…Make life easy!
I love the satisfaction of looking in the freezer and seeing enough meals to take us through a week. It takes at least one thing off my daily to-do list. It also means that a busy week won’t derail health eating.
Making Meals ahead of time (in the tradition similar to the Big Cook), helps in a number of ways:
1. Saves you time in the long run: Taking something out of the freezer and warming it up in the oven or on the stove top. No other prep to do. Yes, you may have to devote the majority of a day to making meals, but if you plan things right, you can get yourself set up to make double batches of 4 or 5 meals that will feed your family with great, healthy clean meals.
2. Less waste: Making meals right away after you have shopped means that fresh ingredients don’t get forgotten and then have to be thrown away.
3. Saving you money: you can buy larger quantities of vegetables or meat (fish, poultry) if you are making a variety of meals using similar ingredients (like onions, carrots, peppers, ground beef or turkey, etc). It will also prevent those daily trips to the grocery store.
4. Keeps your meals (and your family!) healthy: If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. Taking your meal planning to the next step by cooking and prepping some meals for the coming week, helps prevent using processed foods (or the drive thru!) as a fall back.
Things to keep in mind in preparing for make ahead meals:
- know how much certain containers hold (use a measuring cup and water to determine quantities)
- have an assortment of containers on hand (large Ziploc freezer bags are great for some things, but you may want to have 1 cup and 4 cup containers, or even 12 cup ones)
- label containers with how many meals they hold (ie “for 4 people” or “12 cups of spaghetti sauce”). You can even go so far as to label things with days of the week on them. This can be especially helpful if there are others in the house who are responsible for preparing the meals (Wednesday is chili, not spaghetti sauce!)
- watch store sales, to get the most bang for your buck. If peppers are on sale, don’t plan for making pea soup. If ground turkey is on sale, then switch up your normal ground beef recipes for turkey for a change.
- Batch your prep work. If you will need onions for all of your recipes, then prep all of your onion at the same time
- Make the best use of your tools at hand. I typically use the oven for one, the stove top for one (or two) and the slow cooker for one (or to prep beans or meat for another day)
- Check in with a friend: maybe you can make double batches of two recipes and a friend can make double batches of two different recipes, and then you can trade. Then you each have four different meals for the week.
7 Make Ahead meals and sides ideas and links:
1. Soup: one of the easiest and economical way to make a meal ahead of time, that freezes well. One of the many I like to have on hand is Homemade tomato soup. It makes a great addition to any meal. Another favourite in our house is Hamburger soup. And my personal favourite to have on hand: Chicken and black bean soup.
2. Sauces: Making your own spaghetti sauce for pasta, spaghetti squash or using as a base for shepherd’s pie, is always a great alternative to the store bought option. Using your big roasting pan in the oven allows for you to free up the top of the stove for making soup. Double up your own recipe or try mine. Another great make ahead sauce to work with lots of meal options is a simple Marinara Sauce.
3. Quick Simple “Fast food meals”: Homemade quesadillas cook up quickly and usually satisfy even fussy eaters. You can make simple ones with just salsa, chicken and cheese. Make the quesadillas with the fillings of your choice, wrap individually and freeze, then when you are ready to use them, just cook them up in the oven or a non stick pan, and serve with Greek yogurt and salsa, and a side salad for a complete meal. Our favourite recipe is a Clean Eating one: Spinach, chicken and ricotta Quesadillas.
4. Casseroles: Classic Shepherd’s pie is always good, especially when it is made with extra lean ground beef, or change it up and use mashed yams instead of the standard mashed potato. Or use spaghetti sauce as the base, or a mild lentil dal. Another favourite in our house is Beef and Vegetable Penne casserole, I have made it using turkey as well and it is wonderful. So much so that I usually make two! A yummy change from pasta for casseroles is quinoa: here is a great recipe we use often too (omit ham for a great vegetarian dish) : Quinoa, Cheddar and Zucchini Bake
5. Partially prepared meals: Not everything has to be made completely, often I will make ahead part of a meal, to allow for things to march along more quickly, or in anticipation of marinated. BBQ chicken is a great option: when the butcher has chicken breast on sale (I use bone in for this recipe), I will buy a whole whack of it and then create meal ready packs with the right number. For BBQ chicken, I make the sauce (find the recipe here) and pour it into the container, and then layer the uncooked chicken into it and freeze it in the BBQ sauce. Then you are ready to roll just by thawing the chicken and cooking it either in a 375 F oven for 35-40 minutes or on the BBQ over indirect heat for 45-55 minutes.
Another partially made item we use sometimes: quick and easy pizzas: slice veggies (we use peppers and mushrooms), and bag, shred two cooked chicken breasts and bag, slice some left over baked ham and bag, put it all into a container with a package of whole wheat pitas, label one jar of marinara sauce “Pizza” and you are all set except for the cheese. Some folks freeze cheese, but I usually just grate it at the time.
6. Some non freezer make aheads: Most salads made with vinegar type dressings can be used over a few days. Coleslaw made with a vinegar dressing (you can chop your own cabbage or buy one of the ready made coleslaw type bagged salads, like broccoli slaw), can be a great side with BBQ chicken, or great in wraps. Our favourite (as you probably know!) is Santa Fe salad: one day one, we use it as a side dish, day two it goes in wraps and day three, it gets cooked and put into rice and makes a nice spicy Rice and beans dish. Cut up raw veggies are great to have on hand for snacking as well as making for a quick stir fry.
7. And it wouldn’t be fair to leave out a treat, now would it? Some great things to keep on hand in the freezer for easy breakfasts or for lunches include a new favourite in our house: Blueberry coconut pecan breakfast cookies. Great to grab for breakfast or for a healthy morning snack. Another great one for the freezer: Egg White Muffins. And of course, Multigrain Cherry chocolate chip cookies.
As with anything, make ahead takes planning and prep. Start by choosing one weekend in the month that works for both the groceries as well as the day of meal preparing. Plan to make one thing in the oven (doubled, so two), one thing on the stove (doubled so two) and if you have a slow cooker, you could make a third thing in the slow cooker. Or better yet! make supper in the slow cooker, so after you have spend all day cooking, you don’t have to start again and make supper!