Sunday, March 21, 2010

Thrifty Eats: Batch Cooking

Sundays are a wonderful day to kick back, enjoy the weather if it's lovely out, and perhaps get some chores and projects done around the house. I try to reserve a few hours of my Sunday to cook in bulk, no matter what my other obligations and desires are, because it ends up saving so much time and effort throughout the week, never mind money!

The first step in this process is to take stock of your pantry and refrigerator. If you're a Virgo, you will likely love this one: make a list of what you have on hand, with food group categories and quantities (this can be fun and be made permanent in Excel, if you are a spreadsheet girl like Struggling to Be Stylish). With a quick glance at your list you should be able to come up with one or two meals that can be made with only a few additional ingredients. Cross off your items as you include them on a separate meal-planning list, and create a shopping list for what you're missing while you're at it. Trust me, it sounds complex but you will waste so much less and avoid spending on take-out because you can't figure out what to make! Be sure to actually examine all foods you're planning to use and toss any expired produce or growing-its-own-colony bread. Once you've disovered what you need and made room for it, step two is, obviously, going shopping.

The old adages will serve you well here: don't shop on an empty stomach. Avoid the middle aisles where the chips and cookies live and try to stick to the whole, fresh foods around the perimeter. Make a list and stick to it. Try not to bring children who are easily swayed by fancy packaging and promises of gobs of salt and sugar.

The biggest mistake most Americans make when shopping for produce is buying far too much. If you've planned your meals you should know exactly what you need, and perhaps grab a few extra pieces of fruit for snacks. Don't worry that you'll run out-- you can always go to the store again if need be. It makes a lot more sense to shop twice a week than to end up throwing out piles of spoiled greens and smooshy zucchinis.

I like to do much of the washing and chopping immediately when I get home from the market so that vegetable snacks are easy to grab instead of junk. I keep Tupperware filled with carrot and celery sticks stacked on one side of the fridge, and sometimes diced peppers for quick meals as well. This is when I begin a big pot of chili or pasta with vegetables, also, while I'm getting the rest of the groceries put away and the kitchen cleaned up again. When it's done and cooled, I separate it into containers, label them and freeze them. Then I have my very own "Lean Cuisines" for work lunches or nights I am only cooking for myself. Saving $5-$10 at every meal by not getting takeout is definitely worth the extra effort.

Here are a few of my own "batch cooking" recipes, all of which are ridiculously easy and freeze tremendously well, published on SparkRecipes by SparkPeople (a terrific free healthy lifestyle site if that's something you're interested in!):

Vegetarian Chili
Lentil Stew
Spinach Mushroom pasta

Invest in a label-maker or just use small post-its to indicate what something is and when it was made, whether you store it in the fridge or freezer. Most leftovers have a shelf-life of one week. Most frozen goods can be stored six months to a year. Indicate when it should be tossed by, not just when it was made! Here's my fridge with the new system in place:

You're looking at a whopping 9 cubic feet of storage space (about a third of your average fridge) so planning is essential for me. You may not want or need to be quite this OCD about it, but keeping things visible, neat and labeled will help diminish the amount of money and food you waste.

The last thing I'll mention here is that these frozen meals and any leftovers should never be reheated in their plastic containers. Ziploc has pledged to not put any terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad dioxins or BPAs in their products, but no other brand has to my knowledge, and due to a lack of awareness/caring/FDA testing or regulation, we're still unsure how dangerous many other plastics in common use are. Better to defrost at room temperature until it's possible to slide your meal out and into glass (or microwave-safe ceramic without metal-based glazes) before microwaving. Or as a last resort in a time pinch, nuke for a few seconds to defrost/loosen from the plastic before doing most of the actual cooking in glass or ceramic.

Do you enjoy batch cooking? If so, please share a favorite recipe (it doesn't have to be meatless by any means, by the way).

Happy cooking!

1 comment:

  1. Oooh this is great! I have Mondays off from work and the hubby's gone so I use this day to get my business work done, but also cook some kind of yummy slow cooker recipe that we use for lunches for days:-)

    Great advice, and love the blog!


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