Preparing for meals has the potential to be very time consuming. With three meals a day in most cases, and sometimes more, this can mean hours in the kitchen, unless you find ways to streamline or simplify the prep. Sometimes that means figuring out a better way to do things, and sometimes that means choosing recipes that need less prep, and in any case the end result is meant to be easier and faster preparation of meals.
Planning ahead for preparing meals will have a variety of benefits, as well. Your budget will thank you for planning meals and preparing them at home. You are more likely to choose healthier options when you plan ahead than when you choose and prepare while you are hungry. You will also have the comfort of knowing that meals are already planned and you will not have to stress out over it.
Tips and Tricks
Pre-cook meat. Not only can you cook meat ahead, you can actually divide a pan and season the meat in multiple ways, cooking them all at once. This will allow you to cook several dishes’ worth of meat in the same prep time as cooking one. Using foil to divide the pan, you can season in two, three, or even four different ways, depending on how much meat is necessary for each recipe.
Prepare vegetables ahead of time. If you spiral cut or otherwise cut up vegetables twice a week, you will not need to take the time at mealtime to do this step, speeding up dinnertime exponentially. If your recipe calls for roasted vegetables, you can pre-roast in batches, and do several pans of different vegetables based on how quickly or slowly they roast. Carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, and similar vegetables take a little longer and can be done together, while asparagus, mushrooms, small tomatoes and similar vegetables roast more quickly and can all be done at the same time.
Cook eggs in the oven rather than in a pot on the stove. Most of us have saucepans that fit half a dozen eggs, but it is possible to cook up to 24 at once by setting them in muffin pans and baking them for 30 minutes. (You may want to test one to be sure the oven settings work well for this, and adjust if necessary before doing a whole batch.)
Blend up breakfast smoothies and then freeze them in muffin tins. When you are ready for a smoothie but low on time, toss a couple in the blender to chop them up and make them easy to drink.
Pre-portion snacks so they will last longer. Sitting down with a bag of pretzels for a snack will result in the bag lasting only two or three snacktimes for most people, while pre-packaging them into single-size servings will give you 8-10 snacks from the same size bag.
To make it easier to understand how to make faster and easier meal prep a reality, below you will find some recipes for each meal that include tips and tricks and how to pre-prep.
Breakfast is often called the most important meal of the day. Starting the day with nutrients to fuel the brain and body will encourage better productivity and happier attitudes throughout the day. A great combination will include a whole grain, fruit, protein, a good fat, and seasoning for added flavor.
One way to do this is to prepare breakfast bowls. The components for these can be kept handy which makes it fast and easy to throw together a bowl in the morning. Some can be combined ahead of time, allowing you to just grab and go in the morning.
Chia seeds blended with coconut or almond milk and left in the refrigerator at least four hours will result in a pudding-type substance, which is rich in fiber and protein. (Some people prefer to let it sit for only fifteen minutes, instead, which results in a different flavor.) When combined with plain yogurt and almond or coconut milk (adjust quantities to make it thicker or thinner), this makes a base for a variety of great breakfast combinations and will keep up to four days in an airtight container. Try these combinations:
- Mango (fresh or frozen) and honey blended in, topped with blackberries, raspberries, and coconut
- Banana blended in, topped with crushed walnuts and strawberry slices
- Topped with sunflower seeds, honey, and toasted coconut flakes
Breakfast bowls are another option. It is possible to pre-make egg-based “muffins” that are about a half-cup each in muffin tins or ramekins. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and spray the ramekins or muffin tin with nonstick spray. Start with 8 eggs (or 8 egg whites and one whole egg, if you prefer) and whisk them together. Then add other ingredients plus salt and pepper to taste, mix, divide evenly into the prepared dish(es) and bake about twenty minutes.
- Chopped baby spinach, diced tomatoes, and feta cheese
- Diced ham and shredded cheddar cheese
- Diced bell pepper and onion
If you prefer to eat more greens for breakfast, or prefer a savory breakfast, a breakfast salad may hit the spot. A bit of hummus for extra protein will add interest and provide a good pop of flavor. Add some sautéed vegetables such as cut asparagus, kale, and/or shredded Brussels sprouts. Include a hard- or soft-boiled egg for protein, and add some toppings, such as a sliced avocado, sunflower seeds, salt and pepper, even dressing, if desired.
In the middle of the day, we all need a pick-me-up to keep us going. Lunch does not have to be complicated. If you go out of the house for the day, to school or work, then carrying a lunch with you is sure to be more cost-effective and healthier than stopping for fast food or eating at a restaurant. Making lunches to take with you can be done in just a few minutes at the start of the week and then you can just grab and go.
You might consider getting a set of glass dishes with airtight lids or, for some of these ideas, mason jars, for easy storage and carrying.
- Burrito Bowls, in a take-along container
Meat/Protein: shredded turkey or chicken, ground beef, or black beans cooked with taco seasoning
Salsa, either fresh or storebought
Whole kernel corn and/or sliced avocado
White or brown rice, precooked
Garnish with a slice of citrus fruit or a sprig of parsley or cilantro, if desired
- Burritos, pre-grilled, can be reheated to eat.
Tortilla or large lettuce leaf
Cooked sliced or shredded chicken, turkey, or beef
Chopped cilantro, if desired
- Mason jar salads, can be eaten from the jar or dumped on a plate or bowl
Put dressing on the bottom, or in a separate-but-contained additional container on top. A single-serve applesauce container can be repurposed for this. It will fit nicely between the lid and the ring, keeping it from spilling but not taking up valuable salad space. If you choose to put the dressing in the bottom of the jar, your next layer should be something that will not get soggy, such as cut cucumbers, fruit, or meat chunks.
Greens, such as leaf lettuce, romaine, arugula, baby spinach
Diced bell pepper
Chunk chicken or turkey
Depending whether you like fruit in salads, diced apples, sliced grapes, and similar fruits may be included.
Pecans, walnuts, sliced or chopped almonds, or sunflower seeds and croutons should go on top, by the lid, to keep them crunchy.
Casseroles can be made ahead and portioned into take-along containers for lunches. Most of these will freeze well, so they can be divided into airtight containers and frozen then reheated at lunch time.
Dinner is the meal most people want to sit down for, but few want to take a long time getting it together. Especially in homes where both adults have full-time jobs, a quick and easy dinnertime is generally welcome! Slow cookers are one of the best tools in the kitchen arsenal to achieve this goal, but not the only one. Pressure cookers and simple recipes also have a prominent place.
Slow-Cooker Layered Chicken Enchilada Casserole
Mix about three cups of shredded chicken with a can of black beans (rinse and drain), a can of condensed cream of chicken soup (without water added), a can of green enchilada sauce, a can of chopped green chilies, a quarter cup of fresh cilantro (minced) and a tablespoon of lime juice in a bowl. Line the slow cooker with foil and spray them with cooking spray. Spread a quarter cup of the chicken mixture on the bottom, then layer tortillas, a third of the remaining chicken mixture, and a cup of Colby-jack cheese, three times. Cook about four hours, covered, on low. Uncover and let stand about fifteen minutes before cutting and serving. Use the foil with which you lined the cooker to lift it out for easy cutting.
Pot roast can easily be done in the slow cooker. Add potatoes, carrots, sliced green bell pepper, quartered onion and mushrooms to the slow cooker with the roast and top with teriyaki sauce, ground ginger, oregano, and a bit of brown sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. For better flavor, sear the roast in a pan before adding to the slow cooker. Cook on low, covered, for 7 or 8 hours (perfect for putting in before work and eating when you get home).
A pastry braid can be an elegant meal that takes less than half an hour to prepare. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and mix a cup of chopped cooked turkey, half a cup of chopped broccoli, half a cup of red bell pepper, half a cup of shredded cheese (cheddar is good), quarter cup of mayonnaise or Miracle Whip, and a quarter teaspoon of dill weed to make a filling. Roll out a sheet of puff pastry (if you chose frozen, let it thaw first) and roll it together into a rectangle. Arrange the filling down the middle, and cut the sides into strips, leaving a little space before the filling. Lay the strips over the filling, alternating, for a braided look. Bake about 25 minutes, until golden brown and fully heated.
A great chicken and shrimp meal can be made in a pressure cooker. Season chunks of chicken with salt and pepper and saute until brown on medium heat in hot oil, in batches. Make a sauce of a bit of oil, a large chopped onion, a can of tomato sauce, a half cup of chicken broth or white wine, and a minced clove of garlic and pour it over the chicken inside the pressure cooker. Lay some butter on top and pressure-cook on high for fifteen minutes. Allow the pressure to release for ten minutes before quick-releasing the pressure that remains. Check that the chicken is 165 degrees or more. Saute the shrimp into the mixture, cooking about five minutes. This is great to serve with egg noodles or rice.
Whatever type of cuisine is your favorite, there are ways to streamline the preparation of the meal. Consider what can be done ahead of time and what can be done differently that will decrease the amount of time needed to prepare your favorite meal, and you might be surprised at how quickly you can make it come together!