I cook in phases. Sometimes I love cooking every day and sometimes I wish the pizza guy and Chinese delivery man would just park outside the whole week. I struggle with finding the time to make good meals, especially at times like now when I'm more worried about getting ready for a show, than making sure my kids aren't eating McDonalds again.
A couple months ago I was watching the Food Network (yes, that is my “while I work” entertainment). Rachel Ray came on with a show I hadn't seen before about making 5 meals in a day. I only half paid attention – I have no idea what she made, but the concept stuck. I make chili in the crock pot all day and have two crock pots… why not make two batches at once? I tried it and it worked so well that I expanded the experiment into making other things at once. Now I spend an entire day (or at least 4 hours) making food that I can use later … but much quicker.
The trick is to make foods that share ingredients, for example, burritos, Pasta and meat loaf all use hamburger. Or put a roast in the crock pot, set some of the cooked meat aside to eat as is with gravy and veggies, another portion to continue cooking into BBQ shredded beef and a little more for stew or enchiladas. If you focus on how many things you can make from one main ingredient, instead of a single meal at a time, you'll be amazed at how much you can make in a little amount of time.
“All Day Cooking” might sound like a lot of time, but really, it's not. I don't mean 8 hours of cooking, although I have done that when I was trying to learn to make bread (complete fail for me, by the way). But think about it, if you spend an hour every day making dinner.. from prep to table… that's at least 7 hours a week, right? And that's assuming you're making things that take an hour. Most meals aren't really 30 minute meals if you're using fresh foods. Sure, pull it out of a box and it could be 30 minutes from freezer to table… that's why I pre-cook. Its my own made fresh to frozen food instead. I spend time doing things like cooking up hamburger that is seasoned and ready to go for multiple meals such as things like Spaghetti sauce, tacos and chili. I cut my nightly meal prep time down considerably while being able to serve home made, preservative free (or low) foods.
The other not as obvious benefit of cooking like this, I can stretch the food much further. I roasted three large chicken breasts and can break those down into 2 meals for 5 people instead of cooking up 5 chicken pieces for dinner tonight. Another example, I cooked up 8 eggs and made 10 breakfast sandwiches with them by combining with other ingredients. The goal, cook smarter.
Here's some of what I made this week:
- Meat Loaf – don't say it, it's delicious! Quickest recipe ever, 1LB hamburger, 2 eggs, 2 cup Stove Top Stuffing mix (dry), 1/2 cup apple juice. Mix it together, put it in a pan, bake for at least 30 minutes at 425. YUM!
- Mashed potatoes – great way to get rid of potatoes that are on their way out. Don't throw the wrinkled ones away, cook them up and mash 'em!
- Chili – using meat I pre-cooked and froze a couple weeks ago. I make a variety of chilies from white to black to red. Mix up different beans, different meats, and different spices and you have a whole variety of easy meals that are great on the budget.
- Tomato soup- I make it from scratch because then I feel like it's really a meal. We almost always have grilled cheese sandwiches with it, but using yummy bread and a variety of cheeses. I got a grill style skillet to make them look even fancier.
- Roasted Chicken – three breasts in a pot, some onions, butter, spices and 1 cup water – I can use this for sandwiches or any recipe that calls for chicken later… not to mention all by itself with some yummy veggies.
- Chicken and mushroom soup/stew base – I cooked more chicken with seasoning and created the soup portion. I can use this later for chicken and rice, chicken casserole, chicken and dumplings, etc.
- Burritos – using more of the same meat I put in the chili, wrap it up in tortillas with salsa, cheese, rice, beans and call it yummy.
- Breakfast sandwiches – I got eggs on sale last week so the idea was to make something I could save for later while getting the great sale price. I made up some pancakes, bacon and the eggs, sandwiched and wrapped them up and voila! It's like I really was awake for make everyone breakfast.
- Baked potatoes – did I mention my potatoes were on the verge of rooting in the pantry and building their own colony? I had the idea of wasting food and these spuds were not pretty. However, wrap them up in a foil and bake for an hour and they are tasty as ever! these can be stored in the fridge or cut in half and frozen for later. Top them with cheese and bacon and you've got a tasty snack or side.
I cheated a bit this week, I have pre-made meals still waiting to be used in the freezer… so I've just added them to the list. Once you start pre-cooking, even your future pre-cooking could be shorter. I cook a ton of meat on my cooking days.. season and pre-plan what I'll use them for, so at dinner, I'm just focusing on sides. However, I even pre-cook some sides, especially if the food needs to be used quick . This process of cooking has also allowed me to be more open minded about buying the “manager special”.. “buy it before it gets thrown out” foods, because I know I'm going to cook them up quick even if we aren't eating them quick. Here are some of them to give you more ideas:
- Shredded beef
- Pulled pork
- Meat balls
If you like to grill, you can grill up a bunch of your meat in a day and store for meals later. The only thing I don't ever cook ahead of time is fish… I imagine that would be pretty gross. You don't need a ton of kitchen equipment to do this either. I just plan ahead what needs which pans and cook, rinse and re-use as I go along. If you don't have a crock pot, I say get one, they're amazing! However, you can use a casserole dish with a lid in the oven just as well.
There are a couple downsides to cooking ahead… what if what you've made, you're not hungry for later? And, the house smells delicious all day and no one can have what you've made yet. But if that's the worst of it, I'll take it. Saves me from wondering what's for dinner and gives me more time to worry other things I'd rather focus on. I'll share some recipes later so you can try cooking ahead too.
I say, don't be afraid to try it out. I do a lot of “throw it in the pot and see what happens” cooking. We've had some pretty amazing meals come of that… yes a few not-s0-good flavors too, but all in all, as a family we are exploring more flavors and discovering new things.