Meal Prep – Does the food really stay fresh?

The Make Now & Eat Later approach to meal prep centers on preparing and storing a week’s worth of food. I recently got asked if the prepared food really stays fresh.

Simple answer – yes, the food stays fresh!

Now for the longer, more complete answer.

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My Conversion to Meal Prep

Before starting  weekly meal prep, I was skeptical about whether the food would stay fresh and (equally important) appetizing.

I was never one of those people who enjoyed eating leftovers. (Come to think of it… Does anyone like eating leftovers?) As a kid, my mom would cook all my meals fresh – breakfast, lunch (I got schooled at home), and dinner. Even when I had evening activities, like ballet, my mother would deliver my dinner hot in a woven basket. (Yes, I know I was spoiled.)

Having to eat leftovers was relegated to Sunday nights, or to lunches that my siblings and I referred to as “smorgasbords” and preferred to avoid.

Looks like I ate it all… But apparently it was NOT GOOD.IMG_2558.JPG

As a kid, when I had no choice but to eat leftovers, I was picky about the preparation. I wanted my food wrapped in foil and heated in the oven. I most definitely did not like my food microwaved. I was convinced that I could tell the difference, and vocally expressed my disapproval.

I never could have imagined that now I would be championing weekly meal prep. Basically I am freely choosing to eat leftovers for 10 meals a week.

Almost gone by Day 3, but this salad is still looking fresh!!

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How did this happen?

Mental Switch #1 – The Power of Refrigeration

I think a key reason why I did not like eating leftovers was the sense that it was not “fresh.” I had a nagging sense that the food might have spoiled or undergone some chemical reaction in the refrigerator overnight rendering it inedible.

I had two experiences that radically altered my views on storing and keeping food. Both experiences involved living without refrigeration.

Experience Of Living On A Remote Island In Lake Superior

The first experience happened in college. I spent the summer on a remote island in Lake Superior with no electricity or running water.

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Obviously we did not have a refrigerator. Weekly food deliveries came from Michigan on a 5-hour boat ride to the ranger station on a larger island. We then wheeled the boxes of food across the island to the boat dock, where we kayaked the food back to our island.

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We ate lots of foods that you might imagine given the conditions – canned beans, crackers, nuts, dried fruit, cured meats. But we also ate a lot of fresh foods – fresh fruits and veggies, eggs, yogurt, even the occasional burger (although we had to eat burgers on the very first night of food delivery).

For dinner, we often made a big pot of chili or soup on our circa early 1900 wood burning stove. We practiced a kind of primitive meal prep – tightly covering the pot and reboiling it every 24 hours – to keep it “fresh.” I know that there is some controversy over the reboiling technique to kill bacteria but we had limited options on the island. No one got sick! (The texture of the food seriously suffered though.)

Yeah… we had no electricity but just look!102_1002.jpg

Living and eating on that island totally changed my ideas about what needs refrigeration and what can survive perfectly fine in a cool corner out of the sun. YOGURT?? Totally fine. MILK? Yep, just stick to high fat milk, which spoils slower. Salami? Sure.

Experience of Visiting Kenya

Years later, my friend was living in Kenya and I visited her village for two weeks.

My friend’s kitchen in Kenya.
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Her house had power during certain hours of the day but no running water or refrigerator. She kept her food in metal cans and a metal school desk (to protect it from bugs and rats).

Again I saw just how much eating and living can happen without refrigeration.

Yummy meal of chapati and beans with stewed greens.
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Yes, the half side of a cow hanging in a butcher shop covered in flies did put me off the meat in Kenya. For the most part, we ate extremely well. And thanks to my friend’s careful attention to my food I never got sick.

The sweetest bananas I have ever eaten!
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A Week in the Fridge? Why not.

After those experiences, leftovers stored in the fridge seemed totally fine.

Mental Shift # 2 – Stop Calling Them “Leftovers”

Another major change has been how I think about the food I make.

When my mom cooked dinner and then we ate the remaining amount the next day, those were clearly “leftovers” in my mind. According to the dictionary, the definition is leftover is, “something, especially food, remaining after the rest has been used or consumed.” One of the rather unappealing synonyms is “residue.” The other synonyms include – scraps, remnants, and remains.

Google image search for “scraps of food.” Eww.
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No wonder “leftovers” were not appealing! Who says, “Oh yum, I am eating the “remains” of dinner?

With Make Now & Eat Later meal prep, I prepare food with the intention of eating that food for several days. Each portion is not the scraps of another meal, but instead created specifically for that meal.

Lunch time!
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This mental switch might seem subtle but it has revolutionized how I view food stored in the refrigerator. The food is not “leftovers” (almost akin to garbage), which I want to scrape into the trash, but something delicious to be enjoyed! I am happy and excited to eat my prepped food!

ASIDE – The History of Leftovers

It seems that I am not alone in my dislike of the dreaded “leftovers.” Over the past few decades, the enthusiasm for leftovers in the U.S. has weakened.

During World War II, when food was scarce and resources tight, creatively using leftovers was a mark of pride for a home cook.

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(Image Credit: TreeHugger.)

Last fall, The Atlantic published a piece on the rise and fall of leftovers in American society, suggesting that leftovers might be making a comeback! Cookbooks are recommending that certain foods actually taste better a few days later, and that remaining meats can be incorporated into other dishes to make something new and yummy.

Mental Shift #3 – Cook Stuff that I Like

This might seem kind of obvious but another thing I have learned is to cook things that I like and want to eat.

One complaint about leftovers is that they are boring. You just keep eating the same thing day after day. If you like whatever you’re eating though, that’s not a problem!

The beginnings of a yummy quinoa salad!
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I try to cook enough variety that I am happy to eat those foods for a week. I honestly don’t feel bored repeating the same foods for 10 meals in a row.  (All the lunches and dinners are the same for a week! See more meal prep in pictures here.)

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Another way to keep the food interesting is to switch the recipes every week. Aside from Sticky Chicken (which I have literally eaten hundreds of times), I make 3 new recipes every week! I also get a little thrill every meal when I see the minimal dishes afterwards! Just a plate, a knife, a fork, and a cutting board? Amazing.

So does the food stay fresh?

Getting back to the original question- yes the food stays fresh and it stays appetizing!

Another simple, Japanese-inspired salad looking good on Day 4!

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Of course, you should practice good kitchen hygiene. Wash your hands. Don’t mix raw meats and fresh veggies. And some foods are probably not suited to extended storage (even if it is refrigerated) like raw fish.

My general rule is a week. Most of the food I cook sits in the fridge for at most 5 days. I cook on Sunday and by Friday everything is eaten.

The excellent food blog, TheKitchn, recommends says 3-4 day. And here are some more guidelines from FoodSafety.gov.

This one was so yummy, it only lasted until Day 3!

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The general rule of 5 days seems to be working for me. Another option is to freeze the food. Then it keeps indefinitely.

Want to learn more about simple, Japanese-inspired meal prep? Check out “What is Make Now & Eat Later”!

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Ready to start cooking? Here are some popular recipes! These are delicious stored (or eaten right away!!).

Grilled Asparagus in Tsuyu Stock

Lemon Marinated Eggplant with Dried Tomatoes (my personal favorite!)

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Come back on Monday! New recipes and musings on Japan posted here every week.

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