meal prep

The Scoop About Meal Prep. My Tips and Ideas

Meal Prep is the current hot button topic.

I want to say right at the outset I am aware not everyone might agree with me on all points about my take on meal prep, and that’s okay!  Many rewarding and fulfilling years in cooking for very large groups (Cooking demos, catering, cookbooks etc.) have given me an unfair advantage on the subject: You are likely getting much more than you may have bargained for because this is my life work! I have taught thousands of grateful students on the subject.

I will start with the most basic meal prep yes/nos

Meal Prep       

Yes to the first. No to the second. Sorry!

Here is why:

  • In the first picture, I see something that I always do and that I find immensely rewarding: a big batch of 2 kinds of soup, divided in decent size containers (say 4-6 servings); loads of dumplings divided in ziplock; schnitzels (maybe?) in ziplock bags; large containers of frozen vegetables. And so on.
  • In the second picture, I see 8 containers with exactly the same food.

This last observation begs the question: Are you prepared to eat the meal prep box eight consecutive days? It looks to me like you will have no choice, unless you don’t mind seeing all your good work and your good money go to waste. And how much fun could this prospect possibly be?

Devoting your day off to meal prep:

There is no arguing with anyone on their preferred methods of organization. What works for each of us is obviously tried and true. I would not presume to do this. So I will only speak here about my personal experience, in the hope it will inspire you. In our early marriage days, my husband worked endless hours, and catering and cooking demos regularly saw me back home at ungodly hours. If on top of this chaotic schedule, I would have devoted our few days off to peeling, dicing, shredding and whatnot, we would have triggered a junior mutiny. Yes. It was that stressful. My kids (surprise!) clamored to be taken out to the park, to pizza, to ice cream, to the movies. And you know what, that’s just what we did: Go to the park. Go to the zoo. Play ball. Eat ice cream. Eat pizza. Watch movies. Drink hot chocolate. It was predictable, it was wonderful, and it was fun, and absolutely necessary for everyone’s sanity!

So what are my meal prep solutions?

I have no end of them, you will be very pleased! I absolutely believe in and practice meal prep constantly. I just may have a slightly different definition of it.

Different meal prep for different occasions

Let’s take Shabbos. Ours is a very open house, and we have many guests, Gd Bless. A cleaner upper is a godsent at any price. My cleaning lady is used to all my quirks, and is thoroughly familiar with our Jewish occasions and celebrations. She soaks, cleans, peels, shreds etc while I cook and make a bloody mess. That too is par for the course. I cook an absolute storm, she cleans, and puts away. Short Fridays? We cook Thursday. Long Fridays? We cook Friday.

Take epic occasions like long holiday cooking weeks, the ones when we pull out all stops. Let’s take the most titanic cooking project: Passover. I wrote an enormous file about this daunting subject, part diary and part bootcamp that you might enjoy someday hunkering down to reading: I call it good naturedly My Passover Kitchen Diaries: The Home Kitchen Trenches I zoom in, down and dirty, on the yearly Passover episode, starting two weeks before Passover, ending a couple days after the end of Passover. This file might be all you need to crack the Passover code like a pro. Cleaning, shopping, meal prep. It’s all there. Grueling, yes, but empowering! If you can do Passover you are capable of anything!

No cleaning or prepping help? This happens quite often too.

This doesn’t include Passover. Nononono I could not survive without help. There is simply no way.

So, a regular Shabbos. I will ask a kid to wash some dishes, run an errand, make a batch of cookies or soup, set a table, clean up a room. Get the kids involved, each according to their respective age and capacity of course! You will be surprised and delighted at how talented your children are, and how eager they are to contribute to the meal (only not on their day off please!) and be included in the Big Hosting Mitzvah Project. They are tomorrow’s cooks and hosts, to be taken seriously!

To prep or not to prep?

People, OK. This is the Parsha that leaves me with the most mixed  feelings. And for good reason. I cannot tell you how many times prepped and bag-sealed mushrooms went slimy on me, diced peppers turned to a watery mess, shredded celery root turned dark and metallic, shredded daikon turned stinky. So yes: Some stuff pays to prep and some doesn’t. That’s the brutal truth. C’est la vie, non?

Now that we’ve had this little talk, here are just some examples, provided everything is thoroughly dry:

That’s right, prevent water damage at all costs!

  • Diced turnips, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes etc… All sturdy roots. OK to prep and ziplock seal, even 2-3 days ahead.
  • Salad greens: Some are down right treacherous: watercress, endives, mint, basil. They get funky as soon as they hit water. Please don’t prep until the day of.  Mushrooms: Ditto. Peppers and cucumbers of all persuasion: Ditto.
  • But sturdier leaves like kale, swiss chard, even romaine hearts, radishes, etc, as long as it is all thoroughly dry, and wrapped in a clean kitchen towel and placed in ziplock bags, are OK.
  • Fresh corn: Ok to scrape off the cobs and seal in a ziplock
  • Scallions: OK to slice and seal in a ziplock
  • Onions, shallots etc…: Store in tightly sealed glass containers so you don’t smell up the fridge.
  • Parsley, cilantro, dill etc: Here I have my dear mother to thank for the tip, it never lets me down: cut off and discard the roots, do not wash, wrap in a clean kitchen towel, and store in ziplock bags for a good few days.
  • Shredded daikon, celery root and other easily oxidized items: shred, place in a glass jar, cover with water to the top, and refrigerate. Drain completely before using. Will keep really well for a good few days.
  • Can I interest you in diced frozen veggies? of course, not for a salad, but for a soup, a kugel a frittata, etc? In my view, this is the absolute best, and the ultimate prep work done for you: zucchini, onions, turnip, chopped leaves, carrots, okra, corn you name it. Likewise, frozen fruit and berries. Nothing comes close to that degree of freshness and preparedness.

 Make Big Recipes and FREEZE!

That’s my war cry: Don’t divide! Multiply! Example: Are you feeding 8 people Friday night? Make a big soup. Leave out half for serving. Freeze the rest in small containers. Don’t wait until it becomes old boring leftovers. Freeze it right away, while it is sizzling fresh! Boy you will be happy to find that container of soup, ready when you are! Only please never forget to label and date your goodies before they disappear into the Great Frozen Realm, or you will be stumped by some UFOs (unidentified frozen objects). Same for rice and other grains. Same for schnitzels. Same for meatballs. Same for cookies. Same for bread. And on an on, down the line. What’s not to love?

Are you cooking for a loved one?

The above will work beautifully as well. Once you have all your food portioned, sealed, labeled and dated, you will know precisely what you have to offer, and you will get no end of blessings for it from your lucky and grateful recipient!

Same for large leftover portions: Freeze!

Just a few examples here, to get you on your way.

  • Don’t cook half a cup of rice or quinoa. Cook three cups of grain. You will get a potfull of cooked grain. Divide in ziplock bags and freeze.
  • Don’t make a dozen cookies. Make four dozen cookies.
  • Fry lots of onions, divide in ziplock bags and freeze
  • Make lots of dressing and store in the fridge.

Here is a good example. I made dishes from my Mega Thanksgiving menu, then used Thanksgiving leftovers as a complete Shabbos dinner for eight a couple weeks later.  How? Easy!

  • On Thanksgiving day, while I carved the Thanksgiving turkey, right there and then, I threw the carcasses in a big pot, scraps, drippings and all. Of course you know turkey makes the BEST chicken soup, don’t you? That made me a gallon of perfect soup. Freezer.
  • On the same day I froze: a pan of roasted vegetables. A pan of wild rice and chestnuts. A pan of sliced turkey with gravy. A jar of chopped liver. A pan of chocolate chip cranberry cookies. Another Dinner Feast piggyback riding on the first, see?

You have guessed it: The freezer is my best friend and my treasure trove.

It is also my best diet tool. The good stuff is not in my face. So the temptation to overindulge is vastly reduced. I will take out two cookies from the freezer and enjoy them without a trace of guilt of procrastination, and no boring tomorrow-I’ll-go-on-a-diet speeches. I’ll just, you know, eat them. Just like that!
Likewise, I am a huge fan of frozen vegetables and fruits, and my freezer is jam packed with them. That’s how I make smoothies, soups, dessert at the drop of a hat! Smoothies? I throw in Levana Meal Replacement Vanilla Bean, Mixed Berry or Cocoa-Coffee. Dessert? Ditto! Soup? I throw in Levana Meal Replacement Garden Vegetable or Mushroom Medley.

Treat leftovers with the utmost respect!

What do I mean by that? Don’t even bother saving anything you or a guest have double dipped into: It is dead on arrival.
Instead of loosely covering a few pieces of chicken with foil, tightly seal them in a ziplock bag or in a glass container with snap on seal. Bravo: You have just planted the seed of tomorrow’s dinner! So you see that, to me Leftovers are inextricably linked to meal prep.

The idea of Reinventing Meals is indeed very dear to me:

Nobody has immortalized the wonderful mystique born of leftovers more brilliantly and with more wit than Calvin Trillin“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”

It’s not just that I hate to see anything go to waste (who wants to sound like a thrifty goodie goodie? Not me!), but much more importantly, because recasting the remains of last night’s meal into an entirely revamped and enticing new dish establishes you, the cook, as creative, bold and resourceful. A real makeover artist. As excitingly, you will create a whole different new dish each time, with endless permutations depending on what you have on hand, at practically no cost, no recipe needed whatsoever. Gosh, who wants to eat bits and pieces of lox, or grilled veggies, or chopped liver, or anything, as is, from a previous meal? No wonder they get tossed out so often, as they often look so unappealing. But suppose you wrap them carefully, thoughtfully and respectfully, you got yourself a real showcase! You will be amazed how they are calling out to you to remind you just how many hats they can wear, each one more becoming than the next! If you can recycle in style, then more power to you! By the way, y’all pay attention: This link included in this paragraph is a gigantic recipe file, a fantastic gift from me to you. Here it is again Reinventing Meals. You are most welcome! It expresses my philosophy of recasting a meal better than I can ever say it again: It’s all there! My next cookbook, assuming I would ever get into a situation where I can’t remember what I was smoking, will definitely be a book about reinventing meals: Think before you chuck! See, I already have the book title! Now that’s a start, is it not? With unbelievably enticing pictures of leftover poached salmon come of age as wonderful fish cakes on a bed of mixed greens; stale challah turned to bread pudding; leftover grilled vegetables turned into a delicious soup, tiny bags of leftover corn, mushrooms, spinach, thrown in a skillet with some beaten eggs and born again as beautiful frittata! I think you get my drift!

Levana Meal Replacement is the perfect complement to leftovers:

A little pouch of Levana Meal Replacement will drive both the flavor and the nutritional value of any dish, no matter how modest, through the roof. Here is the leftovers link again, you will be delighted! recasting the remains of last night’s meal

Mise En Place is half the battle!

Maybe even more than half the battle! Cut up all your salad greens, and assemble just before serving.
Making pasta? Make your favorite pasta sauce, fill the pot with water, take out the skillet that will heat through the pasta with the sauce

My first cookbook, Levana’s Table: Kosher Cooking for Everyone,  starts with a big chapter entitled the Hostess’s Survival Guide, which reappears on my blog as Party Planning Tips: Have Fun Entertaining!

It’s all there: Menu planning, meal prep tips etc.

Last but not least: The Pantry!

The pantry is where all the magic happens. My Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen Cookbook devoted an enormous chapter to pantry items. I am not overstating it, or bragging, when I say that on the strength of my Pantry Chapter alone, you should own my book! Dozens of fantastic recipes that will make you look like a pro each time! And no need to give up your day off either. Making salad dressing? Make a large container! Making pickles? Ditto. And so on, down the line! I guarantee you will look with scorn at all commercial concoctions once you learn what an asset your own pantry is to you and your guests! Yours will leave all of them in the dust, just because, like the great Marvin Gaye said so perfectly,  There ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby!

A pantry stocked with your own artisanal condiments, liqueurs, sauces, or dressings will allow you to dress up simple foods at mealtime, minimizing preparation time when you need it most.

 You don’t feel like fussing? Hey, I can relate! Take out that chutney recipe, or marinade, or dry spice rub, and smear it on plain cooked fish or chicken. You will serve a beautiful meal even if you made it in a jiffy, just because you got all the good homemade stuff it takes to kickstart it!

Okay. I think I have poured my heart out enough about the subject of meal prep. Your turn! Don’t forget to share your creations!