I Refuse to Spend Sunday Doing Meal Prep—Here Are My Time-Saving Secrets for Cooking on Weeknights
A food writer shares her best hacks.
If you want to cook more, consider your expenditure of energy. That includes every sort of energy: yours and that of your oven. It’s the same logic you employ when you decide to skip a party in favor of “me time” at home, or not leave the air-conditioned comfort of your apartment when it’s 95 degrees outside. You know how much energy you have, and how best to use it.
I cook every day, but I’d quibble with those who suggest the only way to get ahead on meal prep is to spend one of your precious weekend days locked in the kitchen. I’m not inclined to cook four meals in one day, then spread them out over the week; that’s not enough variety for me. For those of us who want choices and want to save time, a lot of cooking on the regular comes down to discarding difficult recipes, shopping smarter, and becoming attuned to what you have on hand. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years.
Buy a variety of cook-now and cook-later proteins
This week for my family of two, I bought fresh salmon, ground pork, four pounds of bone-in chicken thighs, two packs of chicken sausage, and two packs of tofu. One pack of sausage went into the freezer along with the chicken. We ate the salmon and ground pork within two days so neither went bad. I made a kale salad with tuna and avocado one day, then cooked all the chicken Wednesday night. Having some proteins with a longer shelf life—or frozen—is always helpful, and quick-cook sausage has saved me on more than one occasion.
Cook twice as much as you need for that meal
Once upon a time I would make four chicken thighs at a time, marinating them in mustard or green goddess dressing and waiting 40 minutes until they were done. These days, knowing that we’ll rip through four pounds of bone-in cooked chicken in a couple of days, I marinate and cook the whole thing at once. That’s one round of prep and one round of oven use.
Use the oven for more than one thing
Speaking of which, if you’re preheating that oven, be sure there isn’t a second use for it while it’s on. I was able to quickly slice, oil, and season Brussels sprouts for a second sheet pan and pop it into the 450-degree oven with my marinated chicken. (They were cooked a few minutes before the chicken.) It was hugely satisfying to have a cooked veg ready to fold into lunch salads and future dinners along with that chicken. (And I felt like a good environmentalist, saving energy.)
Use boiling water for more than one thing
The same logic applies to boiling water. If you’re making pasta, such as one sauced with greens, you can blanch those greens in the same salted water the pasta will go into. It’s a huge time-saver since you don’t have to wait on boiling water twice, and it saves both water and energy. Spinach, chard, and kale actually contribute a lovely vegetal note to the cooking water, so it’s delightful to eat pasta cooked in it.
If you can teach yourself to love tofu and to press it in the fridge before you leave for the day, almost nothing is ready faster. Tofu loves a marinade and a quick sauté. As is true of tinned fish, it’s an excellent insta-protein.
Wash and dry your greens right when you get them
As the Blue Apron chef knows, washing and drying greens when you get them—or cooking them—is a clever way to quickly fold them into frittatas, quiches, meatballs, salads, and anything else you want to cook over the coming days. (In a pinch, there’s nothing wrong with frozen ones, either!) I like to pull clean kale out of the fridge, roughly chop it on a big wooden board, using my hands to dress it with salt and olive oil, and then plop a whole roast chicken on it right out of the oven. The juices and heat of the bird dress and wilt the greens: Instant salad.
Caramelize extra onions
If you’re sitting in the kitchen babysitting something, such as ricotta or caramelizing onions, consider whether you should make twice as much and use the rest elsewhere over the course of the week. Caramelizing onions properly can be a bear; they can take 30 to 45 minutes, depending on their water content, and require some stirring. They’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of days, and are extraordinary in omelets, frittatas, salads, crostini, and almost anywhere else.
Envision at least two uses for the thing you want to cook
Anyone who’s ever thrown a Thursday blazer over a Monday dress understands about the usefulness of transformation. If roasting chicken thighs, think about how you’ll eat them that night (with salad), how you’ll eat them for lunch tomorrow (in a lunch container with roasted vegetables), and how you’ll eat them tomorrow night (shredded, in chicken tacos). A green goddess dressing you use for a marinade can also be a salad dressing, if you set some aside before using it in the marinade, or even a sauce for salmon or the finished chicken.
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Swap culinary heritage
A green goddess dressing made using cilantro can easily be spiked with chiles and avocado and turned into a sauce for those chicken tacos. Tomatoes and butter can be the basis of an Italian sauce or an Indian one. Be flexible when it comes to transforming leftovers or using up extra ingredients. I often open cans of coconut milk or tomatoes, and only use half of each in a curry. It’s fine to separate the leftovers for new uses: One cup of tomatoes is plenty for two portions of pasta. Leftover coconut milk can go into a marinade, soup, or a piña colada.
Use that freezer
If you’re making an elaborate sauce, high-maintenance meatballs, or chocolate chip cookie dough, put half in the freezer. This is an absolutely key move for fast weeknight suppers and spontaneous warm-from-the-oven sweets.
Consider adding one new thing
So you’re becoming a master of spending only 30 minutes in your kitchen. You turn on the oven or set a pot of water to boil and pull your meat out of the fridge to come to room temperature right when you walk in. You know to use the Instant Pot to make broth from bones, and you use that broth in a fast Instant Pot risotto. Go, you. But if you’re in a slight rut, flavor-wise—say you have leftover chicken and caramelized onions, but on their own they seem meh—consider cooking just one new thing. You can slice and sauté butter and shallots, then add in sliced mushrooms and salt, and have sautéed mushrooms ready in 15 minutes. The sauce they make is just the thing to drizzle over chicken—and onions and mushrooms are like ebony and ivory together. Bonus: There’s just one cutting board and one skillet to clean. You have got this.
Alex Van Buren is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.