Meal Prep in two hours?
December 29, 2018 7:37 PM   Subscribe

I've googled this and can't find what I'm looking for. I want the formula for meal prepping breakfast, lunch and dinner for most of the week in about two hours. The Kitchn's Power Hour series comes really close, but I want to know how it works "under the hood" so to speak. Details below the fold.

I'm super excited about The Kitchn's upcoming weekly newsletter about meal prepping. Their process is really streamlined and close to perfect.

I'd like to do this myself, but I need a starting point or a formula. They've perfected the art of meal making in two hours and I can't figure out how.

I can just use one of their plans (and I will) but many of the dishes are bean based and that's kind of a deal breaker. The problem is their plans are so detailed that if I change one part of the process I end up changing the whole thing. And that takes more time which defeats the purpose.

This is one of those "teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime" things.

I do have experience cooking a lot of food for Thanksgiving and I work it out on a spreadsheet. It runs like clockwork but it takes all day. I've learned to start the thing that takes the longest first. That's about all I got.

If anyone has figured out a formula or template for meal prepping, that's what I'm looking for.

Thanks all!
posted by onecircleaday to Food & Drink (8 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Thank you for the link!

I would break down the meal planning steps like this (I do meal plan, for a household of 5 which includes two low-carb/keto followers, two children who like grain things, and myself, no dairy/beef and vegan before 6):

1. Decide how much variety or lack thereof you are willing to live with in your life. During the times I have needed to keep meal prep the most streamlined, we had a 3 week plan that we cycled through for over a year. This was, aside from my husband's and my years of saving for a house where we basically ate chilli, beans and rice, and pasta for a year, the most efficient way for two reasons. One, I got really good at doing all the steps efficiently and without a lot of brain power. Two, the shopping was almost the same every single week, so that also got very efficient. It looks to me like the Kitchn plans also use the same recipe for two nights per week.

2. Choose your recipes for the smallest variety and group them by ingredients, so all the recipes with broccoli in one pile, and then group that pile with all the recipes with broccoli and chicken and grated cheese, or whatever. Half the battle in minimizing prep is chopping a whack of cabbage and then using it in three things. Remember that you are using leftovers, so you're really looking for about 5-6 recipes - one breakfast, 1-2 lunch, 2-3 dinner.

3. Match recipes to your tools, so, for example, I get out the mandoline and spiralizer to go through a bunch of veggies at once. Identify rock stars like anything you can marinade and then dump in a skillet (if your lifestyle allows, some nights mine does not), or dump in a slow cooker in the morning, or which you can reheat super easily.

4. Eliminate any recipes that are becoming outliers. Decide if you want to reserve a day like Saturday night for special dishes.

5. Look for dishes you can "roll." For example (this may be a bit extreme but) during our lean chilli eating years we would make a pot of chilli on Monday in the crock pot. Monday and Tuesday we would eat chilli, maybe with sour cream on day 2. Then on Wednesday we had chilli jacket potatoes (on baked potatoes). On Thursday we would have a chilli sauce on rice or egg noodles. And on Friday we would dump any leftovers into a tex-mex soup, adding beans and corn.*
* You can also do this with curries and stews. But you have to have a high tolerance for eating a flavour profile over and over. You can also freeze some and alternate flavour profiles based on what you have in the freezer, so freeze the chilli on Tuesday and swap in butter chicken from frozen.

7. Make a plan based on what you are willing to do during the week (stir fry things that marinade? Defrost components?) Also look for what will cut your prep time. For example, the bagged no-dressing coleslaw mixes can sub for chopped cabbage.

7. Do a test run of your first week's plan, starting with chopping, then cooking the longest things. Swap recipes around if they take too long. If you get under 2.5 hours, you probably, depending on cooking time, will get to 2 hours.

Remember that sometimes recipe editors are optimistic in their timings. :)

Other principles:
I took a peek at the Kitchn recipes and I observe:
- Egg recipes are almost always a win because the prep is generally easy and the cooked products tend to last a while
- Bento or mason jar lunches help for prep staying really simple
- You're seeing beans because they hold up well in salads, etc. Some alternatives are grain or pasta based salads, potato salad, slaws made of cruciferous or root vegetables, basically salads without the things that go mushy.

If you post a list of some of your favourite meals I might be able to break them down for you. This is my secret geek pleasure. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 5:15 AM on December 30, 2018 [25 favorites]

I can't speak on the specific recipes you want to use, but i can give some advice on general kitchen tips that speed processes along.
1. Find the space. Meal prep is easier if you have the space to spread out. Clear as much as you can from your counters so that you can make the most of the space you have.
2. Have the right tools for what you are doing. A sharp knife is so much faster and more efficient than a dull one. Larger cutting boards are easier to use than tiny ones. Put a damp towel under a cutting board to secure it. Pull out the utensils, pots and pans you will need before you start cooking so you are not spending time looking for things. Have your spices and seasonings out and ready to go.
3. Mise en place. Prep what you can ahead of time. Clean and chop things like vegetables when you bring them home from the store. Keep your refrigerator organized so you can quickly grab what you need.
4. Timers are great. You can set a timer for something and focus on other things without having to keep checking on things.
5. If you are cooking proteins, a meat thermometer makes it fast and easy to check for doneness.
6. Have your recipes in a large enough font in an easy to read place.
7. While you are working on something, plan your next step. Know what you are going to do next.
8. Have confidence and know that every time you cook something new, it will be easier and faster the next time. The best kitchen advice i have ever heard is "don't be afraid of your ingredients for they will know and misbehave accordingly". I am constantly telling my cooks in restaurants to be bold. It's the most underrated kitchen skill.
posted by August Fury at 9:00 AM on December 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Typical meal prep session for one (scaling up isn’t a huge deal), done in roughly 2 hours:

End result: overnight oats for 3-4 mornings, hard boiled eggs for breakfast/egg salad, roasted vegetables for side dishes for lunch/dinner, 2-3 stews/curries/soups/main dishes for lunch/dinner. For my main dishes I try to choose recipes with overlap (like using cilantro, onion, garlic, cumin for curries and for Mexican dishes. )

I start with pre-chopped produce (broccoli/cauliflower/kale) and frozen vegetables because my knife skills aren’t great, so chopping takes forever.

(1) oven on
(2) all ingredients on counter, all appliances out and plugged in, all pans/utensils out and near where they need to be
(3) chop everything else that needs to be chopped (onions, garlic), open all cans that need to be opened. As I go, I put away ingredients I’ve already used, I also wash and dry anything I’ll need to re-use immediately after use (like knives, chopping boards)
(4) have multiple things going at the same time and use multiple heating devices. I use 2 instant pots, my stove top, and the oven. Use timers. Start the longest least involved thing first—you need uninterrupted time to work on other things. For me, that looks like:
(5) 2 trays of vegetables in the oven with olive oil and seasoning (I start with this because I don’t have to do anything to the vegetables once they’re in there except maybe toss halfway through. Usually I don’t bother). Set a timer for this
(6) start a stew/curry in the instant pot, something that’ll take a while to cook. Once the lid is sealed, I can’t touch anything in there for a good half hour and I can let it naturally release pressure without attending to it.)
(7) hard boiled eggs in the instant pot. While waiting for them to come to pressure, I’ll prepare overnight oats. Then finish up the eggs. Check on vegetables
(8) I’ll do another stew/curry in the instant pot sometimes
(9) use the stove top for a faster, more involved dish, like a stir fry, steamed vegetables, ground turkey curry
(10) do dishes while waiting for anything else to finish
(11) usually I have some time to kill while I wait for things to finish either cooking or cooling, but once I’m done I portion out lunches for the week
posted by loulou718 at 9:50 AM on December 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

I found a lot of online guides by searching "meal prep for beginners", this one contains a nice set of ingredient bases to plan with -
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:52 AM on December 30, 2018

It helps to include ingredients that can be used in different meals but cooked in one batch. For example, sauteed onions that will be used in both chili and in a curry; pasta that will be used in a salad and in a casserole; protein that will be used whole in one dish and chopped in another. This minimizes effort while allowing for very different flavor profiles across meals.
posted by metasarah at 12:06 PM on December 30, 2018

I recommend the book Food52: A New Way to Dinner - really great, well laid out meal plans laid out seasonally. However, like you, I found their meal plans not quite exactly what I was looking for. (I eat much more low carb, definitely don't need dessert every day and am only cooking for one adult and a baby besides myself, so quantities were sometimes larger than I was looking for). But the book really helped me as a starting point as it talks a lot more about how to structure a meal plan for a week. I'm far from perfect but here are some gleanings:

1) You probably need less food than you think you do. warriorqueen's numbers of about 3 dinners, 1-2 lunches, 1 breakfast sounds about right to me.
2) I've started to think about meals more in terms of mix and matchable components rather than full meals. So on the weekend I might cook a couple of types of protein with fairly neutral flavor profiles, as well as a couple of extras to add jazz to meals - a green sauce or a romesco, some pickled onions.
3) These extras are what keep me from getting bored and feeling like I'm eating the same thing all the time. Even if it's the same braised pork, it doesn't feel like it if you eat it as a pork ragu over pasta one night and Korean style tacos another night.
4) Really limit what you have to do on weeknights and look into techniques that lend themselves well to reheating - soups, stews, braises, non-green salads.
5) This is not from the book but I'm a big believer in a service called Eat Your Books. There is a free version if you're interested in trying it out (with a limited number of books you can add). Essentially it indexes recipes from cookbooks and websites by ingredient, allowing you to figure out what to do with the leftover dill you have after making Tzatziki sauce. At the end of the week, I often use it as a starting point for the next week's plan, figuring out what needs to be used up and specifically searching out recipes that use those ingredients. That allows me to be more economical while still making use of specialty ingredients if I want to.
6) At the beginning of each week lay out what you need to do each day to eat meals through the week - like defrost pork chops on Tue to eat on Thu. If things change, as they invariably will, adjust things as you go.
7) Have a few reliable meals that you can throw together in a pinch with pantry ingredients and staples, when plans go awry. For example, shakshuka made using Rao's marinara sauce is something I can throw together on a weeknight. Add some pita, maybe a salad, and that's dinner.
posted by peacheater at 2:54 PM on December 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I meal prep on Sundays but instead of "meals" per se, I prep components (because I hate eating the same thing every day). It helps if you have different methods of cooking so you can cook stuff simultaniously — BY FAR the object I use most in my house is my Instant Pot, but I also love my crock pot and I use the oven a lot.

Here's what I'll do:

- Large batch of protein in the oven — either chicken breasts or salmon. You can cook as much as you can fit in the oven if you have nough pans.
- Hard boiled eggs (I make these in the instant post because it takes 8 minutes and they are SO EASY to peel
- some kind of veggie. I'll often throw some sweet potatoes in the crock pot or instant pot when the eggs are done, and also cook up some veggies on the stovetop while the oevn is in use. One benefit of the instant pot and crock pot is that you don't have to watch them
- jarred salads. Buy stuff you like and compile into jars. Google for layering instructions. Lately though I've just been buying those bagged salad kits and mixing them together right before dinner so we can have some greens

Then I have something for breakfast (either eggs or chicken breast or salmon), plenty of protein, some veggies and some fresh greens. I can add protein to a salad or just eat it with the potatoes. I keep fresh fruit and fats like avocados on hand to add to whatever too.

Usualy my husband will make one more big batch meal in the middle of the week, either a big pot of soup, a sheet pan dinner or a one-pot instant pot meal. We freeze anything that we can't eat before it goes bad.
posted by Brittanie at 8:09 PM on December 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to suggest checking out a cookbook that might help you with your overall goal: The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook by America's Test Kitchen. I don't even have this one, but I have several of the ATK cookbooks, and I find them immensely helpful. I've learned so many techniques, better practices, tips, and aids to generally understanding the underlying principles for so many dishes and/or food planning from them. You might see if your library has it in order to get a feeling if it would be helpful for your needs. I suspect that it won't have a capsule answer for your question, but may well provide information to make it much easier to achieve.
posted by taz at 12:03 AM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

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