In last month’s column, we took a look at why we might want to consider cooking from scratch and eating family meals at home more often, and I promised not to leave you hanging about HOW to actually accomplish that in today’s high-octane world, where “I don’t have time” is the go-to excuse.
What’s the secret sauce to putting 21 meals a week from scratch on the table? It’s really about having a meal planning system.
My system—what I call the Fl!p Your K!tchen® system—has 4 steps, and they work for any dietary preference, from vegan to carnivore and everything in between, and any budget:
- Create a whole foods pantry
- Learn a few basic techniques/recipes
- Plan your weekly menu
- Always cook for more than 1 meal
Plan your weekly menu
When you start meal planning, the goal is to try to connect just two meals, even if it’s just making enough for dinner that you can take leftovers for lunch. Then you work up to 3 “related” meals, 5 meals, etc.
It means that you ALWAYS cook for more than one meal. And I mean ALWAYS.
For a lot of people, that means, “I’m going to cook a big pot of chili and eat it all week.”
Yeah … no, you’re not. By day 3, you aren’t feeling the love, I can almost guarantee it, and that chili will go in the trash. Better to come up with a different way.
There are four strategies that can help you cook for more than one meal, and they are:
- Batch cook building blocks + basics
- Create intentional leftovers
- Friend your freezer
- In the classic French kitchen, even mise en place—the simple step of getting all your ingredients and utensils ready—is a form of pre-prep. Getting into this habit will save you a lot of time and frustration when you’re cooking.
- Sturdy dark leafy greens—such as kale, collards, salad mixes that aren’t too fragile, spinach—can be chopped, washed, spun dry in a salad spinner, then stored in an airtight container with a dry paper towel added to it. If you’re buying local, they’ll last up to a week; if you buy from the grocery store, they’ll usually last 3–5 days. Americans are very deficient in dark leafy greens, so taking this one step might make you eat more of them—if you have to wash and dry and chop them every day, it’s a pain; if they’re ready to go, you might just start tossing them into various dishes.
- Most “sturdy” produce—non-leafy veggies such as onions, peppers, broccoli, green beans, —can be washed and diced or chopped ahead of time. For example, if you’re making chili, you can prepare the onions and pepper ahead and put them in an airtight container for up to 5 days in the fridge. It’s like being your own sous-chef, getting ingredients ready for when you get home and simply start cooking them.
- If you’re making something with a bunch of dry ingredients, you can mix anything together that goes in at the same time and keep it in an airtight container at room temperature: think spices for a curry or chili—if you’re going to add them all at once, mix them up ahead of time.
- Better yet, get in the habit of making your own spice blends in large batches and using just as much as you need each time. For example, if I need 1 T chili powder, 1 tsp coriander, 1 tsp cumin, and 1 tsp oregano for a chili, I can mix together 10 T of chili powder plus 10 tsp each of the other ingredients; then when I make the recipe, I just do the math: 1 T + 3 tsp of spice blend is what I need total for one batch.
- You can also mix dry ingredients ahead for baking: if you combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and soda, and salt for pancakes ahead of time, the next morning you just add the milk and eggs and butter or other fat. You might just start making pancakes during the week that way! You can even mix multiple batches into your own “baking mix,” but because the baking powder and soda will lose strength over time, I don’t recommend making more than you’ll use in about 6 months.
- Batch cooking is like pre-prep but involves making large amounts of staple ingredients such as stocks, sauces, grains, beans, that you use during the week. I call these building blocks + basics: a lot of them are dishes in their own right (cooked rice, cooked broccoli, roasted chicken), and they can also serve as the building block for another dish.
- If you make multiple batches of these basics, you can make one per week and freeze the leftovers, so you constantly have a rotation. For example, if I make 3 batches of stock one weekend, of marinara another, and of white sauce a third, then I always have 1 batch of each for the next 3 weeks.
- If you were to make all 3 of these on the weekend, it would take you a long time; if you make multiple batches of just one, it takes almost no hands-on time, and while it cooks, you can likely do some pre-prep.
Intentional leftovers (AKA “planovers”)
- Making intentional leftovers is cooking enough for dinner so that you have leftovers for lunch the next day or making extra of something tonight (rather than during a time devoted to batch cooking) that can become an ingredient in something else during the week. If I’m roasting a chicken, I can roast two without much extra trouble or time, and then they become roast chicken for dinner plus chicken salad, nachos, casserole other days of the week, and I’ve saved myself the trouble of starting with raw chicken each time. Brown rice can be a side one night, hot cereal the next morning, and part of a casserole later. Broccoli becomes a veggie on the first night, part of a soup or salad for lunch the next day, then part of a casserole for another night. Do you see how a roasted chicken, brown rice, and broccoli dinner has just saved you a lot of time during the week if you just cook an extra batch of each the first night?
- You could even make a building block this way: didn’t have time to make marinara over the weekend? Make extra the night you’re having pasta for dinner. And cook some extra pasta while you’re at it—you can have it in soup or salad later!
Friend your freezer
- Many foods can be frozen, then thawed for later use, whether it’s a completed dish (yup, that’s your chili), a basic such as stock, or even a single ingredient like grains, beans, veggies.
- The important thing to remember when freezing something is the science behind it: when water freezes, it expands, and because all foods have some water content, those expanding cells will burst—that’s why when you thaw something, you usually have some “extra” water. This will inform how you treat frozen foods:
- Did you freeze a sauce or soup? Reheating it gently and stirring occasionally will make it all better.
- Did you freeze a batch of beans? They’re going to be mushy when thawed, so they’re good for soups and stews, not so good for making into a bean salad, where you want nice, whole beans.
- Did you freeze a casserole? If there’s a lot of excess liquid or you froze it after baking, pour off some of the liquid before reheating. If you froze it uncooked, leave the liquid there—the starchy base will absorb it as it bakes.
- Did you freeze an animal protein? That liquid is going to be a loss, so be careful not to overcook the meat as it will be a bit drier.
- Want to know what freezes well? Take a walk down the frozen aisle of the grocery, especially Trader Joe’s: they have a lot of whole foods that are minimally processed, precooked, and frozen.
- A food safety note:
- If you are freezing foods, be sure to thaw them in the refrigerator—which means you need to plan ahead a bit, but it will save you a trip to the store! If you’re thawing something small, overnight will usually do; larger items may need up to 3 days. Turkeys? Give ‘em 5. No, mom, it’s NOT okay to thaw one on the counter overnight!
- Get in the habit of checking your meal plan to see what you need to thaw and make that trip to the freezer one of your nighttime routines.
- Liquid items such as stocks, soups, and stews can be reheated on the stovetop from frozen if you can get them out of their freezer container.
- Don’t ever run water (even cold water) over a frozen glass container—it will crack, and you will need to toss out your food because it might just have some invisible glass slivers in it.
Want to try doing some meal planning on your own?
Download my free meal planning templates, then use the grid on page 2 to fill in just a few related meals. Maybe, as suggested, you write “roasted chicken” for Sunday dinner, then plan to make chicken salad for Monday’s lunch? The next week, try connecting 3 meals, then 5, ….
Ready for the big leagues?
You can get my Thanksgiving 101 e-book for FREE if you use coupon code WELOVEA2.
Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, cookbook author, part-time consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Her work is grounded in the belief that women can live happy, healthy lives, meeting all our obligations and honoring our own wildest, sweetest dreams. Her programs support women 40+ who feel that the only way out of their overscheduled lives involves a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work at https://simply-healthcoaching.com and join the (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, her membership site for women over 40, at https://simply-healthcoaching.com/membership.