The 8 restaurant-inspired secrets to making meals without making leftovers

Guest post by SmashedTogether

A little while ago we asked “how do you make leftovers feel less leftover-y?” Offbeat Homie SmashedTogether gave such a brilliant answer, that we made it its own post!

Food prep tips from professional kitchens that you can try at home.
Food prep tips from professional kitchens that you can try at home. Photo by Chef Amy Wolf.

In all honesty, there is no way to make four nights of chili seem like anything other than four nights of chili. I get the appeal in making a big batch of food and having it there for you for the rest of the week, but if you aren’t consuming it, that’s money down the drain. If you aren’t enjoying it, then what’s the point?

Food shouldn’t just be fuel for your body; it’s a sensory experience that is supposed to make you feel alive. And there’s something about the same pre-cooked slurry four nights in a row that makes that harder.

Leftovers aren’t for everyone, but you’re on the right track with cooking at home. I think that most people these days have built up cooking a meal every night to being this huge ordeal that it really isn’t. Homemade fridge/freezer meals are a great alternative to frozen pizza, don’t get me wrong — but after years of working in restaurants, and watching empty plates turn into meals in 15 minutes or so, cooking a meal for yourself really doesn’t seem so hard.

Think about eating in a mid-level family restaurant. Not the fine dining kind, and not the mostly-pancakes-and-bacon joints, but the places that turn out meals from more or less real ingredients in about 15 minutes, almost every time. Think about the systems they have in place to bring you a full meal only minutes after asking for it. The biggest reason isn’t that food is cooked before it’s ordered, but that the ingredients are prepped.

Prepping is the key to making meals that taste fresh but come out fast. It’s not as hard as you think; all you need to do is take the time you have been spending making one big meal, and spend it being your own prep cook! Here’s how…

  1. Instead of taking one day to prep a big cooked meal, prep ingredients for small meals that will feed two people without any leftovers.
  2. When you buy meat, freeze bags of two chicken breasts, half a pork tenderloin, and some reasonable ground beef portions. Chop a few up for stir frys and curry dishes, or even go a step further and freeze your meat with a marinade in the bag, so it tenderizes as it thaws!
  3. Cut a tupperware container-worth of mirepoix (carrot, celery, and onions chopped) and keep it in the fridge for easy sauce making.
  4. Keep pre-chopped veggies in the fridge so you can steam/sautee/roast them a different way each day without getting bored. It takes only a few minutes to steam veggies and toss them in seasoning, and the taste is brilliant.
  5. Make a batch of rice in advance if you need to, but with my rice cooker I rarely find that 20 mins is too long to wait for good rice. One cup of rice seems to be perfect to feed myself and my boyfriend.
  6. Peel and chop a couple potatoes and keep them in a container of water in the fridge, and you can toss them in a roaster easily all week.
  7. Instead of making pasta sauce and tossing the pasta in it before storing, make your sauce and store it on its own. Sauces freeze well and heat fast, but try to keep any rice, veggies or meats separate until serving.
  8. Cook some pasta ahead of time until it is just a little underdone, and then submerge it in ice water to cool. When you’re ready for dinner, plunge the pasta back into a hot water bath and let it go for maybe a minute. The difference in taste and texture is monumentally better than leftover tossed pasta, especially if it’s been frozen.

Using time-saving tricks like being my own prep cook allows me to get home from work, pull out a few ingredients and produce a healthy meal in a half-hour or less. It’s just routine to me, and to be honest I’m willing to put in that effort.

What else is on your busy schedule that is so important that it supersedes taking care of yourself and fueling your mind and body? Because those things don’t tend to go very well if you are undernourished and full of disdain for flavourless and boring food.

Comments on The 8 restaurant-inspired secrets to making meals without making leftovers

  1. This is absolutely brilliant advice! Cooking from scratch every day seems less daunting now. πŸ™‚

    Three other “prep cook” ingredients I find useful to keep ready in little fridge/freezer tubs are fresh-squeezed lemon juice, lemon zest, and homemade stock.

    • Lemon juice and zest are always one of the most annoying ingredients to me. Maybe I should just juice a bunch of lemons at once and freeze them! Great idea!

      • Learning that lemon zest could be frozen (and used without thawing) was such a relief to me! Prior to that, I seldom bothered to add it and always felt lingering culinary guilt.

      • You can actually buy containers of frozen lemon juice in the juice section, from Minute Maid. Thaw and store in the fridge for a good long time. Lately I’ve been on a Lemon Drop Martini kick so we’ve been going through lemons like nobody’s business, but it’s a good solution for when you’re not using a bag a week.

    • OMG yes to stock, I love having some in the fridge ready to go! Whenever I buy bone-in meats I always save the bones for delicious stock-making.

  2. Excellent advice! We also freeze half of the big batch meals (chili, stew, enchiladas, lasagna) right off the bat. Then four meals in a row turn into two now, and two later, with no prep!

  3. We have a CSA (community supported agriculture) that we subscribe to. Once a week, we get a big box of veggies. I find it so helpful to my later sanity to “break down” the box when I get it. I take stock of everything, then I:
    – wash and chop any salad greens that we’ve gotten so we can grab and go throughout the week.
    – wash anything we’ll eat or use whole, like fruits, berries, etc.
    – chop any ingredients that we’ll use in that form (peppers, onions, carrots, potatoes, etc.). Things like this will also get bagged up and frozen in “starter packs” (bell peppers and onions work for everything Asian and Mexican, IMHO).
    – leafy greens like spinach, kale, chard, and collards are washed and either set aside for smoothies or blanched and frozen for later.
    – anything else is sorted into “use immediately, freeze, or special project” (like beets for beet cake, zucchini for zucchini bread, cucumbers for pickles, etc.).

    Last year, so much of our veggies went to waste because we didn’t prioritize when they came in. This has helped TREMENDOUSLY in keeping our waste down and my sanity high when I cook dinner.

      • I made a ‘red velvet’ cake with beets and it was horrible! My husband and I could barely stomach it. You could really taste the beet flavor in the final cake. I saw a lot of recipes and really wanted to like it, but it was just bad.

      • No, it’s WAY better! It’s a chocolate beet cake, but you barely taste the beets at all. It’s so incredibly moist and amazing. I use a recipe found in the Beekman Boys 1802 Heirloom Vegetable Cookbook. The recipe isn’t online, but you may or may not be able to look at it through Google books and preview those pages…..

          • If you have a CSA or a rather robust garden, the Heirloom Vegetable Cookbook is a GODSEND. It’s broken up by seasons and the vegetables typically found in abundance within those seasons. It has recipes to delight omnivores and herbivores alike and has really given me a lot of inspiration to branch out of my typical go-to recipes.

        • I made this one over the weekend, and it turned out pretty well. Didn’t really taste like beets, though I found that it was a little dry on its own, so I might tweak the recipe later on. (It’s great with ice cream melting over it and fresh fruit, though!)

          We also do a CSA, so I always wash and prep (and freeze whenever possible) the day we pick it up. It has saved me a ton of time and meant that we have home-cooked meals most nights (even with a two-month old baby that takes up lots of time and energy!).

          If I took this approach to making things like pasta, rice, and meat (when we actually eat it), cooking would take even less time! Thanks for the recommendations, everyone!

    • I find myself doing this with my CSA farm box each week. Mostly I have to do this because my farm does not rinse or prep ANY of the veggies before I get them (like a grocery store would) even though it’s an organic farm. So everything is covered in dirt, straw, maybe bugs, etc.
      If I wait until I want the veggies days later, they may be wilted, or the dirt causes mold spots on the skin. So I always wash and prep everything for the week.

      • Yup, my CSA’s organic but you’re still going to want to wash everything! And, quite frankly, you still want to be washing most things you get from the grocery store, too.

        • Just thirding the wash everything! There are a lot of hands that touch your food, from picking to packing to unpacking at the store to customers touching everything.

          Also, sorry but I have to pull out my soap box: organic doesn’t mean that NOTHING was used for pest control, just a limited list of approved antibiotics, etc. So you guys are right that you still want to wash it!

          • My point about it being organic is that there is this quick mental thought: it must be cleaner, so I can just let it sit in my fridge without washing it first.
            Nope! I had to peel my radishes last time because they got mold spots on the skin when I was too lazy to give them a wash before tossing in the crisper.

          • Cass, I totally understand your thought process! My soap-box rant was a little off topic. My CSA last year was trying to say that organic and IPM are the same thing, etc. And in this age of people wanting to know more about their food, I like clarification of what exactly all of those labels mean.

            And, yes, I had an entire bag of microgreens from my CSA ruined last year by a stowaway slug I didn’t see! The next bag I went through a lot more carefully.

      • Why do you say: “my farm does not rinse or prep ANY of the veggies before I get them, even though it’s an organic farm”? The organic farm I use has this as a stated policy, so as not to waste water.

        In any case, it doesn’t matter much – as everyone says, it needs washing anyway!

        • The farm where I pick up my CSA veggies does wash and do minimal prep for the veggies they sell at the local farmer’s market they attend twice a week.
          This is my first year doing CSA instead of just buying weekly from the farmer’s market, so it’s a small change that surprised me at first.

  4. Testify! When cooking for four we were good about prep day, bit got out of the habit when we moved away from his parents. Thanks for the reminder!!!

  5. I can’t highlight, circle and underscore #2 strongly enough! I haaaaate wanting to cook something, but realizing that because of thaw time, it ain’t gunna happen. Break down your packs of meat and separate the pieces with wax, butcher or parchment paper and you will be so glad you made the effort.

    • I use a vacuum sealer to put things into smaller portions, like my “whole pork loins are on sale if you buy 10+ pounds?” purchases. When I want to eat something and probably haven’t remembered to take it out to thaw, a single- or double-serving of something thaws waaaaay faster than multiple servings (seriously, in cold water it’ll just be about 15 minutes – enough time to figure out what else you’re putting with it or to wash the breakfast dishes you shouldn’t have left on the counter).

  6. I’ll admit, we’re kind of awful about prepping veg properly, but we do have a kick-ass “surprise smoothie” bag in the freezer where anything smoothie-worthy gets tossed if it’s about to go bad or not be eaten. Sure, we might get the occasional kale-cantaloupe-apple-banana-that-red-thing? smoothie, but we can also pick out prime chunks if we want a particular flavor.

    • HA! It’s easy (and fun!) when you have great stuff to work with. Thanks again for letting us pull this out as a separate post. SO incredibly helpful.

  7. To add on to tip #5- short grain rice keeps longer in the fridge than long grain rice. That is why I pretty much switched over to short grain brown rice. It takes awhile to cook, but it keeps all week and is more compatible with a variety of dishes (as appose to sushi rice)

    You can also make double or triple the amount and freeze it. I personally don’t do this, but I heard cooked grains freeze beautifully. Just microwave and serve on the side. Measure a cup of rice and freeze them in baggies or cheap tupperware. You can do the same with bean. I usually buy a whole pound of dried beans and cook the whole thing. I try and divide them into two cup portions since that is amount found in a can of beans.

  8. I’m also a big fan of making stock overnight; if you have a slow cooker it’s even easier, but you can do it in a Dutch oven in the oven at 200°F too. Chicken wings/feet/backs, diced onion, and water to cover, ignore for eight to ten hours. Strain, reduce as needed, freeze in ice cube trays.

Join the Conversation