I enjoy cooking and baking. There is nothing better than home made biscuits for breakfast or meatloaf for dinner. But making a meatloaf from scratch takes an hour. I get home from work most nights by six. So when I make a traditional homestyle dinner with all the fixings, it’s not on the table before seven. Yuck. So a lot of times we end up eating stuff we can make quickly– pasta with store-bought sauce or simple baked chicken thrown in the toaster oven served with canned veggies. Okay food, but not great. If we’re really tired, we order in, probably too much.
I’ve been thinking about changing the way we do things, just a bit, so that we can have complete, wholesome meals every night of the week in a half hour. The solution I’ve come up with that I think will work best for my family is freezing things in advance. And I’m talking meals in quantity, so a freezer upgrade is called for; the freezer with the refrigerator is not going to be big enough. But we don’t need a gargantuan freezer. I think a five cubic square foot model is large enough, and it can fit in a discreet corner of our dining area and not take up too much room. According to the manufacturer, it holds about 140 pounds of food. It’s also in our price range, at about $160 (not including shipping). Once we invest in our first major appliance purchase (hopefully by September), I plan on taking one Saturday or Sunday a month and doing some major cooking and baking. I can get it all done in a day, clean up all the dirty dishes in a day, and we have a lot of our meals ready to go. This is the standard set of recipes that I plan to make to have on hand every month (this is stuff we eat all the time):
4 loaves of bread
4 batches of biscuits
2 batches of pancakes
2 batches of muffins
Large pan of scalloped potatoes with ham
Chicken noodle soup
15 bean stew
Coq au vin
For the recipes that have noodles, you just leave out the noodles in order to freeze it because noodles don’t freeze well. When you want to serve it, just throw the noodles of your choice on to boil while you reheat the dish, and they’ll be done at the same time, so you can add the noodles in.
Another method I’m going to use to have more good dinners is to start using my Crockpot more. We got a really nice one as a wedding gift last year, and the couple of times we’ve used it, it’s been awesome. I’ve actually baked bread in it, and it was good. We really like New England boiled dinners and corned beef and cabbage and beef roasts, and Crockpots are the perfect way of cooking these types of dishes. You can set the programmable timer so that your meal is ready to eat shortly after everyone gets home at night.
It’s relatively easy to implement a system like this for your own family. Sit down and make a list of the foods you eat on regular basis. Think about whether they freeze well or can be made in the crockpot. And if you can’t or don’t want to devote a whole day every month to cooking, you can do it a little at a time. For instance, when you make scalloped potatoes and ham for dinner one night, make a double pan and freeze half. You’re in the kitchen for pretty much the same amout time and the dishes are getting dirty anyway. So you still come out ahead. This is especially easy for baking– just double your recipe and freeze half of it. And keep in mind that a lot of dishes or recipes can be served in several different ways, which can help you maximize your time and money– meatballs can be served with a sweet and sour sauce, Swedish-style, or the traditional way with pasta. So you’ve got three completely different meal options with one dish. Same thing with biscuits– you can use them for shortcake, serve them with jam for breakfast or as biscuits and gravy with sausage. My mom taught me this one :-).
To fill out the rest of our meals, once or twice a week I’ll spend a few hours cooking up stuff that doesn’t freeze well, or I know we’ll eat in few days. I definitely do this for breakfast foods. I don’t have time to cook breakfast every morning. I have an hour in the morning from the time I wake up until the time I have to leave for work, which is enough time to shower and dress, do a little maintainance gardening and eat breakfast– but only if I don’t have to cook it first. So once a week or so I’ll scramble a huge pan of eggs, make some breakfast potatoes and fry half a package of bacon. It keeps for about 3 days safely in the fridge, and all I have to do in the morning is microwave it, make some toast, and brew my tea. I’ll also make noodle or stirfry dishes (which don’t freeze well) and stick them in the fridge to take to work for lunches or to have for dinner for a little variety. I like to keep tuna casserole in the fridge as one of these dishes.
Anybody can do it, and in the long run it’s more economical (you can buy meats and other goods in bulk for your monthly cooking) and you’ll find your family is eating healthier. I figure the cost of the freezer is going to be offset in two months in grocery savings, so even the initial outlay if you find you have to purchase a freezer or make an upgrade is worth it. You may also (as I have decided to) want to invest in some good-quality freezer containers and/or a vacuum sealer. It would a shame for all your hard work to go to waste by having things spoil or get damaged by freezer burn. But the price of these products can be nominal as well if you shop around. So with a little planning and commitment, you can put great meals on the table with the minimal amount of effort and time (and it’s that great?).