Smart grocery lists and big-batch recipes for proteins and sides help make meal prep possible, but the best way to simplify your prep is to invest in kitchen gadgets that do most of the work for you. Below are 15 kitchen essentials that make meal prep less of a chore, saving you precious time and money. You may have some of them already but not be making the most of them. Others might be new to you, so read on to learn why they can be a game-changer for streamlining your meal prep.
The air fryer uses a mixture of oil and circulating hot air (aka convection) to cook foods in a way that makes them taste almost fried, but with much less fat. The air fryer is ideal for getting things perfectly crispy on all sides.
The Ninja 4-Quart Air Fryer is a great choice since all of its parts are dishwasher safe, and it can also double as a dehydrator for drying fruit for granola or trail mix.
Whether you’re cooking in-season squash chunks or defrosting frozen broccoli to be dressed in a lemony vinaigrette, cooking vegetables in a collapsible steamer is the fastest, healthiest and simplest way to get vegetables hot and tender.
It’s ready to go in the time it takes to boil an inch of water, and it folds up to the size of a salad plate when it’s done. Steaming means all those lovely nutrients stay in the food rather than being left behind in the water. For just a few bucks, it might be the cheapest kitchen tool you use every day.
Recipe to try: Poached Chicken With Steamed Veggies and Peanut Sauce
While it can function as a slow cooker, the Instant Pot also has a pressure-cook setting that gives you slow-cooker results in a fraction of the time. It’s great for soups, stews, beans and braised meats, but it’s also perfect if you want to cook chicken in less than 10 minutes or seamlessly hard-boil eggs.
Although there are more advanced versions, we think the Instant Pot Duo 7-in-1 is the best value. It’s got all the functions you need for meal prep — slow cooker, pressure cooker, rice cooker, sterilize, steam, saute and yogurt maker — plus it has dishwasher-safe accessories.
Recipes to try: 15 Healthy Instant Pot Recipes Under 450 Calories
For larger items that couldn’t possibly fit in a measuring spoon, it’s ideal to have a small kitchen scale handy. It costs less than $30, but its value is immeasurable. Use it to portion proteins or get an exact measurement on grains and cheese, which can quickly add calories. It’s also handy for making recipes based on weight rather than volume, because, let’s be honest: Who really knows what 11 ounces of brown rice looks like?
These aren’t just for measuring ingredients in recipes. Measuring spoons are a great way to exercise portion control and help count calories easily. If you can’t imagine a bowl of oatmeal without brown sugar or prefer your eggs scrambled in a bit of butter, using measuring spoons helps ensure you don’t wind up blowing your calorie budget on condiments.
The difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon can add up to quite a bit at the end of the day, so using your measuring spoons takes all the doubt out of the process.
Food processors have always been a helpful kitchen tool, but sometimes you don’t need to whirl, chop and blend quite that amount. It’s also a heavy piece of machinery to simply chop a cup or two of almonds. This is where a mini food processor comes in.
It’s an easy and fast way to get the same effect without all the mass and bulk crowding the kitchen counter. Whirl some yogurt with herbs for a quick dipping sauce or chop onions and celery in a flash for the base of a quick pasta sauce. There are endless ways to utilize this kitchen tool, in a fraction of the counter space.
A basic chef’s knife and paring knife are able to handle most of what you need to prep. While it may seem counterintuitive, a sharper knife is safer than a dull one (Case in point: slicing through tomato skin with ease rather than having your knife push against the tension and end up cutting your finger). Having good knives is also key for more precise chopping, so your vegetables can cook evenly.
It’s safe to say the slow cooker is the OG star of meal prep. It’s great for prepping meaty dishes like chili and stew and rendering tougher (yet more budget-friendly) cuts of meat deliciously soft. You can also use it for plant-based prep, like baked potatoes, veggie soups and cooked beans. Put things into your slow cooker in the morning, set the cooker to “high” or “low” depending on what you’re making, and come home to a fully cooked meal that’s still warm.
We love the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 6 Quart Programmable Slow Cooker because it’s relatively inexpensive and has a digital timer that cooks a piece of meat exactly to your liking.
Recipes to try: 15 Easy Slow Cooker Recipes Under 375 Calories
Dutch ovens are extremely versatile — like a low-tech slow cooker or Instant Pot. They’re also perfect for evenly browning or blackening things since you can control the heat on the stove as you cook. You can also start cooking on the stove and then transfer it to the oven, which is great if you need to use your stove for other things during meal prep.
There’s no Dutch oven as famous or as beautiful as a Le Creuset. We love the Le Creuset 5.5-Quart Signature Round Dutch Oven since the enameled cast iron heats evenly and is easy to clean. If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, Cuisinart sells a similar 5-Quart Dutch Oven.
Recipes to try: 10 Amazing Things to do With a Dutch Oven
You may already have a sheet pan in your kitchen, but we suggest having at least two on hand at all times. That way you can load them up with chopped veggies, chicken breasts, marinated tofu or even chickpeas, then place them both in the oven for faster meal prep. You can even have more on rotation — one sheet pan comes out, another goes in.
When looking for a sheet pan, we recommend not spending too much, as your pan is bound to get scuffed and dirty eventually, no matter how durable the manufacturer claims it to be. This New Star Foodservice Commercial-Grade Sheet Pan is inexpensive and gets the job done. Just make sure you buy pans that are 13-by-18 inches, which are half-sheet pans; full sheet pans are made for restaurants and won’t fit in a home oven.
Whether you use a sheet pan rack to cool your baked goods or to render the fat out of meat, it’s a great tool to have around. Place it on your sheet pan (it’ll fit perfectly), and you create a little space between the hot sheet pan and the food you’re cooking. That extra airflow helps things cool more quickly, and the extra space allows fat to drip out of your food without being reabsorbed.
As with sheet pans, there’s really no bad option here. Often, you can buy a sheet pan and a rack together. If you’re looking for just the rack, we like the USA Pan Half-Sheet Bakeable Nonstick Cooling Rack. It’s stainless, oven-safe and fits in any half-sheet pan you buy.
If you’re a fan of pureed veggie soups, the only way to get restaurant-quality versions at home is to invest in a restaurant-quality blender. Sure, a Magic Bullet turns things into a liquid consistency — but only a high-speed blender like a Vitamix gives you that silky, luscious texture you’re seeking. It’s also great for smoothies and healthy desserts like sorbets.
We love the 64-ounce Vitamix because your finished product is superior to a lower-power blender every time.
Professional chefs know the key to seamless cooking is mise en place — which means “everything in its place” and is a term used to describe prepping, chopping and measuring your ingredients before cooking. This is easier when you have a lot of space, so if you’re limited in square footage, consider the Webin Large Bamboo Cutting Board With Trays. Chop your veggies, then slide them into one of the under-board trays to clear space on your cutting board for something else. When you’re done, slide the trays out and use your prepped ingredients to cook.
If you’re sick of wasting aluminum foil and plastic wrap, invest in reusable food wrap instead. It’s perfect for covering food in the fridge or on the counter, or for wrapping sandwiches in a lunch box. Reusable bags replace classic zip-top bags, and are ready to use again after a wash, which saves money and contributes to a more sustainable environment.
Bees Wrap is made from organic cotton coated with sustainably harvested beeswax and other natural ingredients to protect and seal food. Stasher Food Grade Silicone Reusable Storage Bags are dishwasher safe and come in a variety of sizes.
Recipes to try: 7 Hearty Sandwiches Under 450 Calories
After you’ve done the hard work of meal prepping, it’s important everything stays fresh. Whether it’s a big batch of soup, baked chicken or roasted veggies, you can put anything you won’t eat over the next four days in a bag and vacuum seal it. Store the vacuum-sealed bag in the freezer, and the lack of air keeps your food from getting freezer burn or losing flavor.
We love the FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer Machine because it’s big enough to be useful but small enough to tuck away on your counter.
Recipes to try: Meal Prep 101: How to Use Leftovers
Originally published November 2017, with additional reporting by Amy Machnak
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