Whether you’re a busy student or a working professional on the go, it can be hard to find the time to prepare healthy meals at home every day and effectively meal plan without wasting food. To help you out, we asked the experts to give us their tips on meal planning and cooking in small batches. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Buy in Bulk, Divide, Then Freeze
It’s often more cost-effective to buy in bulk, and this is where your freezer comes in handy. But don’t just toss an entire package of chicken or pork chops in the freezer! Divide them into single serving sizes and even package them with various herbs, so all you have to do is grab a single piece of meat from the freezer, thaw and cook your pre-seasoned meat.
- Tiffany McCauley, Clean-Eating Food Blogger, The Gracious Pantry
2. Organize and Optimize Your Freezer Space
The key to batch cooking is creating lots of pre-made items that can be frozen, thawed, and combined with fresh or convenient foods to give plenty of options throughout the week. Ingredients like quinoa or rice can be frozen in pre-portioned bags and then added to roasted veggies, your choice of protein, and leafy greens. Entire casseroles can be pre-portioned for the freezer, and even wraps or burritos can be individually frozen. Just remember to label everything clearly with a date!
- Cara Harbstreet, MS RD LD, Street Smart Nutrition
3. Freeze and Thaw Foods Carefully
When cooking basics, double or even triple the recipe to freeze servings for later use. Freeze in cup or half-cup servings. Rice, beans, poached chicken, thick leafy greens, carrots, ground meat, and non-dairy soups and sauces can be safely frozen for up to six months. Rice can be recooked with steam or on the stovetop with a sauce or stew mixed in. You can freeze beans and poached chicken in their cooking liquid and thaw them in the fridge for 24 hours before cooking them on the stovetop with a little extra water. Thick, leafy greens like kale and collard greens should be blanched (boiled for two minutes) and cooled before freezing. This keeps them from getting slimy. Carrots can be scrubbed, peeled, chopped, or shredded before freezing raw. Boil for two minutes to recook them.
- Jenna Edwards, Homecooking Expert & Host of Cooking Companion TV.
4. Invest in a Crock Pot
The key to meal prepping is to maximize the meals and minimize the prep, and nothing gets this done like a good old-fashioned crock pot! A slow cooker is the loyal best friend of many time-crunched college students and busy, working professionals. It’s a fool-proof way to cook up quality meals with minimal effort, and the endless variety of recipes makes it easy to tailor to your individual nutritional needs.
- Kevin Finn, Personal Training and Nutritional Consultant, Fitness Walkthrough
5. Prep Vegetables and Fruit for the Week
Prepping vegetables and fruit is a pain when you are on a time crunch. To better prepare yourself for quick weeknight dinners, chop or slice onion, celery, green peppers, carrots, and cucumbers in advance so you have them ready for cooking or tossing into a salad, sandwich or wrap at a moment’s notice. However, tomatoes are best left whole and sliced fresh as needed. If you like to snack on fruit, de-stem strawberries, peel and section oranges and grapefruit, and even slice up a pear or an apple.
- Melanie Carr, President / Founder, Dish Dish
6. Strive for Variety
The secret to successfully prepping is not to make a massive batch of one to two dishes you plan to eat all week. Unfortunately, when you do this, after a day or two, you may suddenly not feel the love so much—and into the trash it goes. Instead, the key to successful prep is creating some “building blocks,” or whole food ingredients that can then be quickly made into a variety of dishes.
- Liza Baker, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach + Kitchen Coach, Simply: Health Coaching
7. Cook Separates for Easy Meal Combinations
When cooking for one or two people, it’s nice to only cook once but eat two to three times. This means fewer dishes, less prep, and more wholesome meals. Try cooking two or three cups of grain like quinoa or rice, roasting a tray of veggies with olive oil and any seasonings you like, and cooking two to four servings of protein, whether that’s a bean or meat. You can also opt for canned beans, rinsed and stored in the fridge or canned fish like salmon in water to be opened right before use.
When you have all this prepped, you can easily pull together a wholesome meal in minutes with one scoop of grains, one scoop of veggies, and one serving of protein. Cooking like this allows you to enjoy wholesome food for days instead of preparing a whole meal from scratch every night. To keep it interesting, mix it up every week by using different grains, vegetables and protein.
- Alexandra Napoli, Certified Holistic Health Coach, Napoli Holistic Coaching
8. Choose Meals with Shared Ingredients
Each week, try to choose recipes that share some ingredients in common – especially more expensive ingredients when a recipe only calls for a small quantity. You won’t have to buy as much variety, saving you money at the grocery store. You’ll also cut back on waste by using up all the ingredients you purchase. For example, if you buy Thai basil for a curry dish, you can use the rest later in the week when making lettuce wraps.
- Jill Ginsberg, Health Coach and Speaker
9. Consider Meal Kit Delivery Services
Meal kit delivery services help break barriers associated with choosing to cook at home or not. Meal kits take care of the tough parts, like choosing the recipes, grocery shopping, and ingredient prepping, and deliver it all straight to your doorstep. All you have to do is cook and assemble. With all of the ingredients perfectly measured out, food waste is completely eliminated, and portion planning is covered for you.
- Rebecca Lewis, Registered Dietician, HelloFresh
10. Freeze Batter for Small Batch Desserts
When it comes to desserts, it’s hard to mix together small batches of cakes or cookies. You can, however, bake small batches and freeze the rest of the batter (and even icing!) for later. Use two 4-inch springform pans to make a small two-layer cake for small servings of your favourites. Using the small cake pans allows you to enjoy your cake without compromising a balanced diet or throwing out food.
- Jenna Edwards, Homecooking Expert & Host of Cooking Companion TV
Bonus Meal Planning Tips
- Keep your flavour profiles flexible: Prepare a few versatile sauces, like tomato-based, creamy, or pesto options. These can transform basic ingredients into different meals. Also, keep a variety of spices and herbs on hand to alter the flavour profile of your dishes without needing entirely new ingredients.
- Be smart about storage and labelling: Invest in clear containers or label items with their contents and dates. This prevents confusion and helps you identify what’s inside quickly. It’s also a good idea to keep a basic principle in mind: First in, first out. Arrange your fridge and freezer so that older items are at the front. This encourages you to use them before they go bad and prevents waste.
- Keep a library of recipes on hand: Recipes are everywhere—online, on social media, and in cookbooks. Bookmark the ones you find intriguing, and use this library as your guide when you’re stumped on what to cook. Having this on hand helps you keep your meal plans exciting and diverse, preventing you from eating the same thing week after week.
At CLV Group and InterRent REIT, we’re big supporters of making the most of your time while creating meals that fuel your lifestyle. And that all starts with a functional cooking space. We have a diverse selection of apartments across Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia with kitchens that’ll motivate your inner chef and make you feel at home. Explore our listings today!