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Family Meals: Cooking Ahead

This is the second in my series, “Staying On Top of Family Meals”. Last week I talked about the importance of planning ahead, and today we’re going to look at cooking ahead.

Now, the phrase “cooking ahead” implies there will be actual cooking involved, but even if you’re not that kind of girl, you can do the sous chef work that we all do – dicing up fruit, packaging the goldfish into small containers or Ziplocs – ahead of time, so that life doesn’t overwhelm you when you’re running late and trying to get out the door. So even if you’re a Stouffer’s or Pizza Hut kind of girl, you should keep reading this article.

But let’s be optimistic here, and assume that you’re planning on cooking at least a couple times a week. If that’s the case, with just a little planning ahead and a teensy bit of extra work at the time, you’ll buy yourself a couple nights off in the not-so-distant future. Obviously, you noticed the “plan ahead” part of that last sentence – so re-read last week’s entry if you’ve forgotten what we’ve already covered. Then get ready to cook.

Let’s say you’ve got lasagna on the menu for the week. Make sure it’s a day when you’ve got some time to work in the kitchen, because lasagna, while easy (and I’ve got a killer recipe), is definitely labor-intensive. And if you’re going to be standing in the kitchen with a lasagna assembly line going, you might as well make more. So that’s my biggest tip of the day – double – or even triple – cook. If I make lasagna, I make four or five pans of it. I freeze the rest, cooled to room temperature, wrapped carefully, and with explicit instructions written out on a piece of masking tape laid across the top. This serves two purposes: one, I know I’ve got backup in the freezer, and can pull out a good dinner if I’m ever tired or broke or sick; and two, I can easily slide one out of the freezer for a sick friend, instructions already written out and ready to go.

I cook ahead regularly, and would say on average I’ve got four to six different frozen meals in my stand-up freezer: lasagna, or an enchilada dish, or a scratch macaroni and cheese, that sort of thing. Easy-to-freeze comfort food that’s easy to defrost when needed.

And you don’t have to cook a whole meal ahead, either; feel free to fix a few key ingredients and keep until needed. If I make a batch of a certain kind of enchilada, I find they freeze poorly because the sauce makes the bottom of the tortilla too mushy. But I’ll double the meat filling and double the sauce and freeze both, so when I’m ready I can throw another batch together in minutes.

I don’t always cook extra ingredients for the same recipe, either; over-cook some basics and you’ll always be that much closer to a hot home-cooked meal, fast. If I’m making a chicken stir-fry, I’ll cook extra chicken and freeze it to throw into an easy chicken lo mein or to toss with some broccoli and fettucine. If a recipe calls for a half-pound of ground beef browned up, I’ll buy a pound and a half instead, brown the whole thing, and save the extra to throw in spaghetti sauce or a pasta dish. You get the picture.

One of the most important meals for me to cook ahead for is breakfast. And I know there are lots of you out there who think anything more than a bowl of cereal is beyond you, but listen, don’t sell yourself short. I absolutely refuse to get up one minute earlier than I have to, but I have a decent array of breakfast foods for my kids to choose from, and they’ve never once skipped breakfast. We make homemade breakfast/granola bars and freeze them pre-cut. We make breakfast “cookies” and freeze them. I get the girls involved in the process, and they are more excited about the meal. We make yogurt probably twice a week and granola once a month, but it means we’ve always got yet another breakfast alternative on hand. And when I’m feeling really fancy, I’ll prepare mini-quiches and freeze them for Maddie, who loves to eat a couple of those for breakfast. My crowning achievement, though, is French toast: if I whip up a batch for us one lazy morning, I’ll make a double batch and only cook half. The other half I’ll still drench immediately, but lay the egg-dipped bread out on a cookie sheet and freeze up, then pop into a Ziploc and cook one cold morning as needed. The girls love it and I don’t have to work nearly as hard.

The grill is one of my favorite places to cook ahead, partly because it’s my favorite way to cook meat, but mostly because it’s Brian’s domain and not mine. I’ll send him out the door Sunday evening with some beautiful steaks to grill up for us, plus a couple extra. We’ll dine on steak and potatoes that night, then I’ll use the deliberate leftovers to make an easy stroganoff the next night, and a yummy steak salad for lunch the day after that. Rice is another excellent make-ahead dish: cook enough for dinner tonight, doubled or tripled. Then tomorrow you’ve got the rice for your chili already cooked, and the night after that your fried rice will be a snap. Fried rice is best made with slightly stale rice anyway.

I’ll try to make one day a week (or two days a month) a “cook ahead” day, and get all the “other” cooking out of the way: muffins I want to make and freeze to use up the last of the pumpkin puree, or making another batch of granola, or rolling out and freezing a huge tray of meatballs. I know this might sound exhausting, but I promise it’s a huge help.

Now that you’re completely overwhelmed, let’s step back and talk about the easy things anyone can do. I’m talking, of course, about all that mind-numbing prep work that takes up so much time in a mom’s life. If you grocery shop on Sunday, spend some time that evening dicing up the snack veggies for the week, or cubing cheese, or whatever it is you offer that’s tedious. I use those little Glad snack-size tupperwares as if they’re going out of style, and will often pre-fill those little containers with some of my snack staples such as dried mango or cheerios with dried strawberries. The sight of all those little snack containers neatly lined up makes my heart flutter happily, especially when it’s 7 a.m. and I’m running on two hours of sleep.

Listen, I know that this can sound incredibly overwhelming. I know I cook way more than some of you do, and waaaaaaaaaaaaaay more than others of you do. And I know that I’ve got more time available to be in the kitchen than some of you who work full-time outside the home. But I promise, just try one thing out of these suggestions and you’ll see a difference. You don’t have to make your own yogurt or layer your own lasagnas to be able to plan ahead a few meals at a time and cook in batches. With a little cooking ahead, you’ll buy yourself some valuable down time.

And isn’t that what this is all about?


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