mostly by doing. But the techniques and information described in the following cookbooks really helped me up my game.
Make It Ahead by Ina Garten – Not only does she describe entrees that can be made ahead for entertaining, she also includes recipes you can mix up and freeze raw, along with adjusted cook times.
The Whole 30 by Melissa Hartwig – Not only is this your Whole 30 bible, it also includes handy charts of basic cook times and temperatures, plus some really great sauce recipes.
Well Fed by Melissa Joulwan – Consider this a best-of collection of recipes from Joulwan’s excellent paleo blog. Many of my favorite sauces come from this book, and there’s a whole section about meal prep.
How to Cook Everything Fast by Mark Bittman – Everything in this book can be cooked in under an hour, making it an excellent primer in kitchen multitasking. While many of the recipes aren’t super healthy, I find it easy to skip or substitute ingredients.