Meal prep can take so much time, especially if you’re disabled. Wouldn’t it be nice if meal prep was easier? I often find myself reading recipes that say, “10 minutes prep time”, and the reality ends up being at least three times that amount because of my mobility issues. Then it comes time to making the recipe and it’s just too many steps.
You may have already read some meal prep tips and tricks. Every meal prep post I’ve ever read has been written by an abled person with the assumption that someone is going to cook every night of the week, telling you to prep things and then stick it in the fridge. Yeah, no thanks. You’re just asking that I throw everything in the compost after two weeks.
As I mentioned in my 11 essential items for a disability-friendly kitchen post, often, it’s unsafe for us to openly share our tips with each other, leaving us to painstakingly figure stuff out on our own.
So, to help, here are 11 tips for making meal prep easier to save spoons, with two of the tips coming from a reader of this site.
Tip #1: Spend Time Every 2 Weeks Pre-Chopping and Freezing Often Used Ingredients
This is how I do it. Adapt my process so that it works for your form of disability. I do it this way because I can’t stand for more than a couple of minutes thanks to severe arthritis in every joint of my body.
You will need some items for this:
- A cutting board
- A good sharp knife (minimal use)
- A blender
- A food processor or the chopper attachment on your immersion blender
- Food storage containers
- Freezer labels
- Freezer bags
- A kitchen counter chair
- A memory foam floor mat or yoga mat
The Process to Make the Chopping Ingredients Part of Meal Prep Easier
Every other Friday or Saturday — that’s just the day that works best for me — I grab my Surface Pro and headphones and go into the kitchen. I plug myself into music and put a whole bunch of bell peppers, onions, cilantro, Serrano peppers, garlic and ginger on my stove top. I use my stove top because I have no counter space and it has a lot of prep room. Once a month, I also shred a cabbage and freeze it divided in five-cup quantities for my Doukhobor Borshch.
I also grab my compost bin and the above needed items.
I sit down and just prep away.
I cut one onion into eight pieces, stick it in my chopper attachment, chop, stick in a storage container and label. I repeat until I’ve chopped an entire bag of onions (approximately eight to ten onions). I buy medium-sized yellow onions in a bag since one medium-sized yellow onion equals about 1 cup of chopped onions.
So, that’s eight to ten recipes worth of onions done in about 15 minutes. I put these small containers in my fridge freezer, ready to pull out when it’s time to cook something. The great thing about cooking in an Instant Pot is you don’t need to defrost anything before cooking.
Next, I go through my bell peppers. I have some recipes that call for a whole green bell pepper. Some that call for a whole red bell pepper. Some that call for a mix of orange and red peppers, etc. Every other week, I buy four green bell peppers, four red bell peppers, and two bags of mixed orange and red bell peppers. This purchase will end once my bell pepper plants growing in my AeroGarden Farm Plus are at a point to sustain me.
I sit and seed my green peppers. Cut them in big chunks. Stick them in my chopper attachment. Chop. And stick them in a freezer bag. I use freezer bags instead of storage containers for bell peppers because I can press all of the air out, which helps to retain the flavour and prevent freezer burn. I repeat with my red peppers. And I repeat again with my mixed bell peppers but sliced in thick pieces, storing them each in recipe-quantity servings.
So, that’s 12 recipes worth of bell peppers done in about 20 minutes. These get stored in my deep freezer because of limited space in my fridge freezer.
Next, I chop up cilantro and put them in half-cup storage containers, since that is a common quantity for my recipes that call for cilantro. This only takes a couple of minutes and gets stored in my fridge freezer.
Finally, I make a bunch of Ginger/Garlic Masala and Herb butter, also sticking those in half-cup containers and putting them in my fridge freezer. I also make some Ginger/Garlic Masala without the Serrano peppers for some of my recipes that call for minced ginger and garlic without the added heat of the chili pepper.
In less than one hour, I’ve prepared most of what I’ll need for two week’s worth of meals. Meat is already frozen in 454 gram sizes the day it gets delivered from my grocer, which is usually a Monday.
One hour is a lot in one sitting. Not only can it drain all the spoons but if you have lower back issues, the sitting is going to send your pain through the roof. And if you have arthritis in your feet, you can’t stand, even with the best of shoes and orthotics.
The solution: Don’t do it all at once. Do one item, like the onions. Then, do something to refill your spent spoons and/or relieve pain. Come back. Repeat. This is also where the floor mat comes in. You can stop at any time, lie on the floor, and do whatever light stretches you need to do to relieve pain.
Tip #2: Where Financially Feasible, Purchase Already Peeled, Minced and Cut Food Items
While I have many recipes where I substitute minced garlic and ginger with my Ginger/Garlic Masala, it’s not possible with all the recipes I created because some call for one or the other. Minced ginger is far outside of my budget for how much ginger I go through in a month. However, I recently discovered that, where I live, peeled garlic cloves are cheaper per 100 grams than whole garlic. For once, a disability-friendly peeled item that is actually cheaper!
The same goes for chopped veggies, pre-peeled oranges, etc. If financially feasible. Where already chopped fresh veggies are way too expensive, go with frozen chopped veggie mixes and frozen veggies in general!
Purchasing these things have a huge impact on making meal prep easier and manageable when disabled.
Tip #3: Cook Hard Boiled Eggs in Your Instant Pot
This tip came from Karoline. Myself, I don’t eat hard boiled eggs because I have an anaphylactic reaction to egg whites. But, both my dogs have severe food and environmental allergies, so I have to cook everything they ingest. Their main meals include eggs as a source of protein.
I was having a heck of a time with the egg part. It would take me 30 minutes to peel all the hard boiled eggs required for one week of food. I had searched for how to cook hard boiled eggs so they are easy to peel, and abled people said the Instant Pot method doesn’t work. But, since Karoline is disabled, I followed her instructions:
Put the eggs on the trivet, add 1 cup water, and do 6 eggs at 5 minutes, 12 at 4, and 18 at 3 minutes. A 6 qt Instant Pot can hard boil up to 18 eggs.
The result: Time to peel eggs is cut down to not even 10 seconds per egg. But, there is a second part to this that I figured out, to make it super easy:
Immediately after the pressure naturally releases, put the eggs in cold water and let them sit for however long you want. Once they are cold, get your kitchen scissors that have that part between the handles that is serrated. Place the middle of the egg in that part of the scissors. Crack the egg. Pull off the top and bottom of the egg shell. Done! An egg topper won’t do the trick. The egg needs to be cracked in the middle.
Karoline didn’t know why the more eggs you have, the less time they take. The reason for that is science! When it comes to steaming items in your Instant Pot, the more stuff you have in there, the less time it takes to steam.
Tip #4: Use Your Egg Slicer to Slice Small Fruits and White Mushrooms
This tip also came from Karoline! I tried using the slicer part of my egg slicer to slice shiitake mushrooms, but the top part of that mushroom is too tough to slice through with the egg slicer’s thin wires. White mushrooms are softer than eggs, so that shouldn’t be a problem (I can’t remember the last time I purchased white mushrooms, so I haven’t had a chance to test it yet). It will also work for strawberries, maybe grapes, perhaps cherry tomatoes? It’s a thing to experiment with!
Tip #5: Always Double Recipes That Call for Half of Something
Whether that half is half an onion, or half a pepper, or 1 cup of coconut milk (which is roughly half a can), etc., just double the recipe and cook twice as much. Not only does that mean more precooked meals, but it makes food prep easier because you’re not having to do Tip #1 in multiple quantities. You never have to think about what you’re pulling out of the freezer or worry about writing and checking quantity on a freezer label.
The same goes if a recipe calls for 1.5 pounds of whatever meat. Just pull out 3 x 454 grams frozen whatever meat (3 x 1 lb) and double the rest of the ingredients. Done.
Herbs and spices are the exception for this rule. We are talking about big main ingredients.
Tip #6: Consider Pressure Canning for Food Preservation
There is a bit of caveat when it comes to pressure canning. It does take a fair amount of spoons if using a stove-top canner. That said, you’ll have less food waste if you preserve your food by pressure canning. Also, you don’t have to think about pulling anything out of the freezer to defrost. When hungry, you just need to open a jar, reheat and eat.
There is the Instant Pot Max that does reduce some of the spoons required for pressure canning, but you can’t can as much at one time and buying one costs twice as much as a stove-top pressure canner. You are limited to four jars. But, canning batches of food in two sessions instead of one may still require less spoons. I can’t say definitively because I haven’t purchased one, yet. It’s a thing on my wishlist.
Tip #7: Consider a Food Dehydrator for Food Preservation
I love my food dehydrator. I originally purchased it to make homemade ‘Pupperoni’ for my dogs. It has also come in handy to dehydrate some herbs like my catnip — I freeze most of my herbs from my AeroGardens — and dehydrating chili peppers.
I currently buy chili peppers in bulk. Soon, my AeroGarden Farm Plus is going to be producing a lot of chili peppers, probably more than I’ll need before they go bad if storing in the fridge.
Freezing chili peppers is not good. They lose all of their flavour and heat. However, dehydrating them is super easy. You just prepare them — some cut in half and seeds removed; some with just the tops and stems cut off — stick them in the dehydrator before bed and wake up to preserved chili peppers. Always wear gloves when preparing chili peppers and removing them from the dehydrator!
Then, when it’s time to cook with them, you just let them soak for a bit in water if serving as a garnish, or chop them dry when adding chopped chili peppers to Instant Pot recipes, or grind them up to make your own substitutions for things like cayenne pepper powder. Again, remember to always wear gloves when touching them, especially after they’ve been dehydrated as the process causes them to sweat capsaicinoids.
Tip #8: Pick a Minimum 9 Recipes You Love and Cook Them in Double Batches, With Few Exceptions
This tip works in concert with Tip #1, Tip #9 and Tip #10.
I don’t know many people — abled or disabled — who regularly eat as wide of a variety of food as I eat. They tend to eat the same basic types of meals that include some type of meat, some type of veg and some type of starch, all within the same cuisine type. If they eat anything outside of that, it tends to be take-out or delivery. In my opinion, it makes for pretty boring meals.
I like a lot of variety in my food, even if a lot of what I eat is Asian food, but from different regions of Asia which makes for very diverse flavour profiles. Also, I have a lot of dietary restrictions because of food allergies, a bleeding and clotting disorder that led to hemorrhaging and a stroke and I’m Warfarin-resistant, I have IBS as one of my secondary conditions to lupus, and I have reactive hypoglycemia. I don’t pick meals based on calorie counts but rather based on ingredients that won’t thicken my blood — low in Vitamin K — but instead thin it, have anti-inflammatory properties, are rich in vitamins and minerals, and food that is low in carbs and high in protein and fat to lessen my overproduction of insulin when I eat carbs.
Finding food that meets all of my restrictions would be very difficult if I didn’t have staple go-to foods. Also, meal times would be boring as heck.
Picking a minimum of nine staple recipes not only makes managing the above easier, it also takes out the guess work of grocery shopping, allows me to grocery shop less frequently, makes Tip #1 quick and efficient with very little to no pre-planning, and reduces a lot of time required for cooking and meal planning.
When it’s time to cook, most of my staple items are cooked in double batches so that I have a minimum six meals of whatever precooked instead of three. If you do the math, that is a minimum of 54 meals planned in advance, or just under one month of lunches and suppers.
The exception for double batches are recipes that fill the Instant Pot to its maximum precooked capacity, like my Doukhobour Borshch and Effin Good Chili (which can be canned at 11 pounds of pressure for 75 minutes); the one meal I don’t cook in my Instant Pot, the Best Roast Chicken You’ll Ever Have; or my Chicken Soup that requires the carcass from the roast chicken.
Also, having these staples and the large ingredients always prepped and waiting in the freezer allows me to use my Instant Pot as a tool to manage anxiety caused by my Complex-Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Keep your eye out for that post.
Tip #9: Instead of Doing Meal Planning a Week at a Time, Plan a Month Ahead
This tip works in concert with Tip #1, Tip #8 and Tip #10.
Simply put, it makes everything about meal planning, prepping and cooking easier while significantly reducing the amount of spoons required. Also, it reduces how often you have to shop while still leaving room to cook things spontaneously because you’re craving a certain something that isn’t a staple.
It also reduces food waste which saves a heck of a lot of money. Say goodbye to having things sit in the fridge until they go bad because you either don’t feel like that thing anymore or you simply didn’t have the spoons to cook during that week.
Tip #10: If You Have the Spoons, Spend a Few Days In a Row Cooking a Lot of Food, Then Don’t Cook for Weeks
This tip works in concert with Tip #1, Tip #8 and Tip #9.
I only cook a few times a month because of Tip #8. My pantry almost always has a minimum of three weeks worth of pressure canned home-cooked meals. I’ll have some months where my lupus is nice enough to let me cook every day for a week, and then I don’t have to cook for a couple of months and in those couple of months, my freezers get filled with things from Tip #1, which makes keep my pantry full with nutritious meals that meet all of my complex dietary restrictions.
This also really comes in handy when my lupus is trying to take me down and I’m frequently in hospital because there is always something to eat and I can just concentrate on rest and dealing with those medical issues.
Tip #11: Once You’ve Stocked Up Your Cupboards and Freezer with Precooked Meals, Re-Stock When You Are Down to 2 Meals of Something
Finally, this tip works in concert with everything above. Once you get to Tip #11, your pantry and/or cupboards will be full with at least a month of meals. After which time, you’ll be down to cooking only a couple times a month when it’s time to replenish a food item. And if you can’t even manage that because a chronic health condition is really kicking your arse, then it really is okay to buy prepared foods without guilt — if you can find things that meet dietary requirements.
The whole point of all of this is to make meal times and cooking a million times easier to help reduce spoons exhausted, which will also help reduce flares because you have more spoons for self-care.
What are your tips for saving spoons?