One of the biggest barriers to entry in the meal prep world is how much time it takes to make 5-7+ meals all at once. In fact, it’s still the one aspect of meal prepping that I dread. Which is why, despite the fact that I’ve been meal prepping successfully for almost a year now, I’m still looking for ways to cut down on my cooking time. Surprisingly, some of the meal prep substitutes and methods I’ve discovered to cut down on prepping time are not only healthier, but also cheaper! It’s a win-win-win. Here are some of the foods I often use in my meal-prepping to ensure that I spend as little time in the kitchen as possible.
3 Easy Meal Prep Substitutes
1. Quinoa or Riced Cauliflower/Broccoli instead of Rice.
While quinoa isn’t exactly cheaper than rice, it’s definitely a lot healthier and, in my experience, cooks a lot faster. To me, quinoa is a 1:1 substitute for rice. Any meal that you can make with rice, whether it be fried rice or using rice as a base for curries or adding rice to your burrito bowls, can all be eaten with quinoa. As an added bonus, quinoa is a lot healthier, cooks faster, and I’ve found that it makes me feel a lot more full for a longer period of time than rice does.
Quinoa is a great way to incorporate additional grains and protein into your diet instead of rice which, while tastier, can often be a barrier to weight loss (if that’s one of the reasons you’re meal prepping). Since quinoa is more filling than rice (for me, at least), I’ve even found that I need to cook less of it than I would rice. This has, again, cut down on my meal prep time, and by buying quinoa in bulk from stores like Costco, I’ve been able to justify the cost differential with rice.
I’ve also use riced cauliflower or broccoli as meal prep substitutes for rice in burrito bowls, and I’ve found that they’re immensely tasty and cut down on my cooking time so much since I don’t even need to cook anything. I just throw the riced cauliflower or broccoli into my meal prep bowl, add the other ingredients I want for my burrito bowl, and I’m good to go! If rice takes maybe an hour (for a full week’s worth to cook, drain, and cool) and quinoa takes maybe 30 minutes, the riced cauliflower or broccoli takes zero minutes. I’ve also used the latter to make fried rice and plan to try it out for curries, too!
While I generally don’t cook the riced cauliflower or broccoli I buy, you certainly can cook this base and flavor it with seasoning before adding it your meal prep bowl. I tend to buy my riced cauliflower or broccoli from Trader Joe’s, which comes pre-riced. But you can rice a head of cauliflower or broccoli yourself, too. While this would take more time, it’s a cheaper alternative to using this healthy base. In general, I feel I can’t go wrong with more veggies in my life (this cuts waaaaay down on carbs!). And if you, like me, love cauliflower and broccoli, then this is a great way to incorporate those veggies into more of your meals.
2. Tofu/Beans/Chickpeas Instead of Chicken
I’m not a vegetarian, but I often meal prep vegetarian dishes, as it cuts down on time and happens to be a lot cheaper, too. When I cook chicken, I find that it often takes a lot of time to wash the meat, cut it, season it, and then cook it. In comparison, tofu is so easy to cut into cubes and throw into the oven with some spices to add to a salad, or to cook on the stove. It also absorbs spices much more quickly than meat, which I often feel as if I need to marinate overnight. Canned beans or chickpeas are even easier to cook with since, depending on the dish, they don’t even need to be cooked. I’ll add canned black beans to my bowls or roast chickpeas to add to my salads. I also love adding chickpeas to my curries for an added source of protein and flavor. All of these go great with quinoa, and even with riced cauliflower/broccoli, so I often combine them into meals for maximum protein and minimal meal prep time.
3. Add Spinach
I don’t know about you, but the grocery stores I frequent always have a huge bag of spinach selling for $1.79. It’s so cheap, and spinach is the type of vegetable that I shamelessly add to everything, simply because it’s nutritious, takes on the flavor of what you’re cooking, and cooks really fast. It takes maybe a minute to add spinach to a curry, burrito bowl, or salad. In the case of the latter, you don’t even have to cook the spinach, which cuts down on cooking time even more.
I’m a fan of spinach (as you can tell) and honestly, the health benefits of iron and vitamins are an excellent combo. If you’re not a fan of it, I encourage you to find a vegetable you love that can be added to the majority of your go-to recipes. It’s an easy way to make a dish healthier, tastier, and ideally take up less cooking time (you don’t even need to cut up spinach — that’s how great it is)!
You Don’t Have To Love Cooking To Meal Prep
Despite the fact that I meal prep often, I’m not a fan of cooking. I love to eat, but the meals I cook for myself need to be maximum taste with minimal effort. These meal prep substitutes have made it easier, quicker, and healthier for me to meal prep and maintain that habit for nearly a year now. What are some meal prep “hacks” you use to cut down on time or costs?
Keertana Anandraj is a recent college grad living in San Francisco. When she isn’t conducting international macroeconomic research at her day job, you can find her in the spin room or planning her next adventure.
Image via Unsplash