Now it’s time to execute your plan, but you shouldn’t just jump right into it. Make yourself a schedule a day or two before, breaking up your time into two- or three-hour blocks for each day you do Meal Prep. Don’t be afraid to take a break once in a while. At the end of each block of work, do your cleanup. Load, unload, and start the dishwasher as needed. Heck, you can even put a load of laundry in while you’re at it. Work smarter, not harder. Don’t even reach for the broom and mop until after everything is done unless the spill is too big to ignore. Take the opportunity to do other household tasks whenever you have some downtime.
You should seriously think about investing in a secondary oven of some sort. There are really good countertop ovens on the market, and if you hunt for them, there are some killer deals. Having a second oven frees up space in your regular oven, and you can have each one at a different temperature for different dishes as needed. Look for a secondary oven that has a variety of functions, including (but not limited to) convection. Convection is heated air that is circulated throughout the oven. It is superior for baking, but with some caveats. There are certain pans that you should and shouldn’t use when baking in a convection oven. Glass baking pans will leave the bottoms of your breads and cakes unbrowned and gummy. YUCK!
Use good quality metal pans, but stay away from dark/nonstick bakeware. It really isn’t good quality. Sturdy aluminum pans are a good choice. Another thing to be aware of is the temperature of the convection oven. You can reduce the temperature by at least 25 degrees Fahrenheit (and up to 50 degrees) from what the recipe indicates. You may have to adjust the cooking time to compensate. Just keep a look-out for the doneness of your recipe, and always follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Consider buying two full sets of cookware and bakeware so you can rotate between your most commonly used pan sizes. Extra pieces of commonly used items never hurt anybody (think shoes)! Also, make sure your knives are in good working order, and invest in a good quality sharpener. A warning about electric knife sharpeners. They’re LOUD, so be considerate of your family members and neighbors when you go to do your sharpening. No one wants to be woken up at the crack of dawn with the metal-on-metal screech of a knife sharpener!
A slow cooker or multi-cooker with a slow cooking function is a really good thing to have as well. You can start your dish first thing in the morning and let it run all day while you do other things. Heck, that could even be dinner for the night you do your Meal Prep. Turn it off and let the food cool somewhat before you portion it out, and stir the food occasionally to help it cool faster.
Get out all of your ingredients, utensils, pots/pans, storage containers, and labeling supplies for your first block; this is your mise en place, which is French for “putting in place” and refers to virtually everything you need to set up before you start cooking. Ideally, you should organize your mise en place according to which ingredient or item will be used first, and indeed, a recipe is usually written according to the order in which the ingredients are used. All of my recipes will be written this way.
Preheat your oven(s) and get out your slow cooker/multi-cooker if you have one. Go through your schedule and organize the items according to what you’ll be cooking first, next, and last. Once you get the first dish or two into the oven, slow cooker, etc., take time to do a mini cleanup. Put away the items you no longer need, or are perishable but won’t be needed again for a while. Load any dirty dishes into your dishwasher, or hand wash them if you’ll need to use them again. Put labels onto your storage containers for each dish, estimating how many servings it’ll make and adding an extra container or two just in case (you can always carry the extra containers over to the next dish and swap out a label, or simply remove the label and put them away). Same for the resealable bags.
Remember to always write the date as well, so you have a good idea how long you have to use it. The type of freezer you have will dictate where on your containers to put your labels. For a standard fridge freezer that opens at the front and is situated in the top third of the appliance, you will need to put the labels on the sides of the containers and place them in the freezer so that the labels face the front. That way, you can see at a glance what you have. For drawer-type freezers that are at the bottom of the appliance, you’ll need to put the labels on the lids of the containers, again so you can quickly see what you have. You may want to invest in a chest freezer to have a place to store any overflow items. If you have a chest freezer, but your main fridge freezer opens to the front, you’ll need two labels–one on the lid and one on the side. Include baking/cooking directions on labels for cookie dough, casseroles, or slow cooker meal packs. Remember FIFO–it applies to your fridge, freezer, chest freezer, and pantry.
Don’t confine yourself. This isn’t just about making a bunch of freezer foods for the next apocalypse (or pandemic, for that matter). Your pantry probably could use some organization too, and this process can help in that direction. All dry goods–cereal, crackers and other snacks, rice, small pasta shapes, etc.–can be portioned out and stored on your pantry shelves. Here’s a good tip. One cup of pretty much anything fits into a snack-sized bag, and two cups fit into a sandwich-sized one. You don’t even need to label these; just stack them neatly on a pantry shelf so the kids can choose their favorite breakfast cereal or after-school snack.
Make foods you know your family will eat, and don’t be afraid to buy in bulk if you know you’ll be making a lot and it’ll be eaten. Over the years there have been a lot of naysayers regarding those grocery store “10 for $10” deals. The primary problem with those deals was that, in the beginning, you were required to buy all ten in order to get the deal, which often resulted in wasted food. Not so anymore. You can still get the deal even if you only buy a few. If your family will only eat four or five packages of pasta over the next few months, then only buy that many. The point is to take advantage of the deals available on the foods you regularly buy whenever possible.
Go through the supermarket fliers when planning your next menu and shopping trip, and feel free to swap out some things here and there in order to take advantage of a good deal. A local supermarket chain in my area often has “5 for $5” deals on meats. If you buy at least five specially marked meats, they’re $5 each package. If you’re not going to use it right away, no problem. Meats stay good in the freezer for a few months at least. Remember you have it in your freezer so you can incorporate it into a future Menu Plan. Many people find it helpful to keep a running list of what they have in their freezer, fridge, and pantry, and there are several apps available to help you do just that. It may also be helpful to make some Menu Plans a few months in advance to make use of the items you’ve stocked up on. You don’t have to do the whole thing; just write down a few dishes that you can make in order to use up some of your freezer or pantry items in the time frame they need to be used.
“But it’s just me/my partner and me.” That shouldn’t stop you. With these tips and tricks, you can save a lot of money and time as well. Try it once, and if you don’t like it, you never have to do it again. But I’m willing to bet that at least some of you singles and duos out there will go “OMG, why didn’t I/we do this YEARS ago?”
Don’t be afraid to buy a larger portion of meat than you normally would, especially if it’s a good deal. I once bought a 5.9-pound chicken because it was 88 cents a pound. I live alone, so normally I wouldn’t be able to finish all that meat before it goes bad. I roasted it whole, chilled it overnight, and then chopped up all the meat. I came out with about six cups of meat that can be put into soups or casseroles. I portioned it out two cups at a time, since that’s the most common amount of chopped cooked chicken called for in recipes.
Batch cooking is your friend. If you make your signature sauce multiple times a week and use it on different things, it’ll be a time-saver to make several batches at once, portion it out into recipe-sized amounts, and freeze it. The only difference between making one batch or five is the amount of ingredients you’re buying, chopping, etc.
You can buy sets of printer paper/card stock that is presized and micro-perforated. Put a sheet or two into your printer, and use a template to type up directions for the recipes you use your sauce for, with one recipe for each card on the sheet. Tear the cards apart at the perforations and take them to a local copy shop to be laminated. Each time you make your sauce, you have reusable cards to attach to the containers with freezer tape so you know what to do with each batch. Thaw in the fridge overnight before using as directed on the card. When you’ve used a batch of sauce, put the card in a box or envelope for the next use. Since the cards are laminated, any dirt or food that gets on them can just be wiped clean.
Go back to the basics. A lot can be gained by focusing on some basic building blocks of cooking and Meal Prep. There’s a big difference between tomato sauce and spaghetti sauce. You use tomato sauce as your base for spaghetti sauce, but when it’s done right, a basic tomato sauce forms the basis of many dishes in a variety of cuisines. In addition, stocks and broths form the basis of many dishes as well.
It can be very helpful to make your own tomato sauce and/or stock, and when you make your own, you know exactly what’s in it. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but it also falls under the things you would start first thing and then let it cook while you move to your next block of work. You should freeze tomato sauce in two- to four-cup portions, since that’s the most common range of amounts that will be used in recipes. Choose non-staining plastic, foil, or glass containers. Jars should be wide-mouthed to allow for expansion during freezing, and always leave at least ½” head space (1” for narrow-mouthed jars to prevent the jars from cracking). The same rules apply for stock, which I would only freeze by the quart.
If this is your first time making homemade stock or sauce, start small. Find a simple recipe that doesn’t make a lot, and try it out. If it’s something you think you’d like to do on a more regular basis, you can always scale the recipe up to fit your needs. If you find that making your own homemade stock or tomato sauce isn’t your thing, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with using canned, so long as you remember that canned stock, broth, and tomato sauce will almost always be salted, which affects the flavor of the finished dish.
Which brings us to the next topic. Seasoning is an art that needs to be cultivated. The best advice I’ve ever gotten regarding the addition of salt to your recipe came from a well-known chef with a show on PBS. She was adding salt to her dish a pinch at a time from a salt crock. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said, “It looks like I’m adding a lot of salt to my food, but I’m really not. I’m just adding a pinch here and there to develop layers of flavor. If a recipe calls for two teaspoons of salt, go ahead and measure it out, but don’t add it all at once. Start by adding a small pinch to the first ingredient that goes into the pan to cook. Each time something else goes into the pan, add a pinch of salt from that measurement. This way, you’re spreading the seasoning throughout the dish instead of adding it all at once.”
There really is a difference. Each time you add a bit of salt, you bring out the flavor of the food you’re cooking, but you also extract liquid from it. As that liquid is evaporated, the flavors are concentrated, blended, and further developed. Professional chefs use kosher salt largely because it’s easier to pick up between your fingers, owing to the larger grains compared to table salt. It also imparts a milder flavor because of those larger grains, since fewer grains are able to fit into a given measurement when the grains are larger (see my post titled “It really doesn’t matter, does it?”). You can use table salt in place of kosher, but reduce the amount by up to half the amount called for. However, you should never use iodized salt. It can impart an off flavor to food. I’m not saying you should toss your iodized salt right now. Just decide whether to buy plain or kosher salt the next time you need it.
You may need to retrain your taste buds once you start salting your food differently. Try using a variety of other seasonings and aromatics in place of the salt if your dish seems a bit bland. Adding a splash of lemon or lime juice can brighten a dish. Just go easy on it so you don’t end up making your dish too sour. You also need to factor in how the dish will be served. If you’re going to put a sauce or dressing on top, consider the seasoning that component will add. The good news is that you’ll get used to having food that isn’t too salty.
In what I hope is the last thing I have to say about salt, at least for a while, stop using salted butter!!! You really don’t need it nutritionally, and ultimately it adds unnecessary salt to your finished dish. A warning, though. Once you get used to using unsalted butter, you’ll have taste bud shock the first time you taste salted butter again. It happened to me one day at my mom’s with some buttered toast. Since then I’m able to mentally prepare myself for having salted butter in a restaurant or at someone else’s house, but that first time was a shock to my system.
Pack it up! Anything that has been cooked MUST be allowed to cool about 30 minutes minimum before it can be portioned out, but don’t wait longer than an hour. You can also chill it in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. Stirring the food occasionally helps cool it down, but remember to keep it covered between stirrings so as not to dry it out. While you’re waiting for things to cook and/or cool, focus on portioning out nonperishables such as cold cereal or snacks for the kids.
Casseroles and other one-pot meals can be made and portioned in a variety of ways. For starters, you should always keep one or two whole, unbaked casseroles on hand as freezer space permits. Here’s where that chest freezer comes in handy. You can thaw a casserole in the fridge in about 24-48 hours, so they’re perfect for that last-minute potluck invite or when you have company coming over this weekend.
Remember to include the thawing and baking directions on the casserole label. It’s no fun going to prepare dinner and suddenly thinking, “Wait! How is this cooked again?” Many freezer-friendly casserole recipes will tell you to thaw them in the fridge for a specified time, then remove them from the fridge up to 30 minutes before baking to let them come at least close to room temperature. You will preheat your oven during that 30-minute time frame. Having the baking directions on the label is really helpful, especially since casseroles that have been frozen and then thawed before baking have slightly different cooking directions than the same thing made fresh and baked immediately. A good rule to remember is to add between five and ten minutes to the total baking time for a freezer casserole.
You can do a casserole in one of four different ways. First, you can just make a whole casserole and freeze it. Remember, however, that it isn’t supposed to be baked yet. Just assemble it, cover tightly with both plastic and foil, and label it on top with the baking directions. Put a simpler label with just the name and date on the side of the pan that will face the front of your freezer. Another way to make a casserole is to bake it and portion it like everything else. The third way to do a casserole is to assemble it in smaller sized pans such as mini loaf pans for individual servings. Treat it as a whole casserole above, but reduce the cooking time once you actually bake it. Smaller pans require shorter cooking times; if the original recipe says 30-35 minutes, check the mini one after 15-20 minutes. Finally, you can partially assemble the ingredients and put them together in a large resealable bag. Leave out things like sauces and other wet ingredients, as those can (and should) be made fresh when you assemble the dish. Keep meats and veggies in separate bags inside the larger bag to prevent cross contamination. If you’re using a slow cooker or multi-function cooker, you can sometimes dump everything in and flip the switch (check your manufacturer’s instructions). Thaw the meat if you’re going to bake the casserole in the oven, but leave the vegetables frozen. Vegetables often become soggy if they’re thawed before cooking.
You should always have some staples on hand that you cook with and eat frequently, such as rice, beans, and pasta. Rice and beans can be made exactly like you always make them and portioned out according to your family’s needs. Pasta is different. You need to have it slightly underdone, because freezing cooked pasta causes it to soften over time. Take it off the stove up to 30 seconds before the lowest cooking time given on the package. Toss it in butter or olive oil. Small shapes can be placed in a single layer on a large 1” deep baking sheet lined with parchment and then frozen. Long pasta such as spaghetti can be put into whichever size container or resealable bag you need and frozen as is.
Stock up on your favorite frozen veggies whenever they’re on sale, and portion them out appropriately. Remember to thaw them first so they’re easier to measure; they can be refrozen well. Place the thawed vegetable into a colander set over a bowl to save any liquid that drains (you can use it as a portion of the total liquid in a variety of recipes–just store it in the freezer).
Waste not, want not. Save your vegetable peels and anything else you remove and would otherwise toss. These can be used to flavor a homemade broth or stock. Put them in a large resealable bag that has been labeled and dated, with a reminder to use it up within three months from the date. Each time you have odds and ends from your fresh veggies, put them into that bag. Do the same with any raw meat or poultry bones. These can also be used in homemade broth and stock, and they stay good in the freezer for several months. Save any chicken skin whenever your recipe tells you to remove it before cooking. You can render the fat from it and save that for making gravies or sauces, or you can roast the skin along with the bones to give your stock or broth extra color and flavor. Save the necks, wing tips, and tails as well.
If no one in your family will eat the heels of bread, save them in gallon bags in the freezer. Let the heels thaw on the counter, then let them get stale for a day or two. You can tear them up and run them through your food processor on pulse to make soft breadcrumbs, or you can cut them into 1” squares to make croutons.
If you like smoothies, consider making smoothie packs. Just prepare your favorite fruits and veggies as usual and place them into an appropriately sized resealable bag. These packs can be frozen up to 3 months. Either thaw overnight in the fridge, or use them straight from the freezer. Any add-ins such as protein powders, chia seeds, etc., can be portioned out and kept in a small bin next to your blender for easy access. There are small lidded containers (usually about two ounces) available for portioning out things like seeds or nuts, dressings, and other small-volume items. They’re also perfect for measuring out small amounts of ingredients such as the seasonings you need for your recipes. You’ve seen the TV chefs with a line of small bowls of salt, pepper, minced garlic, etc., right? These containers are the disposable version.
If you make a lot of pancakes and/or waffles like I do, save that last bit of batter from one batch in a lidded bowl in the fridge, and add it to the next batch. You’re essentially making a sourdough starter for your pancakes and waffles! A small amount of liquid will form on top of the reserved batter; just stir it in before adding it to your next batch.
Instead of buying the individual cups of applesauce, buy the larger jars (which are less expensive) and portion them out. A half-cup is one serving, and there are half-cup lidded containers on the market for the smaller portions of foods. Applesauce can be frozen up to 3 months. Thaw it in the fridge overnight before packing it into the kids’ lunches, and remind them to keep the empty containers in their lunchboxes to bring home for washing.
With some practice and attention to detail, you can make yourself a working schedule to fit in at least a few hours of Meal Prep each week. Don’t overextend yourself in the beginning, or you’ll have burnout. By starting small and working your way up, you’ll become a pro at Meal Prep in no time at all.
Have anything to add? Feel free to post a comment below.