Do you see all those perfect meal prep photos on Instagram and get a little stab of envy? It can’t be just me wondering who has the time and energy to devote to all those gorgeously prepared ingredients just waiting to join forces for an Instagram dinner? Ugh.
But being prepared for harried weeknight meals — especially if you're also on the hook for breakfast and lunch in quarantine — really doesn’t have to be a big deal, Jess Dang, founder of Cook Smarts meal planning service, told NBC News BETTER.
“A lot of people don’t like meal prep,” she said. “But you also hate the stress of not having something ready to go. I get home at 5:30 with three hungry children and it’s a freaking disaster.”
So Dang preps ahead of time, most often the night before while her husband takes care of bath time with the kids, but also has several ways to work it in that truly do sound painless.
“Doing these small things really helps,” she said, and none of them require that you plan ahead of time what you’re making that week.
Make extra grains
If you’re making rice or grains like farro or barley it’s no more work to make extra, Dang said. Keep it in the fridge for a few days and move it to the freezer if you haven’t used it yet. But there are so many ways to use it, starting with adding it to a soup. “Any soup will benefit from additional grain, especially winter soups,” Dang said.
As I write I’m lunching on leftovers from last night’s extremely delicious shrimp and bean stew (that was so good there wasn’t much left) bulked up with a scoop of whole grains I pulled from the freezer. (OK, mine were purchased frozen but DIY would work equally well).
Dang also likes to toss a quarter cup of leftover grains into salad for more body. No need to even heat it up, she said. “Once it’s dressed you don’t feel like you’re eating cold grains. Especially farro with nice chewiness adds another element of texture.”
She’ll also throw rice into burritos and stuffed vegetables, and every week, she said, makes fried rice. Leftover rice is perfect for that, she added. “In a restaurant they don’t make fried rice with fresh rice, they want it to be at least one day old.”
All you need is a neutral oil (she likes avocado), day old rice, frozen vegetables (she always keeps peas and carrots on hand) and an egg in a hot wok or skillet. I’ve always scrambled my egg into the rice after frying it but Dang scrambles it first, and adds it back at the end. Level up with green onions, ginger, or shallots or fresh herbs, maybe some extra protein. “If you have some deli meat about to go bad, chop it up and put it in fried rice,” she said. And filed under mind blown, she makes breakfast fried rice with bacon and spinach.
While you want the rice to dry out for fried rice, if you want to moisten up your leftover grains for other dishes, just add a couple spoons of water when you heat it up, Dang said.
Almost make a vinaigrette
A homemade vinaigrette is dead simple and isn’t just for salads. Using a two to one ratio of oil to vinegar, plus another one-third mustard and sweetener like maple syrup or honey, you can marinate proteins, toss it with freshly roasted vegetables for something magical, make a plain chicken breast less sad with a drizzle, Dang said. Or stir it into grain bowls (using that extra grain!).
If grain bowls mystify you like they do me, just think of your favorite salad, Dang said, with the ingredients nestled on a bowl of grains instead of a bed of greens. And hey, you can still add greens! Her go-to bowl features chickpeas, feta and arugula or romaine, maybe with whatever’s fresh and on hand like red peppers or cucumbers, over farro.
So much of adulting is realizing you have to have systems in place. You have to treat domestic stuff like a job. You don’t walk into your job and try to fly by the seat of your pants.
Dang’s trick is to only partially make the vinaigrette. “I don’t add the oil until I’m making the dish,” she explained. She just keeps the mustard, sweetener and vinegar mixture in the fridge because the oil tends to harden if it’s chilled.
When she’s ready to use it, she whisks the vinegar mixture with the olive oil right into the dish she’s using before adding the other ingredients (for one less thing to wash!). One vinaigrette starter with balsamic and one with red wine vinegar is always in her fridge.
Roast a bunch of vegetables
Once you have a good batch of vegetables (think sweet potatoes — favorites because they’re affordable and good for diets ranging from Paleo to vegetarian — cauliflower, and baby carrots), you’ve got the makings for all sorts of good stuff. Besides just having them on your dinner plate as-is (maybe drizzled with your vinaigrette), you can add them to burritos and quesadillas, said Dang, not to mention grain bowls. They also make great snack or finger foods, especially for kids, she said.
Freeze extras for smoothies
When you wind up with extra, random bits of fruits and vegetables or weird amounts of greens, you’ve got the makings for smoothies, Dang said. She keeps a freezer bag with extra fruit and vegetables leftover from other dishes. “We’re not particular,” she said. “We keep it all in a bag and just dump it all in the Vitamix. It’s like keeping a stock scrap bag but for smoothies.”
She even includes leftover fresh herbs. You might not do a lot of say, cilantro, she said, but a few snips would be good, and mint would definitely be a good addition to a smoothie.
Make freezer meals and batch cook meats
OK, this isn’t a revelation, but if you’re making a meal that won’t take much additional work to make extra of, just double it, Dang said. The key here is to not plop an entire lasagna or casserole in the freezer, but to portion it into one or two servings at a time. And voila: your own homemade TV dinners!
When you’re preparing meat, especially something that comes in a large cut, make some more, Dang said. Especially if you’re using an Instant Pot, or throwing chicken on the grill, it doesn’t take a lot of time to double up. “Pulled pork is one of those meats I think people should always be doubling — it comes in a huge portion. Your first iteration can be tacos, then freeze it and use it in soup or sliders.” Extras can also go on sandwiches, in salads or in grain bowls, and of course in fried rice!
If you make it, they will eat it?
Of course none of this does any good if your fridge and freezer are full of mystery containers. (Guilty, because I always convince myself I’ll know exactly what that block of ... whatever is.)
Dang does not have a freezer that belongs on Pinterest, she insisted. It’s not even particularly organized. What she does have is a system. The necessary ingredients? Masking tape, a magnetic white board and markers. Everything gets labeled, and to make sure that without fail everything is logged when it goes in, markers are right there with the white board on the freezer in a magnetic pouch.
She breaks the whiteboard inventory into four categories: proteins, carbs (including partial bread loaves), prepared foods (like lasagna), and miscellaneous. For things that are constantly coming in and out like sandwich bread, she uses tally marks.
Not only does this make mealtime so much easier, she’s wasting less food. “I know that I’m tossing so much less than if I didn’t have the system in place,” she said.
And that’s what it comes down to. “So much of adulting is realizing you have to have systems in place,” Dang said. “You have to treat domestic stuff like a job. You don’t walk into your job and try to fly by the seat of your pants. It would make your life so much better to have your process in place whether that’s cleaning or meal planning.”
And if you just can’t bring yourself to do it. That’s where Dang comes in with her meal planning service. “Every week we send you a menu that’s optimizing to minimize food waste,” she said. Meals can be mixed and matched to be gluten free, Paleo and vegetarian, so diet-blended families can all find something.
“When you talk about doing yourself a future favor," she said, “having someone do your meal planning is one of the easiest pieces of self care anyone can be doing.”
More recipes and tips from food pros
- 8 easy, fuss free ways to cook fish at home
- 7 healthy meals you can make with a can of beans
- How to make the perfect pesto — and 5 recipes to get you started
- 7 sheet pan suppers to try this week
- 7 flavorful, fuss-free meatball recipes