True story: I once screwed up a batch of boxed brownies because I confused the measurements for water and oil. Let’s just say the date I was trying to impress wasn’t feeling them. Since then, I’ve become much more successful in the kitchen. How? By ditching recipes completely and cooking intuitively. Intuitive cooking is being able to cook based on your senses. You can see if your food looks right. You can taste if it needs more or less spice. You can smell if it’s burnt or not. I know what you’re thinking: Not using a recipe? I have no idea what flavors and ingredients go together?!

The Benefit of Ditching Recipes

If you’re loyal to recipes, just picture this for a second: It’s a quiet Wednesday night, and you have nothing going on after work. You open your fridge and see half an onion, a bunch of greens that are about to go bad, and one lonely tomato. In your pantry, you have a can of chickpeas. Now imagine knowing exactly what to do with those ingredients, without having to pull up Pinterest and scroll through recipes for 45 minutes.

Seriously, not searching for that recipe is the difference between eating dinner at 7:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. And that’s big. Here’s another unexpected bonus from not using a recipe: confidence. Even if you’re a beginner (hey, I used to burn rice), you can make better food without one. (Gasp!) It’s all about the formula. When you've got the basic ones down, you can plan a whole week’s worth of breakfasts, lunches, or dinners.

5 Basic Meal Formulas That Replace Recipes

The best meals for prep are simple, packable, freeze-able, reheatable, and last-able (a.k.a. can keep in the fridge for up to four days). Here are the basics for prepping your meals:

  • Pick a starch: Brown rice, pasta, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, quinoa, bulgur, and farro are our favorites.
  • Select vegetables: Asparagus, zucchini, broccoli, yellow squash, Brussels sprouts, string beans, tomatoes, carrots, pepper, and eggplant can easily be roasted or sautéed.
  • Choose a protein: Beans, chickpeas, tempeh, seitan, tofu, fish, chicken, beef, pork, turkey, and shrimp are a good place to start; choose accordingly based on your dietary needs.

Pro tip: You won't see serving sizes, so adjust quantities to whatever suits you. The beauty of the formulas is that you don't need to follow exact measurements; just be sure you have enough to last you for the next four days. Ready to start building easy meals you can have all week long? 

1. The Buddha Bowl

  • Starches: Cube sweet potatoes and season with salt (or cinnamon if you want them to be sweet). Bake in the oven at 425 degrees for 30 minutes. While taters bake, cook quinoa in water until all water evaporates. 
  • Veggies and protein: While potatoes cook, sauté chickpeas and vegetables (recommended: kale, tomatoes, and chopped zucchini) together in olive or coconut oil. Season with salt, pepper, paprika, and cumin.
  • Prepare: Combine sweet potatoes with veggies and chickpeas and toss together.
  • Meal-prep: Once cooked to your liking, divide everything into four meal-prep containers, and you'll have a Buddha Bowl for lunch every day this week.

2. The One-Pan Veggie Bake

  • Veggies and starches: Place veggies (recommended: asparagus, string beans, tomatoes, broccoli, and/or Brussels sprouts) and chopped sweet potatoes on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Keep the sweet potatoes in their own section in case you need to cook them longer. Season with olive oil, salt, and pepper. 
  • Protein: In the center of the pan, create a pocket in the veggies to add tofu, salmon, or chicken breasts. If using tofu, add your favorite sauce (soy sauce, Sriracha, barbecue), and for chicken or salmon, simply squeeze lemon and add salt and pepper.
  • Prepare: Bake everything together for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. The sweet potato might need more time.
  • Meal-prep: Let cool and divide everything directly into four meal-prep containers so dinner is served every night this week.

3. The Stir-Fry

  • Starch: In a pot, make brown rice or quinoa according to the package instructions and set aside.
  • Veggies: In a pan or wok, sauté vegetables (recommended: broccoli, carrots, and peas) with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic. Remove veggies and set aside.
  • Protein:  In the same pan, add protein of your choice (recommended: chicken, beef, shrimp, tempeh, or tofu) and cook with salt, pepper, and garlic.
  • Prepare: Add veggies and your starch back to the pan and toss everything together with soy sauce.
  • Meal-prep: Let cool and divide amongst four meal-prep containers.

4. The Burrito Bowl

  • Starch: In a pot, make brown rice or quinoa according to the package instructions and set aside.
  • Protein: Drain and strain a can of beans.
  • Veggies: Chop and prepare tomato, bell peppers, canned corn, cilantro, and avocado. Quick tip: You can also use your favorite salsa instead of chopping up tomatoes, corn, peppers, and cilantro, if you’re feeling a little lazy.
  • Prepare: You don't have to cook the beans or veggies, but if you prefer a warmer meal, sauté the beans and veggies in a pan with olive oil, and season with cumin, salt, and pepper.
  • Meal-prep: Add rice to four different meal-prep containers, then divide beans and veggies evenly. 

5. The Frittata

  • Veggies: Heat a pan with olive or coconut oil and add a combo of veggies (recommended: spinach, tomato, peppers, and broccoli). Season with salt and pepper. Cook until slightly wilted.
  • Protein: Pour whisked eggs over veggies. If you like cheese, add a handful of your favorite shredded kind.
  • Prepare: Add the pan to the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes (until the egg is set).
  • Meal-prep: When cooled, divide into quarters and portion directly into your meal-prep containers. 

Talia Koren is an influencer marketing specialist who genuinely wants to help people in their 20s get their lives together. She also loves cooking and runs the meal-prep blog Workweek Lunch. Keep up with Talia on Instagram and Twitter @thetalillama.

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