13 Meal Prep Tricks You Can Do in the Morning So Dinner is Basically Done
Try these five-minute hacks before you leave for work, to make your evenings a lot less stressful.
If your mornings tend to be calm but the dinner hour gets frantic—whether because of kids, a dreadful commute, or a job that taps every ounce of life force you possess—consider a teeny, tiny bit of supper prep in the morning.
If you’re putting a pot of water on to boil for coffee anyways, or are eating some granola and yogurt before heading out, that’s enough time to put a plate on a block of tofu, throw chicken legs into a marinade, or pour water over beans. Easily enough time. Here are 13 five-minute hacks to do now so life is a little easier later. (As was true of Marty McFly, your future self will thank your present self.)
Shake a salad dressing
Mince a bit of shallot, add it to a clean jar with a tight-fitting lid, and add a squeeze or two of mustard, one part red wine vinegar, and two to three parts good olive oil. Crack in pepper and add salt. Seal it up. Shake it up. Adjust flavorings. Put it in the fridge. When you get home later, shake it up again to re-emulsify your ingredients, and dress your greens.
As we’ve said before, one of the tastiest ways to prepare firm tofu is to press it. Just place it on a wide plate with a smaller plate set inside of it. (I like to set a small cutting board inside mine.) Put the top of a Dutch oven on it, or something else heavy. Let it sit in the fridge over the course of the day. Drain the water when you’re home, and use the tofu in stir-fries, salads, curries, or anything else. (Because it’s drier, it will soak up sauces and marinades more readily.)
Start a marinade
There are all sorts of easy marinades out there, but the general rule for them is this: something acidic, an oil, salt and pepper, and dried or fresh herbs. That’s it. You can add smashed garlic, red pepper flakes for heat, or whatever else you want, but really it’s as simple as oil and vinegar or citrus. That’s probably something you can do right now, throwing everything into a wide glass casserole or a resealable marinade bag and give it a good spin. Toss the meat in you want to eat that night, seal it up, pop it in the fridge, and you’re much farther down the road to moist chicken, juicy steak, and the like.
Those of you who eat hard- and soft-cooked eggs for breakfast, are you sure you don’t need more for a Cobb salad later, or for eggs masala, or to layer with avocado and tomato drizzled with oil and speckled with sea salt? Eggs can sit, right in their shells, for up to a week if they’ve been hard-boiled, and three—stored in an air-tight container—if soft-cooked. You can eat one sliced with sea salt right when you walk in the door, or hand it to a peckish child.
Sear all the sausages
One of my favorite shortcuts is drying a whole package of chicken sausages, slicing them in half lengthwise and scoring them lightly, and searing them on a buttered or oiled skillet over high heat. I use the lid of my Dutch oven to press them down hard on the surface, flip them, and dole them out to myself over the course of a day or two. I’ll layer them on toasted bread with mustard butter and caramelized onions. I’ll chop them up and fold them into curries that need more protein. I’ll serve them with mashed potatoes or homemade potato spears. I’ll eat them whole and cold, while standing over the sink. They rule, and are easy to re-heat under the broiler. Most recently, I’ve been digging the organic chicken-and-mushroom sausages from Bilinski’s, from Whole Foods.
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Measure out the annoying things
Though you don’t want to chop your garlic, ginger, and onions before you leave for the day—they’ll oxidize and dry out—it’s not a bad idea to do most other measuring and combining you’ll need to do later. You could combine dry ingredients such as salt and flour in a bowl and leave them covered at room temperature, or stir together the ingredients of a sauce (so long as any acidic component won’t “turn” the other ingredients over the course of a day). If a recipe involves pesky amounts of ingredients—say, 1/3 a cup of oyster sauce and a half cup of water—you could measure those out and combine them now, saving yourself that mini headache later.
Put the avocado in that bag
A neat trick for ripening an almost-ripe avocado is to just pop it in a paper bag. If the avocado seems like it’ll need a full day, throw a banana or apple in the bag with the avocado. The ethylene gases the other fruits release should help it ripen faster.
Bundle bits and bobs of leftovers together
Save all the half-batches of leftover veggies and meats in a row, front and center in the fridge, so you can scoop them up and fold them into a dinner frittata or grain bowl. If you wrap your head mentally around what’s going together later, it’ll save you from a panicky hungry moment later.
Wash and dry greens; have them ready
It’s totally easy to wash and dry kale or other sturdy greens, wrap them in paper towels and plastic, and have them ready to chop or rip up when you roll in that night.
Cut off any skin or fat from chicken you don’t want
About to throw that entire value pack of chicken into the marinade? These days sometimes there’s a whole lot of extra skin hanging off each piece of the bird (all the better to plump up the price you pay at the register). If you can deal with such a thing at 7am, consider snipping it off now—saving yourself the step of wrangling messy wet chicken skin later that night.
Hit “go” on anything you’re slow-cooking
Obvious, perhaps, but sometimes we only think of our slow-cookers the night before we leave for work, as opposed to that morning. If you work an eight-hour day, you might be fine to start it this morning! Look at the recipe you had in mind.
By the same token, if you don’t mind eating your beans around 8 or 9, you could likely soak the beans now, rinse them tonight, and cook them in time for a late meal. (Or put them in your Instant Pot this morning!)
Ready the yoga pants
Nobody wants to immediately spatter olive oil on herself upon walking in the door. Put your cooking outfit, whatever it is—team yoga pants, t-shirt, and apron over here—where you can see it and get it on in no time, plus a hanger to put your Nice Work Outfit on. That’s as important as putting the water on to boil or turning on the oven right when you walk in the door, and it feels better, to boot.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.