Eating a steady diet of unprocessed, home-cooked plant-based meals takes more time than dishing out processed foods from a box. (Duh!) It doesn’t have to take a prohibitive amount of time: 4 to 7 hours of cooking per week should yield very enjoyable meals. If you have much less time to cook, delicious home-made plant-based dinners remain possible. However you may have to compromise on food diversity. It’s not a dream dinner scenario, but you can get by with what I call the minimum viable meal prep. It requires just one hour and will transform your week. Take these basic plant-based batch cooking steps on the weekend and you’ll have some healthy vegan options available on weeknights when you have no time to cook.
Summary for the hyper-busy
- If you have time to check email and social media, you have time to do a basic plant-based batch cooking session.
- Pick a couple of types of canned beans.
- Choose a whole grain, such as brown or red rice, quinoa, farro, buckwhat, etc. Switch from week to week.
- Roast some orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, and/or squash. Switch from week to week.
- Cook a soup or stew that includes vegetables and beans, and perhaps grains, too.
- Make sure you have (and use) ready-to-eat greens (baby kale and “power greens” mixes for example).
- Prep your items in a certain order to get it all done in an hour or so.
- Jazz it up with pantry staples.
- Eat it throughout the week.
- Switch it up next week.
What if you don’t have time for basic plant-based batch cooking?
Before I proceed with my suggestions, I want to acknowledge something. Not everyone has “weekend” time to cook. Many of us work long hours, most days of the week, or multiple jobs, to make ends meet. Others are committed to caring for loved ones in a way that detracts them from caring about their own health. The obstacles to eating better dinners are, for some, insurmountable.
This being said, many of us are also just busy. We have said “yes” to a lot of important and interesting engagements, for ourselves and for our loved ones, but without considering our other priorities, like eating nourishing food so we can thrive. If you think you have zero time to do even basic plant-based batch cooking on some less-busy days of the week, I invite you to reconsider your schedule and perhaps say “no” to an activity or two. Or delegate responsibility for one of your tasks.
If work is the problem, ask yourself: what is the full, real cost of working more hours? Again, I am not talking to those who are scraping by at the edge of survival here – they don’t have time to read my blog anyway. If the increased stress and busyness make it impossible for you to cook at home from scratch, then you are likely eating more processed food (which is expensive) or buying ready-made meals (likely worse). Perhaps you buy groceries in hopes of preparing a series of delightful dinners, but end up wasting most of that food (and money) because it spoils before you cook it. In addition, the long-term costs of eating a unhealthy diet with too much fat and sodium, and too many calories, include years of decreased quality of life, a costly medication regimen, and overwhelming health expenses. For what?
Take a hard look at your life. Can you claim an hour to do this basic plant-based batch cooking at some time during the week? In this post, I am NOT proposing that you should spend three hours on Sunday plus 15 to 30 minutes every weeknight to cook dinner. (That’s the suggested time commitment to follow the Vegan Family Meal Plans‘ path to better dinners.) Instead, just take an hour to make a difference with this minimum viable meal prep plan.
Pick your plant-based basics: beans and grains
Pulses and whole grains form the backbone of vegan nutrition. Both have fiber and protein, as well as many micronutrients we need. Although it is technically possible to thrive without them, busy people will need to rely on them for the majority of their daily nourishment. And that is great, because they are both diverse and delicious! Both categories should be represented in your basic vegan batch cooking plan.
Pulses: This category includes beans, lentils, chickpeas, split peas, edamame, and their derivatives, such as tofu, a minimally-transformed soy product. There are so many options, just make sure you always have a few in stock. Choosing a dark-colored bean (black beans, kidney beans, etc.) will also increase the amount of phytonutrients you get in every bite, compared to white beans and chickpeas. But chickpeas are really yummy, so just make sure to mix things up from week to week. If you are starved for time, I won’t suggest that you cook your beans from scratch. Dry beans are cheaper but if you have only minutes to spend on your meals they are not the best investment of your time. Get canned beans.
Grains: Think beyond the wheat! Yes, pasta is delicious. (Especially with one of my instant sauces, if you have an extra 10 minutes.) So is bread. But you can prep something more wholesome and nutritious in mere minutes. Pick a whole grain or pseudo-grain, whether it’s brown or red rice, quinoa, barley, farro, buckwheat, millet, or freekeh. Follow package instructions or learn about my easy fuss-free methods for rice and quinoa. If you are really really pressed for time, couscous is practically instant and can be found in a whole-wheat version.
Roast the oranges
Root vegetables and winter squashes are inexpensive and robust vegetables you can keep for several weeks in your produce drawer. The red and orange ones are particularly good sources of carotenoids critical for eye health. Roasting enhances their flavor while enhancing the availability of their their nutrients. Plus, the hands-on time requirement is very short.
My top choices are orange sweet potato (so-called yam), carrots, and red onions. They are particularly awesome because they require minimal preparation before roasting, and deliver a big nutritional punch in addition to rich flavor. Sweet potatoes and carrots just need a thorough brushing, no need to peel! Onions do need to have their outer skin removed of course, but it’s a quick job.
Hacking the veggies in 3/4-inch cube-ish pieces will do. Spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (to speed up cleaning), sprinkle with salt, pepper, and turmeric (if available), and maybe drizzle with a wee bit of olive oil (like 2 teaspoons). You’re good to go. (Refresh your knife skills to save yourself time and accidents…)
Many squashes do not need to be peeled, either, but if you choose to do it, it’s easier to do so after they have been roasted. Either way, you have to start by halving them and removing the seeds and fibrous bits. You can roast them just like that, cut-face down on a lined baking sheet. Roasting halves will require more time in the oven than dicing. And if you forget them in the oven too long, you’ll get to scoop out ready-made squash purée: lovely!
Make sure you have the greens
I am all for zero-waste, but if you are seriously in a bind you have my blessing to buy a convenient box of pre-washed boxed or bagged greens. Choose the “baby” option like kale, or so-called “power greens” which are usually a mix of different nutritious young dark leafy greens. Those provide maximum nutrition for minimum effort.
A more economical option is to buy a bunch of kale, rinse it in plenty of water, then chop it into ribbons. Massage energetically with your hands and store in a container with a paper towel or cloth napkin at the bottom.
Add a soup or stew
Soups and stews are the ultimate prep-friendly dishes for your basic plant-based batch cooking session. You don’t even need a recipe to improvise a tasty soup or stew with lots of flavor. And you don’t need to worry about chopping things nicely if you plan on blending everything smooth at the end. Prefer it chunky? Call it “rustic” and you’re done.
Always start by sautéing a diced onion, add a few extra vegetables, make sure there are seasonings like garlic, spices, and herbs, then add broth, and beans. I find that many Indian dishes are a great fit for plant-based batch cooking, and also an opportunity to get my dose of ginger and turmeric. Dried fruit also make a nice addition to curries. No time to mess with fresh garlic and ginger? Make sure you have garlic and ginger powder. There is absolutely no shame in using those.
You can also use canned tomatoes to make it more into a chili (great on roasted sweet potatoes, rice, tortillas, and more…) or a rich tomato sauce like my versatile vegan bolo sauce (served on pasta, Portobello mushrooms, potatoes, or polenta).
Make your soup or stew into a complete meal by adding some grains, or plan on pairing it with whatever grain you cook for the week. Brown rice or whole wheat orzo noodles work well in soups. Quinoa melds nicely into a bean chili.
When all soup ingredients are cooked to tender, add a big handful of chopped greens (for even more nutrition) and stir them in. They’ll wilt while the pot cools down a bit.
Check out my list of 20 prep-friendly recipes for batch cooking, including many soups and stews
How to make the most of your time when basic vegan batch cooking
Recap: you have three things to do in your minimum viable meal prep: cook grains, roast oranges, and prepare a soup or stew. Here’s the right order to do it in:
- Start the oven at 375 degrees Fahrenheit and a big pot of water on the stovetop on high.
- Rinse the grains in a fine-mesh sieve and set aside.
- Chop the veggies for roasting and put them in the oven for about 40 minutes. If you remember to flip them partway through, great, but it doesn’t matter that much.
- In a heavy pot on the stove on medium-low heat, start cooking your soup or stew by sautéing the onions for a few minutes. It will make them extra sweet and flavorful.
- Keep an eye on the pot of water. When it boils, add in the grains. If it’s brown rice, cook for 25 minutes. For other grains, taste often and use your judgement. (This technique does not apply to couscous.)
- Keep on adding veggies to your soup or stew, cooking each for a couple of minutes before adding the next. Add in the rest of the ingredients and let it simered until everything is cooked to your liking.
- Your grains should be ready at some point during the simmering. Drain through the fine-mesh sieve, return to the hot pot but off the heat, put the lid on, and let the grains finish steaming for about 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork.
- The oranges should be done roasting by now. Take them out of the oven.
- Transfer everything to labelled containers and refrigerate. Some people like to pre-assemble bowls and divide their meals into portion-sized containers. If you’re on the go a lot, that may be a good strategy for you.
Jazz it up with tasty and nourishing pantry staples
Make sure to stock some or all of the following to add into your meals once you assemble them:
- Nuts and/or seeds (almond, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds…)
- Nutritional yeast
- Dried fruit (raisins, unsweetened cranberries, currants, apricots…)
- Balsamic or fruit vinegar
- Lemon or lime juice (keep refrigerated)
- Frozen mango and frozen avocado (mix together with a pinch of salt and maybe lime juice for a fantastic topping for curry or chili)
How to eat all this
You now have cooked beans, whole grains, roasted orange vegetables, some greens, and a soup or stew. Here are some combinations to inspire you.
Compose vegan bowls
- Scoop of grains
- Scoop of beans
- Scoop of roasted orange veggies
- Handful of greens
- Extra veggies if possible: cherry tomatoes, grated carrots or beets
- Extra antioxidants with fresh berries or dried fruit
- Sprinkle with chopped nuts or seeds, and/or nutritional yeast
- Splash of lime juice or fancy vinegar works in a pinch, although I won’t blame you for using a ready-made vegan dressing to bring it all together.
Stir(-fry) it up
If you have the extra 15 minutes, you can make what will looks like a different dish by heating up the wok or skillet and making a “fried rice” style dinner. Your veggies are already cooked, so start with about half of the grains you plan on eating, sautéing them around the hot skillet until heated through. You can use a teaspoon or two of oil if you’re OK with that. Then add the beans and veggies, sauté again until warm, then the rest of the grains. Throw in a handful of greens and a splash of lime juice or soy sauce. When everything’s piping hot, you are done!
Just heat up that soup or stew
Those soups and stews make amazing lunches because you can just warm them up in the microwave. They’ll also be very comforting at 9 p.m. after a long day of work when you haven’t yet had dinner. Sprinkle with nuts and nutritional yeast, or add a spoonful of your favorite salsa or chutney.
Injecting diversity in your basic plant-based batch cooking
Roast seasonal vegetables: Once in a while, instead of your old standbys like sweet potato and squash, try a new, seasonal vegetable. Asparagus is only available locally in the spring, do don’t miss it! Radishes, zucchini, and mushrooms are also great roasted, but combine them with the orange veggies. When cauliflower is on sale, grab it! .
Freezer strategy: Get in the habit of doubling up your grains and soup or stews, and freeze half for later. Make sure to label the containers well and keep an inventory sheet on the fridge to remind yourself of what’s available.
Add-ons: As you get more skilled and faster at this basic plant-based batch cooking thing, I recommend you add a couple of other basics to your meal prep plan: sauces, dressings, and spreads you can use for sandwiches.
What will you prep this weekend?