The spread of the novel coronavirus is affecting just about every part of day-to-day life in every family across the country. Schools are shut down, non-essential businesses have been ordered to close their doors in many states, and more people are working from home than ever before. These changes are going to have a wide range of impacts, but one that every family will feel is how their meal planning and prepping will have to change.
With more family members eating more meals at home than ever before, whoever is in charge of cooking for the household may find themselves having to adapt. One of the best strategies to prepare a lot of food in advance to save some for later is batch cooking for your family. In batch cooking, you make a large amount of one meal and then freeze whatever you don’t eat to save for dinners in the future. This method allows you to save money on buying more food for the family, waste less food after every meal, and save time on the nights when you simply have to reheat the prepared meals.
Although batch cooking for your family may sound simple, there are many ways it can go wrong. Let’s take a look at some of the most important batch cooking tips and tricks.
Organize, organize, organize
Planning is perhaps the most important step when you start batch cooking for your family. Without a solid plan, you won’t even know what to cook and you won’t have anything to stick in the freezer later.
The first thing you have to do is decide what meals you’re going to make. Just by googling the phrase “freezer meals,” you’ll find a wide array of ideas that freeze and reheat well. We’ll also discuss the types of meals and foods best suited to batch cooking for your family a little later in the article. As you’re choosing your meals, consider which ones make the biggest nutritional punch or can help in certain areas, such as oral hygiene. No matter what meals you settle on or from where you gather them, be sure to save them digitally or write them down and put them in a folder so that you can come back to them later.
Once you’ve decided what meal, or multiple meals, you want to cook, make your grocery list. If you are planning on batch cooking a few different meals, try combining ingredients whenever you can. For instance, you could buy one large can of tomatoes rather than multiple small ones that use in different recipes. Remember to keep an eye out for discounts or deals to help you save money while shopping. To make your shopping go as smoothly as possible, you can organize your grocery list according to the store’s layout. This will cut down the time you spend at the store and give you more time to spend cooking for your family at home.
Of course, if you have to bring the kids on your trip to the grocery store you probably don’t have high hopes of getting in and out quickly. Rather than stress about the amount of time you spend with them at the store, flex your parenting skills and try getting them involved in the shopping. Maybe one of the recipes you’ve chosen to cook is their favorite dinner. Have them help you pick out the ingredients that create this meal and they can gain some insight into how individual foods combine to make their dinner.
Don’t forget the supplies
When you’re making your grocery list, remember that you’ll need more than just items for eating and drinking in order to batch cook meals. You’ll need the right supplies to successfully store your food in the freezer. Imagine that you work in the food industry and you’re preparing to purchase supplies that allow you to store your most important ingredients and cooking basics. What does every restaurant, bar, and catering service have stocked up in their supply rooms?
Heavy-duty aluminum foil, cling wrap, freezer-friendly resealable bags, and aluminum pans with lids are essentials in these industry establishments and will be in your home’s kitchen as well. These supplies are key to wrapping up your meals and storing them in the freezer for extended periods of time. Without the proper supplies and proper wrapping skills, you risk losing your carefully-prepared meals to freezer burn.
Double (or triple) the recipes
Some people may read about the concept of batch cooking and immediately assume that it means making 10 different meals at once and freezing them for the future. However, this tends to create a lot more work for you while taking up precious space on your countertop with all of those ingredients. The average American kitchen only has about 25 square feet of counter space, none of which will benefit you if it’s being taken up by a smorgasbord of ingredients for different meals.
Instead, you can just double the recipe and divide it up since you’re already undertaking the time-consuming job of preparing the ingredients. If you have enough saucepans for cooking and freezer space for storing, you could even triple or quadruple the recipe. Of course, this decision also depends on the size of your family. If you have four older children plus yourself and your partner, quadrupling your meals might not be realistic. However, if you can manage it, simply cooking more of the hearty meals you cook normally is a wonderfully uncomplicated approach to batch cooking for your family.
Wrap it well
We discussed purchasing the right supplies to properly wrap and store your batch-cooked meals, but the method of wrapping is just as important. Just as wineries have specific processes to properly bottle their wine for aging, you need to apply specific techniques to store your food for the future. Without the right techniques, freezer burn can rear its ugly head and ruin your delicious meals.
The first step to preventing freezer burn is to get as much air out of each wrapped dish as possible. To do this, press all of the air out of a resealable bag before closing it shut. If you’re using containers with lids or wrapping plastic or aluminum foil over the tops of them, try to seal the containers as tightly as possible to prevent too much air from staying in there. The exception to this sealing rule is when you’re freezing soup. You need to give yourself what is known as “headspace” when you freeze soup, which is about half an inch to an inch of room between the soup and the lid. This allows the soup to expand in the freezer without the risk of flowing out of the sides of the container.
Another good trick when batch cooking for your family involves plastic wrap. Before you start filling up baking pans or casserole dishes with food to freeze, such as baked pasta, line them thoroughly with plastic wrap. Then, once the food has frozen, you can lift it out of the dish with the plastic wrap, remove the wrap, and then transfer the food to resealable freezer bags. Place your tightly-sealed bags in the freezer. When your family is ready to eat the meal, you can easily slide it out of the bag, place it onto a pan, and reheat it. The dish will maintain a shape that’s easy to reheat and serve, rather than forming a disorganized blob if you had stuck it in a bag right away. And the bag will keep more air out than a container with a lid can.
Label the meals clearly
Once you’ve properly wrapped each of your meals, you need to label them just as carefully. You may know exactly what is in each container right after packaging it all up, but chances are that your mind won’t so readily recognize it a couple of weeks from now when you go to pick something out for dinner.
Use a permanent marker to clearly write the most essential information on the dish. If you’ve used resealable bags or other containers that have designated spaces for labeling, you can write in there. If not and you’ve just used aluminum or another plain wrapping material, you can use masking tape to create a legible label.
Obviously, the most important piece of information to include on the label is the name of the recipe. If there is room on the label, include the ingredients as well. By knowing exactly what you put in each meal you’ll know if you need additional vitamins, like calcium supplements, to give you a properly nutritious meal. You should also include the date you made the dish and the date by which you should eat it. In general, food will stay good in the freezer for up to three months. However, certain foods, such as bacon and sausage, only last about a month. Meanwhile, soups and stews can stay in there for two to three months, depending on what is in them. The best way to find out your frozen meal’s expiration date is to visit foodsafety.gov to look up storage times for specific foods.
If you have enough room on your label, you should also include any specific reheating instructions and whether or not it needs to be thawed. With this information neatly noted on the meal, you’ll know exactly what to do and how much time you’ll need to prepare the dish. This preparation can help you avoid planning on a certain meal for dinner only to find when you open it that it needs an entire day more to defrost. Label well and you’ll never be foiled by frozen food again.
Defrost your meals safely
Growing up, you probably saw your parents and grandparents thawing meat on the counter all day in anticipation of throwing it into a nice dinner. However, more education on food contamination has been made available since then and thawing perishable food at room temperature is no longer considered a safe defrosting method. If you leave food out for too long, bacteria can grow and produce toxins. Anyone who eats the food and its microscopic toxins could get food poisoning, which probably isn’t quite the reaction you want when cooking for your family.
The best way to defrost perishable food is to put it in the refrigerator. It will take about a day or two to defrost, but by putting it in the fridge you can ensure that it won’t get warm enough to start producing dangerous bacteria. Another safe way to defrost food is by submerging it in water. The amount of time this method takes will depend on the size and type of food you’re defrosting, but, for reference, a pound of meat usually takes an hour or less to defrost. Fill up your kitchen sink with cold water and make sure your food is in a tightly sealed bag. Submerge the bag in the water and keep it there until it is defrosted. You will need to change the water about every half hour or so.
Of course, the water method of defrosting may not work too well if you have meals stored in containers or bags that cannot fit in the sink and be fully submerged. This usually leaves the refrigerator as the best method for defrosting. Because this method takes more time, it’s important to remember to move the food you want for a meal from the freezer to the fridge at least 24 hours in advance. If you tend to forget to do things like this, try setting a reminder on your phone or putting sticky notes on the fridge or in another place you’re sure to see them.
Know the best freezer-friendly foods
Some foods are easier to freeze than others, and it’s important to know the difference. While you may want to make a meal because of its nutritional value that can help prevent ailments like hair loss, you don’t want to cook an entire meal and stick it in the freezer, only to find when you take it out that it’s become a frozen or rotten mess. That won’t help your hair now or later. Refer to this list of freezer-friendly foods to know what you can use to make meals that will freeze and reheat successfully:
While these items are reliable champs in the freezer, there are some foods that don’t fare so well. Low-fat cream cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, and uncooked potatoes become a bit funky when you keep them in the freezer. If you’re ever unsure as to whether a certain food will hold up well, do a quick search on the internet to find the answer. There are handy charts and lists across the online world that act as great guides to freezing your food.
Whether you’re cooking up tasty meals in your outdoor kitchen or indoor kitchen, you try batch cooking for your family. All you need is some careful planning, smart shopping, and a strategic way of fitting many containers into your freezer. Once you try it, however, you’ll see just how much easier it is to make a large amount of food all at once and eat it bit-by-bit, as your family needs it.
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