For large families or busy parents with no time to cook every night, bulk cooking can be a lifesaver. Not only is bulk cooking a huge timesaver, but it can also be economical and cut down on wasted leftovers. With smart planning and the right recipe ideas, you can have a whole month's worth of healthy meals ready to go!
There are a few different methods for bulk cooking: freeze and reheat whole meals, big-pot leftover meals, and multi-use ingredient meals. Which method you choose depends on if your family is keen on eating leftovers, how big of a group you're feeding, and how much freezer/fridge space you have.
Full Frozen Meals: Reheat and Eat!
There are many foods that lend themselves to freezing and reheating. By knowing what does and doesn't hold up in the freezer you can prepare full entrees and side dishes that can be easily popped in the oven for a home cooked meal ready in 30 minutes with no effort.
The object of making fully prepared meals is that you do all the cooking ahead of time and freeze it so all that's needed is reheating. If you can set aside a day or two to prepare a variety of main and side dishes, you can have a ready-to-go dinner in minutes.
The trick to full meal freezing is to make foods that freeze and portion well. A whole 13x9 pan of lasagna can be split in 2 batches to freeze and re-bake at a later date. Soups are great to freeze in family-size or individual portions and can be moved to the fridge to thaw the day before.
When preparing foods for freezing, make sure you label everything! Make sure to include the date the dish was made along with what the dish actually is to prevent yourself from playing "guess the mystery food" when your freezer is running bare. Remember to cover everything completely and try to remove as much air and excess moisture as possible to avoid freezer burn.
Big Pots Mean Big Leftovers
If you're a parent to a pack of teenagers who will eat just about anything, you're in luck! You can cook big batches of your families' favorite foods that will last for 2 or more nights. This means after the initial cooking night, you can just pull the leftovers from the fridge and reheat without any additional preparation.
Casseroles, spaghetti sauce, soups and stews, and pasta bakes all make great large batches that reheat well the next day. Spaghetti sauce is one of the greatest reusable pot meals as it tends to improve the day after as the flavors mix. All you need to do the next night is boil some more pasta and serve with a fresh salad or steamed veggies. To get a great mix of protein and veggies all in one sauce, try this recipe:
Chunky Spaghetti Stew
2 jars prepared pasta sauce (traditional or a veggie-included chunky blend)
1 small onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
4 links cooked Italian sausage, sliced
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Spray a large pot with non-stick cooking spray and add the ground beef. Fry on medium-high heat until browned, then add in the onion, peppers and garlic. Continue to cook on medium-high until the onions are translucent and the peppers soften. Add the tomato sauce, seasoning and cooked sausage then mix to heat through.
This dish can be eaten alone as a stew, or served over pasta or rice. Cooked leftovers should be used within 4 days in the fridge or up to 3 months frozen. Cook it Once, Use it Again
Reusing bulk ingredients can be a time and money saver when it comes to meals. Many meats can be bought in bulk and then prepared in a variety of ways for many different dishes. The various parts of whole chickens can be used in several meals, and ground beef has too many uses to list!
Using boneless, skinless chicken breasts as an example, you can put your slow cooker to use and create shredded chicken for a variety of meals. Use a simple seasoning, like a garlic and herb mix with a little chicken broth to cook the breasts on low for 6-8 hours. They'll be falling apart with the natural grain, and perfect for many dishes. Flour tortillas and cheese will turn into chicken quesadillas, while a bag of frozen Asian vegetables and a bottle of teriyaki stir fry sauce can make a healthy chicken stir-fry you can serve with rice or noodles.
Ground beef is a common meat to find both in bulk and on sale - take advantage and stock up! Not only can it be portioned out and frozen for use later, but it can be browned up one night and used in dishes for the next two. The common staples of taco meat and Sloppy Joes are great, but try adding a can of French onion soup and a can of cream of mushroom soup, plus a half-cup of sour cream or low-fat plain yogurt...instant beef stroganoff!
Buying In Bulk
Warehouse clubs are becoming more popular as families look to save on groceries. For bulk purchasing, you need to have adequate storage space for what you're buying and a good plan for using it. Be careful when deciding on fresh foods, as you either need to prepare them for freezing or know you can use them all before they spoil.When storing bulk meats, portion them out into family-sized sets so they're easy to work with later. Cut whole chickens into pieces and store in airtight freezer bags labeled with the date and contents; ground meats or steaks can also be frozen in the same method. You may want to invest in a vacuum sealing food bag system which will do a much better job at preventing freezer burn.
Vegetables should be cleaned and prepared in ready-to-eat pieces before storing. Most vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, zucchini, and cob corn do best when blanched in hot water for 3 minutes, and then shocked in an ice water bath for 3 more minutes. Allow to dry on paper towels before freezing in bags or airtight plastic containers. Potatoes do best when baked and then frozen.
If you plan ahead, shop smart, and store well, you can have ready-to-go dinners in the freezer or fridge any night of the week. You'll spend more time eating with your family and less time working in the kitchen without having to resort to take-out menus!