Dear Test Kitchen

3 Secrets to Easier Meal Planning, Straight From Our Test Kitchen

January 10, 2019

In a perfect world, we would all have 10-minute commutes to the office, chocolate chip cookies that magically appear in moments of need, and fluffy-warm towels greeting us right out of the shower. We'd exercise every morning (with gusto! and joy!), wrap up each workday with Inbox Zero, and effortlessly prepare a week’s worth of meals on the weekends.

News flash: This is not my life. And I have a feeling it’s not yours, either.

We all want to be the most efficient, organized versions of ourselves—so we can be the happiest versions of ourselves—but then stuff gets in the way. I always head into the week determined to prep ahead, to make my future lunches and dinners less multistep projects, more last-minute assemblies. But this is easier said than done.

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Top Comment:
“My partner works nights 3x weekly as a nurse; on a weekday, I usually have just brought time to get home from my 8-5 job to whip up dinner. We almost always cook on the grill (less cleanup); I keep frozen proteins on hand in two-serving bags (fish, pork, and fish—all from Costco) and a variety of sauces and spice rubs. Canned black beans, grilled tomatoes, corn on the cob, peppers&onions, portobellos, and premixed quinoa rotate as side dishes, with a spinach salad to finish it off. ”
— adambravo
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In this week’s Dear Test Kitchen, our test kitchen chef Josh Cohen (a self-proclaimed meal-planning skeptic!) unpacks how to make meal planning easier. You know, so you’ll actually do it. Here are his top three tips:

1. Always have these four components.

  • Protein. This can be just about anything—meat, beans, eggs. Josh recommends a fatty, sturdy cut of meat (say, chicken thighs or braised pork shoulder). Instead of cooking beans from dried, Josh uses canned, zhushing ’em up with a quick pan-fry. And hard-boiled eggs travel particularly well, especially in their shells.
  • Starch. Just as flexible as the protein, huzzah! Think rice, barley, farro, quinoa. When they’re done cooking (head here for my favorite cooking trick), Josh likes to spread the grains out on a sheet pan, so they can cool quickly and evenly.
  • Vegetable. What’s in season? Such is the answer to whatever I’m roasting that week. This time of year, cauliflower, kale, and all the root vegetables reign supreme. Like Josh, I love cranking up the oven temperature, to as high as 450°F, so the vegetables get great char (read: great flavor) but still stay crisp-tender inside. For bonus points: Keep some fresh lettuce around, to turn your mix-and-match items into salads, lettuce wraps, etc.
  • Dressing. Even if it’s as simple as oil, vinegar, and minced shallots shaken around in a jar, any dressing makes anything better. It could be as simple as salt and chopped herbs mixed into Greek yogurt or tahini stirred with a few surprise guests. “Do I always have to make my own?” you wonder. Please see Tip #3.

2. Season them simply.

This is the key to mixing and matching these components into a week’s worth of meals—and not getting bored along the way: Don’t overtly season anything. Salt, of course, and a little black pepper if you please. But beyond that, resist the temptation to complicate things. Why? If your various components are blank slates, you can turn them into anything you want. For the sake of example, let’s say that we have: shredded chicken, hard-boiled eggs, brown rice, flour tortillas, sautéed kale, roasted butternut squash, and herby yogurt. Add in your fridge and pantry stock and you can make...

  • Rice bowl with kale, squash, and an egg. Mix soy sauce into the rice and drizzle rice vinegar on the vegetables. If you’ve got chili oil around, heck yes.
  • Chicken burrito. Smear the tortilla with yogurt and add some salsa if you’ve got it. Rice, chicken, and oh hey, there’s a can of pinto beans in the cabinet!
  • Fried rice. Sweat down a diced onion with some garlic or ginger (or both if you’ve got ’em). Add the kale, then the rice, and a few shakes of sesame oil. Serve with an egg on top.
  • Chopped salad. Any lettuce you’ve got, with chicken chunks, egg hunks, and whatever cheese is around. Oil and vin to dress.
  • Savory yogurt bowl. Don’t knock it till you try it. (Afternoon snack? Yes, please.) Yogurt, with the kale and squash on top. Drizzle of olive oil, pinch of flaky salt.

3. Don’t be afraid to take shortcuts.

Permission to not make everything from scratch: granted. There just aren’t that many hours in the day. Pick and choose which components feel the most important for you to tackle, then let the supermarket take care of the rest. Here are some of my favorite shortcuts:

  • Rotisserie chicken instead of roasted.
  • Smoked sausage instead of raw.
  • Canned beans instead of dried ones.
  • Tofu or tempeh instead of meat.
  • Pasta instead of a more time-consuming grain.
  • Already-prepped vegetables (think cubed butternut or chopped kale).
  • Halfway-to-dressing ingredients, like Greek yogurt (add Sriracha), tahini (add salt, cumin, water, lemon juice), blue cheese (add buttermilk and vinegar).

What are your best meal planning secrets? Oh c’mon, tell us!

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.

2 Comments

Paula January 28, 2019
Good ideas here. I wish it was more clear about how long it's considered safe to keep various foods to eat. My food safety training left me feeling uncomfortable with the vagueness about this, especially the shrimp. MtAdventurer has a safer approach to this if you're planning on keeping the food longer than 72 hours.
 
adambravo January 12, 2019
My partner works nights 3x weekly as a nurse; on a weekday, I usually have just brought time to get home from my 8-5 job to whip up dinner. We almost always cook on the grill (less cleanup); I keep frozen proteins on hand in two-serving bags (fish, pork, and fish—all from Costco) and a variety of sauces and spice rubs. Canned black beans, grilled tomatoes, corn on the cob, peppers&onions, portobellos, and premixed quinoa rotate as side dishes, with a spinach salad to finish it off.