Pro Tips for Meal Prep and Faster Weeknight Dinners From the Head Chef at Blue Apron
Johnathan Adler spent 13 years cooking in restaurants—including eight at the beloved, now-shuttered Brooklyn eatery Franny’s—before he realized his life had to change a bit. As the father of a toddler daughter (who is now four, and has since been joined by a little brother), he needed a differently paced workday—one that didn’t end in the wee hours.
Today Adler is the culinary director of Blue Apron, and he now spends his days thinking about home cooks, what they need to succeed, and how they can get food on the table quickly using the meal components he creates for them.
Because he spends so much time considering the barriers home cooks face, we asked for his best time-saving tips, his thoughts on how to feed children without losing your mind, and how moving from a restaurant focus to a domestic one has changed how he sees cooking.
What had to change when you left restaurants?
You just have to shift your mindset: away from cooking everything that comes to you from a creative space, [and towards] foods that you want to teach people how to cook and that you think they’ll enjoy cooking.
Did any home cooks’ preferences surprise you?
I don’t make mashed potatoes very often. I make potato puree, which is a refined technique. Rarely, maybe once a year, do I make mashed potatoes. I’m generally more of a potato salad person. But people really like making mashed potatoes. They’re comfortable, they’re easy to execute, they’re hearty. … Just because I didn’t do it as a chef doesn’t discount it. … People really appreciate repetition because they can see improvement and personal growth. … A cook who cooks the same dish over and over becomes a master of that.
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What sort of feedback have you gotten about things that don’t work?
“This is really cool but not necessarily what I want to do on a Tuesday night.” Not everyone wants to make their own pickles on a Tuesday night. Maybe that’s something people would want to do when they have a little more time.
How have your two kids shifted your perspective?
My daughter turns four next month. My son turns 7 months on Saturday; I’ve just started cooking for him. He is a good eater. My daughter was, as well. As she asserts her independence (which she thinks is far greater than it actually is), she likes to make bold statements like, “I don’t like to eat this anymore!” And then she eats it and says, “I love this!” I think it’s great that she … can say when things are bitter or sour, or what’s the difference between a “good sweet” like a roasted carrot and a “sugar sweet” like an M&M.
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Any revelations about home cooking now that you’re a parent?
Dishes are a huge problem. I get home at 7 o’clock, my wife has generally finished feeding the kids dinner, cleaning up, getting them bathed, books, stories, songs, and then [I cook] dinner for my wife and myself. … I want to maximize every minute of time I have with my kids, being smart about prep and not wanting to seclude myself in the kitchen for the entire day.
My daughter loves to cook and bake. … Since she was 18 months old, she’s cleaned most of the kale in my house. [I showed her]: You just rip the leaves off the stems; put them in the salad spinner. Now I have a 4-year-old who for the last year has completely independently been cleaning all the kale. I love finding ways to engage her in food. That’s a mission: demystifying all the ways you can engage your children in cooking.
What’s the longest cooking time people seem to be able to tolerate?
I think everybody wants to be eating in under an hour. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our meals are targeted under an hour. We try to offer a menu portfolio that offers a variety—some of which are really fast.
What seems to be the biggest barrier for home cooks? Hands-on time? Total time?
It’s a variety of things; hands-on time for families. The image in my head is a parent who wants to help their kid with homework or an assigned project, but can’t do that till later because they have to be active in the kitchen the whole time. [Ideally, it’s] “Give me ten minutes, I’m gonna set a 25-minute timer, then I can come help you.”
In that person’s case, it’s hands-on time. For someone else, it’s “I wish dinner was faster; I get home late at night.” Prep is a pain point. For other people, it’s “I haven’t seen my wife all day, I get home, I cook: I don’t want to spend 30 minutes on cooking.”
The pain points are always going to be different. People who find prep to be a pain point, I recommend trying to prep as many things as you can in advance. Not alliums, such as garlic, ginger and onions, because those things oxidize. [But] as soon as the Blue Apron box gets in the house I clean all the leafy greens and store them in breathable bags. The day I want to use them, I take them out.
I don’t use prep bowls, I just make a pile of everything on a dinner plate. I use a spoon, and spatula, and push [ingredients] off the plate on to the pan. It’s one thing [to clean] as opposed to 6 or 7 bowls of individual ingredients. You can probably cook parts of our recipes in advance if that’s something you want to do. Pain points are always about time.
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Some people, like your sister, swear by putting a big pot of salted water on to boil right when walking in the door, then figuring out what to do with it. Any similar time-saving tips?
I pre-heat my oven almost as soon as I walk in the door. I could eat roasted broccoli and roasted cauliflower by the head every day for the rest of my life. I also come home, and one of the ways I force myself to cook, is I’ll grab some component of the meal, like the protein, and I’ll take it out. From a food safety point, it’s coming to room temperature, [and I’ll think], “I need to cook this.” It’s about getting it in front of you.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.