8 Habits to Steal from a Rock-Star Meal Prepper
Adopt a new cooking style (and make a little extra effort on Sunday) to put a week of satisfying, nutritious meals on autopilot.
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Prep Like a Pro
If you read Tracy Benjamin's blog, Shutterbean, you know that she's not only a talented home cook and photographer, but she's also a master meal prepper. Seriously, one look at a container-bursting spread like this and you'll want to bow down. But we don't get jealous — we get details. We asked Tracy to spill her meal-prep secrets, so you too can prep with the best of 'em.
Without further ado, take it away, Tracy:
Plan a weekly date (and interrogation) with your calendar.
Before I start meal prepping on Sundays, I consult my calendar to see what kind of obstacles or opportunities my family’s schedule will reveal. Do we have after-school activities? Will we have to rush home for dinner? If so, I’d better have something quick on hand for last-minute meals.
How busy are my days — and when will I feel too tired to cook? What can I make now that I can pull out of the freezer (maybe enchiladas or lasagna) and pop in the oven? Then I can just prepare a salad and be done with the meal.
Who is going to be around for dinner this week? Are we having company? Am I going out to dinner anytime this week? And will I need to leave something for my family to eat because I won’t be home? If so, it’s gotta be fuss-free because my husband isn’t an experienced cook.
Did I indulge over the weekend? If so, then I load up the fridge with single-serving salads and an array of chopped vegetables for snacks. I know that if I don’t prepare healthy snack options, it’s harder to make good choices.
When I have a sense of the upcoming week, I can make sure I have what I need in the fridge. If my fridge is a mess, so am I.
Take stock of what’s in the fridge on Sundays — and then get creative.
One of the reasons I’ve committed to meal prepping is because I hate to waste food. There is nothing sadder than throwing out vegetables and fruits I intended to eat during the week. If I have anything left over, I think of it as a creative challenge — I channel my inner Iron Chef and try to figure out a use for it quickly. Maybe leftover veggies can add some bulk to a pizza tonight. Or maybe all I need is a little rice or farro to make a lunch out of some languishing chicken and peppers.
I also use this time to listen to one of my favorite podcasts, so I can activate my brain while I’m working. It makes me feel even more productive if I learn something while making things with my hands. It helps me get in the zone.
Lean into the meal-prep momentum to make life easier later in the week.
Always be thinking, "What can I do now that will save me time later?" Committing the extra effort ahead of time pays off in spades.
If I’m already prepping something for one dish, I ride the productivity wave and do as many additional small things as I can. For example, if I’m making hard-boiled eggs with the intention of having them to snack on during the week, I’ll toss in a few more so I can also make an egg salad.
Maybe you’re on a roll with chopping? Chop a little more (say, a couple of onions) while you’re at it and challenge yourself to use them in an impromptu recipe during the week — nothing quickly bulks up a meal like extra veggies. Planning some salads for later in the week? Prep your lettuce beforehand and roast a few more vegetables now to easily fortify your meal later.
Boiling water? Boil some extra and make yourself some homemade iced tea to put in the fridge.
Feeling unmotivated? Take a trip to the grocery store and see all the shelves of costly ingredients already prepped. Look at the prices and realize how much more you have to pay when you don’t take the time to do it yourself. I bet you’ll find the energy to keep prepping!
Seize the opportunity to put healthy choices on autopilot.
If I don’t put healthy options in my fridge, my brain automatically tells my hands to reach for whatever is easiest. How hard is it to grab a bag of pretzels? Not hard at all. How hard is it to grab chopped carrots and that hummus you made? Also pretty dang easy — but only if you take the time to set yourself up for success.
Cut-up fruits and veggies to snack on are a must, but I also love to take advantage of the oven. Roasted vegetables are great in salads, blended in soups, thrown into burritos or enchiladas, or heated up later in the week over rice. Honestly, I’ll just eat roasted vegetables right out of the Pyrex dish, standing up in my kitchen. So delicious.
Make soups for now — and for later.
Soups are also a great way to prep and use up vegetables — especially when things don’t go as planned. I’m always buying zucchini with the intention of turning them into zucchini noodles. But when I don’t get around to using them, I make my mom’s curry zucchini soup because it tastes like my childhood. I know that if we have leftover carrots I can immediately make my simple carrot coconut soup.
I also like to turn a can of tomatoes, onions, garlic and chicken broth into a minestrone with whatever vegetables I have on hand. Pair it with a crusty baguette (from the freezer to the oven, of course!) and you have yourself a hearty dinner.
Then I make sure to put a few single servings of whatever soup I make in the freezer so I can heat it up for lunch during the week. Your future self will thank you for being so thoughtful — I promise.
Be best friends with your freezer.
I have a secret love affair with my freezer — sh, don’t tell my husband. (But if you must talk to him, at least don't discuss how messy this affair is. I’m still learning how to organize my freezer, but that’s another story entirely.)
My freezer is a lifesaver for all those times when we have leftovers. Make too many meatballs? Freeze 'em and put them in an impromptu tomato sauce later in the week. Look at that — you have instant spaghetti and meatballs! Leftover pizza? Lucky you! Instead of waking up in the morning and eating too many slices of cold pizza before I’ve even had my coffee, I freeze them (layer a piece of parchment between each slice before you put them in a freezer bag so they don’t stick). Then, next time you’re in a pinch for dinner, heat them up at 400 degrees F for about 15-20 minutes to turn frozen pizza into crispy deliciousness. The freezer helps things feel like pure alchemy on a weeknight when you have absolutely no energy after working all day. Plus, it lets you keep leftovers without having to eat the same meal again right away, which means you won’t get sick of them and end up letting them waste away in the fridge.
Make something sweet for the week.
Both my husband and 8-year-old son love treats, and baking is very relaxing for me. If I bake something each week (overripe bananas = banana bread!) we all win. Having a treat at home like scones or muffins means we’re not tempted to drop $8 on a coffee and a sweet in a coffee shop. That can become an expensive habit!
Regularly try something new to shake it up — and learn more about what you love.
Meal prepping can quickly become redundant and bland if you always make the same things. I like to challenge myself to use a new ingredient each week. It doesn’t have to be anything major, but it keeps my weeks fun and lively. And sometimes, as a result, I find new staples to rely on. When you think of it as "research," you’ll find it’s so much easier to build your solid-gold meal rotation arsenal.
For instance, without experimentation, I would have never known that my son would be so into seaweed chips. We pair them with sticky rice, toppings and soy sauce to make ourselves instant "sushi rolls" — a whole new meal created by a shopping whim.