Millions of busy adults suffer from food prep problems, also known as FPP. Are you one of them? Symptoms of FPP include:
- Possessing 3 or more items in your refrigerator which are furrier than your dog
- Not having the right things on hand to assemble a meal, so your order Pizza or Chinese
- Throwing out food on a weekly basis (that once would have been fine to eat)
- Overeating because you skipped a meal earlier (may cause paradoxical weight gain brought on by grocery shortage)
- Skipping meals during the workday because you’re too busy to go out and don’t have anything with you to eat
- Two items in your crisper have achieved sentience, and are battling for dominion over the lower refrigerator
- Your past google searches include “How many weeks past the ‘sell by’ date can I eat deli meat?”
- Paleontologists have requested access to items in your freezer
Maybe these are all familiar to you (sounds like you’re afflicted)! Or maybe you’re not quite that bad off but you toss out more food than you’d like to, and get caught a time or two per month in a pinch, and don’t eat as well as you could on those instances. Either way, here are some tips to help you do a little bit better at the logistics of food prep, which can help you manage your weight more easily, save some cash, avoid those long overly hungry stretches (which aren’t fun, to say the least) and last but not least, avoid missing out on fun things because you got food poisoning from decrepit lasagna.
1. You’re not a bad person for throwing out food.
If you buy lots of fresh, whole foods and fall short of eating it all, of course you have to throw some out. It’s still worth being proud of yourself for surrounding yourself with the good stuff. Tossing food is a much better alternative than swearing off the produce section or eating food that is unsafe “to avoid wasting it”. With some more practice, you’ll get better at matching your purchasing habits to your consumption patterns, but all of us end up throwing things out sometimes. It’s okay, we’re all going to make it.
2. You’re also not a bad person for not knowing this already.
Some parents teach their kids kitchen skills, some… don’t. Some people pick up useful strategies from Home Ec class or some foodie roommate. A few lucky souls pair up with a food provider extraordinaire and marry their way into a steady supply of home cooking and lunches packed with love. But if you didn’t get culinarily inclined parents, your roomies lived on ramen and you and Martha Stewart just didn’t hit it off… no one taught you. Don’t fault yourself for being busy learning other things. No one springs from the womb, Saran wrap in hand, ready to make next week’s lunches this Sunday. We all start out not knowing, and we have to be taught or figure out the rest.
3. You don’t have to sacrifice your entire weekend.
If you feel good spending several hours shopping, washing, slicing and baking on a weekend day, rock on. But if you would rather do an extra 15 minutes every other night, that’s plenty! Using your time and appliances wisely is key here, not investing hours.
For example: Putting a pot of rice on to boil takes 2 minutes, IF you’re slow to measure out the rice and water. Then you can set a timer, walk away and do other stuff. About the same time would be needed to wrap some sweet potatoes in foil and pop them into the oven. Putting something in the slow cooker similarly can be a quick affair, and then you don’t have to hang in the kitchen. You can even go to bed and wake up to stick it it in the fridge. That’s right, you can literally cook dinner with your eyes closed.
4. You don’t need an extensive tupperware set, 60 dollar lunch box, portable cooler, or anything weird.
Just like investing lots of free time isn’t the key, neither are pricey doodads. Some tin foil and parchment make for easy cleanup, other than that you just need food and basic kitchen appliances like a stove and oven.
5. Some stuff preps well in advance, some stuff doesn’t.
Soup, stews, meats, grains and starches all work great to cook in advance. You can also prep veggies by rinsing or cutting them up ahead of time. However, there are a few things to steer clear of trying to do in advance:
- Putting dressing on a lettuce or spinach salad ahead of time can make it soggy. Ditto for sandwiches, so you might want to wait until mealtime to add condiments. (Raw kale or cabbage salads however, can hold up better, so are possible exceptions.)
- Any crispy breaded or roasted items (like chicken fingers or crispy home fries) won’t be crispy after storage. Sometimes they can be re-crisped using the oven or stovetop, but not always.
- Do you like crunchy cereal or flaked almonds atop your yogurt? Me too. But don’t add them ahead of time, because they will get soft and lose their crunch.
- I wouldn’t consider this a “deal breaker”, because it’s relatively minor and just cosmetic, but remember that cut apples, guacamole, and fresh basil or pesto tend to get brownish during storage.
- Reheat fish at your own risk. The texture can be unforgiving.
6. Some foods freeze well, some don’t.
Did you know that if you mistakenly bought too much milk you could just freeze it? You can! Pasta dishes, cooked grains, sauces, soups and stews also tend to be great freezer candidates. But not everything can go in the icebox and come back to life with good results. Beware of freezing dairy based sauces or soups, because they often separate. Fruit and veggies can be frozen, but will be much softer when you pull them out. Think of them as good for smoothies or omelets, but not for salads.
7. Never cook a single piece of chicken, or one potato.
If you’re going to the trouble of heating up the pan, the grill or the oven, put several pieces on there so you have extra portions for coming days!
8. You can repeat meals if you want to, but it’s not necessary.
By the third time I’m eating a dish, the enjoyment has dropped precipitously. I’ve done the huge-ass pot of chili you eat all week. I’ve done massive egg bakes or frittatas. Oversized vegetable soups. Vats of stuffed cabbage. And if you enjoy one pot meals (and don’t mind reheating cooked eggs) these are perfectly fine meals for you to use. Personally, I find things a lot more enjoyable if I can make different meals from the components I cooked in advance.
9. If you cook up basics ahead of time, you can always season or flavor them differently at meal time.
A big pot of brown rice. A half dozen chicken breasts. Four baked potatoes. Two pounds of browned ground beef. These sort of staples on hand can go into a variety of different meals. The rice can be served plain or with soy sauce as a bed for stir fry, be mixed with the ground beef filling for stuffed peppers, or be flavored with garlic and butter for a side dish. Chicken can be sliced atop a salad, put into a sandwich, cubed and tossed with pasta and sauce, or used to fill a quesadilla. Baked potatoes can be topped with salsa and black beans, chopped into a green salad, Sauteed up for a side dish with eggs, or smothered in broccoli and cheese. Cooked ground beef can become stir fry, bolognese tomato sauce, stuffed peppers, salad, burritos. In general, starchy foods and proteins are best for prepping ahead of time.
10. Condiments, seasonings, canned goods and jars are your friend.
They’re smart, not inferior or lazy. When you have your pre-cooked proteins and starches on hand, putting a meal together comes down to doing something with some veggies, and making it all tasty. Veggies can be cut up and eaten raw as a salad, or you can steam or saute them in about 5 minutes. That leaves us with flavoring.
Having some sauces, salad dressings, and mixed seasonings on hand means you’re set. Sure you can make your own, but again, you don’t have to. I enjoy lots of bottled salad dressings and rarely make my own. Jarred pasta sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce, miso, ketchup, mustard, sesame oil, olive oil, lemon juice and vinegars can all help flavor your meal. Steak rub, Cajun, Italian, and Greek seasoning blends, lemon pepper, or Mrs. Dash can be added to already cooked meats to flavor them, or used on vegetables to give them some zing.
Lastly, despite their limited talent for pep talk, canned beans are a fantastic teammate to have in your corner. If you run short on starches or don’t feel like taking the time to boil pasta water or cook potatoes, open a can and you have a high fiber, vitamin rich side dish. Some of the easiest ways to jazz up canned beans include stirring cumin and or chili powder into black beans (add some cilantro if you have it), or mixing chana masala (an Indian spice blend), or tomato paste and curry powder with chickpeas. Frank’s Red Hot and a squeeze of lime juice work with lentils, kidney beans or black beans. Rosemary and olive oil are a perfect pairing for white beans, such as Great Northern Beans or Cannellini. And all the flavors I mentioned above are shelf stable things you can keep in your pantry for months or years. So buy them when you stock up on canned beans, and as long as you don’t lose the can opener, your Plan B side dish is always ready.
Bonus Tip #11. Stay safe.
If you’re cooking food to eat in the future, get it cooled down as soon as you can. Leftovers are safe for 3 or 4 days, but after that your risk of food poisoning increases. If you think you won’t use something within four days, freeze it right away. When I am hesitating on a particular food’s safety, making a judgement call on whether to taste something or toss it, I compare my dissatisfaction with throwing it out to my feelings on throwing it up, and that usually settles it decisively.