Even people who love to cook, take joy in planning meals, and cherish the trip to the grocery store get into a rut now and again. At least once a week, when I am staring down deadlines, soccer practice, helping with homework, etc. I just feel too overwhelmed to even deal and off we go for pizza, takeout from the fancy gourmet market, or (shamefacedly) fast food.
But the takeout trap gets very expensive (both calorie-wise and financially) very fast. For many people, family dinners are super important, and find that it's just not the same when they're gathering around food they just unwrap and eat.
One solution is a really sanity saver: Big batch cooking.
It works like this: You make an enormous batch of something, usually something casserole-ish, and divide it into four baking pans which go into the freezer. Weeks later, when you find yourself up to the ears in obligations, simply take out one of the pans, let it thaw, and pop it in the oven. In less than an hour, voila, dinner. And even though the word casserole strikes fear into the hearts of those of us who are all too familiar with the bland, can-of-cream-soup variety, there are plenty of dishes that use fresh ingredients and freeze beautifully.
Real Simple's take on these big batch dishes was to use your extras for a meal swap with other families. A friend of mine does that and loves it. I opted not to with the first thing I made (these Chicken Enchiladas Verdes) and it was actually really great to have three pans of it hoarded in the freezer: My whole family loved it, each pan has enough for lunches the next day, and it was faboo to look at our schedules and realize that even though daughter has soccer, husband has a late meeting and won't be home on time, and I have three deadlines, there would still be dinner, complete with vegetable and starch, on the table come 6 p.m. And I might even remain relatively unfrazzled while doing it.
A couple of tips I discovered while doing this:
- Use those disposable foil baking pans from the grocery store, unless you have a bazillion spare baking dishes laying around. Double-wrap the top with aluminum foil, and spray the underside of the foil (the side that will be touching the food) with cooking spray.
- On said aluminum foil, write with a Sharpie the name of the dish, the cooking temperature and the cooking time. The whole point is to be unfrazzled, and tearing up the kitchen looking for the recipe to find those things? That, my friends, is frazzling.
- If you're not sure that your family will like a dish, make a "single family" recipe of it first. I did that this week with the seafood casserole, and while it was good, I would make it with all shrimp or substitute whatever other shellfish I could find on sale, like scallops, for the tilapia and throw some Old Bay in with the seasoning. If I'd made the big batch of it, we'd have several big pans of something that is okay, but not great; since I did the single recipe first I know what tweaks I need to make ... and that my family will eat it.
- If you hate leftovers, halve the recipes and freeze them in smaller pans. You'll still get four meals, but each meal should be just enough for four. The Real Simple recipes say each family-size dish serves four; my family of four had leftovers, and we are not small eaters. This will use every single pan, pot, and bowl you have and your kitchen will look like a bomb hit it when you're done. The payoff in ease down the line is worth it.
While the Real Simple story has some good tips and nice recipes, there are other dishes that lend themselves to making a double or triple batch and freezing for the future. Chili, ratatouille, chicken pot pies and lasagna all freeze beautifully, as do carnitas and pesto (which require some additional assembly or cooking, but are still as easy as throwing together a sandwich).
What's your dinnertime secret weapon?
Image via Kathleen Franklin (armigeress)/Flickr