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Meal Prep for People Who Have Better Things to Do

Updated August 23, 2019
meal prep guide
If the idea of meal planning makes you roll your eyes, this is for you. We’ve found the best solution for getting ahead in the kitchen, and it’s so simple you’ll wonder why anyone would do it another way. We think it’ll redefine the meaning of “meal prepping.”

Just getting dinner on the table every night is project enough. As pretty and appealing as those grab-and-go mason jars of salad might look, adding in more work and carving out extra time—or magically, an entire chunk of weekend—to do meal prep isn’t just unappealing, it’s often downright impossible. So why not keep it simple? In the Betty Crocker Kitchens, we’ve found the solution that makes prepping ahead not just easy but realistic—enough so that you could do any night of the week.

The Secret to Getting Ahead in the Kitchen, Without Sacrificing Your Sunday

When it comes down to it, the key is to make food that you’d already be making, just in a slightly different way. It’s all about a higher yield (a.k.a. more servings) and better adaptability. To be clear, we’re not talking about making 10 gallons of chili. Do that and you’re stuck eating the same thing for days on end. Our approach is about making a big batch of a meal-starter recipe, like pulled pork, meatballs or tomato sauce, and spinning that base recipe into an array of meals that come together quickly and flex to fit your flavor craving of the moment.

For instance: Start out with a generously sized pork shoulder. Roast it or slow cook it—whatever you have time for. Set some of the meat aside for that night’s meal and portion out the rest into serving sizes that are commonly called for (e.g. two cups) and store them in the freezer. The next time you need to make a meal without a lot of warning, grab one of those packages of pulled pork and let your taste buds—or what you have in the fridge or the pantry—help you decide whether to turn it into a casserole, sandwiches or whatever else strikes your fancy.

This method of meal planning leaves room for spontaneity and creativity, but eliminates decision fatigue, because you know whatever you’re making starts with already-cooked pulled pork. Want to give it a try? Keep reading!

The Strategy

Here are four strategies to employ when shopping, storing and cooking. They’ll help make this approach to meal prep a seamless part of your regular routine.

  1. When you’re at the grocery, look for sales on building-block ingredients. However you choose to shop, the first step is to stock a base ingredient that you know your family will enjoy eating. Things like ground beef, chicken thighs, canned tomatoes or pork or beef roasts are all useful and frequently go on sale. If you’re a member of a wholesale store (like Sam’s Club or Costco), take advantage of their good prices on large packages of these ingredients.
  2. When you’re in the kitchen, check your supply of food storage containers. Whether you opt for glass or plastic containers or freezer-grade resealable plastic bags is up to you, but you’ll want one or the other to portion out your cooked meal-starter ingredients. Some people prefer plastic bags because they can save space—fill them, lay them flat on a sheet pan and freeze until solid, then remove the pan and make a tidy stack of the filled bags in your freezer. Whatever your preferred containers, make sure you’ve got them in a size that’ll hold enough for a meal. Not sure how much shredded chicken you need to make a casserole? Check out the handy chart below.
  3. Instead of making your standard dinner, swap in one of our meal-starter recipes. These kitchen-tested recipes—listed below—are designed for flavorful results, versatility and yields that can be portioned out for future use. For example, when you’re craving spaghetti, use the 40-minute Easy Make-Ahead Pasta Sauce recipe, and you’ll have leftovers to freeze.
  4. When it’s convenient, let your appliances do the work. We’ll always love the results we get with tried-and-true oven methods, but countertop appliances, like slow cookers and Instant Pots® (or “multicookers”), can also be handy for this type of cooking. Let your own schedule drive the decision to use one appliance over another. When you’ve planned ahead, take advantage of the slow cooker’s set-it-and-forget-it ease. When you haven’t, the quick-cooking Instant Pot® can be a saving grace.

How Much Meat Do I Need to Make … ?*

Dish

Shredded Beef Amount

 

Shredded Chicken Amount

 

Pulled Pork Amount

Casserole or Pasta (serves 6-8)

1 ½ to 2 cups

2 ½ to 3 cups

2 cups

Sandwiches or Burritos

1/3 to ½ cup per sandwich or burrito

1/3 to ½ cup per sandwich or burrito

1/3 to ½ cup per sandwich or burrito

Skillet Meal (serves 4-6)

1 to 1 ½ cups

2 cups

1 ½ cups

*When in doubt, package your cooked meats in two-cup quantities.

Now that you’ve got a game plan, it’s time to cook!

The Recipes

These six meal-starters were tested in the Betty Crocker Kitchens with the express goal of creating delicious base ingredients that can be adapted for use in any number of different dinners—check out some of our favorites below.

From lasagna to enchiladas and sloppy joes, there’s so many places tomato sauce goes. We love both of the recipes above because they’re mildly flavored—which means they go with any number of dishes—and of course, they freeze beautifully. The Easy Make-Ahead Pasta Sauce includes ground beef and canned tomatoes, so you can make it any time of year. Make-Ahead Roasted Roma Tomato Sauce is vegetarian and made with fresh tomatoes, so is best made during the harvest season when you can buy large quantities of Romas inexpensively. (Want all the details about how to pick out the best tomatoes? Check out our article on How to Choose, Prepare and Enjoy Tomatoes.)

Shredded beef becomes burritos, tacos, casseroles and sandwiches and more. This recipe above is made with simple seasonings but designed to result in succulent beef flavor so it’ll take to any kind of cuisine and add savory character. We especially love to serve tender shredded beef with chimichurri, an herby, garlicky sauce from Argentina, where beef is king—so you know it’ll pair well. Shredded beef often works well in recipes where you might otherwise have used ground beef, such as in enchiladas, chili and pot pies—even pastas!

Rotisserie chicken is good, but made at home, it’s even better—especially because your slow cooker can do the job for you. And that’s not the only way to cook this versatile meat; our recipe for oven-roasted chicken thighs turns out tender and juicy results every time. So next time you’re in the mood for a chicken dinner, make a big batch and you’ll have enough for Betty’s five-star Chicken Salad Sandwich recipe, a chicken salad, pastas, enchiladas and more.

Spaghetti, lasagna, hoagies and more are easy when you’ve got meatballs tucked in the freezer. Whether you decide to make our traditional Make-Ahead Italian Meatball recipe or opt for our Easy Sheet-Pan Meatballs recipe, a batch of these combined with a jar of tomato sauce—or one of the frozen make-ahead tomato sauces above—makes dinner a snap!

Pulled pork is made to be forgotten, in the best possible way. It’s perfect for set-it-and-forget-it cooking, whether you make it in the oven, using our Make-Ahead Oven-Roasted Pulled Pork recipe, or in your reliable countertop appliance sidekick using our Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork recipe. If you’re able to shred the meat while it’s still warm, it’ll be easier to separate and pull out the bits you don’t want, like excess fat and cartilage.

It’s true that raw ground beef doesn’t take long to cook, but a big batch of cooked ground beef is a handy way to get ahead of a multi-step recipe. The recipes above call for cooking 3 pounds at a time, so you can grab a pre-portioned serving and throw together a homemade casserole, soup or stew in practically no time at all!

With a couple of cooked meal-starters stashed away, you only have to reach into the freezer to make a busy-day dinner. Ready for the next step? Frozen casseroles, soups and other meals will let you wave goodbye to frozen pizza on those days so hectic that the only “cooking” you can manage is reheating! Get the clever tricks and rules of thumb our recipe developers swear by for freezing food and start stocking complete frozen meals—that are guaranteed to turn out—in your freezer.



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