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!

Week 4 Showstopper: Baked Alaska

This is the challenge which became the infamous “Bingate.” The bakers were challenged to make a classic ice cream cake called “Baked Alaska”. This retro treat is essentially a cake topped with ice cream and frosted with meringue, which is then set on fire. Now the bakers were baking outside, which makes working with ice cream extremely difficult. While I have the advantage of working inside, working with ice cream can still be a challenge.

I know this whole week is out of order. I am trying to get the pans I need for the technical!

The Plan

I watched the episode to see if the bakers were making their own ice cream. All of the contestants had ice cream makers at their stations. I don’t own one, but I found a no-churn recipe on NY times that I can use. I chose the cinnamon flavor to complement one of my favorite cakes.

I adapted my favorite red wine cupcake recipe for the cake base. I paired this with a cinnamon flavor for the ice cream and a brown sugar meringue.

The Bake

  1. The Cake Base

I’ve made this cake before but only as cupcakes, so I wasn’t certain it would bake properly as a single layer (without over or underbaking). It did crack, but that would all be hidden by the ice cream.

2. The Ice Cream

I swear I will actually invest in an ice cream maker to avoid the drama and destruction associated with making this.

I over-boiled the cream and made a mess all over my stove. I managed to salvage it. It steeped then I strained. I got to use my immersion blender for the first time, which is how a large portion of my ice cream ended up on the walls, and the floors, and my breadbox… and my face. Then I froze it overnight. I know I said I would try to avoid overnight, but this is ice cream from scratch and I was concerned it would melt even faster.

I had a bear of a fight with the ice cream once it was frozen. I got it into the food processor and it exploded at me for a bit. I had to fight the ice cream to blend.

3. Trim & Shape

I removed the ice cream from its pan and into a bowl lined with plastic wrap. Once this was frozen solid I flipped it onto the cake and trimmed the edges for a nice dome.

4. Meringue

I read that meringue can be made with brown sugar, which I had never tried. I bet that the brown sugar would taste better with the deeper flavors (cinnamon, chocolate, wine) than brighter flavors like mint.

I threw out one meringue because I broke an egg yolk in it. I did not have the most luck with this challenge…

5. Bring On the Fire!

I own a rose gold culinary torch (because why not?). I have never had a reason to use it until now. I didn’t burn anything down.

The Final Result

This may have been one of the hardest things to make simply because the ice cream wrecked my kitchen and my soul. But the FLAVOR! Bae said I would be star baker for this. I had to keep myself from eating a big chunk.

My meringue slipped a little, but the swirls were cute. The ice cream as a perfect consistency with a strong but not overwhelming cinnamon flavor. This paired perfectly with my chocolate cake base, which was still moist despite freezing it.

I did battle with Baked Alaska and I won!

Week 3 Showstopper: Russian Chrysanthemum Bread

And we’re back! The 2020 Great British Bake Through continues to 2021!

Week 3 (Bread Week) ended with the a bread-themed showstopper challenge. The bakers were instructed to make filled bread centerpieces. The bread should be filled or stuffed, sweet or savory. Judging was based on appearance, design and crust, bake, and flavor.

The Plan

I’ve made bread rolls stuffed with Thanksgiving leftovers before but these were no “centerpiece.” I thought of stromboli, but again I worry about presentation. It took quite a bit of research before I could decide on the best option.

Jordan was the only baker to make sweet bread. This failed and he was sent home, so I’m sticking to savory. I thought about monkey bread, but I’ve usually made that with pre-made dough. While searching I came across chrysanthemum bread (European not Korean). The bread is stuffed and arranged into a flower, perfect for this challenge.

The Bake

  1. The Filling

The recipe I used calls for a “garlic cheese spread.” My first thought was Boursin cheese, but the rules of the game mean that I can’t use store-bought pre-made foods unless indicated in the challenge. I made a copycat Boursin recipe before mixing with the remaining ingredients. Even if you don’t make this bread, you should definitely try this delicious cheese mix!

The addition of the herbs de provence didn’t seem to do much, but I do like the kick from the chili flakes.

2. The Dough

The recipe’s instructions say to mix all of the dough ingredients at once. I prefer to let my yeast bloom first. Is that the word? I like to feed it to ensure a good rise, especially since I’ll need to handle this dough a lot. The yeast sits in the warm (not hot!) milk with some sugar. Once bubbly, I add it to the remainder of the dough ingredients.

There are so many wet ingredients I was surprised it came together so well. I’m still working on how to tell if the dough is kneaded enough…

3. The Rise

It’s winter right now and my house is freezing, so I let it rise in the oven. I was worried it was too warm in the oven that I’d used earlier in the day so I kept the oven door open for a bit. I had some mild panic when steam built up on the inside of the bowl. I was worried if it was too hot, the yeast would die and the dough wouldn’t rise.

I’m not certain this is the amount of rise I need, but it did, in fact, rise.

4. The Assembly

This was the hard part! The dough gets divided, rolled out, cut into small circles, filled, and formed. Whew!

I shifted the petals around quite a bit. At first I packed them too close together. They’d have no room to rise again or grow while baking.

5. The Bake

At first I started baking without brushing the dough. I’m not sure if it was smart, but I pulled it out and brushed it quickly. I’m concerned that I messed up my timer and then it will either bake too much or not enough.

The Final Result

It browned on top quite nicely. I was a bit worried I pulled it out of the oven too soon because underneath was quite light and soft. I do think I went a little overboard with the red chili flake. Next time I may just skip it entirely.

I’m really pleased with how it looks. I haven’t felt this good about a bake since the technical Cherry Cake.

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?

Week 3 Technical: Ciabatta

Although I can’t stand the way Paul Hollywood pronounces “ciabatta” the man knows how to bake bread. For bread week the challenge was to make 4 loaves of ciabatta. Based on Paul’s instructions, this is going to be a very wet dough. I’m going to try very hard not to handle it too much so keeping it from sticking to everything is going to be a challenge.

Also I cannot stand the way that Paul Hollywood pronounces ciabatta.

The Bake

1) The Dough

This dough doesn’t necessarily need to be kneaded, but mixed enough so the water is fully mixed in.

2) Rise

This dough was sticky. The descriptions weren’t kidding. I didn’t have a square tub so I used one of my glass cooking pans. I think I used one that was too big.

3) Shape & Rise Again

Separating the dough was harder than I thought. I cut it but it wouldn’t separate. I ended up handling the dough more than I intended.

The next rise didn’t change the dough much.

4) Bake

I used the whole oven (instead of my half oven). I think this got the bake just right.

The Final Result

The crumb is not bad. It’s light and airy, baked through properly. There’s a nice crust on the outside with a light golden-brown color. The issue is in the shape.

I suspect two issues for the lack of rise to the proper dough shape. Firstly, I used regular yeast instead of instant. I did activate the yeast, but perhaps I should have used warm water and let it cool. The second issue was the container for the first prove. I think if I had used a smaller but taller container, the shape would have been better.

Week 3 Signature: Rye Rolls

Week 3 is for bread, starting with a classic rye roll. In the episode, there was an entire discussion of why rye flour is so difficult to work with, which does worry me a bit. I’ve made some bread. I’m hoping this goes better than biscuit week… Fortunately, instead of 36 I only have to make 12 this time. Again, consistency is key.

The Planning

Some of the bakers used flavors like orange and cardamom, which just doesn’t quite mix well in my head. I’ve only had rye as sandwich bread. I can’t recall ever eating sweet rye, so I looked for some tasty but not too boring rye rolls.

I was surprised how complicated the recipes have been! I figured it wouldn’t be much different from a regular bread roll but there is so much more involved! I ended up choosing a dark pumperknickel bread. I will not be using a breadmaker. That’s cheating. My biggest concern is the bake. The dark color of the bread is going to make it difficult to tell when it’s truly done. I don’t want the crumb to close either, since rye is a tough, strong flour.

The Bake

  1. Batter

The batter was so strange. It looked like I was making chocolate cupcakes, but it smelled so odd with the combination of rye and cocoa and yeast.

2. Knead

My poor Kitchenaid took a beating trying to beat this tough dough. It started to soften slightly but I can’t tell if I over or under-mixed it.

3. Raise

I got a pretty decent rise in the oven. I like to proof my doughs in an oven that was warmed to 175 then turned off.

4. Roll & Raise Again

I tried to weigh out the dough and make things even. The trick with my dinner rolls didn’t seem to work with rye dough.

5. Bake

The dark color made these tricky. I probably should have baked on the middle rack. I lowered the bake time to 25 minutes, but I opened my test roll and there were parts that still seemed underbaked. Another 5 minutes in the oven and well…

The Final Result

This was a complete and total failure. I can’t tell if I over-kneaded the dough and made it too tough, or if I under-kneaded and prevented the gluten from breaking down enough for an elastic dough.

Part of the problem, I think, is that this recipe is for a whole loaf. Rolling these seemed to make layers that prevented the second rise and the rise in the oven. I also suspect that I overbaked them. Some of the layers seemed to stay raw despite 30 minutes in the oven.

As a result these rolls were hard as rocks. I managed to open one. The flavor wasn’t bad. I could taste a bit of the coffee and molasses flavors. The inside was okay, but the outside had a tough crust. Once out of the oven and cooled, they were just solid.

Week 4 Signature: Self-Saucing Pudding

Here’s another challenge when British terminology tripped me up. For dessert weak, the bakers were asked to make eight self-saucing puddings. Pudding is the British word meaning dessert. After re-watching the episode and doing some research, this is essentially a lava cake. You should be able to bake a cake that oozes when you cut into it.

Also yes I’m

The Planning

Once I figured out what “self-saucing” meant it was just a matter of picking a cake that wasn’t just pure chocolate. I stumbled upon these clever “churro” cakes filled with chocolate. I’ll only be making four to minimize food waste.

The Bake

  1. The Filling

I used a tip to freeze the chocolate ganache in the hopes it would keep the filling from exploding…. more on that later.

2. The Batter

I used cinnamon sugar instead of putting the cinnamon in the flour. I also used cinnamon sugar for the ramekins.

3. The Bake

Batter in first, then the filling, but I wondered about covering the filling first.

The Final Result

If I’d ekked by for the past few weeks, then this week would definitely have sent me home! I think by incorporating the cinnamon into the sugar, I darkened the cake more than I intended. The chocolate exploded out and baked, so there was no “self-saucing.” I managed to salvage the appearance by flipping the cakes upside down, but the color was off-putting even with more cinnamon sugar.

Flavor wise, there wasn’t really a “wow” factor. The cake was dense and the molten filling would have added some much needed moisture.


Week 2 Showstopper: 3D Biscuit Scene

The showstopper for the Biscuit Week was an exercise in creativity. The bakers needed to design a freestanding 3D biscuit scene. Biscuit choices were left up to the bakers, as well as the concept of the scene. Watching, you could tell there was a variety of approaches. Whether it was the type or flavor of cookie, the scene itself, or how they got the cookies to stand, everyone did something different. I had my work cut out for me.

The Planning

This will be an entire scene, which means there’s much more planning involved than a simple cake or cookie. First I had to decide what kind of scene to make. I didn’t want to repeat anything that had already been done. I thought about re-creating my clinic, then maybe something nerdy. I settled on the idea of witches cooking in a cemetary.

Then I needed to pick the type of biscuit/cookie to use. The key to this is picking a dough with a structure sturdy enough to maintain a 3D shape without buckling or collapsing. The biscuit also needs to be baked enough to have that “snap” when eaten. (If not, well… that’s one of the reasons Enwezor went home that week). Most of the bakers chose flavored gingerbreads, and that sounded like a good idea.

I’ll be using orange and chocolate gingerbreads for my spooky witch scene. The plan is 2 biscuit witches standing over a cauldron. The cauldron will probably not be biscuit, possibly a cupcake. The witches will be beside a large tomb structure. There will be several (probably three) tombstones. I’m currently debating whether to make the fencing of the graveyard out of biscuit versus pretzel sticks.

The Bake

1 . Make Doughs

This was the easiest part. Make 2 different doughs according to their respective recipes and chill.

2. Roll & Cut

Roll out the chilled dough and cut into needed shapes. I drew my shapes on cardstock, cut them out, then used them as stencils on the dough. Worked out pretty well!

3. Bake

They puffed up a lot more than I expected! The chocolate looked burnt on a few pieces, so I probably should have watched closer. The dark dough can really trip you up!

4. Make ‘Em Stand!

Once cool, I made royal icing (for the first time!) and used it as glue. I also added coloring into small batches to help decorate.

5. Assemble

I had a total of four tombstones (just in case). Two witches with arms to keep the scene from being too static. I created a small tray of Oreo dirt (not part of the tasting!). I also made a quick mugcake for my cauldron. I finally got the little suckers to stand on the dirt after much struggle.

The Final Result

Ya’ll… this was the hardest challenge by far. The cookies kept falling over and getting messy. I was so frustrated I abandoned most of my decor plans because I just did not have the energy anymore! I wanted a fence and color on the witches. The cauldron could have been better. I’m also kicking myself for not having an edible marker to write on the tombstones, though I guess I could have used food coloring.

The orange cookie was alright, but not very “gingerbread”. The chocolate gingerbread was fantastic! I’ll be keeping that recipe for Christmastime. Unfortunately, the biscuits missed the “snap” the judges mentioned. I think this was because my dough wasn’t thin enough, so it puffed and became too thick as a cookie.

I’m a little disappointed in myself this round. I probably would have gotten a lot of the same criticism Norman did for lack of color, though Norm had a much neater presentation.

Who knows… maybe I would have ekked through based on my technical?