Last week, I worked Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I work thirteen to fourteen-hour night shifts and have a three-hour round-trip commute. So, when I went to bed at 10:00 on Thursday morning, it kicked off a sleep-drive-work-drive pattern that lasted until 10:00 Sunday morning. I should’ve continued the pattern for one more round of sleep, but instead, I fought my way through the haze to spend time with my family. By the time I got to bed at 11:00 Sunday night, I’d been up around thirty hours. This is far from ideal, but for now, it’s my life. (If you know me in person, this may explain why I look tired all the time…and…maybe some intermittent crankiness and chocolate scarfing!)
Since I’m MIA half the week, it takes a little preparation to make things run smoothly. Making a few meals ahead helps the work week seem a little more palatable. I realize that not everyone works outside the home, but making meals ahead is also a smart strategy for busy days, church days, and days the kids have activities.
Sometimes, I stay up the night before and cook while my family sleeps. Other weeks, I take time the day before and cook while there’s someone awake to do the dishes! This week, I cooked on Wednesday. My day wasn’t spent slaving in the kitchen! I did farm work, worked on my daughter’s room redo, worked on the blog, and spent about two hours playing in my kitchen.
Wednesday’s cooking session wasn’t intended to make the blog. However, a friend happened to text and ask what I was up to. I sent her a quick snap of what I was working on. When she assumed it was for the blog, I explained that I was just making easy things to save money and time over the week. She insisted it should become a blog post. Her reasoning was simple. She wants to learn how to cook ahead for her family. Since she is a Reader, I decided that the Readers have spoken! So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of prepping food ahead.
I know some families like Once a Month Cooking (OAMC), Bake One Freeze One (BOFO), or bagging ready to cook freezer meals. If you are unfamiliar with OAMC, it’s a system where you spend a day or two cooking all the main meals you’ll need for a month. Then, you freeze them and spend the rest of the month simply heating and eating. I tried OAMC when my kids were small, and it wasn’t a good fit for us. I enjoy cooking, and I missed puttering in my kitchen. The meals are repeated in OAMC, and I quickly began to find the menu too ‘samey’. I also found that many of our favorite meals don’t freeze well. However, there are some that do. I keep a few of those meals on ice for nights I don’t want to cook, but I’m much more likely to accumulate these meals through the Bake One Freeze One strategy. Here is a link to a site that has a ton of OAMC recipes. Remember, I don’t use this plan. So, I haven’t tried the recipes. I just thought it looked like a good place to start investigating if you’re interested.
Bake One Freeze One is exactly what it sounds like. Depending on what you’re making, it can be a great plan. For example, lasagna freezes very well. I prefer scratch lasagna to the quickie version I make on busy days. So, if I’m going to make the good stuff I double (or triple) the ingredients. It doesn’t take any extra time (except chopping extra vegetables), but we have a pan to eat and another (or two) to freeze. (I often do this with casseroles, but watch out for cream sauce. It seems grainy to me after being defrosted.) If you want to try BOFO, poke around on the internet and look at the ‘designed to freeze’ recipes. After a while, you’ll get the idea and be able to gauge how well your own recipes will freeze. Here is a link to an Allrecipes page dedicated to make-ahead freezer meals. Once again, I haven’t tried these recipes.
I have some blogging ‘never-met-them-in-real-life-but-love-them’ friends, who love to bag and freeze all the ingredients for a meal. When they’re ready to make a dish, they simply peel off the bag and toss the frozen chunk in the crock or instant pot. Depending on the recipe, they could also thaw food in the fridge and bake it in the oven. This plan doesn’t work for me either. Remember, I mentioned, that I don’t like prepared spice mixes? I have the same problem with pre-assembled meals. If I’ve made five bags of Chinese Orange Chicken, that’ll be the week I crave Chicken Cacciatore. It’ll also be the week I used the last of the ‘unsauced’ chicken and ours aren’t ready to butcher out. Here’s a link to Thirty Handmade Days. The lady who runs this site uses this method. Since I don’t use this method, the usual warnings apply.
Personally, I am a huge fan of doing what works best for your family. If one of the systems above is calling your name, give it a try. If you love it, that’s awesome! Keep at it. If you don’t love it, tweak it or pitch it. (I said tweak, not twerk. Let’s not be tacky!) Then try something new.
For our family, I like having a few meals in the freezer. I’m picky about what I freeze, but I like lasagna, strata, shepherd’s pie, and stroganoff (freeze before adding the dairy). Beyond that, I prefer to keep prepared ingredients. I freeze cooked beans, pre-mixed pie crusts, shredded pork, browned ground beef, roasted boned chicken, sauteed mushrooms, caramelized onions, etc. I usually freeze things without seasoning, because that helps the ingredient retain its versatility. Take that ground beef, for example. If I season it for tacos, it’s limited to going in something Tex-Mex. If I leave it plain, I have the ability to add taco seasoning as I warm it OR use it in cottage pie, Italian casserole, stuffed cabbage, beefy mac and cheese, cheeseburger soup, or any number of dishes.
To explain what I normally do, I’ll take you back to Wednesday in my kitchen. I’m just going to walk you through my week’s preparation:
(Note: Unless specified, Wednesday’s food wasn’t frozen. I made things that would be good in the fridge, and they were eaten before it became necessary to freeze them.)
- I started out making breakfast bars for the week. These are pumpkin cranberry oatmeal bars. I could mix them in 5 minutes flat without ever waking up. We eat them a LOT. They bake for about 45 minutes at 350′. I make two 9 x 13 pans, because, that’s what gets us comfortably through the week. We cut them and freeze the individual bars in a big container. Then we simply pull out a couple, nuke if desired or pack to eat later.
- While the bars baked, I chopped and washed some leeks and mushrooms. Half the leeks were sauteed with shrooms, while the other half were slowly poached in milk. I also browned some Italian sausage.
- As the bars continued baking, I made a batch and a half of Blue Cheese Grits. We eat these on a bed of greens and top them with sausage, caramelized onions or leeks, and mushrooms.
- I pulled out the breakfast bars and put the grits in the oven. They bake for 60 minutes at 350`, so the oven was already the right temperature.
- Since the grits fit in a pie pan and some small pyrex pans, there was plenty of room in the oven. So, I took a few minutes to mix up brownies and toss them in beside the grits. They bake for 30 minutes at 350`, so they were done about 20 minutes before the grits.
- I drafted the kids to peel potatoes, while I put two big pots of water on to boil. Then, I cleaned a couple of bunches of kale.
- The potatoes went into one pot of water and the kale into the other. Ten minutes later, I drained the kale and rinsed it in cold water. I also pulled out 2-3 partially cooked potatoes and set them aside to cool. I got a kid to squeeze all the water they possibly could out of half the kale.
- In another ten minutes, the potatoes were tender. I drained them, mashed them, added butter, salt, pepper, the poached leeks and milk, and stirred in the squeezed out kale. That’s colcannon. It’s an Irish side dish we love. As soon as it cooled, I bagged it up and put it in the fridge. It was easy to reheat this week as a side dish with roast chicken.
- Right about then, the brownies were ready. So we removed them from the oven, let them cool, and did some serious product sampling. The brownies were a treat for my potato peelers, my dishwasher, and me! (Most dishes go in the machine at the end, but my Kitchenaid bowl, paddle, and a few other things must be hand washed, because, they get used several times in one ‘session’.)
- Next, I sliced the cooled partially cooked potatoes and lined a couple of glass pans with the slices. Half the leeks and mushrooms and half the sausage were divided between these pans. I added goat cheese, tomatoes, eggs, milk, and seasonings. These ‘potato crust’ quiches are very tasty and keep well in the fridge.
- The grits were done, just before I was ready to pop my quiches into the oven. Quiches cook between 45 and 60 minutes at 350`. (The variance depends on how full the pan is, how wet the vegetables are, and how much cold milk I add to the mix.)
- While the quiches baked, I took the remaining kale and sauteed it briefly with a touch of bacon fat, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a squirt of honey. Then, we sat down to dinner while the baked goods cooled and the quiches turned golden.
All this took about two hours from start to finish. I wasn’t rushing around. I was singing (off-key, but with spirit), dancing idiotically, cutting up with my kids, and answering occasional texts. However, if you don’t cook often, I recommend you start slowly. Make one dish at a time if you need to. When you’re ready, add another. It’s easier to stick with family favorites you’re comfortable making until you build time management and confidence. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a ton of stuff made. Just remember, every dish you make ahead is an investment that will benefit you throughout the week.
Here are a few things that’ll make cooking ahead go more smoothly:
- Consider oven temperature. All my dishes baked at the same temperature, but if you have something that needs a hot oven it can throw off your mojo while the oven heats up or cools down.
- Try to find recipes that have ingredients in common. Leeks, mushrooms, kale, and sausage went into most of what I made, but the dishes had very different flavors overall. Imagine if the quiches had been swiss cheese, bacon, and spinach, while the grits kept their leeks, sausage, kale, and shrooms. The number of things to be chopped and prepped would increase exponentially!
- Tidy as you go! This is a habit that my mom drummed into me from the first egg I scrambled. Wipe up your messes, rinse dishes, and put away ingredients as you’re finished with them. These things take seconds as you go, but if you wait, food dries on pans and becomes concrete, counters are mucky, and half the pantry seems to have exploded.
- Choose things that are easy to prep! I used blue cheese and goat cheese. We love both of these, but they have the added perk of not needing to be grated!
- Those little pyrex pans are awesome! I divide out quiche, grits, or casseroles to bake in them. They cook quickly and have lids. They make it easy for Liam and me to take real food for lunch.
- Cook with company. Sometimes, the kids and I cook everything together. More often, though, they bounce in and out. They help and chat, then head off to do something else. Sam usually comes into handwash a few things and start a load of dishes part way through. Jonah does any task he’s asked, but usually just hangs out unless given a job. Grace loves to cook and pops in periodically with “What can I do to help?” It’s easier and much more fun to cook when there’s good company and someone else to peel the potatoes!
So, what did we get out of our two-hour cooking session?
- We got snacks and workday breakfasts for the week (Breakfast Bars).
- Blue cheese grits with sausage, leeks, and mushrooms was supper Wednesday. There was enough for another night’s supper, and for me to take to work. (This is one of my favorites, and I can eat it repeatedly without feeling gypped.)
- We had a snack of brownies, more of them for dessert, and one for Liam and me to split with lunch the next day.
- Quiche was Thursday’s supper, two lunches each for Liam and me, and lunch for all the kids.
- On Friday, Grace served half the colcannon with a roasted chicken and some Brussels sprouts. She froze the other half of the colcannon. On Sunday night, I picked the remaining meat from the chicken, put it in a pie plate with leftover roast vegetables. I made sauce with chicken broth, cornstarch, seasonings, and a splash of white wine. I topped the dish with the remaining colcannon (after it thawed). Baked until golden and bubbly, we call this Mockingbird Pie. It’s very tasty and satisfying.
Basically, we had enough meals to mix and match through the work week. There were still a few leftovers going into this week, but with teenage boys, those tend to sublimate. No one felt like they were eating the same thing constantly. Even if it had felt a little redundant, we’d rather eat chevre and sausage quiche again than even one McDonald’s burger!
When I explained my prep work to my friend, I could tell she thought it was complicated and overwhelming. It really isn’t! I’ve been cooking for a long time, and most of what I made were foods I could make in my sleep. So, it only makes sense for me to layer and stack them to get done as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, I promise I didn’t walk out of the womb with a 9×13 pan of breakfast bars! Just start where you’re comfortable. When you’re ready, take a step forward and add a little more. If your timing is off or you forget an ingredient, that’s okay! Mistakes happen, and we learn from them.
Do you prep for the week ahead? What are your favorite freezer-friendly meals? Do you sing off key and dance like an idiot in the kitchen? Please leave a comment if you have the time. I love to learn from y’all!
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