One of the best joys in my homebody experience during COVID-19 is growing my relationship with food, especially through meal prepping — or as I like to call it, “mass producing.” Kitchen hours are dedicated to expanding my home cooking capabilities and playing with colors, tastes and textures. My patio has been transformed as well — an expanding garden of potted vegetables. I have taken the leap and started a food Instagram, sharing my favorite vegan and vegetarian food experiences.
However, with winter quarter starting, this food adventure will need a new direction, more controlled curation. My housemates came back and the privilege of a hollow fridge is no more. I also don’t have much time as a full-time student. Home cooks tend to meal prep to develop beneficial eating habits, reduce cooking time that could be used for other obligations or to decrease waste and water usage. I did it for weekly dinner parties with housemates.
I also did it because I grew up in a giant family with big tables and cupboards of glass tupperware. I remember coming home to the doors and windows wide open and the kitchen was sizzling with life. My mom — in the red apron my sister decorated in elementary school for Mother’s Day — had a thousand eyes on a thousand pans. For dinner, a buffet decorated our glass table. Chinese food drowned flowery soup bowls bargained from Chinatown. A rice cooker bathed in the “warm” setting. The following mornings and lunches hosted microwaved meals — courtesy of last night.
I do not have the privilege of walking to a nearby grocery store whenever I need the sesame seeds I forgot to buy last time anymore, so I have to remember why I want to mass produce meals and how to do it more effectively.
If you are in the same situation, here are several tips to remember when meal prepping.
Practice Planning Ahead
The best strategy to appreciate mass producing meals is to plan ahead. Too many leftovers are exhausting and wasteful. I remember creating a cauldron of Japanese curry — eight curry blocks and a full can of coconut milk. Too many mouthfuls. On the other hand, too few meals may cause hunger, unplanned kitchen hours or spontaneous snacking. I may lunge for Grubhub take out too.
Planning ahead may look like scrolling through the social media of influencers for their meal plans or for inspiration. My Instagram home page is often filled with content by @frommybowl, @meowmeix and @the.korean.vegan. Be wary, though. Everyone has different kitchens and goals. If you do not see someone that matches your situation or goals, upload your mass producing progress. Be the inspiration you want to see.
You may ask, “Where do I start?” I enjoy checking local grocery stores for sales. Organizing meals around items on sale helps save money. For example, Idaho russet potatoes were on sale at my Albertsons: one 5-pound bag for $1.69. That week, my belly tasted potato curry, gamja salad, tudou si and more. I ensure the ingredients I buy in bulk make an appearance in at least three recipes. Otherwise, I grab only one or two mighty tomatoes and such.
Another tip is to learn about various kitchen machines and equipment that can make cooking faster: blenders, ovens and air fryers. Using numerous of them at a time may also save time, but be careful of a power outage!
Listen To Your Body
Food is nutrients, but not all nutrients make the best fuel for your body. For example, as someone who is lactose intolerant, I understand the consequences are not worth any dairy-laden boba, ice cream or cheesy pizza. Therefore, my mass producing counter doesn’t touch dairy without my consent.
Another food my mind has a toxic relationship with is anything with caffeine. Coffee and tea work a bit too well, turning the thoughts in my mind into ping-pong balls. These caffeine-pressured thoughts often spit out uncensored. For me, these foods are most effective when consumed before a necessary study grind, with the SelfControl app locking chess and social media for certain hours. Therefore, my fridge is a tiramisu virgin and that is okay.
On the other hand, my body worships chickpeas. This bean is incredible in chickpea ‘tuna’ sandwiches and curries and keeps me full for hours. No bloating. When there is a sale for chickpeas, I will do a little dance and grab handfuls of cans until the cart drowns. The cashier may give a look, thinking I am building a bunker for the apocalypse. I strut out, a winner regardless.
There are also foods that do not taste good. The definition of “good” is relative. When I was young, my nose turned at raw celery — uncomfortable crunchiness and wetness, the hard fibers sticking between teeth, a sickly green color. There may be a reason why your tongue rejects certain foods. A sign of natural defense, perhaps?
I have several friends who despise cilantro and I leave it out in a separate bowl for those friends who do want to add cilantro to their curries. There are always numerous foods out there that can replace the ingredients disliked. For example, look up vegan egg substitutions. Some work, some don’t. After all, food is an experience.
At the same time, I have come to understand that taste buds change over time. Weakening, I think. Some of my friends grow offended by the amount of sugar in some sweets. We say they have grandpa/grandma tongues. Now, I add celery to simmer in stews. I suggest trying the foods you were once picky about again. Your body might enjoy the food more than you thought, especially if prepared the way you like.
Learn From Your Food
From the plants growing what you consume to the nutrients that will benefit your body, try to grow in your curiosity and learn more about them.
Learn what foods harmonize together. Fun fact: Ripe tomatoes have high levels of glutamic acid, which offers more umami or savoriness to the meals they are a part of. Some people have discovered strange food combinations that work for them but not for others. Oatmeal and sriracha. Pickles and peanut butter. Pineapple and soy sauce. During these experimental times, make a little portion to taste test before meal prepping.
Learn how foods you tend to buy can last longer in the pantry, in the fridge or in the freezer. Did you know submerging your celery and carrots in water in the fridge makes them last up to two weeks? The entire point of mass producing meals is to stretch out the meals as long as necessary. Stretching out meals is not effective if the food grows molds on the second day because you forgot to refrigerate it.
Learn how your food changes with different cooking methods and for different meals. Steam it. Stir fry it. Roast it. I love raw carrot as ribbons in my salads but would prefer them chopped rangiri style in my curry.
Additionally, if you have the space, time and money, try to grow an edible garden. The transparency of caring for your own garden is important — you can see what you are putting into your body and into your environment. This can bloom into a hobby away from the eye-straining screens or even be your greatest pride when you have visitors. For the scale of mass producing meals, caring for plants that have numerous yields at once like bell peppers or tomatoes may save more money in the long run.
Slowing down to understand the world of food makes this mass producing journey an intimate learning experience.
Reduce Waste Consciously
The next step is to create a home with a system for reusing food scraps. Freeze your veggie scraps — carrot leaves, cauliflower stems and potato peels — to turn into stock. Soak banana peels in water overnight to use as fertilizer. Turn the food scraps into compost to give back to the plants that made the food you consume. Freeze chopped herb leftovers with olive oil or butter to be used at a moment’s notice.
Not only will you get more bang out of your buck by finding numerous purposes for your food, you can also incorporate these tips to spice up or stretch your everyday pantry items.
Grow Wealthy With Kindred Spirit(s)
At least once a week, my housemates and I host a dinner party or a fun brunch. We talk about what we have and what we crave. Then, we gather and feast. The night ends when someone pardons themselves for tomorrow’s early obligations. Home-cooked feasts are another easy way for busy people to meal prep, too. Our fridges host glass containers of leftovers.
Building community through food is an easy way for busy people to gather. To make mass producing meals more of an adventure, my friends and I enjoy an activity before — to grow an appetite — or afterward — to digest the food. A movie marathon. A tennis rally. One time, we painted with watercolors.
In addition to social enjoyment, cooking with kindred spirits builds skills that can be applicable to meal prepping by yourself. Let your friends take the head chef hat. It is an opportunity to try new cuisine, try new chopping methods and try new cultural cooking habits. For example, I enjoy cutting my carrots into angular cubes but learned that discs were more fun to add to curries and carrot ribbons were more exciting in salads. Kitchen hours with kindred spirits may change your life as well.
I hope you are inspired to start mass producing meals soon!