I used to love meal prep. I’d look forward to Sundays spent grocery shopping, chopping all kinds of vegetables, and rotating sheet pan after sheet pan in and out of the oven—all while catching up on TV and doing a week’s worth of laundry. I took pictures of colorful, geometrically arranged tupperware. I mixed and matched roasted veggies, proteins, and different toppings every which way. I wrote about how great it was to spend hours pre-preparing food and then puzzle it all together in different (but similar) combinations all week long!
Then one day I just totally burned out on meal prep, and decided I’d try doing things the old-fashioned way: cooking from scratch every night, eating leftovers for lunch (or just buying something quick, TBH), and hitting up the grocery store on weeknights for a few things at a time. It’s nice to be able to pick a dinner recipe on a whim, and to leave the office for lunch sometimes. It’s also pretty fun to eat sandwiches or toast for multiple meals a day when you’re tired of cooking anything more than eggs.
No surprise, though, my spontaneous approach to cooking also had its drawbacks—namely that all those trips to the grocery store take a lot of time, and that I'll get tired of putting every meal between two slices of bread. So these days, I find myself somewhere in the middle of full-on meal prep and a totally whimsical food situation. I plan Sunday lunch or dinner around at least one thing that yields multiple servings: things like a whole chicken, a pan of roasted sweet potatoes, or a big batch of grains.
Making one big-batch staple gives a little bit of structure to meals throughout the week, but doesn’t feel as rigid as meal prep.
I often cook a big batch of grains because they can work for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and because they can either be the base of a meal, or just another add-in. Quinoa isn’t necessarily my favorite grain (or grain-like thing—I know it's actually a seed) but it’s my favorite to make ahead because it doesn’t get dry after refrigeration (the way rice or farro often does). It’s also one of the fastest to cook: just bring a 2-to-1 ratio of water to quinoa to a boil, cover, and let it simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.
To make cooking interesting (but not inconvenient), I decided to see how many ways I could use one batch of quinoa over the course of five days.
For dinner on Sunday, I cooked 2 cups of dry quinoa (which yields 6-ish cups of cooked quinoa), then put all but one serving in a tupperware container for the rest of the week. I added tomato sauce and raw kale to the same pot I’d cooked the quinoa in (with a little bit of it still in there), then covered that to let the tomato sauce heat and the kale wilt while my pan-roasted salmon and cauliflower finished up in the oven. It was simple, and still probably the most complicated thing I cooked all week.
I love oatmeal, so I decided to treat quinoa like oats. I heated it in milk, then stirred in fruit and peanut butter.
It took less than five minutes to heap some cooked quinoa into a small pot, add just enough milk to cover, and heat everything until the quinoa was warm and a little plumped. One day I added cold blueberries to the warm quinoa, which was delicious and kind of felt like eating a fancy fruit and grain salad for breakfast. Another day I stirred very thinly sliced banana into the quinoa as it heated, so that the banana melted into the mixture and made everything sweet. This works great with oatmeal, but kind of turned the breakfast quinoa into a sweet soup (probably because the raw oats absorb lots of liquid and some of the banana, while he already-cooked quinoa absorbs a lot less). I wouldn’t repeat the banana-quinoa situation, but I’m eager to repeat what I did with the blueberries with other berries, chopped apples, or sliced peaches.
Obviously, salads were eaten.
Honestly, I don’t understand people who don’t like salads. Sure, boring salads suck. But good salads are just several delicious things piled on top of greens in a single bowl. What's not to like? Anyway, quinoa is the best base for this because, like I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t get dry in the fridge and tastes good cold.
On Monday, I combined some leftover salmon from the night before with quinoa, tomatoes, greens, and lots of crumbled feta. The next day I did pretty much the same thing, but with some shredded rotisserie chicken instead of salmon and feta.
By Thursday, I was out of lettuce and tomatoes, and didn’t have any cooked protein in the fridge. A friend on Instagram had suggested a kale, quinoa, and feta salad earlier in the week, so I massaged plenty of good olive oil and some apple cider vinegar into chopped kale leaves, then tossed them with quinoa and feta. Not the most exciting salad, but it definitely did not disappoint.
I had quinoa + eggs + greens twice, once for breakfast and once for dinner.
Sauteing onions and garlic in olive oil is a pretty no-fail way to start any meal. One day, I added kale and stirred until it was wilted, then cracked in two eggs and covered the pan (on low heat) until the whites were cooked through but the yolks were runny.
Another day, I went heavier on the quinoa and lighter on the greens, and scrambled the eggs instead of frying them. Both meals had almost the same ingredients (I added broccoli to the latter), but were just different enough to keep me interested.
On Thursday afternoon, I realized that I had a little bit of quinoa left but didn’t want to eat it for dinner. So, I made a really unimpressive, unphotogenic snack.
It was 4 o’clock. I was hungry and needed to leave for class in 10 minutes. I didn’t have any new quinoa ideas for dinner and was about ready to end this experiment. So, yeah, I spooned cold tomato sauce over cold quinoa and ate it right out of the tupperware, standing in front of the fridge. Because, look, I realized long ago that not every single meal and snack is going to score a 10 in both the taste and Instagramability departments. I love to cook and will never be someone who doesn’t give a second thought to food, but food doesn’t always have to be excellent—sometimes it’s just a matter of grabbing whatever’s fastest and tasty enough, then moving right along with the day.