Resource/Advice Needed About making meals ahead of time
Before I had my son a year ago I was an avid cook - and had all of the time to make meals at my leisure. Now my time is much more limited. I find myself needing to cook things in stages, make double and freeze, etc.. I am starting to get tired of just freezing extra stews, soups, casseroles and the like. Any good tips put there about prepping meals in advance? And not one dish recipes.. I wish I new of a cookbook that would give you recipes (good ones!)with notes about where you could make ahead of time, and then finish later. Also, I am just learning to freeze meals - and I sometimes wonder about re-heating. Do I need to thaw first, etc... Any advice or resources would be greatly appreciated. The chicken caccitore, shrimp creole and marcella's bolognese are actually getting tiresome. Help! Any moms of little guys out there?
The best thing I did when my kids were that age is have a meal exchange with a few others. Everyone makes a freezable dish, one for each person so if there were 5 people, everyone would make 5 of one dish. You get together and exchange meals so you end up with 5 different dinners, like cookie exchange. It's easy and economical making 5 of the same dishes, plus it's easy to fall into a routine and make the same things the same way but this way, you get to try new things. We ended up with things like chicken morrocan stew, chili, different casseroles, lasagne, etc. The only thing I would have done differently is invited more chowhound friends--we ended up w/ a lot of casseroles made w/ cream of xxxx soup.
Short of hiring a personal chef, it's really easy, and when a lot of my clients see how I do things, they are amazed they never thought of that.
Tip #1. Make a huge bag of salad. It will keep for about 5 days depending on how fragile the greens are. Mix it up in a huge bowl, and line a gallon ziplock with a paper towel in the bottom. Fill the baggie and you have salad every nite with your dressing that you've also made a jar(s) of.
Tip #2. Make entrees in four or six servings. Then make one extra dish for another time in the amount of servings you need. You can take half a day and do a couple of new recipes so the food isn't boring.
Tip #3. Get yourself a menu program that can generate a computerized shopping list like I use. This way, you input recipes, add them to your meal plan and you get a printed shopping list which also lists your pantry items that you don't have to buy. It's a real time saver.
Tip #4. Buy double the amount of vegetables for your sides. Blanch them and prep and freeze. Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts. Bring your pasta pot with the insert to a boil. Carrots first, then green beans, cauliflower, the broccoli is always last. You needn't change the water or start from scratch. At the end, you can even do your pound of pasta.
Tip #5. When you fire up the grill, do several meats and sides at once. With grilled chicken breasts, you can then make salads. With steak or pork chops, you have two meals right there for another nite. You don't even have to freeze anything if it's going to just be in a few days in the fridge. Marinate your meats the day before cooking for optimum flavor.
Mastercook is a great program. I still am not up to speed on the newer model (have it), but I used an old version and it is so nice to have your own recipes and notes to search.
However, I'm now a bit more into keeping recipes on online sites because I can access them anywhere when I am moving around or visiting and I don't have to rely on them being on my home computer.
I have MasterCook version 9, and while generally I find it really helpful, there are a few features that don't work the way they're supposed to and some things about it that aren't very intuitive. There's a bit of a learning curve. But I'll admit, I have very high standards for software, since I design it and test it for a living.
Do you have a copy of Joy of Cooking? It has a list of "cook once, eat all week" recipes. Other basic cookbooks like Better Homes/Gardens (my version has a red plaid cover) and Good Housekeeping will have good instructions and general rules on freezing, thawing, prepping.
As for recipes, lentils (french-style or indian-style) & long-simmered bean dishes (white, red, black, pinto...) are great additions to your repertoire. Beans are inexpensive as well as very nutritious and easy to prepare. Here's a basic New Orleans style red bean recipe to get you started: chop an onion, some celery, and a green pepper (or use pre-chopped frozen seasoning blend). Slice 1/2 pound smoked sausage into rounds. In a large pot, saute veggies in olive oil until wilted/lightly browned. Add the beans, sliced sausage, bay leaf, thyme, black & red pepper, and cover with water. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until beans are very tender & liquid is thickened (1.5 hours). If you like very creamy beans, remove a cup or two of beans, mash with a fork, and return to the pot along with a couple tablespoons of butter. Serve over cooked rice. Freezes fine; can be defrosted/reheated in the microwave.
This is "home ec" stuff. I'm a huge fan of home economics (or whatever the nouveau term is) training for everyone...personal soapbox: as home ec fell out of favor, we in the US began to see cooking as a specialty leisure activity or work to be subcontracted outside the home, rather than something that could be accomplished every day as a part of household management. I'd love to see it come back into fashion; I think some of our national nutritional issues would be ameliorated by getting young people in the kitchen early on & teaching the basics.
I've posted this elsewhere, but as a new baby gift, I have provided a week's worth of meals to about four friends of ours in the last year who have had babies. It took me about half a Saturday to do all the meals and get them packaged up, and they kept just fine in the fridge. Here is an example of one of the week menus I did just to give you an idea of the kinds of things you can prepare on a Sunday afternoon and stick in the fridge to have for the week:
Maple Syrup & Mustard Glazed Hens
Latin-Style Flank Steak
Chopped grilled vegetable mix
Shredded Pork tenderloin with Lime Sauce
Summer Pasta Salad with Chicken
Ham and Gruyere Quiche
Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin Steaks with Honey Chipotle BBQ sauce
Then I threw in a bottle of simple homemade vinaigrette, a box of mixed salad greens, some homemade rolls, and some homemade cookies.
For the Pork tenderloin dishes, I made two different entrees with the package of two tenderloins.
A lot of it, as personalcheffie mentions, is taking the time when you have it to cook and/or prep things and getting a little organized about it. When you have a little down time, try to plan your meals for the week in advance - a recipe software helps tremendously with this - I use MasterCook. It allows me to insert recipes in a menu and then generate a shopping list based on the recipes. It is an initial time investment, but has been worth it in the long run.
Personally, I do much better if things are planned out, rather than if I'm standing around at 5:00, starving and looking in the fridge for dinner. We eat healthier and there's a lot less waste of groceries.
That said, I do know that it's really tough to carve out that kind of time when you have little people - but if you can try to make a habit of taking 15 minutes sometime during the week to try to plan menus, it makes a huge difference. I also like to exchange dinner menu ideas with friends who like to cook - a quick email exchange "Hey, what are you having for dinner tonight? We're having (insert meal here)." I find it keeps all of us kind of inspired and gives us ideas to reserve for later.