Made time to go to the supermarket and have a shopping trolley full of fruit, veggies, wholegrains and good quality proteins? Tick!
Managed not to scream like a banshee at your kids trying to slip chocolate bars into the trolley at the checkout? Tick! ….. Managed to slip your own chocolate bar into the trolley at the checkout? Double tick!
And look at you getting all your shopping bags from the car to the house in record minimal trips – complete with resulting ligature marks across your forearms to show both how tough and super-efficient… (umm…lazy)….you are? Aren’t we just winning today!
Best thing to do now is to stick the kids in front of a movie, unpack and go have a lie down with a glass of wine – um…what I mean to say is – stick the kids in front of a movie, unpack the rest of your shopping and go a good round with your veggies in a meal-prep session!
It is very likely that at this point it’s the last thing you feel like doing – but as we all know, if you unpack a load of vegetables straight into the fridge – the prospect of coming home after work, or after child-wrangling, study, managing the house, squeezing in a workout or social session and having to start each meal from scratch is so completely unattractive!
So much so that despite your good intentions, it often doesn’t happen and results in takeout or ready-made meals and veggie drawers being full of sad, moldy vegetables at the end of the week. In danger of stating the obvious – this is far from ideal, from both a health, financial and environmental perspective – but we’ve all done it and the best (and only) way really to avoid it is to meal prep
Now, when the term ‘meal prep’ is mentioned – many of you may picture rows of bland, identical meals in throw away containers and this prospect of eating the same reheated lunch and dinner for 5 days straight as just as horrifying as having to scrape out end-of-the-week slushy zucchini from the bottom of the veg drawer. And that’s not even taking into account the inevitable sniping and moaning from the kids (big and small) from the back bench.
So in this article I’m aiming to give you just a few examples of how you can hit that middle ground – where in just one initial 30-45min ‘veg prep’ session, you can seriously cut your cooking (and cleaning up!) time during the week but still have real, fresh varied meals each day. Being a mother predominately in charge of the cooking at home – the aim is not to be gourmet but simple, quick and kid-friendly – all these dishes go down well at our house, so I hope you have the same luck!
Many can also be done up in advance and simmer away in a slow cooker if that works in better with school runs, fitting in extracurricular activities etc. If you are a Jedi-master or an ultimate multi-tasker, while you’re doing this veg-prep, pop the oven on to do a batch of roasted pumpkin for salads or roasted antipasto-Mediterranean veg and boil 6-8 eggs on the stove for breakfasts/instant snacks.
A quick note on sauces: ‘I’m a passionate foodie and I’d just give anything to have enough time to make my own sauces’ – said me never. If I had more free ‘alone time’, you’d probably find me climbing hills or meeting friends for coffee and cake instead of stirring a vat of tomato puree and sterilizing bottles to store it. My philosophy is that if the bulk of your meal is based around vegetables, wholegrains and quality protein sources – then you’re already winning. If you need to use purchased sauces or marinades to keep it real and get a meal on the table that your family actually wants to eat – go for it.
Just be very aware of course, that most sauces are high in salt and often in sugar too – so choose the reduced sodium varieties where available. Use these sauces sparingly, complementing the dishes with garlic, citrus juices or herbs as flavourings instead of simply using more sauce. Also consider elongating your dishes to reduce the amount of sauce in each serve – ie: if a sachet of sauce says to ‘add an onion and 500g of the meat of your choice’ – then also throw in 2-4 cups of chopped vegetables as well, thereby lowering the concentration of both the sauce and calorie density in your meal and scoring extra veggie points.
So let’s get started – Clear some bench space, wash all your vegetables, get out your airtight containers and all chopping toys and tools. Make sure you’ve also extracted any savable veggies out of the fridge and compost/dispose of any poor souls which didn’t make it. Vegetables we always have on the chopping block are onions, carrots, capsicum, zucchini, leek, cucumber, broccoli, beans or snowpeas and celery.
Be sure to include whatever others rock your boat – but noting that some softer options like tomatoes, mushrooms and avocados don’t fare too well for more than a day or so!
Cut vegetables into appropriate gadget-friendly sizes and lengths and either dice them using a knife (slow), manual cutter as that shown above (faster with seriously OCD-compliant results) or with a slicing blade on a processer (fastest, but can be annoying with big random chunks being left behind).Cutting rather than macerating the vegetables in a processer with a coarse grating attachment is preferable in terms of longevity and texture (though the coarse grater is super-quick for a one-off meal prep!).
Some things to watch out for in your food prep:
- Don’t finely dice too much celery, unless you’re planning to use it in the first day or two – it goes brown faster than the other veg
- Cucumber seeds don’t like sitting around in plastic containers for a few days – cut out the bulk of these with a v-shaped notch before dicing
- Moisture should be drained out of these containers before storing them to maximize longevity/quality of the veggies inside. As you complete each container, line 2-3 layers of paper towel across the tops of the containers, put the lids on and let them rest upside down for at least 10 minutes. Upright and remove towel before storing in fridge
- Cut some veggie sticks as you go – these are great for dips or snacks.
So what can we create out of this for the next few days?
There are multitudes of options, I’ve only included a few of our family favourites – and I’d love to hear yours! You may notice that I have included the salad-based dishes first, this is as logically – precut veg are going to start to lose their best textures by day 3-4 and so they’re better off getting thrown into sauces/soups by then! Additionally, this is when lettuce or bags of salad mix are going to be at their best after coming home from the supermarket.
You may note that my quantities generally provide around 8 serves. We do this so that there are leftovers for lunches or to freeze half a batch of the cooked component for a future crazy busy/lazy day. Adjust your quantities as required
1) Lunch or light dinner – Salad cups, 5-10 minutes prep time
Wash 2 heads of cos lettuce and strip off the best medium-sized leaves. Fill with your choice of veggies, avocado, nuts and protein – eg shredded chicken/pork/beef, smoked salmon, tuna, tofu, legumes (or you can keep the cups veggie-only and serve as an accompaniment to your protein). Season with pepper, citrus juice and drizzle with dressing or mayo. A good looking dish to bring to BBQ’s too!
2) Lunch or light dinner – Chicken/fish wraps, 10-15 minutes prep/cook time
(and I’ve noted a few other options if you have a bit more time!)
Create a platter of cut veggies for the family to choose from and set it out perhaps with some grated cheese, avocado, protein of your choice and some salad leaves. You may choose to grill some chicken (marinade can add interest), or shred a roast chicken/get canned tuna or salmon if you’re particularly pressed for time. A super-easy favourite of ours is to get the supermarket to put 2-3 pieces of salmon into an ovenbag with just one squirt of the sweet chilli and this only takes 15 minutes to cook in a preheated oven – no standing over the stove worrying about drying it out, no fish smell in the house or having to clean fish splatter off the splashback! Choose a good quality wholegrain or multigrain wrap such as ‘better for U’ barley wraps rather than white tortillas.
Also as photographed below – wraps also work really well with pulled pork or slow-cooked lamb if you remember to put your cut into the slowcooker in the morning or by lunch, noting that you already have diced cucumber that can make a great tzatziki when paired with a quality yoghurt, some lemon juice, garlic and mint. Cut corners and bring some variety and even more colour onto your salad platter by heating up a bowl of frozen corn in the microwave. Bonus: left over meats can be used in lunches, in sauces/soup over the next 2-3 days.
If you have 20 minutes of cooking time – wraps are always winning when served a la Mexicana! Before you start preparing your salad platter, fry off ¾ cup of your pre-prepared onion and 800-1000g of minced beef or chicken/beef strips. Add 2-3 cups of vegetables, a 400g can of diced tomatoes, a drained can of red kidney beans and 2 sachets of taco, burrito or fajita seasoning. While this is simmering away for 10-15 minutes – prepare your salad platter (don’t forget to pop some jalapenos on there!) and substitute sour cream for plain greek low/no-fat Chobani yoghurt – it’s a swap nobody will notice and is a much healthier choice!
*Hot tip, especially for the kids or the unco’s among us – Hold the wrap with it’s base half way down a 15cm length of foil, fold the foil over the base and wrap the edges around the sides – so much easier to eat!
3) Random mid-week lunches and snacks
Having all your veggies pre-cut is so handy in enabling you to create a salad in less than 5 minutes for work or to have at home – simply add your choice of leaves, protein, nuts and dressing to a few good scoops of your veggie mix. Also great for preparing a snack for yourself or for the kids at school.
4) Dinner – San Choy Bao, 15 minutes prep/cook time
While you are microwaving a cup of brown rice with 2 cups of water (15 mins), start by washing/separating out your iceberg or cos lettuce leaves – laying them out on paper towels to dry – if you’re a bit OCD, you might like to trim them down into neat bowls – I have neither the time or motivation! Then stirfry 800-1000g of minced pork, turkey or chicken with a drizzle of oil, some garlic paste and a cup of your pre-prepared leek or onion.
Add in 3-4 cups of veggies, cook through for a few minutes and add 2 sachets of San Choy Bao sauce and simmer until done or until rice is ready. This recipe works really well with some chopped water chestnuts, bean sprouts or bamboo shoots but don’t stress if you don’t have them. Let your rice and San Choy Bao mix cool a little before spooning into lettuce cups
*Hot tip: run the base of the lettuce under cool water as you peel the cups off from starting at the base – this helps them separate without ripping. Cos lettuce is the far better choice though if you are short on time or patience (and it’s easier to handle than iceberg, especially for kids!)
5) Dinner – Pasta – 20mins prep/cook time
Pasta, sausages or meatballs are true potty words in many nutritional circles. However, with my Italian background – an occasional pasta for me is non-negotiable and my kids and partner love sausages – let’s be honest, they can be really tasty. I figure why not include this family favourite into this article as it’s truly delicious and what is food if it’s not there to be enjoyed?
It’s a good reminder not to get caught up in the puritanical obsession over food and to demonise foods to the extent you are too scared to enjoy them in moderation.
So – get the pasta water boiling straight away and throw in 1-1.5 packets of pasta when it’s at full boil. (Many like to salt the pasta water – that’s beneficial for flavour, not so great for your health – your choice!) Then fry off 800-1000kg of mince/meatballs or bite-sized sausage pieces (pork or chicken) with some garlic paste and around a cup of your pre-cut onions. When meat is browned, add in 3-4 cups of diced vegetables, a stock cube/gel that complements your meat chosen and some tomatoes (a combination of your choice from fresh tomatoes, diced tomatoes or passata (tomato puree).
Now to boost flavour – I highly recommend adding 3 heaped teaspoons of Sacla chilli pesto or a jar of their arrabiata sauce (see *disclosure below!), herbs of your choice – such as bay leaves, rosemary, basil and add chopped parsley towards the end of cooking. Another great way to add flavour is to throw in the rind from your parmesan cheese and remove before serving (never throw these rinds away, there’s a million culinary-genius uses for them!).
As for most pasta sauces – though it can be eaten after the meat and vegetables are cooked through – more cooking time will certainly improve the sauce and intensify the flavours – whether this is an extra 10 minutes that you may have at night or whether you manage to get it into a slow cooker in the morning/during the day. Drain pasta when cooked, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and immediately stir through a few large serving spoons of sauce as this lowers the amount of olive oil you have to add to stop the pasta from sticking together as it cools. Serve with grated parmesan.
*Disclosure – In the interests of full transparency – please note that I have familial associations with the Sacla and Val Verde products featured here. You can use other brands for sure – but in a totally biased, but still true statement – these are the best!
6) Dinner – Shepherd’s pie – 1hr prep/cook time
So this one many not be one for a ‘school night’ for many as it does take a bit longer to prep and cook than the other dishes – despite me taking plenty of shortcuts on the traditional shepherd’s pie (and changing it up to make it more nutritious!).
Set the oven to 160 degrees. In a deep, ovensafe pan – fry up a cup of your diced onion with 1kg of lean lamb mince (or kangaroo/beef if you can’t find lamb or if you want a leaner dish as lamb can be inherently a bit fattier!). Add 4 cups of diced veggies and/or frozen peas/corn and after a 2-3 minutes of cooking stir in 4-5 tablespoons of plain flour. After a further 2 minutes of cooking, add 4 bay leaves, 500ml beef stock, 3-4 tablespoons of Worstershire sauce and 2 tablespoons of concentrated tomato paste. (In the session when this photo was taken I didn’t have the paste – so just used 400ml diced tomatoes and just boil it off a bit more – it still worked!). Bring the mixture to a boil on the stove and then transfer to the oven to reduce.
Pop a large pot of water on the stove to bring it to the boil while you start peeling/chopping your root veggies. Traditionally the topping for this pie is white potato, but you can make this a lower GI dish (with fewer calories) if you change it up a bit by replacing or combining this white potato with sweet potato, pumpkin or cauliflower instead – all manner of combinations/substitutes work well.
When these veggies are soft, drain and mash – whether you add milk, salt, butter or cream is ultimately entirely up to you – this pie can be as healthy or as decadent as you like – including if you’d like to add a pastry base/sides, but from a nutritionist’s point of view, if it’s going to feature regularly on your weekly menu – then try add these ingredients in a half-reasonable fashion! Take the mixture out of the oven and increase the temperature to 220 degrees then either pop this mash straight on top of the mixture if there’s room in your pan – or layer a new casserole dish with the mixture and then the mash (and if you like, top with a bit of grated tasty or parmesan cheese!). Return to the oven for 10 minutes to brown off the top and melt the cheese.
7) Dinner – End of week – ‘Mongrel but Delicious’ Soup – 10 minutes prep time, 30 minutes to 1 hour simmer time.
So you’ve made it to the end of the week (hopefully without too much general carnage and wine intake along the way!). This is when I bring out the biggest pot I have, fry off the remaining onion and leek with some garlic and then pretty much dump all my remaining diced vegetables (except cucumber – that’d just be weird!) and any remaining loners from the veg drawer with a chunk of pumpkin, a sweet potato or two and perhaps some legumes or barley from the pantry.
For flavour: Add some rosemary, bay leaf, diced tomatoes or half a bottle of passata, any left-over meat from a previous roast or slow-cooker meal or a ham or bacon hock (parmesan rind is good here too!). Cover the lot with salt-reduced stock, bring to the boil and simmer on medium heat for at least 30 minutes and until all veggies are soft – around an hour is ideal.
Extract the ham/bacon bone if you added one of these and shred off the meat, throwing out the bone/skin/fatty bits. Add this meat back into the soup and serve chunky ‘minestrone’ style with some parsley, grated parmesan and if you would like some extra carbohydrates – perhaps add some cooked pasta pieces, brown rice or put some wholemeal/multigrain bread on the side. Otherwise (as this tends to be more kid friendly!) take out the hard bayleaves/sticks from the rosemary and pulverise with a stick blender until really lovely and smooth.
To Conclude: I hope this article (albeit a long one to get through!) has given you a few ideas about how you may become your own ‘Meal prep boss’. As always, if you’ve enjoyed the read – the greatest compliment would be to share it and recommend Life Nutrition to your family and friends, your support is always appreciated!