If You Can’t Stand Meal Prep, ‘Component Cooking’ Might Be Exactly What You Need

This hack comes with all of the time savings but none of the boredom.
How to Try the ‘Component Cooking Hack for Easy Meal Prep
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I’ve always loved meal prep in theory, but the act itself has let me down so many times. What is most commonly known as “meal prep” usually involves preparing two to three complete meals to eat all week long. That’s great for time savings—usually, you just need to reheat and dig in—but not so much for my enjoyment: I find myself unable to stomach said dishes after just one or two days of eating the same thing.

Not to mention, I feel like there’s a noticeable decline in the quality of these premade recipes after they’ve had a few days to settle in the fridge. Crispy roasted vegetables become soggy, grilled meats take on a funny flavor (even if that’s just in my head), and things like burrito bowls and stir-fries just don’t taste as good as they did fresh off the stove.

After several attempts to incorporate this cooking style into my life, I was about to sign off on it for good. Then I stumbled upon an interesting alternative on the Naturally Ella blog: component cooking. Turns out, culinary experts like chefs, food bloggers, and registered dietitians have sworn by this process for quite a long time—it’s the reason your food finds its way to your table so quickly in restaurants, for instance.

So why’s it so popular? Because it’s convenient and creative. Rather than requiring you to make full meals at once, component cooking is all about preparing individual recipe elements that you can then combine in a bunch of different ways. That could be just about anything as long as it boosts the flavor of a dish and cuts down on active cooking time—like making a big batch of hard-boiled eggs in advance to add to salads and sandwiches or whipping up a vinaigrette or two for all your weekly saucing needs.

Component cooking can also meet your nutritional needs just as well as traditional meal prep can—all long as you keep a few things in mind, Rhyan Geiger, RDN, owner of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian, tells SELF. Mainly, you want to make sure you have different options on hand from each food group so your meals are balanced and satisfying. In practice, she says, this can look like two to three proteins, one to two whole grains, and three to four vegetables.

“At each meal, pick at least one from each of the groups and then add a fat-like sauce or avocado to the top,” she says. That way, you always have various sources of protein, healthy fats, and carbs at the ready for speedy, filling, and, most importantly, varied meals.

The following guide will give you a glimpse at some of the most popular recipe components to prep in advance—and a few meal ideas for each to put them to work. With this method by your side, you’ll quickly realize that “meal prep” can be anything but boring.

1. Pesto

Roya Shariat, Brooklyn-based writer, home cook, and coauthor of the forthcoming cookbook Maman and Me: Recipes from Our Iranian American Family, tells SELF that she always preps a batch of pesto for her weekly eating needs because of how versatile it is. “Pesto is great on warm pasta or a cold pasta salad, smeared on a sandwich, turned into a salad dressing, or smothered onto roast vegetables,” she says. Even adding a spoonful of the green stuff to yogurt or labneh makes an excellent dip or sauce for grain bowls, she says.

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2. Rice

Precooked rice is another must-have meal component that Shariat swears by. “I’ll do a batch of Iranian-style basmati rice with tahdig (a crispy crust) on the first go, and the tahdig will always be the first thing I eat since it doesn’t keep well,” she explains. “The next day, that rice will form the base of a grain bowl, and the following day, I’ll fry it with soy sauce, sesame oil, eggs, and whatever vegetables I have on hand.” Even simply precooking a batch of plain rice can be helpful for building an assortment of meals.

Just make sure to transfer leftovers to the fridge ASAP—before it enters the danger temperature zone (between 40 and 140 degrees)—to reduce the risk of a foodborne illness caused by Bacillus cereus, a bacteria that thrives at room temperature.

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3. A quick sauce

Making condiments in advance is the secret to getting big flavor from minimal work, Richard LaMarita, chef instructor of plant-based culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education, tells SELF. And sauces in particular are a great one to have on hand.

“Having at least one good sauce prepped for the week can transform your dishes,” Geiger says. There are tons of options out there, but peanut sauce works really well for component cooking: It can increase the flavor of so many different meals—from salads to grain bowls—and add a bit of protein and fiber while doing so.

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4. Prechopped veggies

When you’re as hungry as it gets, there’s nothing more annoying than having to chop a bunch of vegetables for a recipe. Prepping them in advance can shorten the length of time it takes to cook your weekly meals, ensuring everything from stir-fries to pastas are on the table faster.

“I’ll peel and break down any produce and store it in containers so it’s ready to go for cooking,” Herve Malivert, director of culinary affairs at the Institute of Culinary Education, tells SELF. “For example, I don’t have a whole head of cauliflower in my fridge; I have it broken down into florets already,” he explains.

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5. Hard-boiled eggs

Hard-boiled eggs—flavored with soy sauce, more specifically—are one of my personal favorite things to big-batch prep because it’s a quick way to add protein and tons of flavor to just about any meal. I’m partial to pairing it with reheated rice and a quick sauteed vegetable like spinach or kale, but the sky’s the limit when it comes to how to use this game-changing ingredient.

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6. Lentils

Geiger is a big fan of preparing a large batch of legumes like these in advance because they’re a good source of plant-based protein and extremely versatile. Their mild flavor goes with just about anything, and you’ll be so happy to already have them ready to go when dinner time is beckoning. If you need to eat but don’t have much energy to cook, simply add them to a salad or wrap. But if you’re feeling ambitious, try incorporating them into something like lentil fritters or vegan “meatballs.”

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7. Salmon

Salmon has a neutral flavor that pairs well with an assortment of recipes, and you can maintain its blank canvas characteristic by slow-roasting it with salt and olive oil. From there, you can use it to add protein and healthy fat to everything from breakfast scrambles to tuna-salad style dishes. Fish in general has a relatively short shelf-life (one to two days before cooking and three to four after), but freezing it won’t drastically alter its texture or flavor, and you can simply microwave to reheat it whenever you need some.

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