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11 Expert Meal Prep Tips Anyone Who Likes Cooking Should Know

Faster and more delicious meal prep with the pros.

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Balancing a healthy, interesting, and affordable diet with a busy routine can feel literally impossible.

For lots of us, weekly meal prep just might be the answer. But anyone who's tried it knows how boring it can be to open your container on Thursday night and face the same food yet again.

But Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, pro chefs and founders of Food52, have it down to an art. They wrote a book, A New Way to Dinner, packed with fully formed weekly meal plans that won't leave you bored. Here are some of their best tips for making meal prep work in real life.

1. Before you start, think of the big picture — and organize everything you need first.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

Whether you're making your own meal plan or following a written recipe plan like the ones in A New Way to Dinner or even the Clean Eating Challenge, spend a bit of time before you go grocery shopping doing what you need to do to feel organized.

This might include things like:

* Figuring out which nights you're going to eat at home.

* Reading your recipes all the way through ahead of time (especially if you're following a plan like the cookbook or challenge, or if it's the first time you're cooking a recipe).

* Writing down any modifications you want to make to your recipes directly on the recipes (or on sticky notes), and adjusting the grocery list appropriately.

* Washing all of the dishes that you're going to need to use to cook and store your prepped ingredients, and putting them away where you can find them.

* Checking your "pantry staples" to make sure you're stocked with all the basic ingredients that your recipes call for that week.

* Once you're done with grocery shopping, washing all of your produce at once so it's clean and ready when you need it.

2. Don't be afraid to take shortcuts.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

Remember, meal prep can take as much (or as little) time as you want it to — and there's no shame in shortcuts. Buy the sausage instead of making it, use your favorite premade salad dressing instead of mixing it yourself, get the bag of preshredded Brussels sprouts if you feel like it's worth the splurge, skip making dessert entirely and just buy a carton of your favorite ice cream. Amanda and Merrill frequently suggest shortcuts that you can feel good about taking, even if you don't know much about cooking.

Of course, if you're following a plan that's based on a certain amount of protein or calories, making substitutions or replacements will probably alter the final nutritional measurements. Same goes if you're on a budget — for example, opting for the precut bell peppers can be more expensive than buying the whole peppers. The key is to look at the price per unit; learn more about that here.

3. And speaking of shortcuts, a grill (or grill pan) can work wonders.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

Does a recipe call for dredging chicken breasts in egg and coating each of them in panko? Skip all of those steps and just drop 'em on a hot grill each night.

If you don't have a grill or it's too chilly outside to even consider venturing out to your patio, there's no shame in turning to a grill pan (this one is $99, but will last basically your entire life) or an electric grill (this one is highly rated and $18.99).

4. Pick one day as your designated "cooking day" — then do as much prep as you can at once.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

That way, all (or most) of your ingredients will be simple to toss together come busy weeknights. Don't put off shaving the Parmesan or trimming the broccoli until Wednesday night — because then you might not end up using it at all.

5. While you cook, try to clean as you go as much as possible.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

Some gospel from page 2 of the cookbook: "It will make you happier if you finish a menu without having a mountain of dishes to deal with."

It will definitely take practice to get into this habit, which has everything to do with learning which natural breaks in your cooking lend themselves to washing a dish or two. Owning a dishwasher makes this even easier, of course: You just load it up as you go.

6. Stock up on storage containers if you don't already have a collection, because you'll need them.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

This doesn't have to be a pricey endeavor: Ikea sells a $4.99 set of 17 containers of varying sizes that are great for meal prep, and you can find pint-sized mason jars for less than $1.50 each at craft stores (and that's without a coupon). If you're after something with more ~personality~, check out these adorable lunch bag and container options.

7. When you make a big-batch dish, save time by storing it in the pot you cooked it in.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

"You'll cut down on dishes, and it makes reheating simple," write Amanda and Merrill. And hey, fewer dishes = everyone's happier.

If you are going to go this route, make sure to let your dish cool thoroughly on the countertop before stashing it on your glass fridge shelves, or if it's still warm, at least set it on an oven mitt. And if your pot is heavy, store it on the sturdiest shelf in your fridge (usually it's one right above a drawer).

8. When you're reheating dishes, think ~beyond the microwave~ (all the way to the stove).

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

While the old standby works well for certain dishes like soups and braised meat, heed Amanda and Merrill's warning that "being overzealous with the microwave is a surefire way to ensure a rubbery dinner."

The oven is your friend here: According to A New Way to Dinner's reheating guide, almost anything reheats well somewhere between 250 and 300 degrees.

9. You'll probably need to re-season your leftovers as you reheat or rework them, even if they were perfect the day before.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

Once you've reheated a meal, taste it, then adjust the seasonings as needed — usually, this just means adding a little bit more salt and pepper, but you can be the judge of what tastes right.

10. Have snacks ready to fuel you between meals.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

As someone who has meal-prepped on and off for the past three years, I usually have some sort of snack to nibble on while I finish whatever little cooking I have left to do in an evening. Amanda and Merrill suggest a slice of two of bread with butter or hummus, which reminds me of waiting for dinner at a fancy restaurant — without cutting into cooking time.

11. Be patient with yourself when you first start cooking this way. And if you can team up with a family member or roommate, definitely take volunteers.

James Ransom / Food52 A New Way to Dinner / Ten Speed Press

Meal prep like this means spending time on your Saturday or Sunday multitasking, no matter how many people you're cooking for or what recipes you decide to try. You'll get faster at this sort of multitasking with time, and of course having a second pair of hands always helps. (Btw, Amanda's the one tearing leafy greens, and Merrill's the one chopping veggies.)

Photos reprinted with permission from Food52 A New Way to Dinner: A Playbook of Recipes and Strategies for the Week Ahead by Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs, copyright ©2016. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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