Not to brag, but I was really good at meal prepping when my kids were little. Every week, I had a plan for what we were going to eat. I made a list and bought all the groceries I needed, I remembered to defrost the chicken breasts the day before I was going to cook them, and I would rip up and wash a whole head of lettuce so it would be easy to make salads all week.
Somewhere along the way, I let this good habit slide. Now most days, I don’t have a plan. I forage in the freezer for something that can defrost in time for dinner, and order the other ingredients I need from Instacart, adding random stuff like seltzer to my order to meet the minimum amount for delivery.
I needed to reignite my meal prep habit. “The Ultimate Meal Prep Cookbook from America’s Test” Kitchen inspired me to try meal prepping again.
If you’re new to meal prepping, it involves planning and preparing the meals you’ll eat for a period of time, usually a week. There are typically steps you can complete ahead of time, like chopping onions, grating lemon or lime zest, or trimming meat, so you can get dinner on the table quickly on busy weeknights.
This book gives you a plan for four meals for a week, plus a pantry option, which is a meal you can prepare from ingredients you probably have on hand. That works out perfectly for me, since I like to order takeout or eat out once or twice a week. In fact, when I tried meal prepping, some friends invited us over for a last-minute cookout. So I prepped and prepared three meals that week.
Here’s what I loved about meal prepping
My top favorite benefit of meal prepping, hands down, was having a plan in place. There wasn’t a single day where I had to figure out what I was going to eat that night. I had a plan, and I knew it would be a decent meal.
I liked the ease of grocery shopping, too. I had a list of what to buy, plus substitutions, so I could use something I already had at home instead of buying something new.
I liked how each recipe has “prep ahead” tips. It’s popular for meal preppers to take an hour or so on a Sunday and do the prep work for the week. But I liked to take short breaks in my workday to get up from my desk, stretch my legs, and do a little food-prep task. It’s a nice mental and physical break to take five minutes to peel some carrots or mince some shallots.
I liked how most of the meals used mainly ingredients that last a long time. Carrots, leeks, shallots and garlic don’t spoil quickly, so if I had to postpone a meal for a day, I didn’t need to worry about food waste. Meat and fish can be frozen. And canned beans and dried spices last pretty much forever.
And I liked how most meals cooked in one pan, with maybe a bowl, a cutting board, and a knife for the prep work. That made cleanup easy.
Day 1: Cod baked in foil with leeks and carrots
Daniel J. van Ackere / America’s Test Kitchen
Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but my very first prepped meal — cod baked in foil with leeks and carrots— came out great. I got a beautiful bunch of leeks from a local farm where I get a seasonal share of veggies and I chopped them and the carrots in the afternoon. In the time it took my oven to heat up I had the fish and veggie foil packets prepared, and 15 minutes later they were ready to eat.
Opening the packet with a fully prepared meal inside, and inhaling the aroma of the food, herbs, and butter, felt like a treat. This dinner was definitely a step up from my usual weeknight meals. It’s a complete meal on its own but I added a small side salad with more of the veggies from my local farm.
Day 2: Roasted pork tenderloin with apples and shallots
Daniel J. van Ackere / America’s Test Kitchen
Let’s just say, my beginner’s luck ran out and mistakes were made with my roasted pork tenderloin with apples and shallots. And yet, the end result was delicious.
Mistake 1: I got a pork tenderloin from a farmers’ market, which was not the typical long, round pork tenderloin I was used to. It was shaped more like a big cube. I was afraid the cooking time would be way off. But I cut it to approximate the pork I could see in the recipe’s photo.
Mistake 2: I didn’t buy Golden Delicious apples because I wanted to use up some yellow apples I already had. But when I went to cut them, they were old and brown inside. The recipe said I could sub Gala, and I had other apples, but were they Gala? I didn’t know, and I didn’t have time to buy new apples. I had to make do with what I had.
Despite those mistakes, this meal turned out delicious. The apples were just sweet-tart enough to play off the savory shallots — maybe they were Galas after all. And there was plenty of pork left over for easy lunchtime sandwiches.
Day 3: Skirt steak with pinto bean salad
Steve Klise / America’s Test Kitchen
Normally when I cook steak I go for a ribeye or strip steak. I have a system down for cooking them, so I know I won’t ruin an expensive piece of meat. I leave skirt steak to the pros at the restaurants. But I was willing to give skirt steak with pinto bean salad a try.
Since all these recipes make the most of similar ingredients used in different ways, this meal came together super-fast. That’s because I already minced the shallots and picked the parsley earlier, when I was preparing other meals.
The steak cooked up in four minutes, and while it rested I made the bean salad. Departing from the suggested list of bean substitutions (kidney beans, black-eyed peas, or black beans) I used small white beans. Generally, bean salads aren’t my go-to side dish. But the combo of the chile in adobo and lime juice made this version really tasty — I was glad to have leftovers.