The Very Best Way to Cook Chicken for Meal Prep
Our get-ahead technique takes just 30 minutes.
By Heath Goldman for Food Network Kitchen
Ah, meal prep: when you do it right, it’s like giving a gift to yourself. Botch it, though, and you face sunk costs and sad meals. Chicken is one of the best meats for meal prep because it’s inexpensive and lasts for up to four days in the fridge after you’ve cooked it, so we’re here to make sure that when it comes to chicken, your prep is perfect.
First things first, let’s talk about the bird. While it might seem that chicken is chicken is chicken is chicken, the type you buy really makes a difference. We recommend always buying organic chicken (preferably free range). While the organic label comes at a slight premium, buying organic chicken versus inorganic chicken can often mean the difference between juicy and dry results. Truly! Sure, it's better for the planet, but we’re talking about a big difference in flavor.
We also recommend you look for “air-chilled” chicken. During processing, chicken has to be cooled to specific temperatures for food safety. It’s either cooled with purified air or cold water immersion. Cold water immersion isn’t ideal because water penetrates the chicken, diluting its flavor.
From there, it's time to figure out the right cut of chicken to buy. If you were in the market for a gorgeous chicken dinner, perhaps some Crispy Chicken Thighs with Butternut Squash and Escarole, Chicken Under a Brick or Skillet Rosemary Chicken we’d recommend buying bone-in, skin-on chicken 10/10 times. That’s because the skin crisps up into crackling golden perfection and the bone ensures the meat stays succulent and juicy (Is your mouth watering yet?).
But for meal prep, the best cut to buy is boneless, skinless chicken breast. We know, we know. It sounds boring. But hear us out: First of all, chicken skin will get soggy if you leave it in the fridge overnight. And the last thing you want to at lunch time is open up a container of salad and carve your chicken off the bone. White meat is simply more versatile than dark meat, which is important when your meal-prep goal is to cook a few components and then mix and match to form new creations all week long.
When you’re shopping for chicken breasts, in addition for organic and air-chilled labels, seek out the smallest ones your grocery store carries. We’re not talking about chicken cutlets, we’re talking breasts from smaller birds. The smaller the breast, the more tender and flavorful it’ll be.
Cooking boneless, skinless chicken breasts has its pitfalls — namely, dry and tough results. Our technique steers you clear of these issues and, bonus, yields extra meal-prepped ingredients. Drumroll, please. We recommend baking your chicken on a sheet tray on a bed of chopped vegetables. As the vegetables cook, they release steam, which helps to keep the chicken moist — and you get more bang for your buck. Opt for veggies (or fruits) that cook quickly, in about 30 minutes. Think: broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant. Avoid choices like Brussels sprouts, which are best when they’re super crispy and need a lot of special treatment.
First, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the vegetables and chicken in olive oil, then generously season them with salt and pepper. Slice a lemon in half and squeeze it over the chicken – the acid adds some great flavor and helps to tenderize the meat. Pop everything in the oven and roast until the chicken is just cooked through (until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reaches 160 degrees F), about 30 minutes. After you remove it from the oven, the chicken will carryover cook to 165 degrees F. Allow the chicken to cool completely before storing the whole breasts in an airtight container.