Article by Tei Kue.
Photos by Audrie Dollins Photography.
Meal preparation is the practice of preparing meals to be heated up at a later date. Often, large batches will be cooked and divided into meal-sized portions to be eaten throughout the coming week.
By cooking several meals at once, meal preppers save time. Buying in bulk, and avoiding the alternative of restaurants and frozen dinners, saves money.
Some people prep meals simply because they want the flavor of home-cooking. Others because they want to maintain the healthy diet they’re on.
Whatever the reason, it’s not difficult to get started. Guides are numerous, so a Google search for “meal prepping” would be enough to get anyone started. (My favorite guide can be found here.)
There’s also a Reddit community with over one million subscribers where one can converse with other meal preppers to get tips and info to help personalize their meal plans.
In this blog post, I offer something not found in the typical guide. I contacted Deb Cantrell from Savor Culinary Services to pick her brain about meal prepping. Along with catering, her company cooks prepared meals to be heated up by her clients. In order to provide input from a trained professional chef who’s experienced with meal prepping, I asked Chef Cantrell a few questions.
CSFTW: What are the major differences in preparing a meal to be eaten
right away and preparing a meal to be cooked or reheated at a later time?
Chef Cantrell: You have to take into consideration how those meals will be stored and heated by the client. For example, sauces such as hollandaise will break if reheated. Also, meats can be tricky as we have to make sure that as clients warm them further it does not get over cooked. Many times we will leave beef at rare or vegetables more crispy than normal so that they can “finish” in the oven.
We do not promote heating the prepared meals in microwaves at all but instead suggest finish cooking them in the oven for about 20 minutes. Our instructions are also called “savoring instructions” vs. “reheating instructions” since the word reheating can mean “leftovers” in the mind of our clients. Our food is not left over. It simply needs to finish cooking.
Also, many things require more moisture than the traditional ready-to-eat meal. As food sits under refrigeration it has a tendency dry out, so everything has to have a sauce or extra broth in the pan.
A plain piece of grilled chicken will never work. Lastly, some clients may choose to refreeze their food, but some things will not freeze well such as asparagus. This all must be kept in mind.
CSFTW: What foods work best for meal prepping? What foods don’t work?
Chef Cantrell: Just about all foods will work best for meal prepping, but it really depends on if the client will freeze the food or not. It is really a matter of how the client will finish the food and educating them to do so and the time they have to do so.
Flank steak is difficult because if it’s not sliced across the grain it can be tough. And also, if it doesn’t have a sauce, clients will complain it was tough. Many clients don’t want fatty cuts of meat, but the fat is needed a great deal of the time to keep the food item tasting great. For example, a rib eye vs. a sirloin. Most clients feel a rib eye is too fatty and unhealthy, but a sirloin has no flavor and is too dry.
Delicate vegetables such as butter lettuce don’t work well in food prep as they will not last more than a few hours once prepped. Clients often have to be educated to eat seafood and salads within the first two days of delivery.
We have to prepare everything we
create with the mindset that the client will not eat this food for 4-5 days. We
constantly have to ask ourselves what the food will look like and taste like in
CSFTW: With both quality and food safety in mind, how should prepped meals be properly stored?
Chef Cantrell: We have to educate our clients about proper food handling first and foremost. We also can’t serve under cooked chicken for finishing later as that is a liability, but we also can’t fully cook the chicken or it will be too dry as most clients want chicken breast because they are healthier.
Remember the fat vs drying out issue?
We typically use glass or BPA-free
recyclable containers. Filling the container as much as possible with an
air-tight lid is the key. We use a commercial heat sealer that locks in the freshness
and does not allow for leaks. We also cook our food fresh the morning of a
client service and then it goes directly into an ice bath to cool the food as
quickly as possible. Cooling cooked food
quickly is so essential to proper food handling and also taste. Many home cooks
will often put hot food in a plastic container, slap on a lid and place it in
the freezer or fridge. This is dangerous as that food stays in the danger zone
way too long.
CSFTW: Can all cooking methods be used for heating up prepped meals?
Chef Cantrell: Really there are only two kinds. The microwave and oven. We don’t
recommend the microwave as it destroys too many nutrients. A steam oven is
actually the best, but many people do not have these, so cooking in a regular
oven is what we tell our clients.
CSFTW: What are some ways to add variety to batch cooked meals without taking up too much kitchen time?
Chef Cantrell: Honestly for the home cook, buying things like rotisserie chickens and using them in several dishes that call for chopped cooked chicken is a great idea. Also, buying a roast and cooking it is awesome to use in batch cooking because that meat can be used for tacos, basic pot roast, etc.
Don’t forget about the benefits of an Insta Pot, pressure cooker and rice cookers. Roasting a ton of vegetables at once is a great way to prepare food for use in many dishes. Also, there is nothing wrong with buying already chopped vegetables such as garlic, onion, etc.
For the home prepper, no one cares if
you don’t chef it up and get the cuts right. It is about saving time and eating
CSFTW: What are some cost-cutting methods for meal preppers?
Chef Cantrell: Some of the normal things like buying in bulk and also learning to use cheaper cuts of meat. Go to the local farmers market and ask the farmers what they have a hard time selling and buy that item. Also, combining your efforts with a friend will cut your time in half and each of you can make a few items. At the end of the day you each have a ton of meals and for half the time and less cost.
Watching for sales at the grocery
store and then freezing until you’re ready to use it for your prep day is
another great technique. Making sure your kitchen is clean, organized and set
up in stations will also save a ton of time.
CSFTW: What’s a good starting point for creating meals with a nutritional focus?
Chef Cantrell: Since I own a personalized meal delivery company that focuses on
healthy meals, really all of our meals are nutritious! We create meals based on
the client’s particular nutritional needs. I would say, don’t be afraid to
experiment with new vegetables. Kohlrabi looks like something from outer space
but can be amazing. Turnips make great fries. Everyone has a thousand cook
books that sit on a shelf. Dust them off and get creative. Basically, stop
being picky and simply eat.
CSFTW: Are there any other special considerations needed when meal prepping?
Chef Cantrell: There are lots of chefs out there that will come to your home and walk you through the whole process and teach you how so you can continue on your own.
Also, people need to remember it is
going to take longer than you expect. When you make your grocery list, create
the list according to the aisles in the grocery store. Make sure to clearly
label each container with what’s in the container, number of servings and the
date you prepared it. A Sharpie works great for this. Get several sharpies. You
will lose them.
CSFTW: Are there any tips you have for inexperienced meal preppers?
Chef Cantrell: Yes, just dive in. Many people plan for too long and then never do it.