You know what has been getting old? Having the same lunches over and over again. Dinners in our house generally feel under control and have some good variety — we do Blue Apron or Sun Basket (<- FYI those are both affiliate links for deals on your first boxes if you are interested) for 3 dinners each week, and then I like testing new recipes, doing old fave staples, and/or ordering in or going out on occasion.
But for lunches, lately I’d been finding that my usual method of flying by the seat of my pants was often just leaving me eating the same things, and it was getting super boring. Plus, nowadays I need to make sure I have healthy and fast/already prepped options on hand to feed Riese! Enter: getting on board with a bit of ingredient prep over the weekend so that throwing together something interesting for lunch doesn’t take half my day. Thanks to a little pre-prep, I’ve been loving hearty, winter-y grain salad bowls recently. Anyone else?
I’ve never been a great meal prep-er, so rather than trying to do full meal prep/planning for lunches in a way that feels overly complicated or structured, I’ve instead been trying to focus on doing ingredient prep. So, not prep in the sense that I’m preparing/making a full meal, but rather just prepping specific ingredients, so that I have them on hand and can mix and match as I see fit.
I love the ingredient prepping approach because you’re not just eating the same meal all week – you have a bunch of ingredients prepped and then you can switch them up and turn them into totally different creations throughout the week so you don’t get bored. It also feels less overwhelming to me to prep a few ingredients vs. making full meals ahead of time (although I am going to a meal prep party this weekend that a friend is hosting – excited to report back on that!).
My friend and fellow dietitian Sarah and I have been doing some recipe testing and cooking together once a month or so (working solo most of the time can get lonely – it’s nice to have company! Here are blog posts about our first two cooking adventures: ideas for how to use butternut squash + vegan no bake pie crust), and this month we decided to do a focus on ingredient prep! We went big since we were doing it together – look at all the fun stuff we made:
I’m not planning to do all of this every weekend, but it really inspired me and reminded me that prepping a few things ahead doesn’t have to be an hours-long ordeal. Through our prepping session a few weeks ago, and subsequent solo weekend prep sessions, I’ve determined there are a few main things you can prep ahead of time/keep on hand that make it easy to throw meals together in a jiffy.
Give it a shot, and feel free to just pick a couple of these to prep – don’t feel you have to do everything!
Ingredients to Prep Ahead of Time for Easy Meals
- Beans. If you usually use canned beans (and I def do often for that easy/fast factor), you can skip this step, but using dry beans is a nice way to save money… and if you use an Instant Pot to cook them you can skip the pre-soak and majorly decrease the cooking time. Sarah and I made black beans, and cooked them in water on high pressure for 35 minutes. They came out delicious – so flavorful! I want to make lentils in the Instant Pot next – I have a big bag of dry lentils just begging to be used. I’m thinking I’ll turn some into grain bowls, toss some into tacos/quesadillas, and use the rest to make my Red Lentil Granola Bars… mmm…
- Whole grains. I use 90 second brown rice a lot, but it’s nice to mix it up and have different grains on hand. Two of my faves are farro and barley – love the chew! – but other grains that I love prepping ahead to have on hand for the week are quinoa, orzo, etc. I usually prep these on the stove, although I know you can do brown rice quickly in the Instant Pot, too – that’s on my list to try soon! Having whole grains on hand to serve under a protein and veg at dinner, or as a component of a grain bowl, is so convenient. Riese likes snacking on plain grains, too, which is nice and easy!
3) Toasted nuts + seeds. This is an optional step, but toasting nuts gives them a TON of flavor and they are absolutely delicious as an addition to salads, yogurt bowls, oatmeal, toast, etc. Just toss them on a dry pan and roast at 300 for about 5 to 10 minutes – check and stir them a couple times to make sure they don’t burn. Sarah and I toasted pecans, slivered almonds, and sunflower seeds, but you can get creative here as well! I’m still making my way through these – you can make a ton and store them in an airtight container. They last for quite awhile!
4) Roasted veggies. Having pre-roasted veggies on hand is awesome for throwing together salads, or as a side for dinner. Some of my faves: acorn squash, sweet potato, white potato, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Hot tip: to make brussels sprouts less bitter, slice off the tough ends. I also usually slice them in half or quarters to get more delicious browned sides! If any of the leaves fall off, you can save them as salad greens.
5) A protein/meat. Yes, I know beans have protein, too! But I love having pre-cooked shredded chicken on hand to also throw into salads, soups, tacos, sandwiches, etc., and to give to Riese. To make this step really easy, you can always just pick up a rotisserie chicken, or you can cook chicken in the oven or in the Instant Pot. For the instant pot version, just throw raw chicken breasts or thighs into the Instant Pot, cover them with water and sprinkle in some salt, and pressure cook on high for 15 minutes. Tender and shreddable – perfect!
6) Snacks. Okay, so this isn’t part of lunch prep, but I usually figure that while I’m in the kitchen getting things dirty anyway, and while waiting for other things to cook, I might as well throw together some snack balls for the week, too. My Oatmeal Raisin Energy Bites are my fave because they are so easy – these were ready in 5 minutes flat. You can mix up the ingredients, too – try different nuts and seeds and different dried fruit if you like!
Tip: add a little water to the food processor (about a tablespoon) to help them to hold in ball shapes more easily. I usually make them into massive balls because it’s faster than making small ones. 🙂 Riese really loves these, too, so I’ve been making a new batch with different ingredients each week so all of us can snack on them! (To give them to Riese, I break them into smaller pieces, and I make sure to process everything for a bit longer than normal so there aren’t big chunks of any hard nuts.)
7) Pre-cut raw veggies + fruit. I will often pre-cut veggies like peppers, carrots, celery, etc. so I have them on hand to easily toss into salads or to snack on as-is, and sometimes I’ll prep ahead fruit, too, like pomegranate arils (so good on top of toast).
Cheers to having the ingredients on hand to throw together all sorts of different creations! My lunches recently have been way more delicious.
What are your favorite ingredients to prep ahead of time to make throwing together meals/snacks during the week easier?
More tips and meal inspiration: