Tasty, nutrition-packed meals are always in demand, but finding the time to whip them up is another matter. That’s why taking one day to prep all your meals for the week can be a brilliant solution: imagine opening your fridge to see a bundle of delicious eats cooked, stacked, and waiting you to dig in.
But before you clear your calendar to spend a Sunday fixing healthy feasts, you should know how to avoid common meal-prep mistakes. Otherwise, half your grocery store haul could end up getting tossed out…along with your would-be gastronomic masterpiece. Watch out for these prepping and cleaning pitfalls and invest in a trusty detergent (like Cascade Platinum + Oxi) to ensure that the time you spend in the kitchen (and the cash you drop at the grocery store) pays off.
Mistake #1: Making Too Much Food
Food only stays good for so long. To keep food at its freshest, you should treat pre-prepped meals like leftovers, which generally have a limited fridge life of three to four days, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
That means for an entire week of meals, you should plan on two days of prep. For example, you can schedule one meal prep day for Sunday and another for Wednesday. Alternatively, you can make a week’s worth of food on Sunday, then store half of it in the fridge and the other half in the freezer to thaw and use later in the week.
After you divide your food into individual storage containers, break out the masking tape and a marker and label each container with a “good until” expiration date, so you’ll know when it needs to be tossed out (four days from prep time is a good benchmark).
Mistake #2: Storing Food the Wrong Way
Regardless of your container of choice, it’s how you stow food that’s most important when it comes to keeping your meals fresh and tasty. The USDA recommends putting food you’d like to save for later into smaller containers and storing it in the refrigerator ASAP (even if it’s hot). Bacteria grow more slowly in cold environments, so the sooner you can chill food, the better. Another rule of thumb: pack dry and wet foods separately to prevent dishes from turning soggy. Dressings and sauces should stay in their own containers until you’re ready to chow down.
Mistake #3: Not Getting Food Containers Clean Enough
When you’re ready to portion out your homemade fare, spotless containers are a must. But it can be difficult to spot food residue—dried-on bits of baked casserole, cheese, and the like—that sometimes sticks to dishes during the wash cycle. Finding hardened speckles of food on plates and bowls that you’ve already cleaned can be a real culinary bummer.
To avoid this, scrape away any rogue food bits when you’re ready to load dirty storage containers in the dishwasher. Then pop a powerful detergent, like Cascade Platinum + Oxi ActionPacs, into the dishwasher (this advanced formula gives dishes a deep, hygienic clean that’s formulated to remove both visible and invisible food residue). Finally, turn the dishwasher on promptly, before food residue has a chance to cake onto surfaces.
Mistake #4: Setting Your Fridge Temperature Too High
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends setting refrigerator temperatures to 40 degrees or cooler to keep bacteria from spreading. For optimum freshness, go even lower: set your fridge to about 35 to 38 degrees to keep a wide variety of foods in peak condition and account for irregularities in your thermometer.
Mistake #5: Eating Rotten Food
Did you forget to label your storage containers? If so, you’re probably wondering whether that chicken salad or those overnight oats are still OK to tear into. Here’s a big clue: When food starts to go bad, it usually changes in smell or appearance, according to the USDA. Spot moldy patches or mushy areas? Take a hard pass. Does it look or feel slimy? No thanks. Does the smell seem a bit off? Just skip it. If you don’t notice any funky odors, you don’t see any suspicious-looking areas, and you know it hasn’t been eons since you stashed your food in the fridge, you should be in the clear. But err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to meats and dairy products. Try this tip to avoid tossing good grub: keep a section of your fridge dedicated to “eat soon” items—foods and pre-prepped meals that have looming expiration dates—and grab from that section first when cravings hit.
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