Ways to Meal Prep That Don’t Feel Like Meal Prep

It’s January. This tends to be the time of year that people start making lifestyle changes (usually in the hopes of losing weight). For busy people, meal prep is key to having healthy meals and snacks ready. However, it can take a lot of time to prepare large full meals. Many people make a day of “Meal Prep Sundays” or Mondays. Not everyone has the time for this.

I started my weight loss journey after I came home from studying abroad (though I lost weight while living in China). That’s how I started learning to cook. With no job or school I could spend all the time in the world cooking, experimenting, and getting inspiration from online and cooking shows. Now that I’m working toward medical school, working full-time, and (at one point) attending classes, I had to prioritize tasks other than meal prep.

My husband is a gym-junkie. He likes protein-heavy meals. This was quite an adjustment to cooking for him (high volume and high protein) versus myself (leaner, smaller meals). Over the years we’ve learned some tips and tricks for meal prep.

  1. Hard Boil Eggs

Boil a dozen (or fewer) eggs. This should take less than 20 minutes. These will be available throughout the week. Eat eggs whole for breakfast or a snack sprinkled with salt and pepper. Cut up eggs to eat on toast. Make egg salad.

2. Cheese, Meat, and Crackers with Fruits & Veggies

Starbucks sells “Bistro Boxes”, which I refer to as “adult lunchables.” Use cheese cubes, deli meats, crackers, and slice up fruit and vegetables. These make excellent lunches. I find them incredibly filling. I also love the ideas from College Nutritionist.

Is the Starbucks Protein Box Healthy? | Eat This Not That

3. Large Batch of Rice and/or Pasta

I make several cups worth of white rice in my rice cooker. Once cool, I place it in glass tupperware in the fridge. Egg noodles, spaghetti, and other pastas are also options. It makes dinner easier when the carbohydrate is ready to be reheated. My husband and I cook up some meat quickly in a pan and eat it with rice and a frozen veggie.

4. Frozen Meatballs

I started buying these to make super fast spaghetti and meatballs (spaghetti + frozen meatballs from the oven + a jar of spaghetti sauce). Pop them in the oven for 20-25 minutes and they’re done. Very little effort. I’ve found they also can be versatile to add as a protein into frozen Steamfresh meals, salads, or with the rice and pasta I’ve pre-cooked.

The point of meal prep is to save money, eat healthy, and often to cut down on the amount of cooking you do in a week. Find what works for you. Prepare slow cooker dinners and store in the freezer so you can toss dinner in the Crock Pot to cook all day. Meal prep breakfast if you’re someone who is always rushing out the door in the morning. There is nothing wrong with relying on pre-cooked or frozen foods to help you with faster and healthier meals. Finding easy, efficient ways to meal prep will help you with your goals!

How to Spice Up Leftovers (and Premade Meals!)

As I first started to learn how to cook, I relied on “no-bake” recipes, boxed products, and pre-made items from grocery stores to make things easier. With the recent push toward “all-natural” and organic foods, I feel there’s a strong push (especially online) away from these pre-made products.

I remember watching an episode of Jacque Pepin’s cooking show during which he made a dessert with his daughter. One of the greatest cooks in the world used pre-made pie crust. If he can use pre-made products why can’t we? What’s so different between fresh and frozen vegetables? The bias is endorsed strongly by the privileged, forgetting the time constraints of full-time workers and those unable to afford more expensive organic products.

As you learn to cook, whether you want to make every little thing from scratch that’s awesome, but do not be ashamed in making cake from a box or store-bought chicken stock instead of homemade. Your cooking journey is your own. Just the other day I made “homemade hamburger helper” from a New York Times recipe. Later that day I made a Williams & Sonoma chocolate-pumpkin cake mix that a friend gave to me. Both were delicious, both were worth it for me.

And, if you’re anything like my husband, the idea of leftovers for dinner is unappealing. But there are nights when I’m tired after a long day and the last thing I want to do is cook. My go-to “no cook” meal is a SteamFresh veggie noodles. Pop them in the microwave for 3-4 minutes and it’s done. Of course, these lentil noodles are designed to be quick and easy, not necessarily flavorful or especially delicious.

One of the things I’ve learned as I started to experiment in the kitchen is that I can change anything while I’m cooking. Recipes can be tweaked. Everything can be adjusted to your personal taste. The same is true with store-bought foods and leftovers. Changing it up

  1. Combine Leftovers

Once I had leftover meatballs in pasta sauce sitting in the fridge. I added this to some leftover chicken soup (plus some hot sauce and pepper). It breathed new life into both leftovers! You can get creative with mixing new things from your pantry or finding a way to combine leftovers. This way, you eat leftovers without getting bored and you get to try something new!

2. Add spices

There is no law that says you can’t add spices to premade meals. Try heat with hot sauce or cayenne. Sometimes even a little pepper or garlic powder will work wonders.

3. Add proteins

My SteamFresh meals tend to noodles in sauce. The noodles may be made of vegetables, but a little pre-cooked chicken slices helps add texture and flavor. For the salt-and-vinegar potatoes, I fried some sausages.

4. Add frozen veggies

Spruce up mac-and-cheese or other pasta dishes with a vegetable. If you bought a rotisserie chicken from the grocery, make a meal by heating up some frozen vegetables for a side.

Frozen peas, carrots, and broccoli are all fairly versatile and easy to add to most meals without drastically changing the flavor profile.

5. Re-think the Way You Reheat

Back to those salt-and-vinegar potatoes slices. Rather than stick them in the microwave the next day, I put some oil in a pan and fried them. This made them crispy again and taste fresher. I hear air-fryers are great for leftovers (though I haven’t tried it yet myself). Reheat food in a pan or in the oven!

I swear I am the only one in my house who eats leftovers. Husband gets “bored” of food quickly if he eats the same meal too many times. Hopefully these tips help you use up leftovers and prevent food waste!

What to Eat When You’re Exhausted

Everyone reaches a point when feeding yourself seems an insurmountable task. With my mental health, this can often occur more frequently than I’d like. I also know, however, it is important to eat even if I’m too depressed to cook dinner. Exhausted, lazy, depressed, for whatever reason, here are some quick and simple ideas for meals.

EASY

  • Fast Food: It isn’t the cheapest or the healthiest option, but it’s better than nothing. Get it on the way home or order online.
  • Microwavable Meals: One of my favorite easy meals is to microwave frozen lentil noodles and add pre-cooked chicken. Canned soups can also be quickly heated in the microwave.
  • Cereal: Again, perhaps not the healthiest choice, but at least you’re eating. Bonus points if you can add protein powder and/or fruit for more calories and a balance with the carbohydrates.

MEDIUM

  • Ramen or Other Noodles: This earns a medium difficulty because you have to boil water. Top with pre-made sauce or butter with salt and pepper. You can add rotisserie chicken/ pre-cooked chicken as well!
  • Sandwiches: As long as you have peanut butter and bread in the house, you can make a sandwich. Peanut butter with honey or jelly is the simplest. If you have deli meats and cheeses in the house, you can slap those on some bread with or without condiments.
  • Tomato Soup with Pasta: Pour canned tomato soup in a pot of cooked pasta. Add some cheese (goat cheese is my favorite) if you want. I like a little pepper as well.

HARD

  1. Overnight Oats: This takes some planning. If you know there’s going to be a rough day ahead, prep these for your fridge the night before so you can come home and just eat.
  2. “Pizza” Pasta: All you need is cooked pasta, a jar of pasta sauce or marinara, some pepperoni, and balls of mozzarella. The hard part here is having the ingredients on hand, but it’s a good habit
  3. Egg Salad: Boil some eggs, peel, and mash with some mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper. My favorite egg salad also uses onion and curry powder.

I hope these relatively simple, cheap meals help you when you need them.

2021 Cooking Goals

Over the past few years I’ve made annual goals for myself. Last year I had hoped to finish a few old goals, as well as complete the Great British Bakeoff. My hobby has continued but I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been neglecting my blog. Here’s a reminder of last year’s goals. Anything crossed out is something that I managed to complete.

  • Pulled Pork
  • Roast Chicken
  • Sourdough
  • Quesadillas
  • Scones
  • Trifle
  • Madelines
  • Quiche
  • Cocktail (Does sangria count?)
  • Salad with Homemade Dressing
  • Cinnamon Rolls
  • Steak and Mashed Potatoes
  • Frittata
  • A Homemade Condiment
  • French Press Coffee

I’ll be repeating a few goals and changing some up. This year I hope to take on a few challenges, as well as some basics that I haven’t tried yet.

  • Finish Great British Bake Off Challenge
  • Beef Wellington
  • Crepes
  • Trifle
  • Cinnamon Rolls
  • Something with Phyllo Dough
  • Cocktails: Mojito, Old-Fashioned, French 75
  • Macarons
  • Duck

Does anyone have other suggestions for my goals?

How to Save Money on Groceries

A student (or a family) on a budget has to find way to earn more money and cut costs. I’ve been focused on paying off my undergraduate loans before I attend medical school (where I’ll end up with thousands of dollars of debt). I am lucky that my fiance and brother-in-law/roommate handle a great majority of the bills. I pay for our horrendously expensive homeowner’s association fee, as well as weekly groceries. To feed my fiance and myself (and occasionally my brother-in-law), I budget $100 per week in groceries. That’s not a lot of money when you think about it, but it is much easier to feed two people on that budget than eating meals out daily for $8 or more per meal. Here’s what $100 of groceries looks like for me.

Note: I live in Arizona, where cost of living may be lower than some cities.

Tip #1: Make a Grocery List

Planning for meals is what really makes this work. I buy my usual groceries (staples we eat on a regular basis) and account for meals I’m planning to cook that week. If I can buy some things in bulk (like the $5 spinach pictured above) I will try to pick multiple recipes that utilize that ingredient.

Tip #2: Only Buy Extras on Sale

Stick to the list as best as you can. I do, however, recognize that sometimes asparagus is on sale for $1 per bundle. Or that you’d really like to try those new chips. Sometimes I’ll be walking down the aisles and go “oh bread flour! I was going to make those cookies!” and grab it. It’s best to give in to this urge rarely and only if the item is on sale.

The bacon was a manager’s special, so I added it to my cart!

Tip #3: Use the Store’s Coupon Apps

I am in love with my Safeway app. If you’re not super freaked out about privacy, download it and digitally coupon before every trip. In the Safeway app there are 2 sections, weekly coupon and “just for you” based on what you regularly purchase (see- privacy). I’m pretty good at remembering the brands with coupons, so I’ll buy, for example, one brand of butter with a coupon over another.

Tip #4: Supplement Store Coupons with Manufacturing Coupons

That annoying spam mail you get in your mailbox every week? Full of coupons! I stand over my recycle bin and toss out the stuff I don’t need, then clip coupons for the items I regularly buy, especially hygeine products like deodorant. As long as they aren’t expired, you can hand them to the grocery store cashier for a little more off.

Tip #5: Buy Bulk Elsewhere

There is no reason for me to buy toilet paper from the grocery store when I can get a larger package for a better price at Costco. Paper products (like paper towels, toilet paper, etc.), batteries, and cleaning supplies I buy in bulk only every once in a while. P.S. If you don’t have a Costco membership, I’ve heard you can get in with a giftcard!

BONUS: Save money on gas with your grocery store reward points.

I had 14 points the other day, mostly due to my coupon app. That’s $1.40 off of gas at the Safeway gas station or Chevron. Fry’s partners with Circle K. A little extra savings never hurt!

I hope these tips help you. Maybe you didn’t know your grocery store had an app! Maybe making a list will help curb your tendency to pile your cart with too many extras. Do you have tips to share?

Stocking Your First Pantry & Fridge

Earlier I made a post about what you need in your kitchen to cook for yourself as an independent adult. This is the only beginning. When you get your first place, you quickly realize there were certain things you took for granted. Your mom isn’t there to buy the groceries, and isn’t it a weird concept to think of buying ketchup?

Here’s my ideal basic list to stock up a decent beginner’s kitchen. Please keep in mind that this does not account for allergies or alternative diets. Vegetarians, vegans, and those with allergies may need to alter this to reflect those dietary needs.

Meat & Dairy

  • Milk
  • Heavy cream
  • Parmesan cheese (without cellulose)
  • Unsalted Butter
  • Cream cheese
  • Chicken Stock (or vegetable stock)

Vegetables & Fruit

  • Lemons
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes
  • Onions (I like yellow)
  • Canned tomato paste
  • Canned diced tomatoes
  • Canned tomato sauce
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Grains

  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Rolled oats

Spices

  • Salt & Pepper
  • Garlic powder
  • Cinnamon
  • Dried thyme
  • Dried oregano
  • Chili powder or cayenne

Baking Needs

  • All-Purpose Flour
  • Granulated Sugar
  • Brown Sugar
  • Powdered Sugar
  • Cornstarch
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Vegetable oil
  • Cocoa powder
  • Vanilla extract

Condiments:

  • Ketchup
  • Mustard (please don’t buy the bright yellow stuff)
  • Hot sauce
  • Vinegar (white or cider)
  • Honey
  • Peanut butter
  • Maple Syrup
  • Soy Sauce

Some extras:

  • Plain yogurt
  • Panko breadcrumbs
  • Canned chickpeas
  • Sour cream
  • Chocolate chips (semisweet)
  • Shallots
  • Fresh herbs

I think that covers everything for simple, easy meals. As you figure out what you enjoy cooking, things will change to reflect what you need and what you use most often.

Did I miss anything? What are your essential groceries?

Kitchen Essentials

Some dear friends invited me to “supervise” during Operation Ratatouille. Basically, some friends have been trying to learn to cook and needed some help. We were dividing the tasks. I was cutting vegetables with extremely dull knives, with no sharpener or steele in sight. One friend’s plans for toasted breadcrumbs was thwarted by the lack of a food processor or blender.

When I got home, I took a look at my kitchen. I have built up a collection of appliances and tools – some more necessary than others. Then a coworker suggested that I make a list to help other people our age build up a solid kitchen. Many of my friends (myself included) have been moving out of our parents’ homes, starting with only the sparsest collection of cooking tools.

Absolutely Necessary Basics

  • Knives + Honing Steele

You need at least two knives: a chef’s knife and a paring knife. These will allow you to do most chopping, mincing, slicing, etc. The honing steel should be used frequently, usually prior to using the knives. Buy a knife block with a full set of knives if you want, but these two will be used the most frequently. I own

  • Cutting board (Wooden for fruit & vegetables and plastic for raw meat)
  • Frying pan
  • Large saucepan
  • Pots, at least two (Large and small)
  • Various cooking utensils (spoons, ladles, spatulas, etc.)
  • Colander/Strainer
  • Mixing bowls

I have both glass and stainless steel. This is really up to you, but I recommend at least two or three, each a different size. My metal bowls are from Costco.

  • Baking sheets for cookies, sheet pan dinners, etc. (2)
  • Casserole dish (square and rectangle; glass or ceramic)
  • Round or square cake pans (2 about 9 x 9 in.)
  • Pie dish (glass or ceramic)
  • Muffin tin
  • Oven mitts
  • Rubber spatulas
  • Zester (doubles as a grater)
  • Pastry brush
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Measuring Glass

Measuring solids and liquids requires different containers. Any standard glass measuring glass for liquids is fine. I bought mine at the grocery store.

Highly Recommended but Not Necessary

As I’ve learned to cook and stocked my kitchen, I have found that some items are good investments, even though they can be more expensive. These tools tend to cut down on cooking time and effort, though it is absolutely possible to survive without them.

  • Sifter
  • Slow Cooker
  • Cooling Racks
  • Food Processor

My food processor has multiple attachments. I can grate cheese, pulse to gently mix or blend, or completely blend. I use it frequently to make things easier on myself.

  • Stand mixer

Everything can be mixed by hand. It takes more effort and more time, but it can be done. I haven’t found a distinct advantage of the stand mixer over a hand mixer other than when I’m kneading bread (which can also be done by hand).

  • Dutch Oven

I love my Dutch oven. It has made cooking many items in the oven more convenient. I can cook things for long periods even at high heat. If you chose to get anything on this list, I would get a Dutch Oven. Mine is from Le Creuset, a high quality coated cast-iron that is sold in most home and kitchen stores.

Things You Do Not Need

This section should be called things I have, but don’t really need or use. These items are great for experimenting or making specialty items, but shouldn’t be considered “everyday necessities”.

  • Air Fryer
  • Specialty Pans
  • Pie Weights

One of my favorite Instabakers uses dry, uncooked beans over and over. Another uses granulated sugar because it toasts the sugar for a caramel flavor in other baked goods.

  • Spiralizer
  • Smoker Gun
  • Immersion Blender
  • Spice Grinder
  • Piping Bags/Tips

How you design and stock your kitchen is very individual. I have many specialty pans because I frequently experiment. Start with the basics and adjust as you need for yourself.

Did I leave anything off the list? What are your “must-have” kitchen tools?