How To: Easily Prepare Meals in Advance

By Scott Bird

3052-prepare-meals-in-advance.jpgEating well can be challenging at the best of times; especially when you’re away from your own kitchen.

Research shows that the better people plan ahead for their diet, the more successful they’ll be.

Here’s a look at several nutritious foods than can be prepared in advance – ready for you to take to work with you.

Chicken or Turkey breasts

2786-mcdonalds-chicken.jpgThe humble chicken breast sits at the center of my current diet. These can be purchased in bulk (somewhere around 2kg usually keeps me going for the entire week) and grilled en-masse. Depending upon the rest of the meal, these can be eaten hot (just pop one into a microwave for a minute or so) or cold.

Note: cook the chicken or turkey shortly after purchase; even if you’re not planning to eat it for a few days.

How to store: Before cooking – in marinade, in the refrigerator. After cooking – in the refrigerator. They’ll keep for 3-4 days in an efficient refrigerator.

For meals: Marinate the chicken, or add a splash of sauce. Add rice, pasta or noodles (all of which can be cooked in advance, or prepared as needed). And/or add a bag of chopped vegetables (see below).

Rice

At the risk of upsetting those who are deathly afraid of consuming a lot of high-carbohydrate foods, I eat a lot of rice. At least two cups (uncooked) per day.

If you find yourself doing the same – or at least eating it fairly regularly – invest in a rice cooker. It’ll be the best $20 you’ll ever spend.

Cooked rice will last a day or two, so you’ll be making it around 2 – 3 times per week (the working week, that is). Much better than the daily trip to the local fast food joint, no?

How to store: cooked rice is fine in the freezer for 2-3 days, or in the refrigerator for a day or so.

For meals: add a chicken breast and some chopped vegetables. Simple and quick.

Hard-boiled Eggs

1623-eggs.jpgI eat these as snacks (I tried a carefully planned diet for a while but it didn’t last, so now I simply eat decent foods); as well as occasionally adding them to meals. Boil a half-dozen or so and eat them within 2-3 days.

Note: Boil them within a couple of days of purchase, not a week later. They’ll taste better, be easier to peel and it’s a little safer.

How to store: in the refrigerator. They’ll keep for 2-3 days.

For snacks: peel and eat. Perfect.

For meals: Chop/slice them and add to stir-fries or rice.

Chopped Vegetables

Vegetables are incredibly versatile things. In addition to using them as the basis for numerous stocks, soups and sauces; they’re great things to simply eat on their own or as part of a meal.

The inexpensive, simple and healthy way to do things:

Buy them in bulk at your favorite farmer’s market / grocer / supermarket. Chop them up, put them into small bags (one per meal), and pop them in the freezer. Defrost them in the microwave as needed.

How to store: Cut them into bite-size chunks, put them in small bags and pop them in the freezer. They’ll easily keep for a week.

For snacks: Defrost them in the microwave; and eat them hot or cold. Beautiful.

For meals: Chop/slice them and add to stir-fries, chicken or rice.

Ground beef

This is the basis of a number of quick meals, and can be partly prepared in advance. Try this:

Brown and drain enough for the entire week. When it cools a little, pour it into meal-size bags and pop it in the freezer. It’ll last for a long time this way, but try to use it within the week.

How to store: Once browned and drained, pour it into meal-sized bags and pop it into the freezer. It’ll easily last the week.

For meals: Defrost it in the microwave and use it for chili, tacos or simply add veggies and rice.

Soup

3041-vlcd-cabbage-soup.jpgSoup is another great candidate for the bags-in-freezer approach. Make an enormous pot of your favorite non-creamy soup (potato and leek is my own choice), let it cool a bit, pour it into microwave/freezer-safe containers and freeze it. You’ll have microwave-ready meals for a week.

How to store Once cooled, pour it into microwave/freezer-safe plastic containers and pop it into the freezer.

For meals: Defrost/heat it in the microwave and eat as is – or heat over a stove.

Bread

I love the smell of fresh, hot bread (I worked near a bakery for a while – there were plenty of early-morning starts, I can assure you). Accordingly, I make my own.

The one downside of this is that it takes so long.

If you’re in the same boat, invest in a bread-maker. It’ll take you two minutes to prepare the loaf (essentially just pouring the ingredients in a tin and pressing ‘start’), and the bread will last a couple of days. What’s more, you can time it to cook overnight and wake you up in the morning with that amazing bakery smell.

How to store: Keep it cool (a bread-bin, spare cupboard or just cover it with a towel) if you’re going to eat it with a couple of days; freeze it for longer-term storage (a week or two).

For meals: Defrost it in the microwave (if frozen) and use it for sandwiches.

Summary

Here’s a quick review that will save you an incredible amount of time each week (not to mention keeping your diet full of good foods) :

  • Once a week
    Buy meat and vegetables in bulk. Brown the beef, chop the veggies and put everything into small bags in the freezer. Put the chicken breasts in marinade (your choice) in the refrigerator.

Put a couple of hours aside one day per week. During this time – grill chicken breasts for a few days; make a large batch of soup (and freeze it in plastic containers).

  • Before work, every 2-3 days
    Boil a half-dozen eggs. Eat them as snacks or as part of a meal.
  • At night, every 2-3 days
    Put some flour, water and yeast into your bread maker. Push ‘start’ and go to bed.

 

If the above sounds like a lot of work, think for a minute of the time you spend standing in line at fast-food outlets and cooking meals each day.

Food Safety tips

Finally, a few food safety tips to keep in mind.

  • Never re-use chicken marinade. If you don’t use it all, throw it out.
  • Always wash your hands after handling raw meat. The same goes for knives and chopping boards.
  • Pop leftovers in the fridge straight away, and keep them covered. Otherwise you end up with a plate of dried out food and everything in your fridge tastes the same.
About the author
Scott Bird is a writer, photographer and lover of all things involving the throwing around of heavy objects. He can usually be found in the kitchen stuffing his face, outdoors scaring small children (otherwise known as working out in the local park) or at his strength training site Straight to the Bar.

30 Comments

  1. edwin

    Hi, I’m running into a lot of time shortages during the morning rush preparing meals for my family. These tips are really helpful.

    I do have one question though, how does this go with the nitrate and nitrite problem for food left overnight etc? I might have understood it wrongly, but any advise or enlightenment would be appreciated

    thanks!

    Reply
  2. Angela Smith

    This was the most helpful article I have read on easily prepping meals.

    I already purchase enough food for a week, but usually after being gone for 11 hours, I’m too tired to come home and stand in the kitchen another 30-40 minutes.

    This will definitely save my family and I time.

    Thanks so much for the helpful tips!!!!

    Reply
  3. Cindy

    I make smoothies. I freeze small batches of grapes, paw paw, apple etc in small zip lock bags. Every morning i take out one packet of the fruit, throw it in my magic bullet, mix 2 tblspns yoghurt and a small amount of milk and blend.

    Then i put it in an thermos cup that keeps it cold for hours and consume during work ?

    Reply
  4. Janet

    Microwaves are toxic.

    Reply
  5. Selena

    What types of food do you pack yourself for lunch? Im having the hardest time packing healthy lunches 🙁

    Reply
    • Angela Smith

      I have a friend who does what the article mentioned above with her turkey and chicken. Then she buys bags of prepared salad and salad toppings. So then she can easily pack salads for the week in Tupperware.

      Or she’ll use the meat to make sandwiches.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  6. andrea

    eating healthy food is good.. make sure that it will not decrease the other available resource of other food

    Reply
  7. Suzanne

    if you add a little bit of water to the chicken and cver it slightly when you warm it, it looses the toughness, or at least for me it does. yum.

    Reply
  8. Busy Mom

    I shred the chicken breasts that are not eaten in my house and either saute them with onions and BBQ sauce (my favorite is Sweet Baby Ray’s original) and then serve them on buns (like pulled pork), or make enchiladas with them. I take a flour tortilla, spread a little sour cream, lay down a handful or so of the shredded chicken, add shredded cheese, sliced avocado, salsa, (you could also add refried beans), wrap it up and lay it in a baking dish that has a layer of salsa on the bottom. Top with salsa, shredded cheese and bake. It takes a few minutes to heat things through and melt the cheese but it is a great way to use the old chicken breasts – because i totally agree that they do get tough in the fridge. Happy cooking.

    Reply
  9. matthew

    what is wrong with you u dont freeze bread of defrost it in a microwave and half the stuff you say to freeze will last for more then a week and u can just put it in the frige

    its the temperture danger zone 41F-135F if its beween that for more then 2-4 hours(varies state-state)then its bad if its under it then its fine for up to a week unless frozen then it depends

    Reply
  10. Christian

    I like your blog.

    Reply
  11. Healthy Weight Loss Girl

    Great Post! Thank you for the helpful suggestions.

    Reply
  12. Kilo verme

    Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
  13. Mark

    I too have run into the same problem with chicken drying out. My solution has been to undercook the leftovers by about 2-3 minutes. That way when you reheat them later, they will finish cooking and retain their moisture. Also, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of chicken stock (already prepared in a box) before heating. That too will retain moisture.

    SnarkyFit said:
    These are great tips!
    But, do you find that cooked chicken breast becomes quite hard and chewy after a day in the fridge? I’ve always had this problem and can’t stand the result, forcing me to cook chicken on the spot when I want it.[…]

    Reply
  14. Dave Child

    “simply eat decent foods” – that could be the whole article by itself 🙂

    I find doing a batch of something like chili or bolognaise at the weekend, while not the most healthy possible options, and eating that with rice, is far better than supermarket junk for lunch. The chicken and rice approach never stuck for me – I just found it too bland (although if you do do the chicken and rice thing, I recommend you make a pot of salsa and add a bit of that to meals to make it less dry).

    Reply
  15. Crabby McSlacker

    Yeah, I agree, some great suggestions!

    But the whole “easy” thing–

    Somehow planning ahead, buying in bulk, chopping, cooking, bagging, etc. can still feel psychologically like a lot of effort, even though it saves a lot of time over starting from scratch every night. Every time I do it I’m really glad, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just grabbed take out instead.

    But then I’m not exactly a role model!

    For me, remembering to do just ONE of these suggestions would make me feel virtuous.

    Reply
  16. Killertofu

    Hey there, wonderful preplanned meal ideas. I would like to make a comment, since some people are not aware of certain risks while preparing large or any amounts of food. When preparing a large amount of soup as shown above. It is best to invest in a thermometer. Those soups can be somewhat thick, so they take a longer time to cool. Microorganisms can easily find that soup as weekend resort if it’s temp is greater than 41 degrees for more than 6 hours. For food safety, the temp should be at or above 135. You then have to cool the soup while pouring it into a shallow pot, place in fridge, and cool to 70 degrees within 2 hours.You then will have 4 more hours to cool to the safest temp being 41 degrees and below. If you can reach this temp then you will have no issues with those little nasties growing in, and reproducing in that lovely soup.
    Also, when preparing or reheating anything, (such as thawing) in the microwave, it is good cooking practice to make sure that food is consumed immediately. It should not be thawed and placed back in fridge. Depending on what food you are preparing those food borne illnesses can sneak up on anyone, not just in a restaurant. Not to sound like a textbook here, i just thought i would spread the knowledge. I would hate for anyone to get sick from consuming their favorite meal. Happy Cooking! =D

    Reply
  17. Dana

    Great tips! Especially the soup one! Making soup in bulk, then freezing it for possibly weeks later is a great way to have something ready whenever you are in a bind! (When my grandma comes to visit, I have her make her famous vegetable soup in bulk and freeze it so I can save it for a rainy day, when she isn’t here to make it herself of course 😉 ).

    Reply
  18. rpm2004

    Thanks for the tips but I wish I had the exact cooking/defrost time.I like to plan my meal preparation down to the minute.

    Example: start cooking rice
    wait 4 minutes
    start cooking chicken
    wait two minutes
    start cooking spinach
    wait 2 minutes
    stop cooking chicken
    wait 2 minutes
    stop cooking rice and spinach
    eat

    Yeah,I’m weird.

    Reply
  19. Spectra

    I love my skinless chicken breasts. I have a George Foreman grill and it doesn’t take too long to grill a couple of them up for meals. I don’t like to make them up TOO far ahead of when I’m going to eat them though because they tend to get dry in the fridge.

    BTW…2 cups of dry rice per day is an awful lot. I only eat 1/2 cup of brown rice a day max and I think that’s a lot.

    Ooh, and I love hardboiled eggs!!! I put them on salads as well. You have to cook them properly though, otherwise the yolks get green and disgusting.

    It really doesn’t take a whole lot of time to prepare healthy foods if it’s important to you. I pack my own lunch every night because I know I won’t have time in the morning to do it. That way, it’s ready to go and I don’t have to worry about what to eat that day for lunch.

    Reply
  20. Elastic Waist

    Thanks for the tips. It can be hard to plan ahead, but it is essential if you are trying to control what you eat.

    Reply
  21. Debbie

    I wouldn’t be too afraid of rice. It’s good for your blood pressure.

    Reply
  22. Kailash

    One 2-3 lb. beef tongue = sandwiches for a week

    Just 90 min in the pressure cooker, remove the skin and cut into slices. Tupperware it in the fridge. Presto.

    I also eat a whole chicken a week, but the deboning process doesn’t fit well under “quick and easy”.

    Other than that, I cook my steaks two at a time and my ground beef a pound at a time. Sausages too. I pretty much always cook double what I’m going to eat, to have a leftover meal for lunch the next day.

    Reply
  23. JoLynn Braley

    I love my rice cooker, which also includes a steaming tray. I often double up with cooking rice and steaming veggies at the same time.

    An important tip I learned from a chef: let your rice cool down before refrigerating it, otherwise it will sour (not a good thing…).

    Hope this helps! 🙂

    Reply
  24. jj

    Wow! I really love rice and I’m not carb phobic, but even *I* don’t eat more than 1/4-1/2 cup (dry) of brown rice a day!

    Typically when I prepare lunches ahead I grill up a number of chicken breasts or salmon and add a couple different sauces for variety (usually salsa, teriyaki or spaghetti sauce with parmesan), and then make a big batch of a tasty side dish with plenty of veggies. In the summer though, I’m more likely to do a pasta salad with veggies and protein, or a low fat chicken salad with a cold side dish… sometimes you don’t want a hot dish.

    Reply
  25. Jan

    Very good tips, I’d just add that when handling raw meats, it is best to use bleach on the cutting boards and knives and the sponge you used to wash them, before using bleach – unless you use a dishwasher, cause those are very high temperature and do the job without bleach.

    Reply
  26. soozeequeue

    Great tips but they left out one of my favorite suggestions for hard boiled eggs – chop them or slice them on top of salad. Small tins of tuna are great on salad for a fast meal too. I like the small tins of tuna in olive oil – you can drain off most of the oil but the tuna is more flavorful this way and you don’t need to add any dressing to the salad. The little tins of tuna with pepper and lemon are good too.

    Reply
  27. Lily

    Thanks for the tips!

    Reply
  28. Lose Weight With Me

    Good post.

    I think it helps to lose weight to have foods prepared and ready to go like this. Personally, I keep the makings around for at least 3 quick and easy meals.

    Brian

    Reply
  29. SnarkyFit

    These are great tips!
    But, do you find that cooked chicken breast becomes quite hard and chewy after a day in the fridge? I’ve always had this problem and can’t stand the result, forcing me to cook chicken on the spot when I want it.

    Reply