Ever wondered how restaurants are able to prepare your meal quickly and efficiently, while anywhere from dozens to hundreds of other diners are there at the same time as you? The secret is called “pre-prepping.”
If you’ve ever visited the back of a restaurant, you’d find giant tubs in the fridge containing pieces of vegetables and fruit, cuts of meat and fish, and other items, all ready to cook at a moment’s notice. One of the most important jobs done at the start of every day at any commercial kitchen, is the task of “pre-prepping” the day’s ingredients. A well-prepped kitchen is like a well-oiled machine. At peak times, when the ordering machine is continuously working, the cooks know they can count on the prep work done earlier, so dishes can come out on time.
What does that have to do with me, you’re asking? As a chef and cooking instructor, I like to put an emphasis on the idea that being a good cook is about finding strategies that streamline the cooking experience. Once you’ve got the strategies down, it’s easier to focus on making delicious food. By applying the principles of an efficient restaurant to your own kitchen, you can quickly and efficiently prepare a healthy meal with minimum effort on cooking and cleanup time. You can improve your health while saving time and money on meals and potential health care costs in the future. Now that sounds like a useful idea, doesn’t it?
Here are some strategies to get you started:
1. Shop fresh.
Get used to stocking up your fridge and freezer with fresh and exciting options for the week. If you’re shopping on a budget, look for items on sale and don’t be afraid to experiment with a new vegetable, fruit, or seafood item. It may seem scary to pick up a turnip or yellow squash for the first time, but you’ll soon find that what makes the dish are the spices and sauce! Shopping seasonally will make your meals fresh, exciting, and help lower your shopping bill.
2. Get the right tools for the job.
As you begin to prepare your own food more often, it pays to invest in some good tools. It’s easier to chop with a large cutting board (look for wood or bamboo) and a decent quality knife, which will last for years. You might also want to invest in a blender and a small food processor. Oftentimes, secondhand stores and websites advertising used goods have a great selection at a fraction of the original price. With those items, you can prepare dressings, smoothies, sauces, and soups, as well as chop, grate, and slice with minimum time and effort, especially if you have a large family. Soon enough, this investment will pay off!
3. Contain yourself.
Spending some time pre-prepping, storing, and labeling ingredients at the beginning of the week is key to a successful cooking experience later on. Purchase a set of airtight containers in various sizes, preferably from glass or BPA-free plastic, a few jars (or save the ones from other condiments you’ve previously used), Ziploc bags, a roll of masking tape, and a Sharpie, and have them handy in your kitchen. You can use those for storing and labeling the pre-prepped ingredients. Bonus: They can also be used for packing lunches for you and your family.
Now that you have some ingredients to work with and containers to store your pre-prepped foods in, allocate about 2 hours for pre-prepping on your day off. True, taking the time to pre-plan and pre-prep may initially seem like a drag, but think of the impact it would have on the scale and on your health. Get your family involved, pour yourself a small glass of wine, get some tunes on your stereo, and have fun with it! You’ll soon find that you’re actually saving time for subsequent meal prep. Making your lunch salad will now be a breeze- you’ll essentially have your own salad bar in your very own fridge!
5. Spice up your world.
Think about some of the last few meals you’ve had at a restaurant: Whether it was Chinese stir-fry or a Mexican chicken and veggie fajitas, chances are at least some of the basic ingredients were similar, right? What’s the difference? Spices! Keep an eye out for pre-blended spice mixes (e.g. curry seasonings for Indian food, taco seasoning for Mexican food, etc). With those, even non-seasoned cooks (no pun intended) can create some tasty meals with little fuss. Start with 2 or 3 of those, and experiment with various ingredients. You can also try different oils (olive oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil to name a few) or sauces (low-sodium soy sauce, coconut milk, etc.). Alongside changing your produce and protein sources, switching up your spices will greatly increase the variety of dishes you can make.
6. Find your daily method.
Once you start preparing food regularly, you’ll be amazed at how changing your cooking method can make all the difference. Steamed broccoli tastes nothing like roasted broccoli or stir-fried broccoli. With a tub of cut-up broccoli in your fridge, you could prepare at least 3 different meals, even if you just used salt and pepper to season. Now that is straight-up AMAZING!
7. Dress for success.
When it comes to tasty salads, one of the key ingredients is a tasty dressing. You can save money and improve your health by preparing a few yourself. Some dressings are a simple mix of oil and vinegar, while others may require a blender. Prepare, label, and store one or two dressings in large jars for the week. It’s amazing how the same combination of produce and protein will taste totally different with a different dressing, so your lunch will always be new and exciting.
8. Have a little extra.
One last important tip to remember- leftovers can go a long way! Try to make more than you plan to eat. Before you dish out a serving onto your plate, store some for tomorrow’s meals. Food often tastes BETTER when it absorbed the flavors overnight, or when scrambled with an egg for breakfast. Not to mention the time you’d save in the morning when all you have to do is grab your food to-go, no line or order needed!
Cooking regularly is a challenge for most people, with the number one reason being “lack of time and energy.” But just like everything else in life, if we find some simple strategies to help streamline the process of cooking and start feeling empowered by the results, both on the scale and on our plate, this could become a crucial element to a successful weight loss journey.