Do your dreams of organizing and streamlining your plant-based meal prep always seem to fall short of your ideal? Is that lean, green, spotless plant-based cooking machine of a kitchen you’re trying to set up never quite getting up to speed? You are not alone! Many things, especially any kind of organization and time management, are, in all honesty, often easier said than done.
It always sounds so good – “just” use this or that meal planning app or recipe organizer, “just” straighten up those piles of cookbooks in your pantry, “just” put a scheduling calendar on your fridge or coordinate cooking and shopping with your housemates or family members, “just” make your healthy plant-based eating plan work no matter how busy you are! Just think positive and you can do anything, right?
However, the laws of physics have repeatedly shown us that there really are only so many hours in the day, and the best of efficiency planning still requires not only time, but energy, effort, focus and concentration – which you, Mr. or Ms. Busy Person, just may not have. Sometimes, despite our best efforts and intentions, it all just feels like too much when we’re struggling to keep it together and “just” get through the day in the face of modern life’s many stresses and pressures.
But when there’s a will, there really is a way – here’s five helpful plant-based meal prep tips for busy people:
Pre-Packaged Vegetables and Salads
Pre-washed and pre-chopped veggies and salads are not ideal. They’re more expensive and are less environmentally friendly because of the extra packaging. But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as they say! These products have their rightful place in a busy life such as yours, and according to the Cleveland Clinic, as long as pre-cut, bagged products are fresh, they’re just as healthy as their unpackaged counterparts.
Being able to open a bag of pre-washed and chopped kale, lettuce, salad greens, cabbage or carrots, for instance, and immediately toss your veggies in the skillet or the salad bowl, for some people can be the difference between eating well and resorting to running out of the house hungry and grabbing junk food on the fly. It’s not only the extra time and extra mess – which, let’s face it, can be considerable – sometimes it’s the mere thought of washing and chopping vegetables that can overwhelm us when we’re pressed for time. Life is hard enough, this is one way you can make healthy, fresh foods available when you’re low on time and energy.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
When you can’t use fresh or pre-packaged, frozen fruits and vegetables are a great option for several reasons. First of all, frozen produce is often less expensive than fresh, especially when it comes to out of season items. Even more important, frozen produce is going to stay fresh until you use it (within reason of course) at your convenience. It’s also on hand for spur of the moment cooking – no harried last-minute or midnight runs to the grocery store.
You’ll avoid both the pressure of needing to use fresh produce before it goes bad and the upset of having to discard the produce that you inevitably don’t get to in time – you’re only human after all! Stock up on sale if you can, but regardless, be sure to have an ample supply of your favorite and most commonly-used frozen fruits and vegetables on hand at all times. Truly, they’re a lifesaver for plant-based cooks.
Pre-Cooked Frozen Foods
In addition to frozen fruits and veggies, there are also pre-cooked frozen items, such as frozen riced cauliflower cooked quinoa and other dishes such as vegetable medleys available at Trader Joe’s and other grocers. These can be combined, of course, with fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables or legumes (e.g. frozen lima beans or green peas).
Crock Pot or Instant Pot: Your Best Friends
If you don’t already have an Instant Pot or a Crock Pot, they’re definitely worth investing in and easy to come by. And Instant Pot will both slow cook and pressure cook and are very popular with plant-based vegan cooks. You can get either at big box stores such as Target, at department stores and often even at supermarkets.
Used ones are available at very little cost on Craigslist as well. These are truly a busy person’s best friends, allowing you to create a variety of delicious, hearty dishes in a minimum of time and with a minimum amount of meal prep.
You don’t need to worry about sautéing onions first, for instance, when making soup – just toss everything in and it will cook itself into sheer yumminess. These are great for soups and stews as well as for oatmeal and other whole grain porridges and for cooking beans. Just throw your ingredients in before you go to bed and have a healthful, warm breakfast waiting for you when you awaken.
If your slow cooking, start in the morning and have dinner waiting for you when you come home. Running late? No worries, it cooks so slowly another hour or two, especially on low setting, shouldn’t make too much difference. While some kitchen items are costly, you’re likely to find a crock pot or Instant Pot are the best bang for your buck, IMHO.
Optimizing Your Freezer
Speaking of slow cookers and Instant Pots, if you get a large one you can easily cook extra and freeze the rest, or you can do the same with stove top items as well, especially if you have some large stock pots for soups and stews. Batch cooking also works well for dishes like tofu scrambles, seitan or tempeh stir-fries, pasta dishes or potato dishes and anything else that will freeze like staples such as rice and beans. These can be made early in the week and used throughout to quickly pull together a meal.
You’ll want to invest in a supply of storage items of varying sizes, whether they be freezer bags or freezer containers. While I generally prefer glass for food storage, there’s a risk of glass cracking due to the expansion that happens when liquids are frozen, no matter how careful you are. I used to use Ball jars to freeze my soups, but after having to throw out a few cracked containers and clean up a glassy mess, I’ve accepted the limitations of glass and now sometimes use plastic. Just be sure to let your food cool off before putting in the plastic bags or containers.
If you’re going to use glass, be sure to leave 3/4 inch of space between the top of the food and the lid and use the sturdier version of glass containers.
Optimizing Your Fridge
Make tossed salads, pasta salads, hot pasta dishes, stir-fries, mashed potatoes, casseroles, vegan quiche and almost any other dish in bulk and refrigerate for later consumption. Call it “creative re-use.”
Hopefully, some or all of these tips will work for you. Truth be told, it’s not necessarily easy to eat healthfully when you’re super busy, but sometimes that’s what life asks of us. Do the best you can, and if you slip up, get back up on your feet as quickly as you can, dust yourself off, and most important – keep going! Don’t let your setbacks and slip-ups get you down, you have too many healthy, delicious meals ahead of you!
Let me know what dishes you find work well for meal prep and/or batch cooking. We can all benefit from your experience!
Wishing you the best of health, no matter how busy you are!