6 Tricks for Faster Meal Prep

In an ideal world, we’d all have most of our meals prepped and packed on Sunday night. We’d rest easy knowing that we could grab healthy, tasty options as soon as we walked in the door, before the hangry sets in. It’s great in theory, but a real pain in the neck for many. What you hope is two hours of meal prep often turns into an all-day affair, what with the shopping and cleanup tacked onto either end.

But there are a few things you can do to lighten your lift and still get a head start on the week’s meals.

1. Find your time

The bulk of your meal prep should be inactive time — e.g., combining rice and water in a pot, slow-cooking something, or throwing a chicken in the oven. You shouldn’t plan to make three things that require constant attention. If you’re following recipes, read them through entirely and plan accordingly. In addition, advanced meal prep doesn’t always have to happen on Sunday. If Tuesday is a mellow day, set aside some time to cook that night. Early riser? Make a couple things each morning if that’s when you have quiet time.

2. Use delivery

Shopping can take up a lot of time and energy. Order pantry items (rice, canned beans, frozen vegetables, pasta, canned tomatoes, etc.) in bulk online and focus on hand-shopping for the fresh stuff. Whether you do one big trip on the weekend or pick up a couple of things on the way home, you’ll be armed with a shorter grocery list (and might even qualify for the express line).

3. Flex your pantry

A well-stocked pantry will save dinner (or breakfast or lunch) time and time again. But “pantry” doesn’t just mean dry goods. Your fridge and freezer should be stocked with foods you like, that you won’t whine about eating on lean or lazy days. Those could be things like lemons, cheddar cheese, frozen sausages, and peas, and long-lasting fresh vegetables and herbs like broccoli, sweet potatoes, and flat-leaf parsley, as well as pasta, grains, and canned goods.

4. Chop less

If you only have an hour or two to get stuff cooked, cleaned, and packed up, skip the chopping. Onions can almost always be sliced instead of chopped for soups and sauces. If you must chop, throw them quartered in the food processor and pulse to your desired fineness. Go ahead and toss the garlic in there too.

5. Cook in bulk

Make double what you think you need. If you’re cooking for one, cook for two; if you’ve got a family of four, prep for eight. Cook the entire bunch of carrots or broccoli and prep the entire bunch of greens. Remember that the same carrots can taste very different when served alongside a piece of fish and rice than they do when served with burgers and ranch for dipping.

6. Don’t use recipes

The ultimate goal is to cook without a recipe; to look in your pantry, see a bag of pasta and a can of beans, and know that with some olive oil, pine nuts from the freezer, and parsley from the crisper, you’ve got a killer 15-minute dinner on your hands. Fine-tune some pantry meals and put them on repeat.

(Real Simple magazine provides smart, realistic solutions to everyday challenges. Online at www.realsimple.com.)