Sunday, February 1, 2015

Meal Prep

Having meals prepped and ready to cook can take the hassle out of dinner time. Some people like to prep a meal the night before,  but I prefer to do it days or even weeks in advance. I'm especially grateful for this system when I am sick and just wanting a bowl of homemade soup - and knowing its only minutes away!
Meal prepping is different from freezer cooking. The entire meal is not cooked, and you can prep several meals at a time with the same few ingredients. I mentioned my method briefly in my post on feeding young children. The basic idea is that all the ingredients are prepped, cooked, and ready to assemble in a variety of meals.

We eat a lot of chicken. It's filling,  can really help stretch a meal to feed my family of six, and with sales or coupons can be pretty cheap. Soups, casseroles,  stir fry, enchiladas- a variety of meals start with the same preparations,  so why not get it all done at once?
In order to save time and make a single chicken breast stretch, I like to boil and shred my chicken. It takes the same amount of time to boil one breast or ten, and is healthier than some cooking methods.
I start with a large pot of broth. You can use water, but the broth gives it more flavor. You can use homemade or canned broth, or make some using bouillon, it doesn't really matter. I add in a few chicken breasts, how many depends on my meal plan for the month, and bring it to a boil. While the chicken is cooking, I set out and label my freezer containers. I use a combination of freezer bags, glass and plastic rubbermaid containers, depending on quantity and freezer space.
Once the chicken is cooked, I remove it from the pot and set it aside to cool. DO NOT dump the broth! Remove it from the heat and allow it to cool. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle,  I shred it all into a large bowl. The kids and husband can help with this part. I finely shred it, but you can leave it in larger chunks if you want. Then I simply add it to my storage containers and cover it with broth. Any leftover broth is frozen in an ice cube tray or freezer bowl. This is great for making soups or using in place of water to add more flavor to your favorite recipes.

If I buy a large bag of frozen veggies, I divide into two or three freezer bags. If I have lots of fresh vegetables, I clean and chop them while the chicken is cooking and divide into freezer bags. With fruit, I always do much smaller portions. Veggies can be steamed or cooked and added to almost any dish. Fruit is good for pancakes,  muffins,  smoothies, or desserts. I typically do not thaw or cook fruits before adding to a recipe.

For meats like pork and beef, I do not cook before freezing. I find they just taste better made fresh. However,  I still prep them as much as possible. For pork chops, steaks, or other cuts of beef, I put them in a freezer bag and add marinade and seasoning before freezing. Be sure to squeeze out as much air as possible. This not only keeps the meat tender, but the flavor is absorbed more without marinating in the fridge for 24 hours prior to cooking. Fish may be frozen with a slice of lemon and some herbs, or just topped with my husband's favorite dry rub.

For crockpot meals, I add all the ingredients into one freezer bag. Sauce, vegetables, cuts of meat, and seasoning fit perfectly in a gallon freezer bag. When I know its going to be a busy day, I dump the entire bag in the crockpot in the morning and dinner is done by evening. No extra time spent chopping vegetables and getting it all together means I can relax a little more in the morning.
If I can occupy the kids long enough, I can get all my prep work done immediately after grocery shopping. I throw the chicken in the pot when I first get in, then get all the dry goods and refigerated foods put away. I set out all my freezer bags and containers on the table and label everything with a permanent marker. While the chicken is cooling down, I separate and season all the uncooked meats, and bag the fruits and veggies. Then I put the chicken in the containers and load it all in the freezer. It only takes an extra fifteen minutes and all the hard work is done! Now when its time to cook, I simply combine all the ingredients and heat. Cooking pastas, breads, or rice takes less than 15 minutes and can be done while the frozen ingredients are thawing or heating. Dinner is now quick and easy.

This is also a good time to prep healthy snacks for the week. Cut up fruits and veggies and divide into snack size containers. You can fill small cups with peanut butter, hummus, or other dips for the fruits and veggies,  and a complete snack is ready to go! I do this for my kids' snacks during the week and mornings go so much smoother.
With a little bit of prep work once a week, or even once a month, the dinner time rush is no longer so chaotic.