Fall is in full swing. The kids are back to school (or working hard at home) and the adults are trying to find the balance between busy work days and relaxing family meals. With busy schedules, creating healthy, delicious food can be challenging. It is easy to fall into the rut of mac-n-cheese, pizza night, and ready-to-microwave “family style” meals, but there is a better way. With a crockpot, a freezer, and some helping hands, you can feed your family healthy meals that are a snap to put together, even on a busy weeknight. Here’s how.
Cook once, eat all week (or month?)
If you take just one day every couple of weeks to cook with your family, you can freeze meals for the entire month. Here’s how it works:
- Shop sales and buy large quantities. If your family eats meat, keep an eye out for sales and then stock up, planning your meals around your protein. Keep in mind that all meat and veggies should be organic whenever possible. This can get expensive, so stocking up when there is a sale maximizes your food dollars.
- Double or triple your favorite recipes and freeze in dinner-sized portions. You don’t need a chest freezer to make this work. If you make a huge batch of chili, wait for it to cool then ladle it into heavy-duty freezer bags, seal with all the air squeezed out, then freeze flat. This increases your freezer storage exponentially. If you have a large freezer, by all means freeze in glass containers for easy re-heating, but know that freezer bags are also a good option.
- Label all freezer meals with the date made and easy preparation instructions. If you have frozen a fajita meal, include instructions on how to heat and what other ingredients will be needed to complete the meal. Make it as easy as possible. Imagine your youngest literate child assembling dinner and write it so they can understand. Weeknights can be crazy; make it easy on yourself!
- Only cook in quantity what your family loves and will eat. It doesn’t matter if tacos are easy to make if your family hates them or doesn’t love red meat. You will end up either choking down a dinner you don’t love or throwing it out. Both of these are unpleasant options.
- Involve all family members. There is research that indicates that kids who learn how to cook and are involved in meal planning are able to maintain healthy habits into adulthood. Maybe it’s the nutrition information they are getting, or maybe it is the family time that goes into cooking all day. The reason doesn’t really matter. The end result is the same: kids who cook become healthier adults.
What follows is a sample plan for three weeks: fourteen meals for four people!
Roast four chickens. Pick the meat and save the bones for stock. After making the soups below, freeze leftover stock in flat freezer bags.
Chicken pot pie
One meal. This is self-contained because of the veggies and potatoes. No other sides are needed! Double the recipe for another meal.
- 2 cups shredded or finely cooked chicken
- 2 cups chicken gravy (use the stock to make simple chicken gravy)
- 2 cups diced potatoes
- 1 12-oz bag of frozen peas and carrot (or any veggie combination your family likes)
- ¼ onion, chopped
- 2 ready-made pie crusts (or make your own! Here is a great regular recipe, or a gluten-free one if you prefer)
- Pinch of dried thyme (or fresh if you have it, chopped)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Line pie tin with one crust. In a large bowl mix all ingredients together. Pour into pie tin and top with second pie crust. Pinch edges of crust together to seal. Poke a few holes in the top crust. At this point, you can freeze the pie. To cook, take directly from the freezer and cook at 350˚ until the inside is bubbly and the crust is golden brown. You may need to cover the crust with aluminum foil to prevent burning, then remove foil in the last 15 minutes of cooking.
Two meals. These are usually very popular with kids, so adjust accordingly. Combine two tablespoons of this seasoning recipe for every two cups of chopped, cooked chicken. Slice two bell peppers and one large red onion (more of both if your family loves them!) and mince two cloves of garlic. Sauté bell peppers, onions, and garlic with the seasoning until just barely tender. Divide vegetables into two bags and add two cups of chicken to each bag. To serve, thaw and sauté until warmed all the way through, then serve with warm tortillas. For tacos, you can serve with sour cream, avocado, shredded lettuce, and salsa.
Chicken burrito bowls
One meal, plus leftovers. Super easy to pull together quickly at the end of the day.
Bring the following ingredients to a boil in a large soup pot: 1 can diced tomatoes, 1 1/4 cups chicken stock, 2 teaspoons chili powder, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon cumin. When they are boiling, add 1 cup of brown rice. Lower hear and cook until the rice is nearly tender, then add 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed, 2 cups of shredded or chopped cooked chicken, and 1 cup of frozen corn. Continue cooking until the beans, chicken, and corn are heated through. At this point, you can freeze flat in bags, then thaw and re-heat to serve with avocado, shredded cheese, and sour cream.
Slow cooker chicken enchilada soup
One meal, plus leftovers. Serve with crusty bread or cornbread. Use this slower-cooker recipe, but add the cooked chicken at the end to warm when you are ready to serve or freeze. Serve with cornbread.
Chicken salad sandwiches
One meal, plus leftovers. The variations on these are endless! This is a quick Friday night meal. Serve with chips, apples and caramel, or a quick green salad.
Brown five pounds of ground beef. Make a triple batch of marinara sauce. This can be meatless if you choose. If not, add two pounds of the ground beef when cooking the vegetables. Assemble two lasagnas in either disposable aluminum pans or in glass pans. These will use two batches of your marinara sauce. Reserve another batch for spaghetti.
Two meals plus leftovers. Layer with sliced zucchini and thawed/drained spinach for veggie lasagna.
One meal. Add the same seasoning you made for the chicken fajitas to a pound of ground beef. Freeze.
Reheat and serve with taco shells, shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, and avocado.
One meal. Add a big green salad or roast some broccoli for a side.
Two meals, plus leftovers for lunch. Add a big green salad.
Split pea soup
One meal, or double recipe and make two.
Brown half of a chopped onion in 2 tablespoons of oil, add 2 carrots cut into coins, 4 cups of vegetable or chicken stock, and one small bag of split peas. Bring to a boil, and then simmer until peas are tender. Mash with an immersion blender or leave chunky. Salt and pepper to taste!
One meal, unless your family loves it, then make two!
Defrost and drain 12-oz of frozen spinach. Mix with ¼ cup of chopped onion, 2 beaten eggs, 2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese, 1 cup of milk, ½ teaspoon of nutmeg, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Pour into a greased pie tin. Freeze at this point. When you are ready to eat, thaw and then bake at 375˚ for 45 minutes.)
If this type of planning is too much for you, there are websites that can help plan everything from shopping to cooking. Once a Month Meals is not a free site, but it offers menus for many different dietary needs, including gluten-free and paleo diets. They also post a monthly baby food menu for the littlest members of your clan and a vegetarian menu for the herbivores among you.
With a little planning and just a little time, you can make weeknight cooking much easier. What is your favorite time-saving meal?
Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr