It's no secret that some solid food prep can make all the difference in smashing our healthy eating goals.
Trouble is, prepping entire tagines, casseroles and soups can quickly fall into the "too-hard basket" as life responsibilities take over.
That's why accredited practising dietitian Anna Debenham is calling for a re-think when it comes to food prep, advocating breaking our bulk cooking into individual ingredients we can mix and match throughout the week.
"Batch cooking can seem overwhelming and time-consuming so that people push meal prep aside altogether," says Debenham, founder of The Biting Truth.
"Prepping individual ingredients is less time-consuming and gives more flexibility throughout the week, which leads to better variety."
Debenham suggests taking a few minutes each weekend to plan your meals for the week ahead, then consider which ingredients you could cook ahead of time to save yourself effort in the midweek flurry.
"Think about the ingredients you might struggle with midweek – personally, I don't mind cooking a bit of steak or salmon or tofu on a weeknight, but I can never be bothered cooking the carbohydrate component, such as boiling rice or baking potatoes, because it takes so long," she says.
"So, if you know you're going to have a salmon dish on Wednesday, you might say, 'I'll cook up some rice or potatoes or some roast vegies to have with it.'"
Sweet potato and kale bowl with quinoa, coriander tahini dressing and crispy chilli-lime chickpeas (recipe here). Photo: Katrina Meynink
Debenham is not averse to hearty bowl food prepped ahead, but she says it can get a bit stale.
"The pro of batch cooking [big meals] is that the entire meal is completely done – you just grab, heat and eat. But sometimes when you prep one big soup or casserole, you end up eating it four or five times, and you get over it on the fourth day," she says.
"But the benefits of prepping individual ingredients is that there's more variety and flexibility throughout the week – you can think, 'What do I feel like eating and what can I do with these ingredients to create that?'"
Debenham suggests stocking your fridge with these ready-to-go ingredients, to give plenty of variety for picking-and-mixing throughout the week.
1. Roast vegetables
Pre-heat your oven then raid your fridge for anything you have on hand that can be chopped, oiled, seasoned and roasted for the week ahead.
"Roasting vegies can take 45 minutes, making them difficult to fit in on a weeknight, but if you do it on a Sunday it will save you a weeknight task," Debenham says.
"You could do onion, carrots, fennel, capsicum, broccoli, Brussels sprouts or whatever you like or have on hand. They caramelise and you can put them in a salad, a sandwich, a wrap, a frittata or on top of scrambled eggs. Sometimes I even top crispbread with roast vegetables, hummus (see below) and feta."
2. Boiled eggs
While the vegies are in the oven, you can boil some eggs for 10 minutes to offer you a week's supply of protein for use in a variety of meals.
"Boiled eggs can be a great morning or afternoon snack on-the-go, or can be used in an egg sandwich, salad wrap or you could put two boiled eggs on a salad and you're getting some good protein," Debenham says.
"If you never have time for breakfast, some hard-boiled eggs with avocado on toast is a really balanced meal in the morning."
Tip: Refresh your eggs under cold water after the timer sounds for hard-boiled yolks that are creamy not crumbly.
As a source of plant protein and fibre, quinoa is a versatile ingredient that really enhances the nutritional profile of a meal.
But cooking quinoa can quickly fall into the "too hard" midweek basket.
"Always cook some quinoa so you've got wholegrain carbohydrates ready to go," Debenham says.
"They tend to be the time-consuming part of meal-prep – but this way you can quickly re-heat it when you get home and add it to your roast vegetables and hummus for a beautiful salad or side."
4. Brown rice
With the outer bran and germ still attached to the grain, brown rice is far superior (nutritionally) than its white counterpart. But given it takes longer to cook, it makes sense to knock it over ahead of time.
"Rice will last at least a few days in the fridge and you can freeze it in portions, too," Debenham suggests.
"You can also have small microwavable pouches of rice and quinoa on hand, however they do contain more packaging, and cooking it yourself is much more cost-effective."
5. Grilled chicken
Arguably the most versatile meat protein, grilled chicken can top just about any meal.
"Do it really simply – pour some olive oil on it, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle some of your favourite herbs, whether it's paprika, cumin or oregano," Debenham suggests.
"Roast a few pieces in the oven and you can add it to a salad, put it in a sandwich or wrap, or have it on a plate alongside some carbs and vegies."
Hummus and boiled egg on toast is a healthy breakfast. Photo: iStock
Sure, you could pick up a tub from the supermarket fridge, but Debenham says a homemade hummus is usually better for you.
"Hummus is a good source of protein and fats and you can have it with some vegie sticks or have it on a sandwich, in a salad or on top of a steak," she says.
"The store-bought ones often have preservatives and are often not made using extra virgin olive oil, so the fats are not as good for you.
"Making it at home takes three minutes, putting everything in the blender and whipping it together. It's more cost-effective, it tastes better and it's going to be slightly healthier."