I had some problems.
I was suffering from Psoriasis, an auto immune skin disorder, for 20 years and while doctors say it is genetic and not due to the environment or food sensitivity, my personal observation and testing tell me otherwise.
Eating food out and about during lunch and dinner can be a minefield. While I know what are the big main ingredients, what goes into the gravy and the sauce is a big unknown.
So I summarize my problem as:
- eat food that reduces these aliments
- get food that is not expensive
- get food that is easy to prepare
- eat food that keeps me adequately full
- eat food that I will not dread
I discovered that I can simplify my life by preparing 7 days of lunch during the weekends. And I can achieve economies of scale to make my lunch cheaper than what we have out there.
This post sought to show you:
- My Meal Prep Process in Detail
- How much each meal cost
- How much on average preparing takes
- What I gain out of this
- What makes the Most Impact to Food being Tasty?
- What are some skills needed to carry out Meal Prep
- How healthy or unhealthy to store food
- Refuting the notion of not getting enough nutrtions from Meal Prep Food
- Getting bored with food this way
- Bonus tip for Preparing for an Early breakfast
Who this is Suitable for
If you have the same problem as what I highlighted above, then this article may be helpful for you. If you are trying to make ends meet, and are trying to optimize your spending, you may learn something from this article as well.
If you always wanted to prepare your own lunch but not sure how to get started, parts of this article might help you.
If you want to simplify your life, this article might be useful.
However, if cost is not a concern in your life, that you have a generous food budget, and ready access to healthy food anywhere you are, this is probably not for you. If food is a low priority for you, then this is probably not for you.
Introducing Meal Prep Sunday
I first found Meal Prepping on Reddit. I was shocked that people actually went that far enough to do this.
Suppose as an individual, we eat 3 meals a day. There are 7 days in a week. So theoretically you can prepare 21 meals in one shot and it will solve “your meal problems”.
Then my brain just lit up with possibilities.
This bento vid is just awesome.
Of course, my parents will kill me for occupying so much space. Being traditional, they were so against this idea at the start.
Until I start doing it, and they realize how much time and complexity this saves them.
One of the biggest first world problem is to solve the mystery of what to cook and what to eat.
The biggest problem is I really don’t know how to cook.
Then circumstances change, such that I need to help out more at home. And so I decide to put this plan into action.
The next section takes you through my meal prep.
How a Typical Meal Prep Takes Place
My meal preparation system was rather rough in the past, but I manage to make it into a very personalized system that suits myself.
Here is a high level view of meal prep:
- Ingredients Procurement
- Preparing the food
- Cooking the food that needs to be cooked
- Storing the food
- Defrosting the food
- Heating up the food
Let me go through each part of the process.
What I prepare for each meal
My goal is to prepare for meals that:
- keeps me satiated
- doesn’t cause flair ups
- keeps the cost controlled
- preparation time should not be too much
- 7 equal meals for 7 days
So I based on my diet on the following:
- Protein: Chicken and Eggs
- Carbohydrates: 1-3 spoonful of rice, mixed vegetables that are fiber rich carbohydrates
The end result is 7 days of food that satisfied me, packed and easy to be heated up.
My old recipe is mixed vegetables. This is what my family eats every day.
The advantage is, if you know how to cook, you only cook one bowl with all the different goodness, and you wash less bowl.
In the latest evolution, I take a liking for cauliflower fried rice with chicken breast as a dish.
What is cauliflower fried rice? You can Google this up and find that this is a common way for the folks who do not want to eat grain, starchy rice, noodles, bee hoon and yet something that is good to eat and keeps them satisfied.
If you cook it right, every meal should taste like a blast and keeps you full.
1. Ingredients Procurement
First you need to buy your ingredients. I buy my vegetables and eggs from nearby NTUC and Giant (the old Shop and Save). For the chicken breast, my dad goes to the wet market and purchase 10-12 chicken breast which is need for the whole family for a week either on Saturday or Sunday morning.
My old menu involve:
- Seng Choon First Born Eggs: keeps you full
- Cauliflower: the staple or main base of your food
- Pumpkin: cheap, sweet, what makes your food taste good
- Broccoli: green vegetable, a bit hard to keep it green after cooking
- Carrot: cheap, sweet, makes your food taste good
- Sweet Potato: starchy carbs, not ideal if you are trying to lose weight but full of much nutrition
- Ginger, Onion
- Seasoning: black sesame, coconut oil, tumeric, coriander and cumin, salt
On and off, I did try having Xiao Bai Cai, celery put into the mix and I am fine with changing them up. I decide to change my menu because I realize for Breakfast and Dinner I got much vegetables already that I can cut down on the green leafy vegetables.
The problem with green leafy vegetables is that, if you over cook them, they become yellow, and lose their nutrients. So my mom have a method in the past to cook them daily and cool them down before packing away when I go to work.
So I decide to minimize the green vegetables.
The current recipe is:
- Cauliflower: 2.4kg
- Seng Choon First Born Eggs: 10 eggs
- Carrot: 1 pack of 5-7 carrots
- Onions and Ginger: 2 onion and a portion of Ginger
- Seasoning: black sesame, coconut oil, tumeric, coriander and cumin, salt
Much more simple and easy.
I normally go for these purchase on Friday after coming home from work or Saturday morning. As time is precious, Friday is better, but its not like every day you will get cauliflower, so there are days where you need to go and hunt on a Saturday.
2. Preparing the Food
I only realize after I start cooking that, the bulk of the time is not spent on cooking, buying the stuff, or cleaning up after cooking.
The bulk of the time is spent preparing the food.
If I do not systemize this part, I will get frustrated, and I will fall off this meal prep. You have to be better with it.
Chicken breast comes with 2 breast. For 1 meal, I consume 1 breast. So I need 3.5 for 7 days.
I cut them up, then season them with tumeric, salt, cumin and coriander powder. Then I dump them in plastic bags.
I do that not just for the lunch but for all our meals. We stick with a fixed portion as we can. We started with a certain portion, then adjust when its too much or too little.
The most left packs are the breakfast for 3, the one in the middle is the dinner for 4 person, the red bag is my lunch and the most right white bag is for my 2 parents.
Then we put them in the freezer.
Vegetables you need to wash them. We have 2 metal bowls for these purposes. Soak them for 30 minutes then, wash them again.
Then we cut up the vegetables. This for me is the most time consuming stuff. If you are new and you do not know how to cut stuff with knife, that is one area where if you improve, it helps a lot.
Most of our vegetables are torn. Mum and dad says that makes them taste better (can’t feel the difference honestly)
Put them in separate bowls. Separate the stalks from the leafy parts.
The reason for this is that, the stalks take a longer time to cook. The key to not overcooking the whole meal is to sequence those that takes a longer time to cook and put them first before those who take a shorter time to cook.
If you understand this principal, and are able to successfully identify which one take longer to cook and which one do not need much cooking, you are almost there to cook sensibly edible food.
The evolution to cauliflower rice means less ingredients. You just need a lot of cauliflower, and carrots.
3. Cooking the food that needs to be cook
Cooking sounds tough for the uninitiated and this is where, like investing, having mentors who do it well can help. What I do is
- observe how my mom and dad do it
- ask stupid questions
- do it myself
- get scolded for doing things wrongly
- reflect and change the way I cook
Its hard to describe this part but to put it simply it is:
- Start the fire. Make sure the fire is not too big
- Put the oil
- Put the onions and fry until they become fragrant (ask someone what does become fragrant means for someone who has never cook before)
- Put the hard vegetable parts in, stir fry them for 1 minute
- Put some water, then cover the hard vegetable parts with a lid. This is so that the hard vegetable parts can get dedicated cooking, and speeds up the cooking
- The hard vegetable parts will take about 7 minutes to cook softer. Try to open the lid 3 times to stir them
- When the hard vegetables are softer (test them by trying to pierce them, they should be easier to piece, indicating they should be more eatable), add in the software vegetables
- Add the salt, tumeric, cumin, or any ingredients
- Taste the food, if the food is good to go then we are done!
If you are preparing for food that are more leafy or that you will do light cooking on the actual day, they don’t have to be too soft, else they become very soggy. We cook one huge wok and then wait for them to cool down.
I used to cook the chicken with butter in the oven. It is a good way really. The meat turned out to be good for me and you can do something else while they are cooking.
Cooking takes 2 15 minutes, and it doesn’t make your whole kitchen oily.
The other alternative is to fry them. This is a skill of controlling the oil, fire level so that they don’t get overcooked. I did this to skill up, but I realize this is too much work.
Another way is to prepare meat patty. So each of your meals will have one nice patty. You need to find out how to create one, and its not too difficult. But I find it too much work, even though it taste good.
So what I do now is to pack the chicken breast, on the actual morning, steam it with all the other food we steam. This takes 20 minutes and steaming saves much energy and attention compare to frying it.
4. Storing the Food
We put the food in 7 plastic bags once they are cooled down for 1 hour.
We split the bags into 2 packs and 5 packs. The 5 packs go into the freezer section so that they get stored longer.
The 2 packs for Monday and Tuesday will go into the fridge level.
5. Defrosting the Food
The night before, bring down one pack from the freezer to the fridge. This way it has 1 day to defrost, after you consume one packet.
6. Heating up the Food
On the actual day, you have a few options. You could heat up the food, then put them in lunch boxes that retains heat. I bought a set of Tiger 3 level lunch box and have been using them.
The 2 layers below can retain the warmth of the food well. This is my defacto method.
What we do is to put some oil and warm up the cauliflower rice by frying them with eggs.
Another way is to put them in microwave friendly box. When you want to eat at work, just warm them up.
I suggest buying those box which is made of glass.
There are new solutions out there with an electric lunch box getting popular.
How much does each meal cost?
It is always hard to quantify but what we are doing is trying to enjoy some economies of scale. If you cook each of these meals on their own for one person, it takes more time, and you waste more gas.
This is the cost for one of my previous meal plan:
From Wet Market:
- Chicken Breast cost $1.80 each but each can be split into 3 portions for 3 person. This prep will use more, or 3 full breast. Cost: SG$5.4
- Seng Choon Eggs: 10 for SG$2.30. Each week will use 7 eggs. So total SG$0.23 x 7 = SG$1.61
- Cauliflower: From China. Will use at least 712g. Total: SG$1.57
- Fresh Pumpkin: Each is 582g at SG$0.87. (this is smaller than last week) Will use ALL.Total: SG$0.87
- Broccoli: 304g. We will use ALL. Total: SG$2.40
- Carrot: Each packet SG$0.90. Each packet contains 9. Will use 6. Total: SG$0.60
- Celery: Each packet SG$1.60. Will use 1/3f. Total: SG$0.50
- Sweet Potato: From Giant. 1KG $1.9 We cook 200g. Total: SG$0.38
- Ginger and Seasoning: Total: SG$0.50
Total: ($5.4 + $8.43) = SG$13.83
This week we prep for 7 days.
Cost of Each Meal = SG$1.97
And this is for my current meal plan:
From Wet Market:
- Chicken Breast cost $1.80 each but each can be split into 3 portions for 3 person. This prep will use more, or 3.5 full breast. Cost: SG$6.30
- Cauliflower: From China. Will use at least 2408g. Total: SG$6.72(($0.28 per 100g)
- Seng Choon Eggs: 10 for SG$2.30. Each week will use 7 eggs. So total SG$0.23 x 7 = SG$1.61
- Carrot: Each packet SG$0.90. Each packet contains 7. Will use all. Total: SG$0.90
- Onion, Ginger and Seasoning: Total: SG$0.50
Total: ($6.30 + $9.73) = SG$16.03
This week we prep for 7 days.
Cost of Each Meal = SG$2.29
Meal prepping may not be as cheap as some people think. If your goal is to save money ONLY, then this may not be worth while. Of course, you could change my formula, change the quantity if you are easily satiated and your mileage may vary.
How long does the meal prep take?
Generally, I estimate 4 hours on a weekend is spend on this:
- the cooking itself takes 20 minutes
- the packing of food takes 10 minutes
- the prepping, especially the cutting can take 1 hour. If you start off, be prepared to spend that long. nowadays I grind the cauliflower and you still have to take 45 minutes
- buying might take some time
On the actual day:
- as the wok is already in use after the morning cooking, what I need to do is add oil and heat up the food. this probably takes 1o minutes
- putting the chicken breast in the rice cooker to steam probably 3 minutes
What do I gain most from this?
I feel that, its not the cost but a combination of wins:
- You eat food that doesn’t complicates your aliments
- You eat food that is not overpriced
- You do not need to queue for food
- You do not need to decide what to eat for today
- You eat food that is delicious
- You eat food that you look forward to daily
What makes the Most Impact to Food being Tasty?
How do you make food tasty? That is a complex question.
My answer may surprise you.
1. Tasty Food = Happiness
Food is like happiness.
And the happiness equation is Reality minus Expectations.
For food to be tasty for me, optimize my expectations. And food to me is tasty. I realize I have high tolerance to bad cooking. Most of my friends are like food connoisseur.
They have an expectation about their food. They will have an opinion of their food.
I do not dare let them try my food as it will just demoralize myself. Since the food is for me, why do the unnecessary thing.
As long as I know what I gain from eating the food, which is a lot, its good enough for me.
2. Fresh Ingredients
If you use fresh ingredients to cook, they tend to taste better. This is a common phenomenon when you go to countries like Australia where the produce are fresher.
Most of the food outside is laden with seasoning. We like the food because they layer so much seasoning:
- excessive sugar
- people dip in chilli sauce and tomato sauce
- excessive salt
What happens is that our taste bud is normalized to rich seasonings.
When food is seasoned less than appropriately, folks will say the food is not nice. If they put too much, folks will also say its not nice.
If we know this, we can hack our food.
I will find the seasonings that do not complicate my aliments.
What my dad did is to take the gravy from the breakfast vegetables and add a little when we heat up the breakfast.
We also added some black sesame seed which changes the taste. Having adequate salt also brings out the flavor.
I like Indian seasoning and are on a quest to see if Tumeric, and Cumin is good for my aliment, so adding them helps make the food taste nicer.
Using lard as a form of healthy fat (this is debatable) also adds to the flavor.
No soy sauce, sugar, chilli sauce, pepper for me as I generally think they are problematic.
4. Mindfulness in Eating
Food becomes tasty if you concentrate and be mindful about eating instead of being distracted. If you participate in a group lunch, or eat with someone, you are not 100% focus on the food.
When you are focus on eating, you will discover some taste that you did not previously encounter.
I learn about this from Darya Rose at Summer Tomato.
So how do I do this:
- Eat slowly. Chew or Munch 20 Times. For some reason, everyone tells me this is not doable ( and they have no reason to because why would they want to eat with good mindfulness?). Most people chew 8 times. We are just trying to slow it down. Here is one trick I use. Remember when you rinse your mouth after a meal or when you are brushing your teeth, where you reflexively shut to prevent water from being swallow down? Do it when you are eating. This will make you munch the food longer
- Close your eyes. To be more mindful, shutting the eyes reduces distraction
- Explore the flavors in your food. When you do that, you pay attention to your food and you realize your food have a variety of different flavors.
- Put your Spoon and Fork down. People speed up eating when they have their weapon with them. To slow down and eat mindfully, put down your weapon.
- Eat alone. To enjoy your meal, learn to eat alone or talk less during meals with colleagues
5. Competent Cooking
If you do not cook well, you may over or under cook. Food gets too hard, or too soft. Food have too much gravy or too little and end up burned. Food gets not enough seasoning or too much.
When you skilled up, you make less mistakes, your food is more tasty.
Competent cooking is like investing and tennis.
You get better results by making less mistakes instead of doing exceptional things.
What are the skills you need to develop to Meal Prep?
The first skill is to take meal prep on as a project, like wealth building. You got to learn to gain knowledge and be motivated to do it.
No different from investing.
Prepping the ingredients takes a lot of time and it takes even more time if you do not know how to handle a knife. Fortunately, we have YouTube nowadays. So just take some time to watch and then practice and make it a habit.
Create small guides. In this case, I cannot remember how long do I need to cook for different type of food stuff, so I write an ad-hoc list, pin it on the fridge, so that I can quick reference.
Knowing how long each type of food stuff takes to cook roughly help beginners a fair bit.
The third one, is to cook a bowl of mixed vegetables, which I presented earlier. If you can cook something that you need some competency, anything else will become easier.
Here is how healthy or unhealthy if you store your food
One of the reasons people do not proceed with pre-prepared food is that if you keep food long, they lose their nutrients. And if the food is not nutritious, then what is the point of eating the food when it is not enriching your health.
I did my research and the knowledge seem to suggest you can keep food for a period of time.
Coincidentally, a Singapore Nutritionist came on the Channel 8 Tonight News show to talk about how long food can be stored.
Here is some notes from what she said:
- Meat that is raw can be stored in the freezer for up to 12 months
- When you store food, the macro nutrients (the different type of carbohydrates, protein and fats) are not lost
- Improper preparation could result in loss of micro nutrients such as Vitamin B and C. For example, Vitamin B and C are soluble, so if you wash them after cutting them, or steaming some food, you lose these micro nutrients
- You can only reheat your food once after cooking. Once you take out the food, you either eat it or throw it away
- If the food already have your saliva in it after 2 hours, bacteria will grow. Microwaving will kill these bacteria but the by-product they leave behind has to be boil for 30 minutes to neutralize them
- Seal up the food from air in a container
- Most people make a mistake by waiting for food to cool before storing the food in the fridge. In reality, if the food is not super hot, it is better to store it before it is expose to too much air
- Thoroughly clean all surfaces and items used to prepare raw meats. Wash your hands as well after handling raw meats
- When you take out the meal prep food to reheat, take out the portion you want to eat. Do not reheat everything
- For beans that you have to cook for a long period, it make sense to cook in bulk
- Don’t leave food sitting out for more than 2 hours
- Wash your vegetables especially root vegetables as they can result in botulism, a food borne illness that can affect the nervous system
Here is a good table to reference how long each type of food when prepared, can be kept:
What I conclude from this table is that, the hack is the transition from freezer to refrigeration. If you plan how you store your food firstly in freezer, then systematically transit to fridge, your food can stay for a long time.
The devils advocate is that, while we can put out all these facts, food does change when stored in the fridge and freezer and this will affect the condition of the food, and your well being.
Refuting the notion of NOT Getting Enough Nutrition
This is one question I do not get. The reason being is that I felt my meals are rather rounded in the macro nutrients I require. Perhaps missing healthy fats.
The health conscious will learn to eat a mixture of things.
However, most people will go for a few dishes:
- Wanton or Fish ball noodles, which have a few stalks of Cai Xin
- Ban Mian, with eggs, meat and a few stalks of Cai Xin
- Western food with a healthy dose of meat, starchy potatoes and greens on the side
- Yong Tau Foo, but they would choose all the pre-prepared fried stuff, fish balls and Ngoh Hiang
- Chicken Rice, Duck Rice
- Mixed Vegetable Rice but with no Greens
- Vegetarian Rice with much soy based, starchy fake meat
I am not sure about this, but I don’t see my stuff being anyway inferior to what they eat. You are presented with choices, but if you failed to build competency to pick more healthier choices, or that its not available to you, then you will end up eating an unbalance meal.
I cut down on greens, but that is because the breakfast (above) and dinner are filled with that.
For the folks who eat 3 meals outside, they will pick what they like, which means the list that you see previously gets magnified 3 times.
Unfortunately, the appetizing mixed bowl of salads is not a favorite of many, because they felt they “shouldn’t pay so much for vegetables”.
It is a challenge my friends have to deal with, in their heads, between trying to be healthy, reluctance to spend for health, and satisfying their taste for meat.
Wouldn’t you get bored eating the same thing daily?
I made my peace with food. If I gain enough and are less stressed about it because of this simplification, as what I mentioned before, then its good for me.
You can experiment by changing things around. There are much resources out there to give you ideas:
If you have less restrictions, and have a different objective, do it your way! These folks above prepared different set of meals so that each week they have enjoyable pre-prepared food.
Bonus: Preparing for Breakfast
Many may dread preparing for breakfast and in our family’s case, our breakfast is also based on steaming and mixed vegetable bowl.
As it is tiring to wake up early in the morning, my dad select the different vegetables from the fridge and get them out.
They are washed, and then they are put to air dry. You cannot keep them wet.
Once they are relatively dry, we pack them in container and put in the fridge. In the morning,we do not need to wash them but to cut and be ready to cook them.
I was a complete idiot when it comes to cooking in Feb this year, and today I felt empowered that I could cook something out when I need to.
Meal Prep Sundays are not for a lot of people, but if you are hardcore enough to be focus on some priorities, and want to simplify areas of your life that is less important to you, this article may help you.
Let me know if you got some tips for me.