I've written a lot about meal planning and meal prep on Kitchn. In fact, I had (what I thought was) an efficient, tried-and-true system. I even thought of myself as somewhat of an expert on the subject, helping friends and family adopt a system that worked for them.
Then last year I wrote a cookbook on one-bowl meals called Buddha Bowls, and it changed everything. At first it totally turned my beloved meal prep routine upside down, but now — after working out the kinks — my system is better than ever.
These are the best meal prep lessons I learned from developing over 100 recipes and writing a cookbook all about one-bowl meals.
1. Go for meal prep over meal planning.
One of the greatest things about bowl food is its versatility. And developing over 100 recipes for bowl meals really showed me that meal prep can be so much more valuable than meal planning. The way I look at it, meal prep is basically a form of meal planning that removes the rigidity of choosing set meals.
Instead of planning out specific meals, I prep a bunch of versatile ingredients (my favorites are a pot of grains, shredded chicken or baked tofu, roasted veggies, chopped fresh vegetables, and always a sauce). Then I mix and match them to assemble several different meals throughout the week. And since the work is mostly done, dinner becomes more about assembly than actual cooking.
Here's the difference: What's the Difference Between Meal Planning and Meal Prep?
2. Always have a great sauce ready to go.
If you do just one thing during your meal prep session, make a batch of sauce to take you through the week. I love simple, versatile sauces like green tahini, yogurt sauce, pesto, and hummus. A great sauce is the finishing touch that gives any dinner an extra pop of flavor and ties all the ingredients together. A sauce can also be tossed with grains, pasta, or salads, and totally transform any and all roasted or steamed vegetables.
I think a really good sauce is the single thing that can take any meal from good to amazing. I ended with 13 basic sauce recipes in my book and with the variations it totals to 35. Trust me — having this many sauces to choose from is a very good thing.
3. Roast one vegetable three different ways.
This is the best and simplest way to avoid vegetable fatigue, which can happen when you eat the same veggies over and over again.
When roasting a big batch of vegetables, whether it's a single veggie or a few different ones, I divide them into three groups to keep things fun and interesting. I keep one section classic with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then toss one section with spicy harissa, and the remaining section with a spoonful of tangy Dijon before roasting. Even though I'll be eating the same vegetables throughout the week, having a few different flavor options keeps meals exciting.
Jazz up your vegetables: 15 Pantry Ingredients That Will Make Any Vegetable More Tempting
4. Mix and match prepped ingredients for different meals.
Even when I don't go into the week with a set meal plan, I know I'm in really good shape as long as I have a batch of whole grains or rice, at least one substantial ingredient that's packed with protein (think: chicken, meatballs, or tofu), an assortment of cooked and raw vegetables, and a sauce. Those four components are the secret to make-ahead meals I can stretch throughout the week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Not only can all of those ingredients be mixed and matched to put together a bunch of different meals, but it's also my secret weapon for dinners where everyone has different needs and preferences.
It's a particularly smart tactic for families with picky eaters: Dinner can be somewhat of a DIY dinner bowl bar, where everyone can build a bowl just the way they like it.
5. Double down on whole grains (and cook them in water).
I've always known that starting the week with a big batch of grains is a huge help, but two things have changed my approach. Now, in the spirit of getting the most out of my meal prep session, I make a double batch of whole grains — and I always cook them in water. While broth, spices, and fresh herbs can bring extra flavor to grains, water wins for versatility and leaves a ton of room for variation.
I set some of the grains aside for breakfast bowls inspired by my favorite oatmeal and porridge combos, and use the remainder for make-ahead lunches and dinners. For savory meals, I stir ingredients like pesto, miso paste, vinegar, and any kind of sauce with the grains for an instant pick-me-up. And if I have extras that won't get used up, I stash them in the freezer for a jump on meal prep for another week.
More About Buddha Bowls
The Buddha Bowls cookbook features 100 one-bowl recipes (including plenty of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free bowls!), 13 essential sauce recipes (with variations for each one), and tons of tips and make-ahead moments. It will help you stock your week with wholesome, nourishing meals, get more veggies on the table, and fill your belly with delicious food. The book is available in bookstores on July 3, and currently available for pre-order on Amazon.