Meal prepping is a great way for any burnt-out cook to get dinner on the table
Welcome to Ask Elazar, a column in which Eater staff writer Elazar Sontag answers your highly specific and pressing cooking questions.
I have about one day a week where I actually have the energy to cook for more than 20 minutes. What kinds of things can I make that’ll last throughout the week?
A few weeks ago I was balancing precariously on a chair in my backyard, hanging a shimmering side of trout from a wooden trellis so it could dry in the cool air. Once cooked, the filet would last me through the week, making for hearty salads, several Japanese breakfasts, and a lot of easy dinners. I was very proud of myself, and shared pictures of my hanging fish mobile to Instagram, proof that not only was I alive and well(ish), but that I was thriving in isolation. But the truth is, my aspirations lasted about as long as the leftover fish in my fridge. This week, I’ve eaten canned tuna for dinner three nights in a row, watching the last vegetables in my fridge wilt and turn grey. As COVID-19 cases soar in California, it’s more than just fear of infection that has put a stop to my grocery shopping and cooking projects; I, like you, am entirely burned out on cooking.
As we adjust to this frightening new stage of the pandemic, with a vaccine finally in sight but case counts worse than ever, I’m also adjusting my approach to cooking. I’m a long way from the ambition that fueled me in March and April, when I tried to become a better baker (that did not happen). Now, I find it helpful to view cooking more practically through a lens of sustenance and nourishment, a way to get my body through these extremely difficult, and hopefully final, months of the pandemic. That’s not to say that cooking has lost all sense of joy, but I’m realistic about what I can cook with the limited energy I have most days.
So, what does cooking for sustenance (and through burnout) look like? Now more than ever, it looks like simple, high-volume meal prep. Sunday meal-prepping isn’t entirely new to me, but I was inspired to get back into the practice by friend and LA Times cooking columnist Ben Mims, who documented on his Instagram Stories as he cooked his way through big produce hauls in early April, and shared his meal-planning strategies for doing so.
I always start my day of cooking by planning out a grain, a starchy vegetable, something green, and a source of protein to eat throughout the week — this choice is usually made based on what is already in my fridge and freezer, and won’t require a trip to the store. If I do end up going to the store, I’ll buy extra chicken thighs to freeze, and a few containers of tofu, which lasts for quite a long time when it’s packed in water.
Usually, I start with a sheet pan of root vegetables tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbs. Then another sheet pan of chicken thighs, salted well and roasted until crisp and browned (though I omit the vegetables and pan sauce in this recipe, the cooking method works just as well for a pan of plain chicken thighs). I prep anything that calls for roasting while the oven preheats, putting all my pans in at the same time. I always throw in a few whole sweet potatoes, for good measure.
While the vegetables bake and the chicken browns, I’ll make quinoa, brown rice, lentils, or another grain. Once my grain of choice is turned to a low simmer, I’ll salt another pot of boiling water, and blanch broccoli, a spiraling head of romanesco, some turnips or little fingerling potatoes. If there’s still fuel in my tank after this hour or so of cooking, I’ll make a big jar of super-simple salad dressing. I know myself well enough to know that if I don’t make this salad dressing in advance, there will be no salads in my near future.
By the time the chicken is done and the root vegetables are roasted — these should take roughly the same amount of time with your oven set between 425 and 450 degrees — all the components of a good meal are sitting on your counter, ready to be packed into containers and built upon throughout the week. It takes longer to do all of this than it would to make one meal, but it’ll cut down on the time you have to spend thinking about cooking during the rest of the week. The more components you prep, the less likely it is you’ll get tired of your options throughout the week.
Cooking ingredients very simply allows them to take on new forms later. A well salted and perfectly cooked vegetable or a crisped piece of chicken is easier to transform into something new than, say, an enormous pot of cream of broccoli soup or a triple recipe of chicken salad. Monday for lunch, maybe a salad of warmed quinoa, tossed with some of the roasted vegetables, slivered almonds, slices of hard-boiled egg, and that dressing you made. For dinner, those chicken thighs are great on their own, or they can work their way into a pasta sauce, delicious though you’ve strayed slightly from the recipe. Another day, the last of those thighs can be transformed into classic chicken salad, which it is scientifically impossible to get tired of, even after eating chicken several days in a row.
There’s nothing revolutionary about doing most of your cooking one day a week — maybe you already do! — and a lot of busy families have been cooking like this for, well, forever. But if meal prep is new to you, it might offer some relief, so you have more time to catch up on a TV show, call friends and family, or — shudder — read the news.