Batch Cooking and Other Ideas
Cook and Freeze: One of the most effective ways to ensure that you always have a healthy meal on hand at home is to cook several meals at once. For instance, "Cook pork chops or chicken in huge batches, freeze on cookie sheets and then store in the freezer in a sealed container with waxed paper between the pieces. Take out only as many pieces as you need, spray both sides with no-stick spray, place them in a cold oven, set it to 425 degrees, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, turning 10 minutes before done," says Antoinette Kuritz, a San Diego-based home cooking expert and mom.
Minimize Cleanup: Do all your major cooking the day before your regular housecleaning day. That way, you won't have to clean the kitchen twice, adds Kuritz.
Here are a few more ideas to help you get started.
Form a Cooking Co-op: "Ask three friends if they'd like to form a cooking co-op. Each person prepares dinner one night a week for all four families. You get four great meals and only one night in the kitchen," says Janet Peterson, author of Family Dinners: Easy Ways to Feed Your Kids and Get Them Talking at the Table (Gibbs Smith, 2006).
Have a Food Party: To make batch cooking a fun event and to share recipes to keep meals interesting, invite a friend or two over to cook batch meals together, or cook in your own kitchens and swap vacuum-sealed meals later, says Alicia Ross, co-author of Cheap. Fast. Good! (Workman 2005).
Make Theme Meals: To take the effort out of deciding what's for dinner, create a theme for each night of the week. For example, Monday can be soup night; Tuesday, taco night; Wednesday, salad bar, etc., suggests Carrie Hanna, the author of Florida's Backyard (Authorhouse, 2002).
Make Extra: As an alternative to cooking entire meals ahead, just double or triple up on some basic building blocks that will speed you through future meals. Browning batches of ground beef and onions, poaching or grilling chicken and baking potatoes ahead of time are easy ways to cut down on meal prep time, says Ross.
Post the Menu: Plan weeknight meals in advance and post them (so there is no, "What's for dinner?" when you get home). That way you shop once a week and get everyone on board, says Peggy Katalinich, food director for Family Circle magazine.
Cooking Out/Dining In: They're springing up all over the country, with names such as Dinner by Design (www.dinnerbydesignkitchen.com), Dream Dinners (www.dreamdinners.com) and Dinners Ready (www.dinnersready.com).
These are basically storefront kitchens where you can prepare an entire week's worth of meals in one session. They do the planning, shopping and chopping and provide everything you need to prepare healthy, delicious meals. Dinners Ready even has a chef and nutritionist on staff. People assemble their meals in the store, which is set up like a home economics class, then take them home, freeze and cook as needed. That way you know you have all the ingredients, your meals are portion-controlled, you can pick what's healthiest--and there isn't any cleanup.
There are so many quick-and-easy cookbooks available that you would think nobody eats dinner out. Just take a peak on Amazon.com and you'll find a host of books, including:
- Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Get Real Meals: Eat Healthy Without Going to Extremes by Rachael Ray (Paperback, Clarkson Potter 2005)
- Weight Watchers Make It in Minutes: Easy Recipes in 15, 20, and 30 Minutes by Weight Watchers (Paperback, Wiley 2001)
- American Heart Association Quick & Easy Cookbook: More Than 200 Healthful Recipes You Can Make in Minutes by American Heart Association (Paperback, Clarkson Potter, 2001)
- Cooking Light Superfast Suppers: Speedy Solutions for Dinner Dilemmas, by Cooking Light magazine, Anne C. Cain and Anne C. Chappell, editors. (Hardcover, Oxmoor 2003)
- Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook by Weight Watchers (Ring-bound, Wiley 2006)
"Oxygen is not a friend to food," says Chef Kirk Bachmann, vice president of education for Le Cordon Bleu Schools North America, "and freezing food that is not protected from oxygen will cause it to dry out." Refrigerators and freezers are actually cold dehumidifiers. One of the easiest ways to protect your food is to put it in a plastic bag with a zipper closing. They come in a variety of sizes you can use for different quantities.
You'll need storage containers in different sizes. Or, if you want to get fancy, you could invest in a sealing machine.
"I use a vacuum sealer to freeze my food, but plastic wrap works just fine. A vacuum sealer removes air and traps moisture in the product, avoiding freezer burn. When you're wrapping food to be frozen, do it tightly and avoid air pockets. Chicken, pork and shrimp freeze well, but I avoid freezing fish, although there are some exceptions to the rule," says Chef John Greeley of the famed 21 Club in New York.
Which foods don't freeze well? "Foods with low moisture content, such as baked goods, tend to get stale or become dry and brittle when they freeze," says Cordon Blue's Bachmann. "For example, frozen bread has a much shorter shelf life when it's defrosted. You can, however, freeze solid foods in broths or sauces relatively easily and still maintain the texture of the food."
"Stews, soups, chili and spaghetti sauce freeze extremely well. Starchy foods like potatoes, turnips, pasta, dumplings and rice tend to become mushy when frozen because the water crystals expand during the freezing process and tear apart the delicate, papery walls of the grains," says Bachmann.
"Make sure to organize your freezer and keep a list of what's in there. A full freezer is a wonderful thing--but not if you forget what you've prepared and leave it until it gets freezer burned," says Kuritz.
"Also, keep in mind that the faster food freezes, the better chance you have of maintaining quality," adds Bachmann. And allow space between frozen items so that cold air can circulate around them.
CHARLES STUART PLATKIN is a nutrition and public health advocate, author of the bestseller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), The Diet Detective's Count Down (Simon & Schuster, 2007) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at www.dietdetective.com.
Copyright 2007 by Charles Stuart Platkin