Cut down on busy weeknight stress (and your takeout budget) with these pro meal prep tricks.

By Karla Walsh
April 21, 2021
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meal prep tips from chefs
Credit: Meredith

Restaurant and catering chefs are rockstars at working ahead to make the dinner rush easier. Turns out, many of these pros take their prep skills home with them too.

"Whether you're in a restaurant or at home, meal prepping is a useful strategy. In restaurants, we prepare everything 90 percent of the way in advance to make service easier and quicker," says Donald Young, executive chef/partner at Venteux in Chicago. "We can take that same theory and apply it to life at home, preparing things in advance for a quick pack in the morning so you can have time for a workout or a little extra snoozing."

It's not just a savvy strategy for breakfast and lunch, though—you can meal prep for every meal of the day, and doing so offers multiple benefits.

"At first it may feel like a daunting task," admits Patricio Duffoo, the culinary director of Spice Tribe in San Francisco. "However once you get organized and into your own system, the whole experience becomes a positive routine that will free up valuable time of your day to share with family, loved ones or other activities in your life. Meal prepping saves time and money, reduces food waste, cuts down on stress, and makes it easier to stick to your nutritional goals."

Read on to discover how to start your own system and streamline your cooking so you'll feel far less frazzled—and will be far less likely to call or click for takeout. These meal prep tips from top chefs will make your busy weeks less wild.

1. Invest in quality kitchen tools

You need the right equipment to make meal prep possible (and fun), Duffoo says. This "starter kit" should set you up for success:

2. Make a list, then check it twice

The personalized "system" aspect is so important, Duffoo says, because "what works for you and your family may not necessarily work for every other person or family." But one thing that will benefit every meal prepper: Staying organized.

Duffoo recommends building several lists, including:

  • Your overall goals and the benefits of meal prep (to give you a motivation boost when you're in the mood to skip it)
  • Meal ideas you want to try for the week
  • A shopping list—including the items for those meal ideas—to take with you to the supermarket, farmers market, or to refer to when online grocery shopping
  • A schedule and list of action items for your meal prep tasks. (For example, you'll need to peel and slice several cloves of garlic before you can add it to the vinaigrette, the roasted vegetables, etc.)

3. Set up your station

Once you have your prep list ready, your groceries purchased, and your equipment all set, gather what you need for this round. "I love getting everything set up in front of me, including having all my small appliances on the counter and ready to be used at any given moment," says Young. "This makes meal prepping less painful because of the amount of time you save having everything within arm's reach instead of digging around for it."

4. Consider being an early riser 

Of course the best time of day for meal prep is a very individual decision, but just after fueling up with breakfast and coffee is the ideal starting time for Mee McCormick, chef and founder of Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile in Nunnelly, Tennessee, and author of cookbook My Pinewood Kitchen, A Southern Culinary Cure. "I'm already awake and in kitchen mode and everyone else is often asleep. I guess it's the farmer in me. I like to wake with the roosters and kitchen work is my quiet mediation that starts my day off on a productive foot," she says. This makes it possible to marinate a protein for that evening and chop veggies for the whole week ahead.

5. Buy snackable produce to keep within reach

Speaking of vegetables, McCormick says mini cucumbers, ready-to eat snap peas, celery sticks, whole apples, and berries are all regulars in her fridge for "meal prep" snacks. "If I wash them and put them in a dish right at eye view in the fridge everyone eats them. If it's right in front of us we will make easy and healthy food choices, and I'll cook with it all because I see it as opposed to being stored in a drawer in bags," she adds.

6. Whip up large batches of sauces and vinaigrettes

To drizzle over or dunk those veggies—or to dress up meals—Young recommends making 1- to 2-cup batches of your favorite sauces and dressings like Our Favorite Balsamic VinaigretteChef John's Romesco Sauce or Tonkatsu Sauce. "They can easily be made ahead of time and frozen in either individual 2-ounce portions or in 8 to 16-ounce containers for a full week's use. This will improve the quality and flavors of what you are eating all week, and you save time by prepping it all early," he says.

7. Think multipurpose

To cut down on meal prep, well, prep time, McCormicks says. "I make meals based on how I can turn them into something else the next day. This bumps up my leftover game and keeps my food costs down. For example, a roasted chicken and side of quinoa becomes chicken tacos the next day and then the base for chicken soup on the third day."

8. Harness the power of pickles

Young swears by quick pickles to preserve a wide variety of produce, add flavor to a bunch of different dishes, all while cutting down on food waste. Think beyond cucumber pickles, he says. "You can pickle just about anything! I use a basic ratio of two parts rice vinegar to one part mirin [rice wine] and salt to taste. For an easy and healthy snack or lunch, you could make a big batch of hummus and add the pickles on top to balance the richness of the chickpeas, using the hummus as a dip for veggies or as an addition to sandwiches or salads. Afterward, you can use the leftover pickling liquid as a base for a vinaigrette, too." Simply swap in an equal amount of pickle brine for the vinegar called for in the dressing recipe, or use that extra pickle juice in one of these brilliant recipes.

9. Go with the grain(s)

Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, barley, and wheat berries "are such an easy element to prepare ahead of time, will help fill you up, and are super-healthy," Young says. "Having a batch of quinoa ready to go in the fridge makes for an easy quinoa salad, especially when loaded up with some homemade pickles and protein." Our whole grain cheat sheet will talk you through exactly how to cook seven different kinds perfectly.

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This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com