Sunday prep school, Real Simple, and what’s really simple

photo-450When studying time logs for I Know How She Does It, I realized that people tended to fall into two camps.

There was the “Organized Camp,” full of folks who prepped meals on Sunday for the week, did a load of laundry daily so it never stacked up, and the like.

Then there were people in the “Good Enough Camp.” These folks (I include myself in this) did what we had to do without any sort of organized method.

Women’s magazines are full of service pieces teaching you how to adopt the habits of the former, usually with the promise that this will make your harried life easier. But here’s what I discovered: people in the Organized Camp spent a lot more time on household chores than others. There may be upsides to being organized about food prep and other chores. But saving time isn’t one of them.

I was reminded of this while reading this month’s Real Simple. Longtime readers know I have a thing for this magazine. I love the photos, and the essays, and I totally dug a shrimp taco recipe I found earlier this year. I believe that Real Simple has perfectly tapped into the modern, upper-middle-class 35-45 year old woman zeitgeist. And yet I find that zeitgeist incredibly funny. There is often nothing “real simple” about the suggestions.

Take this month’s feature on “Sunday Prep School.” It was about how to prep ingredients and a few meals in advance for the week. “This plan requires a little sacrifice — two hours on a weekend — but the payoff is huge: a mix-and-match stash of building blocks to create easier, faster dinners all week long.”

What follows are instructions for making carrot soup with herb yogurt, make-ahead mac and cheese, “goes with anything kale salad,” and ricotta meatballs. You’d also prep various ingredients for other meals: you’d roast squash and hard boil eggs and potatoes, trim and slice a pineapple, and make a tuna salad. The result would be instant dinner all week long, right?

Um, no. Take the make-ahead mac and cheese. You spend 25 minutes making it on Sunday, according to the instructions. Then you refrigerate it until it’s ready to bake. On the night it’s ready to bake, you have to put it in the oven at 400 degrees for 25-35 minutes.

In other words, your prepped-ahead dinner still takes at least 25-35 minutes to make. Oh, sure, you could be doing something else in that time, but I found that people in the Organized Camp used the time their make-ahead dinners were baking to make side dishes or personalize the “goes with anything kale salad” or what have you. They’d be in the kitchen for most of those 25-35 minutes. That’s an important number to remember, because there are a lot of on-the-spot dinners you can make in less than 25-35 minutes, such as salmon and green beans, or an omelet. Or anything out of Rachael Ray’s literature. These dishes wouldn’t require you to invest 25 minutes on Sunday in their prep as well. Now granted, if you want baked mac and cheese, this is a way to spread its prep over two days, so it’s a possibility on a Tuesday. The prep-ahead method allows you to have more complicated meals on busy days. But regular old homemade mac and cheese can be made in the time it takes to boil noodles and make a cheese sauce. Or you can go with Annie’s. Not as good, to be sure. But definitely real simple.

I have been experimenting lately with ways to eat better without spending more time on it. The best method I currently have is this: we make something for a weekend meal that can be made in bulk. One week it was a Moroccan chicken stew, another week Real Simple’s slow cooker chicken tikka masala, another week a big batch of chili. If I’m entertaining over the weekend (as I was this weekend) I have the special food from that. There’s no extra prep time, in essence, because it’s what we’re eating for that weekend meal. But then the leftovers can become my lunches or dinners throughout the week. Then I buy a few bagged salads I like (this one Caesar kit, and a southwest with jalapeno Greek yogurt dressing one). Also, it turns out that veggies can be bought pre-chopped! No need to spend time on a Sunday doing it! I buy some cuts of meat that cook quickly (see the salmon suggestion above, or a few shrimp). Finally, I buy a few frozen meals that will work in a pinch. This is truly real simple meal prep. It probably won’t wind up in a magazine, but remember, I’m in the good enough camp. It works.

Are you in the Sunday Prep School camp?

Photo: Not a make-ahead meal, but pretty simple and quick to whip up and serve with leftovers.

32 thoughts on “Sunday prep school, Real Simple, and what’s really simple

  1. I have found that the best way to prep ahead for me is with freezer crockpot meals. I spend about 45 minutes prepping a half dozen crockpot meals bu gathering/chopping/tossing ingredients for each meal into a ziploc bag. The bag goes in the freezer. When it comes time to cook it, I pull the meal from the freezer the night before, dump it all in the crockpot in the morning, and walk away. I love the good feeling that comes from having a stash of healthy meals ready to roll, and I really love the way this simplifies weeknight meals.

    1. @kris – that makes sense if you can just dump it in. Then you’re not actively doing anything while the meal is cooking. I’ve found with slow cooker recipes I have to be careful. Some are very quick (throw it all in) and some involve multiple steps of browning meat and the like, which takes a big chunk of the convenience factor out.

    2. I did this once and it was great – I set up 2 bags each of 10 different meals. I’d say about half were definitely keepers and one was a major family favorite so it worked out well. I’d like to do it again with just the recipes we liked.

  2. We do almost exactly what you do without the frozen meals (then again, we have only one child, not four). We cook something on Sunday that leaves enough leftovers for my lunch during the week, and we do quicker meals on work days. Sautéed chicken, grilled or broiled flank steak, fajitas, homemade pizza (with purchased premade crust), Sloppy Joes, pork chops – at this point we have a repertoire of weeknight meals that can be on the table in less than an hour (usually less than 30 minutes). We are organized enough to plan to the menus on Sunday and do one big shopping Sunday AM before church lets out.

    1. @Jenni – I agree, there are so many meals that take less than 30 minutes that trying to be organized about making more elaborate ones seems like, well, not very simple. If one has all the time in the world, then why not. But if the point is to make busy weeknights easier, there are better ways than devoting hours to Sunday prep.

  3. With a toddler and infant twins at home, it’s real simple to buy 3 or 4 ready made meals at Trader Joes & supplement with steamed veggies plus (canned) bean burritos & homemade pizza with store-bought crust (trader joes again). I also love to eat breakfast things for lunch or dinner (omlettes, oatmeal, granola w yogurt).

    I love Ana’s method of taking the same thing every day at lunch & making a giant portion of one meal to eat all week. This is what I’d do if my husband would go for it.

    Reminds me of something I heard on npr once (this American life?) where someone recounted that they were in college when they realized that every family didn’t eat the same thing for dinner every night. His/her mom made something like baked chicken and green beans every night. Certainly Real simple!!

    1. @The frugal ecologist – if I could shop at Trader Joes without over-buying dark chocolate coated things, I would do exactly what you describe. Unfortunately, I cannot be trusted in that store.

    2. Oh, my goodness! I know that story! It’s from This American Life. That is such a fun story to tell when eating poultry. It’s so hilarious.

  4. 1. I’ve never really been inspired by Real Simple’s recipe/food spreads. I think for the 3-4 yrs that I’ve been a subscriber, I’ve only hit upon and succeeded with about 10 recipes. A vast majority of the others just seemed too “foodie fancy” for me and my family. Not the fault of the magazine…or is it?

    2. Meal-planning is so low on my priority list. Well, actually, it’s usually not on that list. I do have a rough mental list of 10-12 meals that we eat in happy rotation.

    3. I’m trying out a new recipe each week from the Pioneer Woman’s Dinnertime cookbook; just got it this month. We’ve tried 3 recipes thus far, and they were all good, even though I didn’t have fresh parsley or basil. (her first cookbook is pretty awesome, too. some of those pages are falling out, splattered with oil, sauce, etc. – a hearty endorsement, right?)

    4. I’ve unsubscribed from Real Simple a few weeks ago. Sometimes, I want to throw it out dramatically into my backyard: “It’s not that simple!!!”

      1. Well, she definitely is the goddess of domesticity, but she’s also hilarious. I’ve been following her blog off/on since 2007, so even though she’s made it “big time,” I still like her. But that’s mainly b/c her recipes and approaches to family meals has worked deliciously for us. Her cookbooks are also really beautiful and fun to read as a quasi-memoir of sorts.

        Here’s another book recommendation: Shauna Niequist’s _Bread and Wine_. Not a cookbook, but a memoir with many meal-prep tips and recipes. There’s mango curry recipe that has become a good, dependable dinner party option.

  5. I am a meal prepper – but can’t stand the recipes that are like the mac and cheese that you described! I work odd hours – 4 days ranging from 9-12 hours and I get home at 8-8:15pm three nights a week. I want dinner in about 5minutes. Two nights I get home at 8:15 but have to be up at 5am the next day so eating at 9pm and spending precious minutes on cooking is too much. Even 30min to make macaroni and cheese or pasta and marinara sauce is too much for me – especially because it then involves having to wash dishes! My husband has a weird schedule too and sometimes goes to bed within a couple minutes of me getting home.

    My solution is cooking ahead. I guess meal prepping is just prep work – dicing veggies etc I make full on meals. yesterday I made a veggie soup, muffins, meatballs, spaghetti squash. combined with some other leftovers that will last us a couple days. Tonight when I get home I can put spaghetti squash and meatballs in the microwave while I put my lunch dishes in the dishwasher and pack lunch for tomorrow. It took a while to find the best recipes for making ahead but it works out great. It probably wouldn’t work as well if we had kids (but neither would our schedules in general – so I cannot envision a life where that would occur)

    1. @Katie – if the nightly prep takes you a mere 5 minutes, then the prep ahead might save time, because you’re batching tasks (boiling more than one thing at a time, for instance). The key is making sure you’re not using the extra prep time on weekends to make things more complicated- and it sounds like you’re not.

  6. I’m a little in both camps. A few Sundays a year I’ll make some enormous batches of red sauce / chilli / bolognese to freeze down and have to hand at any point. The rest of our meals are quick and speedy ones during the week – chicken stirfry, soup and rolls, fresh pasta and veggies. I like a little prep here and there but definitely reside in the ‘good enough’ camp.

  7. My goal is to spend one hour on the weekend doing meal prep. That is all the time I am willing to commit on the weekend. Sometimes I am just washing and cutting vegetables, sometimes I am assembling a casserole or getting something ready for the crock pot. It just depends on what I have planned for the following week’s meals. I find this one hour helps to keep me more focused during meal prep during the following week and saves me some time. But isn’t so overwhelming and time consuming on the weekends. What I really need to do in order to save time during the week is to come up with simpler meals. My enjoyment for cooking often leads me down the path of preparing meals that take a lot of time….

    1. @Polly – I think that if you really enjoy preparing meals, then it’s not a bad priority to build time for that into your life. There are probably ways to do it — a heavy snack for everyone in late afternoon, so dinner can happen later. If it relaxes you, and it’s a fun post-work activity, it’s great.

  8. Everyone has different goals – saving time, cooking for fun, etc. Mine is to avoid prepared foods, eat local, and try new dishes – while not letting scratch cooking take over our lives. To this end, Sunday planning works for me. Devoting a few hours to making a few dishes on Sunday to eat on all week is an ideal scenario. And yes, I’m the person assembling a salad or roasting vegetables while the mac n cheese bakes. But 30 minutes of nightly dinner prep seems entirely reasonable to me to put a healthy, balanced meal on the table.

  9. I am a longtime subscriber to Real Simple, and I always look forward to when it will arrive, but it definitely contributes to the anxiety many women, myself included, feel about being on top of things in running of our households while having big careers. I really do try to think of the magazine as more aspirational than this is how real people live their lives. I think they are tapping into how people would like to be perceived rather than reality. It is nice to aspire to making your family a wonderful, pinterest worthy meal, and even once in awhile, dare I say it, it can actually be fun to be in the kitchen. As long as one doesn’t beat themselves up for not living up to the impossible standards of magazines like Real Simple and Better Homes and Gardens (which is way worse than RS in my opinion in their representation of reality; no thanks to copious amounts of handmade paper holiday decorations) it will be ok.

  10. I’m definitely trying to be in the More Organized camp because by dinnertime after a workday, I have usually lost the will to live and it’s easier just to say “let’s order a pizza” or “let’s go out”. So I like having a solid plan for each weeknight, and even better if it’s something I already cooked on the weekend. My problem with most “30 minute meals” type recipes is that they almost always have non-substitutable dairy in them (we have allergies/intolerances) or they include pasta, white bread, etc that we’re trying not to eat anymore. Between those two restrictions, it’s hard to find good quick recipes. (Not to mention all of the easy things I learned to cook in my teens/20s are no-gos now too). So I’m still trying to figure out how to make this less of a pain,

    1. @ARC – if you’re dealing with food allergies that preclude quick meals, then yes, I imagine planning and prepping makes life a lot easier. I’m grateful that we’re not dealing with that. Just generalized pickiness.

  11. I find meal planning helps take some decision-making stress away, and helps cut down on last-minute grocery runs (I hate grocery shopping, so I only go on Tuesdays in between school dropoffs, period). I also subscribe to a weekly farm distribution (like a CSA, but from multiple places), so I have to plan in order to use what’s being delivered. It’s probably more effort than many people want, but since my goals are more seasonal, local produce and less grocery shopping, it fits my needs. And I try to incorporate the veggie chopping/cleaning/freezing what I can’t eat this week a bit at a time while doing regular kitchen stuff. And I make my kids (2 and 5) pack their own lunches while I’m cooking dinner. I just make the sandwiches (prepped and frozen in batches on Sunday). So…complicated answer! I guess I’m a Sunday planner, but not really a prepper.

  12. Although I am a Real Simple subscriber, I agree that it often makes life feel more complicated; I finish the magazine thinking that I’m failing at keeping my house organized and my outfits coordinated in advance. Meal planning has two components in my house: my husband cooks a lovely Sunday dinner with extra portions, and we eat those leftovers plus a crockpot meal (with more leftovers) throughout the week. I take an afternoon every couple of months to bag frozen crockpot meals (I never use the meals with ground beef browning or other prep, just straight meat-veg-canned goods-spices). And if there’s a night uncovered by leftovers? Either brinner (breakfast for dinner) or takeout.

  13. i am going to admit that my ‘real simple’ solution is to have our nanny cook! I provide recipes (in fact . . some from Real Simple) and shopping list, and she cooks during my younger child’s nap. Just like I would want to do if I were home!

    Of note, the demographic that can afford most of the things (ie, the homes/decor/clothes) in RS can afford this. (I can afford it and still can’t afford the RS lifestyle!)

    1. @SHU- yep. For instance, if you can afford the $575 Max Mara pastel green floral shift on p. 20, and the decorated $398 J. Crew pumps to go with them, you could move that $973 into the household staffing category and hire someone else to cook on a Sunday for a while. Just saying…

  14. I’m in both camps. I stumbled across Fresh 20, which adheres to the “organized camp” mentality. “1” hour of Sunday prep (for a novice chef like me it’s like 1.25-2 hours) and then 30 minutes of cooking for 5 dinner meals. I love it because I only have to buy 20 ingredients for the week and the meal planning uses the different things I prep into a pre-planned 5 recipes with totally different flavor profiles, so I feel like I’m eating different things. The main reasons I love this-1. only 20 ingredients for 5 meals, which is manageable for me; 2. it’s really yummy food (seriously, I don’t know how but my husband and I who have different tastes both really like the food); 3. it takes out the decision-work of “what’s for dinner?” I literally just make whatever they tell me to. This last one may be the biggest convenience factor for me. I don’t have to stress or come up with my own ideas of what to eat for dinner.

    But it can be time consuming, so I switch it up. My husband and I already switch every other week of who is in charge for dinner. So essentially, I’m in charge of 2 weeks of 1 month of dinners. 1 week I do this Fresh 20. 1 week I do more off-the-cuff, simple stuff (like take-out, or pasta, or sloppy joes, or pre-made foods on my way home from work, etc.)

  15. I don’t do any significant cooking or meal prep on Sundays (we have nachos after church and Sunday night is whatever fruit and veggies we have on hand, and milkshake night.). I am in the Organized camp because I dislike devoting any stress or extra energy toward meals. I am in the Good Enough camp in that we, as a result, have a rotating meal system where my family basically eats the same 12 dinners (13, if you include milkshake night), month after month.

    Not to put you on the spot [she says, as she puts Laura on the spot] but I thought of you when I wrote my post today. I would love to read a few things that worked for you this year. I imagine you have a blog post list a mile long, so feel free to throw that one in the mix…oh…anytime. This year…next year…no pressure.

  16. Oh good heavens, no. Thank you for reassuring me that I am not not saving time (double negative intended). No way do I want to spend my weekend (or any significant chunk thereof) in the kitchen.

    I have to prepare frighteningly few dinners. My DH manages one day reliably every single week and often two. One day he is out and my mom hosts me and DS for supper. Another day he (DH) is out and I find that any number of truly (not “Really…”!) simple things work when it’s just the two of us — leftover, or some smoked salmon or cheese together with fruit & veg. are good examples. And then 1 night a week, I’m out, and then DH and DS opt to go out to supper somewhere. If you do the math, that leaves precisely 2 or at most 3 dinners unaccounted for. Often one is pasta (either spaghetti or ravioli) with a purchased sauce and — hopefully — a salad, but if there’s not a salad no one but me minds. Other staples include steak (quick) and crockpot chicken or ditto pot roast (slow, very low labor). Veggies are often broccoli (frozen, microwaved with a bit of butter), carrot sticks, cuke slices, cherry tomatoes, and/or fruit slices.

  17. I lost my patience with Real Simple when one of their creative finance tips for investing spare money was to buy a minor league baseball team.
    Because that’s totally feasible for most folks. 🙂

  18. I’m in the middle. I usually do a little extra cooking on Sundays. To some extent this saves ACTUAL time on weekdays, and to some extent this allows me to put nicer food on the table in general (i.e., making a salad/sauce to go with whatever is leftover vs purchasing pre-made salads or frozen meals). We do the “large batch” meals on Sundays to get a couple of days worth of leftovers out of this. We also will throw together a couple of extra things – this might be roasting two big pans of veggies, making crockpot chicken for lunches, making a quiche for breakfast, making a batch of muffins for snacks, cutting up some fruit, whatever. By the time I’ve put together prep for a big meal and a couple of extra tasks, the total kitchen time is usually 2-3 hours on Sunday. Honestly, we need this extra prep just to function some weeks. On weeknights, I usually cook maybe one night a week (30-45 min meal), have pure leftovers (microwave only) two nights a week, and maybe a half cook meal (10-15 min prep max) one night. Kids have practices some days and I have 5-10 min to get food on the table amidst bedtime routines, my husband and I have obligations until 7:30 PM other nights and want microwave or crockpot meals when we get home with zero prep other than reheating. I like good food, avoid pre-made food 95% of the time, and my husband and I eat a LOT, so it just takes some time to get even pretty simple food on the table. I love cooking, but with an infant-now-toddler, I just don’t have the time so have to go with “not as fancy as I’d like but good enough.”

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