You’ve heard it before: “Making your own meals is healthier!” And it can save you loads of money. But creating meals from scratch can also be a lot of work—not to mention, take a ton of time.
I learned this the hard way when I did a 10-day elimination diet designed by my nutritionist. It required me to prep all my meals and use tons of fresh ingredients—read: chopping and dishes galore. The first few days were fun (albeit challenging), but by day five, I was sick of being in the kitchen and ready to throw my cutting board out the window. Takeout had never sounded so good—not because I was craving the food, but the convenience.
What I wasn’t craving: the salt-filled, dressing-drenched, oversize meals that often coincide with takeout and eating out (yes, even at nice places). There had to be a happy medium. I didn’t want to feel chained to the kitchen, but I also wanted to load up on home-cooked, nutritious meals.
So I did what any extremely stubborn and food-motivated person would do: I cooked every single one of my meals for an entire week. And boy, did I learn a lot.
Planning Is Everything
There’s no shortage of meal-prep tips out there. But even before the prep starts, there’s planning.
The Saturday before my week of homemade meals began, I made a list of ways I could make things easier. That’s right: not a list of recipes or groceries. Instead, a list of strategies.
The first thing on it was frozen meals that still taste kick-ass after thawing (like sweet potato chili and lentil soup). The second was family-size meals that hold up well in the fridge (think frittatas, enchiladas, lasagnas). The third was simply an idea: have friends over for a barbecue and cook double. I credit all three of these strategies for helping me sail through the week—and deliciously at that.
Next came the groceries. Despite keeping things relatively simple, my list was huge. And without a car or the option to order groceries online, it meant two grueling walks to the shop (and very sore shoulders). But let’s be honest: If you’re making a lot of food, you need to buy a lot of food. Plus doing it all at once meant I wouldn’t have to make several trips throughout the week. And my bags were so heavy and the walk so sweaty (thanks, heat wave!) that I decided it was my workout for the day (multitasking at its finest).
It’s All About Ease
As much as I love Ottolenghi recipes, they can get a little complicated. And as much as I love trying new dishes, I’m not a professional chef who can throw things together gracefully (and tastefully). When it comes to cooking during the week, it's all about simplicity.
When I did the elimination diet, I tried to keep flavors interesting by making a new dish for every meal and whipping up homemade pestos, hot sauces, hummuses, and dressings galore. Looking back, this is likely what exhausted me.
This time I stuck to the basics. Instead of looking for a new frittata recipe, I made the simplest one I know: 12 whisked eggs poured over roasted veggies and cooked until firm. What a breeze. When I made sweet potato chili—my favorite freezer-friendly meal—I stuck to my tried-and-true recipe with minimal steps and spices. As for the barbecue, I chose easy grain salads (that hold up well in the fridge), a simple slaw (I kept half of it undressed so it wouldn’t get soggy), and a grill basket instead of skewers to shave off time. In a single weekend, I’d made enough food to last myself almost the entire week—and I still had plenty of time to socialize, exercise, and best of all: relax.
I'll admit it: After a while, leftovers get boring. I’m simply not someone who enjoys eating the same thing every day, no matter how tasty it is. That said, I’m just as, if not more, opposed to food waste. My secret to keeping leftovers interesting: sauce.
A good pesto, tahini, hummus, hot sauce, tapenade, salsa, salad dressing, or [insert any sauce here] can transform the flavor of a dish. I dare you to try eggs with herby pesto one day and with chunky harissa the next, and tell me they taste similar—or boring.
This is also an area where you don’t have to go all in on homemade. I whipped up my pesto from scratch (I’m partial to this broccoli rabe recipe), but most of the other sauces I opted for were store-bought, and I simply dolloped them on top of, well, everything. I also dabbled in a few partially homemade sauces. Two of my favorites: Greek yogurt mixed with Sriracha and lime, and tahini with fresh dill and garlic (lemon also adds a nice touch).
The only downside of sauces is they can sneakily add a bunch of calories to a dish, so try sticking to 1 to 2 tablespoons, which will still get the job done.
Cooking every meal for an entire week is hard work. It’s doable, but for me, it's not practical. It was almost like doing the elimination diet. I loved it, it was a great challenge, and now I don’t want to do it again for another six months (at least). But I did learn some killer tricks for making more meals at home, and I really learned how to appreciate eating out.
Though I won’t be making all of my meals, I can say with confidence that I now know how to make most of them without breaking too much of a sweat (trips to grocery stores not included).
But this is what worked for me and my lifestyle. While the tips can be used by anyone, it’s all about what works and what’s realistic for you. Hopefully my little experiment was helpful, but what will be even more helpful is trying it yourself and coming away with your own learnings. Trust me, it's worth it.