You know that cooking on your own is healthier and cheaper than buying frozen food or eating out. But, you’re so busy. If you can’t stop off and pick something up on the way home, you need fridge food. You need to know that you can grab something out of the ice box, heat it and eat it.
It’s true, finding time to cook every meal in a week can be hard. Unless, you cook every meal in a week at the same time. By purposely making big batches of food to fridge or freeze for later, you can have a diet that is affordable, healthy, and convenient.
What Is Meal Prepping?
As our introduction suggested, “meal prepping” is a method of bulk-preparing food ahead of time that can be heated up as needed.
Think about some common meals like soups, stews, pasta sauces, etc. Think about the time that it takes to make, say, two or three servings. Now, think about the time that would take to make, say ten servings. It does take more prep time because you’re cutting more vegetables, etc., but it doesn’t take longer to cook.
So, if you don’t have time to make a fresh meal every time that you want to eat, think about taking time one or two days each week to make your meals in advance. If this isn’t how you normally think about food, that’s okay. We’ll go over the basics of how to prep, cook, store, serve, and even shop for a “fridge food” diet.
Shopping for Meal Prep
While shopping for meal prepping may sound scary, it’s actually a great way to get some good deals. That’s particularly true if you live alone or cook for yourself. That’s because of what economists call “pantry price.”
Bulk foods are cheaper to buy than the same foods in smaller quantities. So, if you’re just starting to do more of your own cooking, there can be some initial “sticker shock.” However, a lot of food goods don’t go bad very quickly. Think about flour, sugar, spices, rice, etc. So, beginning to shop can be a steep early investment that pays off over time.
Other foods, notably produce, become significantly cheaper the more you buy at one time. However, these foods, like fresh vegetables, potatoes, etc., go bad a lot faster so it can be hard to take advantage of this pricing structure. Because meal prepping directly involves preserving food, buying 10 pounds of potatoes at a time is a lot more cost effective.
Throughout this article, we’ll continue to explore how different foods lend themselves to meal prepping. As these ideas speak to you, keep this section in mind and try to rethink how you approach grocery shopping – particularly that first aisle.
As you think about fridge foods to meal prep, think about “stovetop meals” that you might already be buying like soups, stews, and pastas. Most of these things can be purchased as preserves because they lend themselves well to that style of cooking. While you can (and should) do better on your own, these meals can serve as inspiration for fresh ingredients.
Working With Vegetables
Unfortunately, vegetables can be the last thing that a body builder thinks about when shopping. However, there’s a reason that they are the first section in the store. Vegetables are the source of important nutrients that you can’t find from protein and carbohydrate sources.
You can get a lot of vegetables in preserved forms, namely frozen or canned. Unfortunately, canned vegetables are often high in sodium and, while they do well enough if you use them and eat them in the same day, opening them, cooking them, freezing them, and heating them again can make them a bit gross.
Frozen vegetables maintain their texture a lot better, they don’t lose as many nutrients in the packaging process, and they’re less likely to have nasty additives. If there’s a reason that you don’t (or can’t) purchase and work with fresh vegetables, frozen is the next best thing. There are some exceptions to this, usually vegetables with a high water content like tomatoes.
If you do buy fresh vegetables – which we recommend for taste, texture, and nutritional value – try to do your shopping shortly before you do your meal prepping.
Working with Carbohydrate Foods
When it comes to carbohydrate sources in meal prepping, rice and the humble potato are king. They lend themselves well to being heated and reheated in addition to being inexpensive, particularly when purchased in large quantities.
If you’re thinking bread, it actually lends itself rather well to refrigeration for the shorter term or freezing for the long term if you don’t use it fast enough to keep on your counter.
Pasta can be used in meal prepping but it doesn’t hold its texture very well. If you like pasta, consider buying it dry and meal prepping toppings and sauces. It’s still faster and better for you to meal prep a sauce without noodles and make the noodles as needed then it is to buy premade sauces or frozen premade pasta meals.
An under-rated hero of meal prepping carbs? Tortillas. They’re a lot easier to make then bread, but even purchased pre-made, they have a long shelf-life and an even longer fridge life, making them superior to breads for wraps instead of sandwiches when you need something quick or portable.
Working with Protein and Fat Sources
Meats can work well in things like chilli, soups and stews, but don’t go trying to pre-cook steak to thaw out later. Burger patties can be shaped and frozen ahead of time, but you won’t thank yourself for thawing out a pre-cooked and frozen burger.
Similarly, while cheese works well in meal prepping, things like milk, cream and butter can separate when it freezes or when it’s left to sit in the fridge.
The best way to handle protein is to treat meat as we’ve discussed, having it accessible for quick cooking but not trying to pre-cook it, and replacing some if not most of your protein with beans and mushrooms. Beans and mushrooms lend themselves much better to cooling or freezing and reheating than meat in most recipes.
They’re also genuinely underappreciated sources of protein and iron, as well as fiber.
Making and Prepping Your Fridge Foods
Now that you have a better understanding of how to shop for and use ingredients in meal prep cooking, the sky is the limit when it comes to what you can cook. However, you have probably noticed our returning to a couple of standards more than once – namely soups, chilli, and stews.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that these are “soft” foods that don’t lose a lot of texture notes in the meal-prep process.
Another is that they are pretty easy recipes to scale up if you’re using a cookbook. They’re also inexpensive but tasty and versatile meals that typically cover a wide range of nutritional offerings (protein, carb, and vegetable representations in the same dish).
Perhaps the best reason is that they are easy to make in large batches while you’re doing other things. Whether you use a pot that you come back and stir occasionally while tending other things, or you use a slow cooker that can cook batch meals overnight or while you’re gone, these are the most convenient cooking methods for making large batches.
Incorporating Variety and Texture with Fresh Sides
Cooking soup, stew, and chilli doesn’t mean that your whole life has to be soft hot food from a bowl. There are a lot of ways to incorporate other tastes and textures using soup, stew, or chilli as a quick and convenient meal-prep base.
One example that we’ve already given is pasta. Sauces and toppings for pasta can take a lot of time to make and so are prime candidates for meal prepping. The pasta itself, however, only takes a couple of minutes. The texture of pasta that’s made as it is needed is well worth the extra time.
Baked potatoes are another element that don’t lend themselves particularly well to cooling and reheating. However, if baked in time for a meal and served under chili or as a side to soups they can add a lot to a dish.
For faster rice, working with dried beans, and even preparing meat faster and easier, consider looking into a good pressure cooker as an alternative to relying on slow cookers and either the microwave or stove.
Serving and Storing Your Fridge Food
Meal prepping can be done in order to have occasional meals handy, or it can be done as essentially a soul source of meals. Either way, it can be handy to divide your bulk meal into single-serving containers. Mark the containers with the meal and that date that you made it.
If you only want to have fridge food when you’re particularly busy, freeze them all unless you know that your next prepped meal will be sooner than later. Remember too that if you have access to a microwave where you’re going, your prepared food is also your ready-packed to-go food.
If you plan on eating more fridge food than not, consider prepping a couple of different meals at once, and putting some in the fridge and some in the freezer so that you can develop a rotating menu.
Because you can’t possibly prep all of your meals, keep some ingredients on hand, or keep some of those “stovetop meals” on hand for occasional emergencies.
Hopefully, this article has served to introduce you to meal prepping for a convenient and affordable, as well as more nutritious and personalized diet. Hopefully, it has also served as a little refresher on how different foods and food groups should factor into the diet of the healthy and active person.
If you liked the section on shopping for meal prep, keep an eye on our fresh posts, as a larger explainer on grocery shopping for a physically active diet is in the works.