Putting three nutritious meals on the table daily is a challenge. The planning/shopping stress can be reduced with a weekly meal plan (look at some of our posts, here) but you still have to cook. How can you save prep time?
The big no-no is cutting up vegetables days ahead of time. Doing the week’s worth of prep on Sunday is not the way to go. All vegetables lose food value once they’re peeled or cut up. This is because of oxidation, the same process that causes oxidative stress in our bodies. If you put peeled vegetables in water, you cut off exposure to oxygen, but this leads to another problem – leaching. Nutrients are drawn into the water and lost (unless you use the cooking water for soup).
Meat, on the other hand, can be cut up and put into a baggie with marinade, to good effect. A couple of days in a wine- or vinegar-based marinade will tenderize some very tough cuts (look at our marinade recipes, here). This is a particularly good technique when combined with sous vide cooking.
Specifically, how can you save time?
VEGETABLES – Buying frozen veg is the best way. These vegetables are picked at the height of freshness and quick-frozen, close to the field. Their nutritional value is high. Generally, frozen veg are packaged in serving form. The trade-off here is texture. Veg are 95% water and when thawed, lose crispness. Frozen veg are increasingly available in specialty forms – “riced,” protein mixes (e.g., with quinoa), or sauced – and can be steamed right in the bag.
I’m unenthusiastic about canned veg, primarily because so many manufacturers still use BPA (bisphenol A, a synthetic estrogen) in the epoxy coatings of their cans. Texture is also affected by the canning process – compare canned asparagus with fresh, for example. However, if the can is labelled BPA-free, go ahead. Watch for sodium content in canned foods, particularly beans.
BEANS/PULSES – One way to save time and enhance nutritional value is presoaking and quantity cooking of dried beans, pulses, and dried veg. Draining the soaking water of beans gets rid of oligosaccharides, which can cause gas. Soaked, precooked beans/pulses/veg can be stored in the fridge for the week and added to salads, soups, casseroles, or used for snacks right out of the container. Chickpeas are my favorite.
MEAT – Cut your meat into small pieces and marinate. Put the prepped meat into a freezer- quality, quart-sized baggie, and keep in the refrigerator for 2-4 days. “Prepping” meat needs special attention to cleanliness: wash your hands thoroughly before starting to prepare the meat, cut it on a special board used only for raw meat, and wash it in cool water before putting it in the marinade. Generally, drain and discard the marinade before cooking.
COOKING METHODS – My last suggestion for time-saving is use of pressure cookers, crockpots, or Instapots. I’ll discuss this in a future post.