Make-ahead meals provide variety, save money, aid in portion control
Some see a resemblance to Japan’s popular bento boxes. Some just call it meal prepping. And some prefer to think of it as bringing lunch to work in plastic containers.
Any way you look at it, it’s one of the hottest trends in food, if you listen to social media. People share recipes and take pictures of their bento boxes/plastic containers. Folks can’t get enough of it.
And there are good reasons for the popularity. In these time-strapped times, meal prepping allows you to make four or five lunches at once and parcel them out throughout the week — if you don’t mind eating the same thing every day.
It also cuts back on the cost, because you can buy in bulk when you are making four or five lunches for yourself or, say, 20 for your family of four.
One of the most appealing aspects is portion control, especially for those looking to lose or maintain weight. When you prepare meals at home in advance, you can give yourself and your family just the right amount of food.
With home prepping, you can let your imagination be your guide. There are no rules. There are, however, a couple of suggestions.
Make dishes that are relatively hearty, and remember, they have to stand up to a few days’ refrigeration. Souffles are out. Make something that you are going to want to eat several days in a row, and change up the menu every week. For a balanced meal, be sure to include a protein, a vegetable and a starch.
And if you work or go to school with others, please, for the love of God, do not bring in any fish. There is no smell on this earth that is worse than that of fish being reheated in a microwave.
I prepped three meals: one beef, one chicken and one pork. Sorry, vegetarians, I just wasn’t feeling up to tofu. But beans, tofu or seitan are all great sources of protein.
I wanted to keep it simple, so I began with a classic — ground beef tacos.
If you were really pressed for time, you could just buy one of those packets of taco seasoning at the store, but where’s the fun in that? You can whip up a batch of seasoning in a couple of minutes, and it will taste much fresher than any mix that has been sitting around in a foil packet for months.
I put the beef in the container and topped it with a sprinkling of chopped sweet onion, sliced fresh jalapenos, chopped tomato and shredded cheddar cheese.
I filled out the container with a few soft corn tortillas to make the tacos, plus a portion of black beans and some homemade Spanish rice. For fans of Hispanic-Asian fusion styles, it was a delicious Tex-Mex meal.
For the chicken dish, I made a variation of perhaps my favorite go-to meal, pan-steamed chicken. That’s not an entirely accurate name for it, but I can’t think of a better one.
I call the variation I made Rosemary Chicken. First, I seared a couple of boneless, skinless breasts of chicken in olive oil, chopped onion and garlic. When browned on both sides, I added chicken stock and a large sprig of fresh rosemary, covered the pan and let the liquid simmer for 20 minutes (these were thick pieces of meat).
The flavor of the meat was highly pleasant, not overpowering — it’s easy to overdo rosemary. I diced the chicken and put it in the container, along with green beans that were briefly boiled and then shocked in ice water and a portion of tri-colored bow-tie
pasta. It made for a pretty meal, and the colors were irresistible.
For the pork meal, I went a little fancy. I used pork tenderloin to make a recipe created by celebrity chef Charlie Palmer. I used his mostly Asian-inspired marinade (soy sauce, sherry, honey, rice wine vinegar, orange juice, fresh rosemary, shallots and ginger) to give it flavor, and then broiled the tenderloin. Grilling it would have worked just as well.
It only took about 12 minutes to cook. After slicing, I packed a portion in my container, along with a colorful medley of sauteed vegetables and some simple boiled red potatoes.
It looked great. It tasted great. And for some reason I had the strangest desire to put pictures of it on Pinterest.
1 ½ teaspoons chile powder ⅛ teaspoon garlic powder ⅛ teaspoon onion powder ⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes ⅛ teaspoon oregano ¼ teaspoon paprika ¾ teaspoon cumin ½ teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon black pepper 2 teaspoons oil
⅓ cup finely chopped onion 1 pound ground beef
½ cup water
Chopped sweet onion, for garnish Shredded cheese, for garnish 12 soft corn tortillas
2 cups cooked black beans
2 cups cooked Spanish rice Fresh cilantro, optional garnish
In a small bowl, mix together chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, red pepper, oregano, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add oil.
When hot, stir in onion. Saute 2 to 3 minutes, until soft. Add ground beef and saute until browned, breaking up clumps of meat with your spatula or spoon. Drain fat. Add seasoning mixture and water and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is nearly evaporated.
Suggested meal prep: put ¼ of the beef in each of four containers with a sprinkling of chopped sweet onion, shredded cheese, 3 small tortillas, ½ cup cooked black beans and ½ cup Spanish rice. Garnish with cilantro, if desired.
Makes 4 servings.
1 tablespoon olive oil 2 tablespoons finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 12 ounces each
Salt and ground black pepper
½ cup chicken stock
1 large sprig fresh rosemary 3 cups cooked green beans 2 cups cooked tri-color bow tie pasta tossed with a handful of halved cherry tomatoes
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute 2 minutes. Add garlic and saute 30 seconds. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and add to the pan. Cook until bottom side is golden brown; flip and cook until new bottom side is golden brown.
Add stock and sprig of rosemary, submerging the rosemary in the liquid. Cover, lower heat to a steady simmer and cook until chicken is just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken.
For meal prep: Cut the breasts into cubes. Place ¼
of chicken in each of four containers along with ¾ cup green beans and ½ cup pasta.
Makes 4 servings.
2 pork tenderloins ¼ cup soy sauce ¼ cup dry sherry ¼ cup honey
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 tablespoon orange juice 2 ¼ teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1 ½ teaspoons minced shallots ½ teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 ½ pounds boiled red potatoes
4 ½ cups satuted mixed vegetables
Remove silver skin from tenderloins and place pork in a baking dish without crowding. In a medium bowl, mix together soy sauce, sherry, honey, vinegar, orange juice, rosemary, shallots and ginger and stir or whisk until thoroughly combined. Pour mixture over pork, cover with plastic wrap and marinate, turning occasionally, at least 2 hours. Leave the baking dish outside the refrigerator if marinating for a few hours; refrigerate if marinating overnight and bring to room temperature before cooking.
Cook under broiler or on grill until pork is just slightly pink in the middle, 10 to 13 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to rest a few minutes before slicing.
For meal prep: Slice tenderloins. Place ⅙ of tenderloin, 4 ounces potatoes and ¾ cup mixed vegetables in a each of six containers.
Makes 6 servings.
One of the
most appealing aspects of preparing meals ahead is portion control, especially for those looking to lose or maintain weight.