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Monday, January 4, 2021

Be Your Own Prep Chef for the Week

Wouldn't you like to have your very own prep chef? That person who would do all of the tedious prep work, so you could just waltz into the kitchen around 5 PM and throw a meal together in 20 minutes or less?

Well, you can. You can be your own prep chef early in the week, so actual cooking, later, is smooth as silk.

cabbage, carrots, and celery for fried rice, casserole, and slaw salad

Here is it, late Sunday, and I've packed my fridge with the beginnings of several weeknight dinners. We all want easy when it comes to most weeknight dinners, don't we? There are two basic ways to meal-prep ahead of time. 1) You can completely make and freeze entire entrees to be heated just before dinnertime, or 2) you can prep just the ingredients, so that you have a gigantic head-start on dinner when you walk into the kitchen. I actually like (and do take) both approaches. But I prefer the second, as it breaks up the work, gives me more weekday time, and tires me less.

chopped onions and minced garlic -- no sweat if carrot bits mingle with the onions

Prepping large batches of ingredients means that in any one week, meals may look a bit repetitive on paper (on on my laptop), yet in taste and final texture, they're all quite different. I focus my prep work on those ingredients that take the most time, such as cooked grains and beans, chopped/diced vegetables, dressings and sauces, and cooked protein sources, such as boiled eggs and poached or roasted meat.

an extra-large pot of rice for fried rice, casserole, burrito bowls, and pudding

Here's my approach to prepping for the week's dinners:

1) First, I survey the contents of the fridge, and pull all of the leftovers and soon-to-expire ingredients to the front. I try to make sure all of those leftovers go into meals at the beginning of the week.

2) Next, I make a written plan of the week's dinners. I do this on the notepad feature of my laptop. It takes about 10 minutes of brainstorming and typing it all out, and it helps me to see all of the prep work I will need to do in advance. As I'm planning, I try to use specific ingredients 2 to 3 times in a given week. 

3) For those ingredients that overlap from one meal to another, I prep in one large batch. I get out the largest cutting board and best knife and begin. I shred some cabbage, dice several carrots, slice celery, tear a bunch of lettuce, chop the onions and bell peppers, mince the garlic, boil some eggs, poach or roast some chicken, shred cheese, steam a big pot of rice, boil a large pot of beans, cook a basic pasta shape (macaroni or penne), make a large batch of quickie marinara sauce, and mix up a couple of pitchers of different frozen juice concentrates. I make my own salad blends with some of the veggie ingredients and keep them in mason jars for several days of lunches. 

4) I store it all away in the garage fridge, knowing that I'm ready to take on a week of dinner-cooking. You know, I'm at home all day, every day right now. But I still don't relish the idea of spending large chunks of my late-afternoon in the kitchen. I have projects and a course that consume my weekday time. Prepping in bulk is a way to give myself more time on these days.

boiled eggs will keep all week

How it all plays out

Here's an example of some double-duty prepped ingredients. I shredded cabbage, then sliced carrots and celery for one large container and diced onions and minced garlic to keep in another. I also made an extra-large batch of rice and a large batch of easy marinara sauce. 

  • One night this week, I'll make a chicken and vegetable fried rice, using a couple of cans of chicken, some rice, and some of each of the prepped veggies, along with seasonings and frozen peas. 
  • Another night, I'll use some rice with most of the marinara sauce, some onions, celery, a can of green beans, rehydrated TVP, and shredded cheese in an Italian vegetarian casserole. 
  • I'll use the rest of the marinara sauce on homemade cheese and pepperoni pizzas. 
  • Rice can be used with leftover cooked beans in burrito bowls, adding canned corn, avocado, shredded cheese, olives, and salsa. 
  • And finally, the last of the rice will be turned into a custard-style rice pudding at the end of the week, and I'll make a slaw salad with whatever remains of the cabbage, carrots, and celery. 
Anything left over? Well, that's what weekends are for, right? Since this week will be rice-heavy, next week I'll choose a different grain.

not-yet-tossed salad in a jar will keep several days

A few tips:

  • I prep veggies from mildest to sharpest in flavor to minimize washing the cutting board and knife.
  • I store chopped veggies to be cooked all in two large containers, keeping pungent ingredients separated from non-pungent. I'm fine if a stray cabbage shred gets into the Italian casserole.
  • If I have a recipe that requires a specific amount of one ingredient, I bag that up separately and label.
  • I use lettuce salad bases early in the week and cabbage ones later in the week.
  • I tend not to prep fruits, other than washing, as the cut side of a piece of fruit will brown and some fruits loses their favorable textures soon after cutting or slicing (like bananas)
  • I never prep seafoods in advance, due to their short safety life, even in the fridge.
  • If I pre-cook other meats, they go onto the menu within the first 3 days of the week. Boiled eggs will keep the entire week in the fridge, so will cooked beans and baked tofu.
  • I plan on using my prepped ingredients along with some canned or frozen vegetables and meats. I still get that freshly-made taste and texture, but also the ease of canned and frozen.

Are you a Sunday meal-prepper? What tips could you add? Any crock-pot preppers?


  1. You are so organized, Lili, and I enjoy reading about it.

    We do bits of this, but never in a consistent way. What we do more regularly is to make a large batch of food to have for several days (we don't mind leftover repetition) or freeze some for the days when we are too tired or busy to cook.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      I'm only organized when I really want to be. And for me, the pay-off is so great to be organized with meal prep that it's worth the time and effort.

      Leftovers are great! I also like big batch cooking. I think it's a great way to have the convenience of heat and eat meals, yet stay on a budget or maintain dietary restrictions/stay away from some foods.

      Some friends of ours regularly make a few large batches of dishes on one day and then eat from them throughout the week. This is the norm for them and enjoy it a lot.

      Enjoy your day, Live and Learn!

  2. I'm not a chopping-prepper but I do have a few big soup recipes that I like to save half of (in fact, that's how we are eating dinner tonight) and then freeze. If I'm planning a trip where we prepare our own food, I do a lot of prep work, especially browning the meat beforehand. I suspect I fly by the seat of my pants more than you do, Lili ....

    1. Hi Kris,
      making large pots of soup is a great way to prepare in advance. We do what works best for us. I do cook on the fly some of the times. But I find that I spend less time overall cooking when I do some prep work in advance.

      That's smart to do prep work before a trip where you'll be preparing your own food. That way you get to enjoy more of your vacation along with your family!

      Have a good evening, Kris!

  3. I have read that rice can go bad after a couple of days in the fridge. Does anyone know if that is true? I have salad everyday for dinner and I really need to at least cut up the olives, onions, peppers, and carrots for a few days. I hate making them but live to eat them. Like the idea of prepping for the week.

    1. Hi Cheryl,
      Keeping cooked rice is a good thing to bring up. Thanks for mentioning this. The key thing with cooked rice is to get it into 40 degree F or less refrigeration (in shallow containers -- about 3-inches deep or less) for the cooling period, and not to let it cool on the counter. If cooled properly, I've read 3 to 5 days from the Wisconsin Extension and 4 to 6 days from a site called Still Tasty. Cooked rice can also be frozen in portions sized for future meals.

      Prepping in bulk for salads is a great way to save time.

      Have a lovely evening, Cheryl.

  4. Smart thinking on your part! I have done a bit of this in the past, but lately have been seriously struggling on the meal planning front, so am not prepping for the week when I have no idea what I'll be cooking and when. Need to work on the whole process again--used to be something I was good at.

    1. Hi Cat,
      one thing I do when I just can't wrap my mind around planning dinners for the whole week is just prep something I know I'll need, such as dicing several onions and mincing 5 or 6 cloves or garlic. Since just about everything I cook uses onions and garlic, having it all pre-chopped is a big help. Diced onions and minced garlic can just go into the freezer, too, so you don't risk losing any of your work to spoilage, if you don't get to using it up.

      Good luck. I know what it's like to hit a dry spell in meal planning.


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