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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?

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  1. 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.

    1. 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.


      1. Could you share the name of the computer program you use?

        3 Replies
          1. re: personalcheffie

            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.

            1. re: coconutz

              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.

        1. 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.

          1. 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
            Mashed Potatoes

            Latin-Style Flank Steak
            Spiced Couscous
            Chopped grilled vegetable mix

            Shredded Pork tenderloin with Lime Sauce
            Steamed Rice

            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.

            1. Thanks so much for the suggestions. I am really going to try to have a plan for my weekly meals. My little guy has been going to bed pretty early so I am going to try to set aside one night to prep several meals. I think it will make a huge difference. ANd I need to be better about making double portions of cooked meat and use the "leftovers" for easy dinners the second night. Thanks! Andiried - what about the maple glazed hens....they sound great. Did you just glaze and put int the oven?

              1 Reply
              1. re: JennyHunter

                Jenny, I happened to grill a lot of the meals that I made ahead of time, because we have a gas grill hooked up right outside the back door, but those hens can most certainly be baked, and it wouldn't take any longer. Here's the marinade:

                2 teaspoons dried mustard
                1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
                2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
                2/3 cup maple syrup
                3 Tablespoons dijon mustard
                2 Tablespoons soy sauce
                salt and pepper, to taste

                I split two cornish hens and pour the mixture over the split hens and you can just bake them at 375 for about 35 minutes.


              2. OR...hire a personal chef, like me ;)

                1. I would love to hire a personal chef - but we live in a pretty rural area. I'm not sure that the service even exists in this neck of the woods.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: JennyHunter

                    Most chefs businesses are so sporadic, you'd be surprised at how far and how long they will travel for a cookday! I used to, but I only deliver weekly now.

                  2. Hi. I am in the same boat. I have 3 little ones (under 5) and dinner is always a struggle. Tonight I am making the Zuni chicken recipe which is far too ambitious while I am alone with all 3 but it is delicious.

                    I am trying to get better at planning ahead. I made 2 portions of Chicken Marbella last week and froze one for another time. I usually make extra portions of soups and stews as well. Last week I made pot roast with root vegetables and prepped the Chicken Marbella while the pot roast was cooking. At the same time, I got short ribs going for another night. I picked up fresh halibut one night and roasted it (with a mixture of 1/3 mayo, 1/3 grainy mustard and 1/3 shredded parm spread on top) along with some asparagus. And then we are usually reduced to boring pasta one night or leftovers. So there you go, 5+ nights meals.

                    I am eager to see what other people post because it is a huge struggle in my house (plus, my kids are really picky and my husband works late so I am running a short order kitchen most of the time).

                    1. I would suggest doing quick and easy recipes. Quick and easy doesn't necessarily mean boxed or frozen dinners.

                      I don't know if you grill...but you can make a meal under 30 minutes:
                      -Chicken drumsticks with sprinkled liberally with Emeril's Essence served with steamed rice (no, not Uncle Ben's) and a side salad
                      -Flank steak marinaded with an asian sauce (soy sauce, rice vinegar, pepper, sesame oil) served with steamed rice and steamed vegetables

                      If you are going to freeze meals...I would suggest pulling it out of the freezer the morning of the day you are planning to eat it and put it in the fridge. To unthaw the later...fill a sink of hot water and put the container in there for 5 minutes.

                      I use to freeze meals...but it took up too much freezer space and foods besides soups and stews don't freeze well.

                      Good luck with the baby.

                      1. MR FREEZER IS OUR FRIEND: 1) Any soup, chowder, chili. 2) Any cooked meat as long as you freeze it in gravy to keep it moist---canned gravy works fine. 3) Meatloaf cooked, sliced, and frozen in gravy. 4) Raw meatloaf packed into a baking dish, then when you have leftover mashed potatoes put some on top and bake the thing as a Shepherd's Pie. 5) Sloppy Joe made of ground beef. 6) Barbecued beef made in Crock-Pot. 7) Cajun sausage, ham, onions, and peppers cooked in a seasoned tomato sauce to become Red Beans & Rice. 8) Sliced roast pork loin on a dish of sage or cornbread stuffing, cover with gravy, freeze. 9) Stuffed peppers in tomato sauce. 10) Stuffed cabbage rolls in sweet & sour sauce. 11) Sweet potatoes: boil in skins, cool, peel, mash with crushed pineapple, and freeze in dinner-size portions. 12) Anything stew-like such as beef or chicken or lamb curry, beef burgundy, or beef stew (if you don't like the consistency of potato after it's been frozen omit the potatoes and add a baked potato later). 13) Creamed chicken and mushrooms, chicken a la king, cooked chicken pieces in chicken gravy, same all around with turkey. Serve all of the above on noodles, toast, hot biscuits, or a baked potato. 14) Spaghetti sauce with or without meat; spaghetti and meatballs or plan on adding Trader Joe's frozen meatballs. 15) Picadillo: saute ground beef with onion and green pepper, add tomato sauce, green olives, raisins, and cumin---serve with rice. 16) Some cooked vegetable dishes freeze well---corn pudding made of canned creamed corn; creamed spinach; eggplant parmesan; cabbage or cauliflower au gratin; mashed rutabaga. 17) Fruit cobblers. 18) Cakes, brownies, cookies.

                        When you do cook a meal, cook extra. Do not put the leftovers in the refrigerator. Rather, set them up as a future meal ready to go in the microwave for a night when you are rushed, and freeze them (cover with Saran Wrap, label, put in plastic bag, fasten with twistem). Some people say that frozen food is not up to their gustatory standards: I suggest that these folks have never had to juggle parenthood, housekeeping, chauffeuring, and possibly a job and/or going to school with getting a meal on the table every day. "He jests at scars, that never felt a wound."

                        For a quick meal consider also: Deli sliced beef with canned beef gravy and a baked potato; A quiche using a bought pie crust, shredded cheese, 2-3 eggs, a little milk, and anything else you like; Canned pork & beans with extra ketchup and brown sugar baked with bacon on top; Quick chowder made with canned creamed corn, equal amount of milk, odd bits of leftover ham or sausage, and a bit of instant mashed potato to thicken; Frozen meat or cheese ravioli or tortellini with tomato sauce; Eggs scrambled with sauteed mushrooms---serve with hot buttered toast and frozen french fried potatoes.

                        1. I don't know how you do it with 3 kids!! I think that the key might be to try to plan a week's worth of meals - and try to prep as many as possible at once. And maybe even cooking two dinners at once. Then you won't have the clean up the second night. It's going to be my new years resolution.

                          I also agree with the comment about not every meal not having to be a gourmet production. Sometimes it's just fuel!

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: JennyHunter

                            The Zuni chicken was amazing. My husband got home just in time. the baby ate tiny, tiny pieces of chicken. One daughter (they are twins, just turned 4) ate chicken as fast as I could cut it and grapes along with that, the other ate toast and watermelon. I shoveled chicken and bread salad into my mouth and commented to my husband about how entirely unpleasant it was to eat such a great dinner in such a rush.

                            The thing that I have realized is that you have to have meals prepped ahead of time. The notion that you have 30 solid, uninterrupted minutes to do ANYTHING is a joke. Tonights chicken was prepped on Tuesday (it needs to hang out in teh fridge for a few days). Today, while the baby napped, I had 1 kid "help" in the kitchen while I prepped the rest. Of course, I also had to sweep currants off the floor, discuss why I didn't think she'd like to eat raw scallions and clean up the oil/vinegar that she spilled on the counter while helping. Of course, now, I just want to go to sleep.
                            If I think of other good ideas for meals, I'll pass them along. We are lucky in that we live in Los Angeles and have a lot of take-out and prepared food available to us, and watermelon in december!

                            1. re: roxhills

                              Have you ever tried one of those assembly line places where they do the chopping, etc.. and you assemble a bunch of meals in a few hours to freeze? I've done it a couple of times - they meals aren't as good as from scratch - but you don't have to shop, prep, etc...and there is a lot less mess. I think I will do it again.

                          2. I haven't tried it but I have friends (not in LA) who have and were happy with the food. There is one place relatively near our house but the last time I checked it out, the menus weren't terribly appealing that month. Also, one of my twins eats virtually nothing-- I kid you not, toast and watermelon have been it all day today. The other one eats an incredible variety of foods but doesn't like any sauce or anything spicy and then the baby is 9 months so he gets tiny, tiny pieces of meat, fruit, veggies, etc so I thin that I coud fill my freezer with stuff that my husband and I may not love.
                            I should look into it again though.
                            Do you have a trader joe's nearby?

                            1. I am one of those people who can't get excited about frozen food on a regular basis - an alternative would be keeping basics like cooked grains (rice, bulgur, barley, polenta) and beans, eggs and cheese (or ground pork and tofu, or other favourite protein basic) on hand in the fridge - things that can quickly be turned into meals even if you have ten non-continuous minutes to make dinner. I am also a big fan of the planned overs vs leftovers.

                              Just reviewed the Real Simple Meals Made Easy cookbook on my blog, which you might like - it has a whole section on freezer meals. (Kind of an expensive book if you can't get it from your library though.) Generally, for best food quality results in freezing, freeze quickly and thaw slowly (in the fridge, if possible) before cooking.


                              1. I throw meat and marinade ingredients in a ziploc and freeze.

                                When I'm ready to have...say...flank steak...I pull from freezer and let thaw in the refrigerator. It marinates as it thaws.

                                I usually put together several packages..assembly line style...of favorites. Flank steak, spicy chicken, lemon chicken....

                                1. hi I have two little ones and I love to cook too, but I have had to make some adjustments..
                                  I dont usually freeze but I will make a large quantity and we will eat it for dinner + lunch the next day..things like
                                  Italian Meatball stew with noodles beans lentils carrots+ tomatoes
                                  roasted meats + fish, roasted potatoes, steamed vegetables

                                  1. The Woman's Day Cookbook , 1995 edition (that's the only one I have) has a great section called "Investment Cooking," which has groups that use different meats as a basis for producing lots of different recipes that can be frozen and reheated later. There's an awesome set for ground beef, one for chicken, and one for pork, and it also has simple beef meals, which is just a bit different from the other set for beef. This book also has a section for cook once/eat twice (which is just what you seem to be tired of). Another book I have that helps with organization as well as recipes is called Once-A-Month Cooking by Mimi Wilson & Mary Beth Lagerborg. I like the Woman's Day book better, but that's just my own personal preference. The Once-A-Month book has more variety, and has two-week menu plans as well as once-a-month menu plans. I had purchased Once-A-Month Cooking from Focus on the Family, but they no longer have it. There is one available on eBay at this link:
                                    Good luck!