I've been browsing the WFPB (whole-food, plant-based) groups and forums, and this question seems to come up every time. It's easy to sense the frustration in this question, and we've probably all been there. Between jobs, family, the heat and other necessary distractions, who's got time to sit down with fancy cooking magazines are decide on a decent meal, shop for the ingredients, and get it on the table?
This eternal question "Yikes! It's almost dinnertime! What should I make?" begs the larger issue: planning. That doesn't sound like much fun, but it's the missing element.
If you've been reading my posts for any length of time, you'll have noticed that I bang on about batch cooking and list making. I don't like being caught off at the last minute, standing in the kitchen with a 'deer in the headlights' look on my mug. I'll admit that I'm a systems thinker and inveterate planner, but that didn't happen overnight. It was a learned defense against crying, shouting and catastrophe. I might still get upset, even angry, at times, but rarely over the small stuff like getting dinner on the table.
I make lists. But, I also 'batch cook' like crazy. It's like making a date with my kitchen.
For just a couple of hours - usually on a weekend - I'll make perhaps a seasonal soup or stew, a sauce (and make enough to freeze portions!), some beans, a couple grains in the Instant Pot. This is batch cooking - aka meal prep, bulk cooking. And, it can be a lifesaver. Think about it like this: you come home and spend maybe 30 minutes to an hour making dinner every night. What if you could cut that down by half simply by batch cooking once or twice during the week? Not only have you saved time for other things, but you've given yourself the gift of creative, tasty and different meals throughout the week rather than 'leftover' hell.
Batch cooking is how restaurants keep the food rolling out to hungry diners. Food is prepped or cooked in advance and then either heated or assembled to order. These kitchen prep containers of prepared ingredients so when you order the cooks can throw it all together fast.
The benefits of batch cooking:
1- You'll spend less time cooking. Unless you're me, and LOVE to cook, that can be a positive. But, even I get busy and don't have the time or energy to make something creative - from scratch - every night. This was especially apparent during this past year when I was preparing three meals a day. Every day. Until it was safe to go out.
2- Batch cooking will make that Vitamix blender, fancy food processor or chef's knife really earn their keep. I use my Vitamix (bought refurbished on Amazon) at least once a week.
3- Batch cooking saves money. With good prepared food waiting in your fridge, you'll be less tempted to blow money on an over-priced, and probably less healthy option. After a long day at the job, it's tempting to pull in the drive-thru unless you already know that you have tastier, healthier prepared ingredients at home that will pull together in minutes.
4- Batch cooking frees you up from indecision. Got time and energy? Then go ahead and make that Instagram-worthy recipe with fancy ingredients. Not exactly feeling it? You've got plenty of non-recipe, 'kitchen sink' ingredients to build tasty, creative meals on the fly.
5- Batch cooking will help support your health and wellness goals. We all get distracted from our goals. Batch cooking in advance will empower you to make better choices simply because they're readily available.
Batch cooking isn't really about filling up your freezer - although that's a strategy some employ. It's more about avoiding indecision and chaos during the week. Done right, you can mix and match elements, such as a grain with a protein (legumes, tofu, tempeh or the many meat analogues now available) with a vegetable with a salad with a soup. There's always a meal in your fridge, ready to go with a minimum of drama.
One of the benefits of this way of approaching cooking is that it also allows you to have single servings available any time you need it. If you cook an Instant Pot of rice, you can scoop out one serving later, pair it with a scoop of beans - for example, whip up a fast salad out of already prepped salad stuff and you're good to go! The rest of your batches are there - to be used in different ways - for the family when needed.
Batch cook your favorite ingredients!
Although some people prefer to batch cook entire meals and freeze them in portions, I prefer to batch cook basic ingredients for maximum versatility. To begin with, ask yourself "what are some of my favorite, basic foods?". Then, identify what the basic, go-to ingredients are for those foods. That's where you start. Batch cooking ingredients in this way allows you to kill multiple 'birds' with one pot at one time.
Love tomato-sauced things? Make a batch of any reasonably basic red sauce that floats your boat and keep it handy. Make enough for about three meals - six servings for a couple. Splash it over pasta for meal one. For the second go-round, take a portion and toss in handfuls of fresh and/or frozen vegetables, beans, leftover pasta (from the first night) and call it "soup". For the last iteration, cook some red lentils and toss those in the remaining red sauce, and serve that over your batch cooked rice or baked yams.
Love potatoes? If you're going to bother cooking once, make it count. Toss a couple extra potatoes/yams/sweets in and use 'em on another night. Leftover potatoes can be sautéed with fresh/frozen veggies and onions as a 'hash'. Or, make potato salad with my amazing no-oil, vegan mayonnaise. Or, toss 'em into a fast as lightening soup with fresh/frozen veggies. Oh, and hard winter squash is another thing that you can do this with - example, butternut squash.
Love rice? Make a double batch of whatever type you like. Maybe even two types: Brown rice and maybe Wild Rice. Rice is so easy to 'repurpose'. Simply heat and use as a side dish. Amp it up for meal two by sautéeing leftover rice with fresh/frozen vegetables (think: minced onions, green onions, chiffonade of any leafy greens, frozen peas, sliced almonds for example) as a hearty side or even a main when served with a salad. Open and rinse a can of beans to serve in a Rice Bowl for meal three, completing the picture with a salad.
Love pasta? Cook once. Eat at least twice. Obviously, pasta can be sauced with red for the typical main. But, what about a fast pasta salad with lots of diced/sliced steamed, chilled vegetables you've got on hand? Think: Asparagus, green beans, finely julienned carrots. Don't forget frozen peas or edamame! Toss with a nice vinaigrette dressing for something fresh, light and healthy. Oh, and delicious.
Love beans? Who doesn't? They're nutritious, delicious and cheap. I'll cook up a one-pound bag of dried beans in the Instant Pot - very basic. Just the bare minimum of seasoning, which allows me to nip and tuck with subsequent meals through the week. Sure, they'll be great just plain as part of a Buddha Rice Bowl with some sautéed veggies, but pour some BBQ sauce over enough for a meal and serve with fresh corn on the cob and a salad. Take the rest and tuck 'em into warm tortillas - I keep a bag in the freezer for whims like this - with some sautéed vegetables that I had on hand.
I keep talking about handfuls of frozen vegetables. They're a lifesaver! I keep them in the freezer - out of the bags they came in and into clear ziplock bags so that I can grab a handful and rock on. The clear bags allow you to see what and how much you've got at a glance!
When you create a batch of something, immediately post the possibilities - all the ways you can use it - of that item where you'll see it. I use the cupboard door above my cutting block. This is based on what you have in the pantry, fridge and freezer.
Batch prep the fresh!
You can also batch prep fresh vegetables and fruit for meals on the fly. Grate carrots to toss into green salads for extra color and flavor. Slice celery. Cut up watermelon or cantaloupe. Always .... ALWAYS put your fresh vegetables and fruits away with a mind to quick access and use. To shove your purchases into the bin, still in the sad plastic (really?) produce bag is a recipe for chaos. And, mealtime sadness.
Have wrappers at the ready in the freezer!
I keep packages of whole wheat Naan or Roti, tortillas (large and street taco size) and even buckwheat crepes in the freezer for wrapping up leftover dibs and dabs of vegetables, rice, noodles, beans and such. Take out just enough from your frozen stash, a few seconds in the microwave to soften/warm, fill 'em and eat!
Make your batches genre-neutral.
I don't necessarily want to be stuck with Latin-flavored beans or Thai coconut rice for the next foreseeable. That's why I keep it basic. You can always add those flavor profiles in the moment. Restaurants do this all the time.
Lacking motivation to batch cook? Bundle your temptations and make it fun!
Some days I just don't want to go for my walk, but it's the one time in the day that I listen to my favorite podcasts. To make batch cooking more fun, listen to podcasts or music. Involve friends or family. Whatever it takes to make it fun will make it a habit you look forward to.
Learn the essentials of making a great 'bowl' meal with batch-cooked ingredients.
'Bowls' are awesome, and allow for maximum creativity, color and flavor! They can be prepared in minutes with batch-cooked ingredients. Just choose the grain, the greens/vegetables, a protein (which can be a bean, lentil, tofu etc.), and a lip-smacking sauce. Your sauces can go dreamy-creamy by using my vegan, no-added oil mayonnaise mixed with salsa, hot sauces, pestos, fresh herbs, Curry powder, or convenience items like mustard, ketchup or Buffalo Sauce. Ultimately, you're after a mix of colors, textures and flavors in a successful, delicious 'bowl'.
Don't forget to batch cook breakfast!
In the winter, when hot cereal is more appealing, I batch cook an Instant Pot of Five Grain Mix from the Winco grocery bins. It takes like three minutes. Then, I mix in sliced almonds, Goji berries, ground flaxseed, raisins and roasted pumpkin seeds. Put that in a covered container and breakfast is ready, and just needs to be put into a bowl and microwaved with plant milk. In the warmer months, I batch prep a Muesli - more of the uncooked Five Grain Mix - with Grape-Nuts, roasted pumpkin seeds, almonds and Goji berries. I put it in a bowl the night before - maybe with a few shredded whole wheat biscuits. Come morning, I just need to add plant milk, sweetener and fruit. Done. Overnight oat parfaits with fruit can also be batch prepared. Prep your smoothie ingredients the night before - and even for several days ahead - and store in containers, to be combined in the blender. You get it? Right?
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