How to Do “Healthy” — Cook and Prep in Large Quantities

Making fun of Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP advice is low hanging fruit. It’s way too easy to mock. But I’m feeling lazy this morning, so let’s look at her 7 Day Detox diet. In addition to getting tons of colonics (!), she says we should purge toxic foods from your diet. OK, I’m down with clean eating. The colonics, not so much. So, what does she have to say?

She provides a menu for three full meals, a snack and lemon water for seven days. The recipes look tasty enough. I would probably eat everything and enjoy it. But the time, oh Gwyneth, the time.

Shopping for the week of ingredients, many of which can’t be found even in a Whole Foods, would require at least five hours. The list of ingredients were long. They would require several trips to stores on multiple days to assure vegetable freshness. And what are coconut aminos? Then there’s cooking and clean up time. This menu is a full time job.

Here’s my shortcut to healthy eating… Cook and prepare in large quantities.

Yesterday was my heavy lifting cooking day. I was in the kitchen for about two or three hours and Steve did the clean up later. What did I do?

Three Days of Salad

Because I’m Italian, we eat a cooked vegetable and a salad every night. I try to eat one at lunch, too. When I was growing up , our salads were very simple — some lettuce with some tomato or cucumber and some dressing. Now, we eat more complex salads.

A complex salad is a mix of raw vegetables, a protein, a sharp taste (cheese or olives or herbs), and a touch of dressing. If there are leftover cooked vegetables, they can go in, too. Not so complex, really.

The trick with salads is to cut up a ton of vegetables all at once. Enough for three days of salad. I put them in handy see through containers in the fridge and then assemble them when needed. It takes three minutes or less to do the assembling. Last night, I cut up cucumber, red onion, and cilantro. I had some feta crumbles and leftover olives from the holidays. I use bottled dressing to save time.

I wash enough lettuce for the week and keep the salad spinner in the fridge. Last night, it was arugula and green leaf lettuce.

Other items that could be ready and handy might be — sliced hard boiled eggs, leftover chicken (also sliced and ready to go), rinsed beans of any kind, celery, shredded carrots, boiled potatoes, green peppers.

Power Cooking Squash

I got a ton of squash from my CSA this year. At the end of the season, I had almost twenty squash in storage in the garage. There were pumpkins, butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and kabocha squash. Making squash can be very time consuming. So, it’s best to cook several at the same time and then freeze them. They freeze very well. I now have side dishes for six meals in the future.

Last night, I was down to the last four squash. I made two spaghetti squash using this Martha Stewart method.  They went into freezer bags for future use. The last two were small butternut squash. I cut them in half. I covered the cut half with a little olive oil and salt. Then I roasted them cut side down for half an hour at 375 degrees. When they were done, I flipped them over, added a small pad of butter and a sprinkle of brown sugar. Cook for another five minutes.

I told the kids that it was a “squash bowl” and that they should scoop out the food. They ate it.

When you freeze food, remember to label the item with a date. It’s good for six months.

Power Cook Everything

Along with the squash and salad, I made black beans and brown rice. (Ian, who is only 12, got leftover pasta and pork.)

I like to double or triple the quantities of everything that I cook. Steve packs up leftovers for lunch. I eat it for lunch. Jonah eats it as his first dinner, when he comes home from school. And I like to reuse parts of the previous meal in the next dinner. Picky eaters have a plan B in the fridge.

So, I made two cups of brown rice (Trader Joe’s Basmati plus one cube of chicken bouillon). I sautéed some fresh salsa from the local supermarket in some olive oil. I added two cans of Goya black beans, a dash of cumin, salt, and cayenne.

Many supermarkets, not just the high end ones, prepare their own salsas now. Our local one is great. It isn’t spicy ketchup, like some of the jarred stuff. It’s nice chunks of tomato, onion, pepper, and cilantro. They’ve done the prep work for me for so many meals — omelettes, rice, beans, fish, whatever. Supermarket salsa is my favorite cooking hack.

Brown rice takes an hour. Black beans take three minutes.

It takes the same amount of time to make twelve servings of food as four servings, so make more food.


36 thoughts on “How to Do “Healthy” — Cook and Prep in Large Quantities

  1. A complex salad is a mix of raw vegetables, a protein, a sharp taste (cheese or olives or herbs), and a touch of dressing.

    No french fries?


  2. I am a total evangelist for a deep freezer. Being able to cook in quantity and store it well is central to my family’s approach to menu planning. I try to limit my grocery shopping trips to every 3 or 4 days, and the freezer saves us on many occasions.

    Laura, I’d love a posting on “oh s***” meals made wholly out of the pantry or freezer, when your day spins out of control.


  3. I do some of the same things – but I make a huge batch of black beans once a month, using organic dried beans and some chipotle pepper with adobo sauce. Best. Beans. Ever.

    GOOP makes my eyes roll, but that recipe for Banh Mi salad looks good.

    Also – is there any health basis for her “cleanse”? Why is she eliminating nightshades and soy?

    Once my kids are back in school, I might convince myself to go on a “clean” diet for a month, but I’d want some scientific basis for what I eliminate.


  4. I’m hoping to carve out space in our household for a deep freezer this year. Planned to do it in 2014 but health crises meant I was hard put to just manage life, let alone life with improvements.

    We don’t serve salad every night – maybe four nights a week. It’s definitely an easy way to fill up on healthy veggies (at least if I deny Youngest her calorie-laden Southwest-style salad). I agree with you that big batch cooking can be a great time-saver, whether the leftovers are stashed in the freezer or doled out during the week.

    I just whipped up a big batch of sweet potato hash – the only method of preparation for sweet potatoes which I can endure – Mike packed leftovers for his work lunch (I return to the house for my own leftovers lunch so that the dog gets a midday walk) and we easily have enough to serve as a side with dinner again tomorrow.


  5. I make a lot of salads too (and yep, it’s definitely an Italian thing) but without the pre-chopping. Out here in the midwest, our fresh veggies are already a week older than everybody else’s, so pre-chopping means it spoils faster (I have a hard enough time finding veggies that aren’t already seriously “iffy” in the grocery store. Even the higher-end stores have this problem. It’s the trucking time.)

    I do a lot of soups and stir-fries for leftovers, but I’m pressed for time a lot, and grocery shopping is a trek (rust belt blues—-hollowed-out cities; all the amenities way the hell out in the burbs where it costs too much to live). My go-to solution is takeout—pizza, sub sandwiches, or some kind of stir fry. Takeout is right there in the neighborhood, not 25 minutes away. Plus, no scrubbing dishes!

    I’m jealous of people with CSAs. Especially the kind where you still get stuff in the winter. There is no CSA around here that has anything between Thanksgiving and late April, and there hasn’t been a CSA that does an evening drop-off in the city for a decade. They’ve all switched to the agritourism model, where you’re supposed to drive out to their farm (out in hell’s half acre) during the work week. I don’t know who the hell has time for that, but it’s not me.


  6. coconut aminos taste pretty much like soy sauce, all my soy allergic friends use them for sushi. You can buy at WF by Braggs.

    I cook the same way as you do but we usually have 2 cooked veg more than 1 cooked/1 salad. I have tons of homemade soup, marinating chicken breasts for the grill and chili in the freezer. Today, I’m tired, transition is killing me. I stopped at the mid-gourmet shop and bought a cooked turkey breast and some hot wings for the kids. I’ll add the veggies and done. I prep/cook 3 dinners at a time, it helps me with cooking burnout.


  7. I was just thinking yesterday that I’d like to see a food prep post from you and this one is great. I should try the salad plan. I think our vegetables are fresh enough to shoulder the wait in the fridge and I think everyone would be way more likely to eat them if they were already prepped. I need to find the clear containers so people know they’re there, and a space in the fridge where folks will know to look for them.

    My questioned thought — yesterday, was to ask how you would cook if, say, only weekly, or bi-weekly trips to the grocery store were possible (think, a trip to a remote cabin, or lubiddu’s issue with finding groceries). Our issue with cooking/eating is that our schedule is unpredictable and so are our tastes. So, planning, say, to have fish on Tuesday doesn’t work for our family. On Tuesday we might feel too tired, have an unplanned activity, or just not want fish. So, I was thinking through meal plans that could include things like pasta, rice, frozen vegetables, . . . . that would be available when we wanted to cook them. Fresh, of course, is better, but, assembled would be better than take out pizza (better tasting, but also better for us).


    1. At my house we plan meals four days out, and I am at the store twice a week (with the occasional 7-11 stop for milk in the middle). And yes, the deeper you get into that cycle the more you’re reaching for pasta, frozen peas, broccoli, etc. Also – you don’t get to say you’re not hungry for something. It’s on the board, you have to eat it. Draconian, but that’s the only way it works.

      A typical menu:
      Day 0 (Shopping day): chicken Caesar salad
      Grill twice as much chicken as you need, make it into chicken salad for lunches next day
      Day 1: hummus & veggies & pita
      2 leftover servings cover lunches the next day
      Day 2: asparagus risotto, kielbasa or Italian sausage out of the freezer, kill off any leftover salad
      Again, 2 leftover servings for lunches
      Day 3: Mexican skillet, guacamole, chips – make sure the avocadoes are hard when you buy them on Day 0, they should be ready by this point
      This day generates no leftovers, which means you better buy something good for lunches when you go to the store after dinner. And definitely make the kids do the dishes if you have to do the shopping!

      I never expect myself to plan a meal, shop, and cook on the same night. And I also rely very heavily on my crock pot for days when I’m not sure when we’ll get home.


    2. Yes, I’m very spoiled. I have four excellent supermarkets within five minutes of my house. I drive past them all on the way to pick up kids from school. So, I usually don’t plan a week’s menu at one time. I decided an hour ago that we will have fish for dinner tonight. I’ll get it after I get Ian from Minecraft hour at the library at 5. (Fish is a super easy meal. Salt, pepper, and lemon in a frying pan.) Sometimes, I don’t even plan before I go to the supermarket. I pop in and see what’s on sale or what looks yummy.

      But that’s unusual, I know. If time was tigher and food was harder to get, I would have to do the once-a-week shopping. It means more planning and more freezer action. I would buy the large portions of meat, divide them into meal size bags and put them in the freezer. Fresh vegetables for the beginning of the week. Frozen the rest of the time.

      The cooking would happen the same way though. Twice a week — large cooking days. 4 days – leftovers, easy assembly, or add something new w/ leftovers. 1 day a week — restaurant. Well, that’s the goal. Sometimes we score a free meal at my mom’s house. Sometimes, I get bored.

      You know what’s a great “oh shit” meal? Eggs. The overlooked egg is a great protein. Pack it with frozen spinach, mushroom, and ham. Slow cook it over the stove and finish it off in the oven. My friends from Spain do it with onions and potatoes. With a salad, it’s excellent. For the kids, I’ll make them eggs without the vegetables mixed in. Jonah likes three fried eggs. Ian is scrambled.


    3. Interesting responses.

      Laura — you seem to make special meals for the kids, while Jen has a family that eats what’s offered?.

      In our family, everyone, including me is really picky about “eating what’s on the board.” I realize my mom spoiled me, foodwise, by catering to my tastes, and my husband grew up making meals just for himself, and then, we ate at cafeterias and then out a lot. So, we’re very much a short order cooking family. I don’t think this is really going to change, and my biggest resolution for the new year is to make positive changes without goals that seem unattainable preventing me from doing anything.


      1. bj, I agree. I’d never thought about what a problem a truly picky eater would be for longer-term meal planning. And I guess it’s not just picky eaters – upon reflection I realize that I learned my meal planning from my sister, who had to abandon the approach when food allergies cropped up.

        These days my sister kinda turns her kitchen into a food court: she lays out lots of different options and people choose maybe 3 of 5 things. Salad + fixings, a couple of kinds of soup, pasta with the sauces and protein in separate bowls so you can mix/match as you’d like. Her fridge is always crammed with tiny tuppers of all these different base components.


      2. Yes, that’s describing a kind of “universal design” in food preparation. Your sister seems to have made a deliberate change, but I think others who cook effectively for families with less broad food tastes might make those accommodations automatically (i.e. serve the cheese or tomatoes or mushrooms, . . .) on the side.


  8. I cook ahead in bulk too. With after school activities, playdates and even homework supervision, I need the time saved.

    Luckily we have some independent restaurants within walking distance that do take out – an Italian one is a fave for both salads and pasta.

    I also have a grocery store two blocks away which I visit every few days for fruits and vegetables. Being on the west coast, the wild salmon is reasonable as well.


  9. I only make specific meals for Ian, because Sensory Integration Disorder is part of his diability. He senses everything too strongly, including tastes and smells. Because I don’t enjoy mopping up vomit off the dinner table (it happened many, many times), we have made some adjustments. But even the autistic kid is a relatively good eater these days. 90% of the time, we all eat the same thing.


    1. I’ve done some things “right” but one thing I regret is catering too much to the girl’s tastes when she was young. She’s 9 now and has a limited range of foods that she likes. It’s not to the extent of a neighbor’s older brother (white bagels, rice, plain pasta) but I would like her to be more adventurous.

      Like anything, starting things out “right” is much easier than making a change later and retrofitting food tastes. That being said, she may also have more sensitive-to-spicy tastebuds than her father and I do.

      First up, I’d LOVE her to start eating salad. She’s great with veg and fruit – just not together with a dressing.


      1. I think most of this is just the kid and luck. I remember a friend trying to feed her kids veggies (while they were still in the high chair) and they would just spit them up while mine ate everything with no problem.

        Can you just offer the dressing on the side?

        I never spent much time thinking about cooking. I used to pour a sauce over frozen chicken breasts/pork chops/fish and put them in the oven. I’d toss frozen veggies with olive oil, salt and pepper and put them in the same oven. Add a green salad or a fruit salad and done. Healthy, cheap, and little hands on time. Help the kids with homework while it bakes.

        I would make a quick sauce (e.g. soy sauce, orange juice, honey, garlic, ginger) but my sister would just use bottled dressing.


  10. Making fun of Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP advice is low hanging fruit…But the time, oh Gwyneth, the time… This menu is a full time job.

    Being Gwyenth Paltrow is a full time job. I actually admire what she is does, which is basically to say “Yes, I have good genes and that counts for a lot, but if you really want to look like me and stay as fit as you age, this is the kind of time and money you need to lay out and most of you just aren’t willing to do it.” Most people just don’t want to hear it.


    1. “Yes, I have good genes and that counts for a lot, but if you really want to look like me and stay as fit as you age, this is the kind of time and money you need to lay out and most of you just aren’t willing to do it don’t have as much of either as I do.”



  11. “Yes, I have good genes and that counts for a lot, but if you really want to look like me and stay as fit as you age, this is the kind of time and money you need to lay out and most of you just aren’t willing to do it.”

    Yeah….all those people in Ikaria and Sardinia, or Okinawa, etc. are doing it wrong. If only they followed GOOP and added a bunch of cost and unnecessary froufrou, they’d live longer and healthier.

    Want to be fit and stay healthy as you age? Become part of a close-knit, low-stress, high-physical-activity community, eat more fruits, vegetables and legumes, drink more red wine, and hang out with your friends and family a lot. GOOP upsells a bastardized version of what it really takes to have health and longevity, emphasizing an individualized program, when the open secret is that health and longevity are community affairs. (Shorter version: “it’s the culture”).

    Paid vacations, paid family leave, more job security would do more to improve the general health of our population than all the lectures and coconut aminos. Changing the culture so it doesn’t valorize stress, suffering, and that deathtrap called “the Protestant Work Ethic” would help, too.

    (also: Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t aged well underneath the makeup, but that’s not her fault. She has good genes for symmetrical bone structure, but bad genes for skin.)


    1. But there’s no money to be made by having family/people-friendly policies and a happy populace. Much more money to be made by having an unhealthy, overstressed, lonely population striving to consume more stuff/food/etc. to satisfy what’s missing.


      1. How do you make more money off a population with less time and less disposable income? I mean, except for the medical industry? Because in my community, that’s the only increased area of consumption—medical services (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.). Part of that is the aging population, but the super-high stress levels are contributing to chronic conditions in younger people also. “More stuff/food/etc.” Nope—stores and restaurants are closing and boarding up here—too few customers.

        Sad thing is, if it wasn’t for expanding hospitals and medical clinics, tradespeople wouldn’t get any work around here. Industry is shuttered and schools are strapped. The medical industry is all that’s left. And with that, we’re competing against other similar cities for the same general population. Once the “war” of improvements is “won”—maybe we’ll come out ahead, or maybe our hospitals will start boarding up just like the shopping malls. (that’s happened elsewhere in the rust belt)


      2. By having them work non-unionized jobs (lower wages, scanty benefits) so that the companies make artificially inflated profits. Next step? Have the employees buy into the idea that if they only work hard enough, then success is at hand. And the corollary – if they aren’t successful, it’s only their personal fault. Nothing systemic of course or structural could be getting in the way.

        I suppose in addition to the saying “born on third, thought he hit a triple” for those who don’t appreciate their privilege, it’s “not even off to first base but expecting a home run”.


      3. The Cutting Adrift book review suggests that it’s worse than that, “born on first, hoping to duck getting hit by the ball”.

        I am truly worried about this bifurcation in opportunity and expectation visible in lubiddu’s comments.


  12. One of the big ways we get ‘healthy’ into our kids is frozen vegetables. Peas and corn, they will stand for. The missus and I are tucking in to braised leeks or cauliflower and mushrooms, and they are eating peas. Or corn. Or peas and corn. Or supermarket broccoli, they will eat that, too. So rather than cook and prep in large quantities, we microwave vedge for them in small amounts, and it works.


  13. I am just so bored and burnt out with cooking. I’ve been making dinner every night almost for eighteen years. We also have the delightful new challenge of having people come in at random times due to sports practices etc. so dinner gets served to one person at 5:30, two others at 6:30 (they were at the gym) and someone else around 8 PM. I used to get around this by serving something from the crockpot but lately the troops are telling me they’ve had enough “eating sludge” — their words, not mine. My teens are often not kind when they don’t like the meal either, which doesn’t make cooking very rewarding. (didn’t realize how often our oldest child made dinner and what a great cook he was until he went to college. Strangely, my daughters are significantly less interested in cooking than he was.)

    Any suggestions on getting out a cooking rut?


    1. Stop cooking and let them fend for themselves? That’s what I’d do, especially if I had teens who were unkind when they didn’t like something.

      Well, let’s be honest, I do it already, and my youngest is 11. Sometimes that makes me feel a little bit guilty. But, if I’d been cooking for 18 years, I wouldn’t.


      1. Absolutely, let them cook if they can’t be kind. Why are you tolerating that? Depending on how stressed I was, the conversation might degenerate to eat it or wear it.


  14. Some parents told me that sometimes when they are sitting down to dinner, the doorbell rings. It’s takeout. The teenagers had independently ordered something else to eat, because they didn’t like what mom was cooking. That would piss me off.


  15. Yeah, my kids have developed this habit of calling on the way home from school to ask what’s for dinner — I guess so they can go to Wendy’s on the way home if they don’t like what’s being served.
    The logical solution would be to assign them each a day a week to cook,etc. but they’re so busy I’m not sure how I would make that happen.


    1. They’re so busy is really an honest excuse. The kids can be extraordinarily busy. Sometimes my daughter points this out, and honestly, on those days when school is followed by homework is followed by tech week, she can be gone from the house until 7:30-9:30, a 14 hour day. There is really no time for cooking for herself on top of that.

      I think part of the answer might be to develop meals that can be “assembled” by the eater for those days (like Laura’s salad).


  16. If I ever actually meet Megan McArdle, I am gonna fall upon her neck and cover it with kisses. No, I’m not, actually – I am too short to make that work, and it would be forward of me. BUT her Christmas time list of kitchen gadgets found its way to my wife, who bought me an ANOVA sous vide cooker. And this has been a big plus in our cooking life.

    The killer app for sous vide is cheap cuts of beef. I ran a chuck roast through it this weekend: into the Ziploc Friday evening with a little bacon fat, garlic powder, red wine. Put it in the cooker at 134 for 20 hours. Total actual prep time invested here is 8 minutes, maybe. Take it out, fry it in a little butter to develop crust. Another five minutes. Tender, wonderful flavor, really tasted like we were in prime rib territory. If feeling ambitious (I was, we had guests) pour the juice which cooked out of the meat into a small pan with corn starch – presto, something a lot like gravy, and another three minutes.


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