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.
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.