The days of late May through the first half of June took a toll on my body. With the feelings of inescapable isolation that come with quarantine, the struggle of finding a work-life balance, and the trauma that comes with seeing continued violence against Black bodies came a lack of appetite and a lack of motivation and time to cook. It turned out I wasn’t alone: My group texts were full of friends—especially Black female friends—sharing the same challenges around food and stress.
But stressful periods are the most important times to be eating, and to be eating well. Here, 3 chefs share their easy meal prep ideas, and explain why the simple act of pre-planning your breakfast, lunch, or dinner can provide structure and enable good health when you need it most.
Chef Tara Thomas
Chef Tara Thomas is a New York-based restaurant consultant and chef who garners her food creativity and palate from her extensive travels. Thomas is also the executive chef at S.T. Eat & Stay, a restaurant and boutique hostel created by the founder of Sincerely Tommy, Kai Avent-DeLeon, coming soon to Brooklyn.
Why meal prep is important to her: Meal prepping is a device for busy people to meet with nourishment. We really don’t have the time to think about what we eat (unfortunately), but it shouldn’t feel robotic or mechanical to nourish ourselves. Food has incredible power to our bodies nutrient-wise, energetically, and just the origin of it. It’s the most political vote you can make because you consume it daily and the energy of those who cultivated it is within it. I think it’s time to break through our fears and begin exercising mindfulness through food.
Today we are all a bit more awake and trying to divest from the corporate structures that exercise systemic oppression and make it easy for the population to support that because of convenience. There is a holistic approach to feeding yourself, and it’s also a big fuck you to those structures. I like to keep my fridge and pantry stocked with specific items to ease proper nourishment without dissociating me from the process. A lot of meal prepping comes from the anxiety of not having time to prepare and cook something, [so it’s important to make sure] exercising the mindspace to welcome the time to cook for yourself for 20 minutes is really accessible.
What’s in her fridge: My meals usually include a grain and/or legume + a vegetable + greens.
In my fridge I always have 2-3 heads of greens, at least 2 vegetable options, alliums (onions and garlic), starches (potatoes and corn) and at least 2 fresh herbs. This helps me not be overwhelmed by the variety and influences me to cook with ease. My pantry is restocked every 4-6 weeks with grains like lentils, rice, quinoa, a variety of beans and spices. Spices are the most important: I have over 100 types but I could really be good with 5 or so because I enjoy the fresh flavors from fresh herbs!
Cumin, coriander, bay leaf, chili flakes, peppercorns, nutritional yeast are my go tos. I also recommend stocking vegetable bouillon, vinegars, salts, mustard, tomato paste, seeds, nuts, seaweeds and soy sauce. These flavor agents are elements to make your meal prepping expansive.
Her meal-prepping tips: I highly recommend subscribing to a local CSA: they range from $14 to $30 a week, and you don’t even have to think about what to stock your fridge. It allows you to eat locally and with the seasons and explore foods you wouldn’t otherwise have. They are extremely intentional, including a variety which makes it easy to build meals like grain/legume + vegetable + greens.
This allows you to support the local economy and create healthy habits with food. In grocery stores it’s easy to bring home items that are indulgent and maybe not the best for you. Let’s make sure our kitchens are our sanctuaries.
In terms of prep work, it’s lovely to prepare beans ahead of time. Have grains at an easy grasp and prepare. Roast, boil, sear potatoes/starches ahead of time. Perhaps a stew can be on your weekly menu—just add grains and freshly prepared greens to embellish!”
Chef Rachel Whitfield
Rachel Whitfield is a chef and founder of Chef Curl Ardee, a low-sodium and salt-free line of seasoning and spice blends, rooted in a firm belief that “you don’t need the burden of a lot of salt to flavor your meals.” The brand has garnered supporters such as Tabitha Brown and Beyoncé. With every Chef Curl Ardee purchase, a portion of the money goes to No Kid Hungry, an organization fighting against childhood hunger.
Why meal-prepping is important to her: Meal prepping is essential, whether you’re working towards a fitness or financial goal, or looking to add more time into a potential busy and demanding week. In light of COVID-19, a lot of plans have been wrecked and anxiety is at an all time high, which means that meal prepping is even more important.
No matter the goal, the results are inspiring. When done right, meal prep can mean saving time and money—the two things most everyone wishes they had more of. The satisfaction (no matter how much it may initially feel daunting) is superior because it can be done effectively in as few as two hours (and even less if you’re vegan, vegetarian).
Her go-to meals: Cajun salmon, roasted broccoli, sautéed kale, and brown rice are super easy and typically the dishes I prepare given their short cook time and the way they can take on a variety of flavor profiles (because who likes boring and food lacking flavor?).
Her meal-prepping tips: For successful meal prep, I recommend always starting with the protein as they can take the longest to cook and prepare. Following protein, move to any grains being incorporated as you will need to boil or cook them. Next, focus on leafy greens and vegetables. The best-kept secret around vegetables is that they are ready to eat when they are harvested. While the salmon is cooking and the rice is boiling, you can roast broccoli and sauté kale which both take significantly less time to prepare. Focus on the big, complex tasks first while cooking and move towards more simple dishes to minimize cooking time and finish prepping meals in a few short hours.
When done effectively, you will save time throughout the week, be able to plan your grocery trip ahead of time, and maximize flavor as you take on whatever the week may have in store for you. I would recommend storing items in anything glass with a lid as it cleans a lot easier than plastics.
Chef Diane Chang
In 2015, writer and chef Diane Chang founded Po-Po’s, inspired by her grandmother, to change the way New Yorkers think about their dining experiences. The company offers delicious and thoughtful catering for events and parties.
Why meal-prepping is important to her: Meal prepping is important because it offers a sense of structure in a time that is both unpredictable and chaotic, rightfully so. Because I know that if I wasn’t meal prepping, I would be just eating snacks and junk food all day, especially on a day when I’m busy doing other things. After all, cooking EVERY DAY is daunting. Prepping is also important because it’s beneficial both in keeping nutrition/health in check, and also just mentally—some level of control and confidence. Nothing wrong with that!”
Her favorite foods to meal-prep: I think the easiest ways to prep—which I learned from living in Mexico briefly because we had to wash our veggies in purified water out of necessity as soon as we got home from the mercado—is to cut up my kale, broccoli, or clean and pick my cilantro so things are just easy to grab and use. If you believe in sprouting your beans before cooking, you can do that too. That way when the mood strikes, you’re covered and can easily throw a meal together without having to stress.
If I cook rice, I’ll make a little extra to save in the fridge so I can easily whip up fried rice or a crispy rice salad the next day.
Having hard-boiled eggs in the fridge becomes an easy addition for a salad or toast.
One of my go-tos was sweet potato and shiitake mushroom dumplings I made in a huge batch and froze. Whenever I crave dumplings, I just pull some out and pan-fry or boil. Or quart containers of homemade stock in the freezer that’s ready for soup.
Her meal-prepping tips: I think if making food on a whim feels difficult, try meal planning first. If you know what you plan on making a few days in advance for the upcoming days, it also helps with shopping, and helps you avoid over-purchasing. I just reuse old jars and containers that I’ve saved from other things to store my food.