I spent many Sundays in New York and London batch cooking. My version of batch cooking includes prepping mostly vegetables, beans and soups and dividing chicken, beef and pork into individual serving sizes. The result? Ready made meals to reheat, or healthy ingredients to cook up a quick bite. Over the past month of lockdown in Rome, I’ve dusted off my batch cooking hat, shoes, and clothes.
If you’re new to meal prep, these tips can save you time, money, and a great deal of stress. It’s especially helpful when many of us are confined to our homes at this time. I shop for 14 days for 2 people allowing us to stay home – #iorestoacasa – and eat a balanced diet.
Batch cooking meals and ingredients on a slow day or the weekend for the days ahead is smart. It cuts down on time spent food shopping and in the kitchen, and helps you eat more well-rounded meals. When you have ready-made meals or ingredients sitting in the fridge or freezer, there’s less temptation to order take out. And the added plus is big savings.
If you’ve wondered where to start with meal prep, here are some tips.
1 – Keep it simple.
Look for recipes that you’re excited to make. Prepare them. Store them. Use leftovers for other meals. Repeat.
Nothing goes to waste. Leftovers become meals. Roast a chicken as a meal and use the leftovers for sandwiches, in salads or in soup. We always use the carcass to make chicken broth which is a comfort ingredient for me. Use it as a base for various soups or enjoy tortellini in brodo.
2 – Cook portions to freeze.
Batch prep is a state of mind, a way of thinking to make life easier. When you ignite your kitchen burners, imagine present and future meals. What tricks can be useful?
One trick is to cook extra and freeze. Double or quadruple quantities in a recipe if you have room in your freezer. Cook two portions of beans, tomato sauce or soup. The extra effort that you put in today saves time and effort tomorrow. It shortens meal prep time on a busy night or when you’re tired. We have a tiny freezer so we have an assembly line of sorts. The least perishable vegetables like a whole ‘Marina di Chioggia’ pumpkin, beets, and potatoes are stored on our balcony, while blanched vegetables, like escarole that will be eaten within two days, finds its home in our fridge and our cherished friarielli are hoarded in our freezer for a later date. We always have lentils, broth and blanched vegetables in our freezer as well as something for a sweet craving.
Foods that freeze well include meatballs, sauces, soups, beans, bread, lasagna, broth, and more. Avoid freezing lettuce (wilt factor), and dishes that include condiments like mayo or avocado.
3 – One pot wonders.
Cook extra to use for snacks, tonight’s dinner or tomorrow’s lunch and dirty fewer pots and pans. If you’re making hard-boiled eggs for a Cobb salad, boil extra for a protein snack or breakfast. Roasting squash as a side dish? Cook more to make gnocchi alla zucca. Grilling chicken for lunch? Make extra to chop for tomorrow’s salad.
Once you get in the swing of meal prep, more ideas will come to you and you’ll find yourself running out of fridge and freezer space like me!
4 – Serving size, serving size, serving size.
We cook for two. Even if you’re cooking for a larger family, make and divide into single servings. Why? At times, we want to eat different side dishes or we eat at different times. Single serving sizes make this easy.
Recipes like overnight oatmeal, stews and lasagna can easily be divided in single serving sizes. We make overnight oats in mason jars, beef stew, and simple lasagna to freeze in portions.
5 – Rely on prepared ingredients sometimes.
You don’t need to prep all from scratch. That’s pretty much a recipe for a nervous breakdown. Keep it fun.
I love cooking but not always from scratch and sometimes I don’t cook at all but assemble.
Rotisserie chicken and potatoes find their way to our table as do pre-chopped vegetables for minestrone, and prepped artichokes for carciofi alla romana. And in a pinch, we always have bottled sauce to whip up spaghetti al pomodoro and a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto. In our home, cheese, prosciutto, bread and a bottle of Lambrusco wine make a meal. No cooking required.
Find the prepared ingredients that make you sing. Keep them on your shopping list. You too can have homemade nutritious meals ready in no time.
6 – To reheat or not? That’s a good question.
Not everything reheats well nor should be reheated multiple times. Making fish tacos with avocado? Warmed up brown avocado isn’t appealing to me. If you love it go for it. In our home, we don’t reheat vegetables more than once nor beans as the flavor, consistency and nutritional value changes. Pasta is always served al dente unless we’re talking lasagna, cannelloni or other pasta al forno. And we argue over reheating pizza based on how the mozzarella melted the first time. I can’t make this stuff up.
7 – Avoid foods that spoil quickly.
We love salads, raw vegetables and fruit. While we keep chopped carrots and celery on the ready, salads are made in the moment. I’ve stored washed lettuce in our fridge overnight and it loses it’s crunch and freshness. Ditto for sliced fruit. It’s best when cut immediately before eating.
8 – Challenge yourself.
Meal prepping two meals a day can be overwhelming in the best of times. Baby steps! We are both working from home in this moment and want quick, healthy lunches. For us this means, having lentils, borlotti beans and soups precooked which can be a meal in themselves or one component of a meal. We also keep chicken and steaks in the freezer that can be defrosted, grilled and enjoyed with a side dish. Quick and easy.
Challenge yourself with one meal a day to start. You may want to take inspiration from Casa Mia Tours’ #whatscooking challenge on Instagram where we’re cooking many one-pot, quick meals! We loved sharing cooking tips with you.
You’ll get the hang of it. I promise. You may even enjoy it. I find a glass of wine helps.
9 – Speaking of challenges – think like a chef.
I grew up watching my grandmothers from Avellino and Augusta cook without following recipes. The exception may have been dessert. Louise and Maria took base ingredients and turned them into mouthwatering dishes. They knew how to braise, roast, and blanch; basic kitchen techniques. With an elemental grasp of these skills, you too can cook without a recipe. Trust me.
You’re wondering how will this make my life easier? For me, it’s liberating to NOT follow a recipe. It takes little planning. We stock our fridge and freezers with ingredients that we love to eat and then create.
Start by imagining components on your plate: two parts vegetables, one part protein, and one part carbohydrate. Second, choose a cooking technique. Third, add your personal touch using spices and fresh and dried herbs.
Here’s an example: Last night for dinner our components were: escarole, beef, and potatoes. The techniques we used were: sautéing the escarole, pan roasting the sirloin steak and oven roasting the potatoes. (Note: we had cleaned and blanched the escarole, during vegetable prep two days ago = time saved). We added our personal flair by sautéing the escarole with garlic, olives and capers, pan roasting the steak with fresh thyme and butter and roasting the potatoes with sea salt and rosemary.
Take components and add your touch to them. For a taste of Italy, sauté garlic and chili pepper with the blanched broccoli rape. For something Greek, roast potatoes with garlic, lemon and oregano. Make a green peppercorn sauce as a topping for your steak. The possibilities are never ending. We can travel around the world in our kitchens.
10 – Make it fun
I don’t know about you, but since lockdown, I’ve broken out my food processor, immersion blender, hand mixer and Instant Pot more times than I can count. Use kitchen appliances to make prep easier. Be curious. Employ the Instant Pot to make a roast, soups and beans. Use your blender to puree soups. Use your food processor to chop onions, garlic and the likes.
Make your life simpler and make meal prep and cooking a stress release.
Buon batch cooking!