With back to school season quickly approaching, learn what you can get going on now so your future self will thank you. If you’re looking for quick weeknight meals to work into your family’s busy schedule, the task may be easier than you think. Most recipes involve prep you can do ahead — mixing spices, chopping vegetables, shaking together marinades. You just need to learn the best ways to get these done ahead.
Jessica Brooks is a pro-trained cook, baker and Toronto-based content creator. When she's not writing about food, she's in the kitchen developing recipes and cooking with her kids.
5 meal-prep hacks to make family weeknight dinners faster
Tackling meal prep now will help save you time, avoid takeout, and probably feed your family better in the long run too. The trick is to think of meal prep as part of your larger grocery shopping routine, knocking off tasks as soon as you’re home from the store. Some of the prep work that can be done ahead may surprise you. Like freezing mashed potatoes, anyone?
To get you going, here are five meal prep hacks you can bring to the table now.
Prep vegetables and fruit before putting them in the fridge
Wash, peel and cut vegetables for stir-fries, salads, and side dishes. Store them under a damp paper towel and sealed in an air-tight container so they don’t dry out. And get in the habit of throwing a tray of veggies into the oven to roast as you unpack the rest of the groceries. Having them on hand makes serving balanced meals easier all week.
Whisk together marinades and dressings
With your marinades at the ready, you can drop your protein in before you head to work. Just be sure to stick to the recipe’s marinating times. Some acidic marinades can toughen the protein if they’re left to soak too long. Chicken and tofu tend to stand up better to longer marinating times, so plan accordingly when you’re deciding what to make ahead.
Cook a big batch of whole grains
With a pot of pre-cooked, fibre-packed grains in your fridge, you can quickly reheat a portion of them to sop up a saucy meal or transform into a healthy grain bowl. Because whole grains are less refined than things like white rice, they generally take longer to cook. So, prepping them ahead of time means you won’t be sacrificing nutrients when you’re in a rush.
Mix up your favourite spice mixtures to keep on hand
Spices add big flavour but measuring out their tiny amounts can take a lot of time. Gather the recipes you make often and assemble their spice mixtures in advance. Scale up their amounts so you’ve got enough to make the recipe a few times (efficiency is key!) and write out the recipe’s name on masking tape label along with the quantity to use. You may find it easier to use a kitchen scale here. Just weigh the whole pre-mixed jar and divide by how much you’ve scaled up the recipe. This way you’ll know, in weight, the amount to use each time.
Freeze root mashes so you can focus on the main
Turn potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips and celeriac into easy root mashes you can freeze. The butter and fat in your favourite recipes are the key to preserving its texture, so don’t skimp! With a vegetable dish at the ready, you’ll be able to target all your efforts on the main.
To freeze a root mash, follow your favourite recipe, doubling it, or even tripling, depending on your freezer space. Once cooked, let the mash cool down completely before freezing in air-tight containers. Aim to portion it out in serving sizes that’ll allow you to defrost only what you need.
When you want to serve it, thaw the container in the fridge overnight, or warm straight from frozen — it’ll just take a bit longer. Be sure to remove the mash from the container if it’s not oven safe. Either way, you’ll want to cover it and reheat in a 350 degrees F oven until heated through. You can test its temperature by inserting a dinner knife into the mash’s centre and feeling if the tip is hot. Serve as is, or top with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and a drizzle of your best olive oil.