10 ways to streamline meal prep for more efficient weeknight cooking

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

As lovely as the idea of eating food cooked from scratch “a la minute” for every meal sounds, it is entirely out of reach for all except the most privileged in terms of time and/or resources. But all is not lost for the rest of us. You might be familiar with meal planning, but a close relative is meal prepping, which involves crossing a few tasks off the week’s cooking to-do list to make getting food on the table in the days that follow much simpler — and in many instances more flavorful.

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While you are certainly welcome to plan out what you want to eat for the coming week, there are general tasks you can do ahead of time that will set you up for success no matter what you ultimately choose to make. Perhaps you’re the type of cook who starts every dish by sauteing a diced onion. Maybe you are planning to have a salad or grain bowl tossed with your favorite dressing for lunch every week. Or perchance you know that whenever there are cooked beans at your disposal, dinner can be mere minutes away. If so, taking care of chopping a bunch of onions, mixing a batch of salad dressing or simmering a pot of legumes one afternoon will get you one step closer to your goal.

Meal prep is all about increasing efficiency to make the most of your time in the kitchen. Here are 10 tasks you can complete to help feed your household with ease.


Make salad dressing

Salad dressings are a simple way to add pizazz to not only greens and lettuces, but also grain bowls, cooked vegetables, proteins (such as grilled chicken breasts or steamed fish) and more. Sure, a basic vinaigrette requires only a handful of ingredients and a quick whisk (or my preferred method: a few shakes in a Mason jar), but why do it more times than you need to? Make one batch and pull it out of the fridge whenever you want to toss a salad or add an extra punch of flavor to your plate.

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Roast veggies

Roasting is by far my favorite way to prepare vegetables. I love when they get nicely browned or even a bit charred in spots — so much that I could eat, and have eaten, roasted veggies straight off a sheet pan as my meal. But beyond that, having them on hand to add to grain bowls or salads or to serve as a side accompanying a protein or carb can save you so much time and energy.

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Cook a pot of grains or legumes

Grains and legumes are easy ways to add heft and substance to a meal — if not essentially be the meal itself. (I have no qualms about eating a bowl of beans for lunch or reheating rice to top with kimchi for dinner.) Cooked rice, beans, and other grains and legumes are useful ingredients in various recipes, such as fried rice or any dish where you might usually use canned beans.

How to cook a simple, flavorful pot of beans and use it throughout the week


Grate cheese

“Bagged shredded cheese typically includes additives that prevent clumping. Unfortunately, they can also prevent melting,” my colleague Becky Krystal wrote. “If you want the best ooey, gooey texture for grilled cheese or mac and cheese, grate your own, using a box grater or your food processor.” Then store it in the fridge, where it should last a few days.

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Toast nuts

Toasted nuts are an easy way to add texture to any bowl or plate. Sure, you could buy already roasted nuts, but they are never quite as toasted as I’d like them to be — and therefore not as nutty. Doing it yourself means you can make your nuts as crispy, crunchy and flavorful as your heart desires. Plus, you can season the nuts with your favorite spices to add even more interest.

How to toast nuts on the stove, in the oven or in the microwave


Make croutons or flavored breadcrumbs

Speaking of texture, croutons and breadcrumbs are other examples where toasting them yourself might make you wish you always had the homemade versions around. You can add the croutons to salads, soups and stews, and use seasoned breadcrumbs to sprinkle atop veggies, pasta and whatever else you can think of.

How to make crispy, flavorful croutons to upgrade your salad


Mix compound butters

Compound butter is just a fancy term for butter that has been flavored with any number of ingredients. “Classic additions, separately or together, are garlic, parsley and shallot,” Krystal wrote in her primer on the subject. “Citrus is a natural, too, whether it’s zest, juice or even something like preserved lemon or lemon confit. The possibilities with dried spices are almost endless.” When it comes to uses, the possibilities are endless, too. Compound butter works as an ingredient — use it to toast croutons, make garlic bread, whisk into pan sauces, etc. — or a finishing touch, such as to melt over seared pork chops, roasted vegetables or your favorite pancakes.

Flavored butter is the restaurant-style hack that will instantly upgrade your home-cooked food


Pickle veggies (or fruit!)

Keeping a jar — or five — of pickles in your fridge is always a good idea. While cucumbers are the default, the world of pickling is vast: You can pickle rhubarb, cauliflower, grapes, raisins, jalapeños, onions and so much more! Mix them in with salads and grain bowls; add them to sandwiches, burgers and tacos; use them as a topping for pizza; or eat them as a snack or when you’re fending for dinner. The world is your oyster pickle.

You don’t need a lot of time to make — and then eat — great pickles


Make bread dough

I get it, baking bread can be intimidating, but if you’re looking for an easy entry point, focaccia is a great place to start. You can bake it as is to serve with soups and stews or make sandwiches, or use the dough as a base for pizza. As a bonus, this recipe comes together in a matter of minutes and doesn’t require any kneading. “And does it really just take five minutes?” Krystal wrote. “More or less, depending on how quickly you can find, measure and mix the ingredients.” Once the dough is mixed, it will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or in the freezer for a few months.

This fast, no-knead focaccia is a gateway into the world of baking bread


Chop herbs and veggies

Buying pre-chopped veggies from the grocery store is a great convenience — and they are particularly helpful for cooks with physical limitations — but they are often more expensive than if you sliced and diced them yourself. To save a few bucks, spend an afternoon readying produce that can then be stored in the fridge or freezer. For example, onions and garlic can be chopped or minced, stored in the freezer and then cooked straight from frozen. Chopped herbs will last in the refrigerator stored in a container with a damp towel for a couple of days, or you can mix them with olive oil and keep them in the freezer. With other fruits and veggies, you might need to take note of whether they oxidize, such as apples and potatoes, and save them for prepping in the moment (though cut potatoes can be stored submerged in water for up to one day). Another cool idea: “The Ultimate Meal Prep Cookbook” by America’s Test Kitchen suggests spending time slicing or chopping pantry items, such as jarred artichoke hearts or olives, for additional convenience.