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Let’s face it. What mom has gobs of free time on her hands? Since having children, the only free time I’ve ever had was when I was too sick to enjoy the time off.
When people are new to TF, one of the first questions they ask is how to reduce the amount of time they are spending in the kitchen. Ferments, cooking and baking from scratch, making stock and cooking 2-3 meals a day plus snacks can eat up a lot of time if you let it. Beginners feel overwhelmed by trying to squeeze more time out of an already busy day. I normally give the same words of advice to everyone that asks:
- Only learn new skills as you have time and opportunity, so you don’t overload yourself. Trying to learn to ferment, make stock, cook dry beans, start sourdough, replace white sugar and flour, hide organ meats in a meal and cook from scratch all at one time will burn you out and make you quit before the first week is up! And, of course, that is if your family happily eats everything you put on the table, otherwise you might not even get that far! Start with the one thing you feel is most important to you and your family’s health, master that, then move on to the next thing. Some small changes, like moving from iodized to sea salt, will likely go unnoticed by your family. Those changes are quick and easy. But the changes that are more difficult, like reducing sugar and moving away from white flour, need to be done slowly so your family will accept them and you won’t go insane in the process. Our baby steps discussion on the CTF forum can help.
- Stick to basic meals and skip the fancy stuff until you’re into a routine and have a frozen inventory built up of the basics you need- stock, cooked beans and the like.
- Write out a weekly plan of attack, focusing on only one ‘extra’ per day, such as making stock or soaking and cooking dry beans, on the days you know you will be home and you don’t have a batch cooking session scheduled. Write in all of your reminders for the week, such as when to thaw the meat, soak the beans and soak the grains. This will prevent you from realizing at dinner you should have put that whole chicken in the refrigerator yesterday to thaw! The sample Menu Mailer has an example of how I write out these schedules so you won’t wind up eating out when you make a mistake.
- Don’t be afraid to let the crock-pot, food processor or another appliance do the work for you.
- Don’t be afraid to recruit your kids to help with both the cooking and the clean-up. At 4 years old, my kids were competent enough to start learning to clear the table, sweep the floor, unload the dishwasher and put away items stored in the bottom cabinets. By 6, they can load plates, cups and silverware into the dishwasher. By 7, they were loading and unloading the dishwasher by themselves and beginning to learn how to hand-wash dishes. Now at 8, the only thing my daughter doesn’t do in the kitchen when she works with me is use sharp objects and take things out of the oven. She’s learned how to saute, scramble eggs, assemble casseroles, mix up baked goods, make soups and more with me standing beside her while I work on chopping veggies or preparing another food item.
- And most importantly, batch cook everything possible.
Batch cooking is, by far, my biggest time saver. It is my sanity in an otherwise crazy, jam-packed life. The Menu Mailer contains one batch cooked meal per week for this very reason. Those frozen meals can provide quick lunches, emergency dinners when you’d otherwise stop at a drive-though, a back-up plan when you have to travel with no notice or you get sick and can’t cook. When you have a special project going, like painting the house or an activity away from home, you don’t have to futz with a crock-pot at 6am before you walk out the door. You just take the food out of the freezer the day before and put it into the fridge to thaw. You only have to heat it up when it’s time to eat!
Pick a Freezable Meal Your Family Loves
There are a few guidelines as to what will and won’t freeze. Hard-boiled eggs and cooked pasta (except lasagna) are bad bets. Large amounts of mayonnaise will crack and run. Meats frozen without a sauce of some kind will normally turn out dry if you don’t know how to cook and reheat it correctly. Things like sloppy joe filling, spaghetti sauce, lasagna, marinated or BBQ pork or chicken and chili freeze beautifully.
Start with a recipe you already know your family loves. That way, there’s no disappointment at having to eat the meal again if a new recipe you’re trying turns out to be a flop.
Decide The Size
Make sure you have the ingredients, the equipment and the freezer space. You need to know how much you can comfortably make before you start cooking. Can your oven hold 2 or 4 9×13 pans? How big is your biggest bowl? Biggest stock pot? If you quadruple this recipe, will you run out of space in the bowl, pot or oven? Figure out what your equipment limitations are then turn to looking at your recipe.
Write out your recipe in the quantity you will be cooking it in so you don’t have to stand in the kitchen and try to calculate fractions in your head while cooking. If you’re like me, with kids running around, the cat begging for dinner and the phone ringing off the hook, it’s a sure recipe for distraction and disaster.
Are there any ingredients you don’t have enough of to double or triple a recipe? What is your limiting ingredient?
Do you have the freezer space to hold the extra? Do you need any special containers or packaging, such as 2-gallon ziplock bags, in order to freeze the meal?
Decide the Frequency
How often do you need to batch cook? How often would you like to batch cook? How many meals do you need stashed in the freezer, and how soon? Do you need some extra lunches frozen in single-serving containers? We keep weekday lunches for my husband in single serving containers and dinner for one night a week and two nights a month in the freezer, because that is our regular schedule.
If you know you need one meal a week for the day you get home late, you should batch cook twice a week for a bit to have some extra food in reserve in case of illness or another out of the ordinary occurrence, so you don’t wind up short. Because of our food allergies, I try to keep an extra 10 dinners and 3-4 breakfasts in reserve in addition to the ones I normally keep on hand for weekly use, because eating out isn’t something we could easily do in a family emergency.
Hide the Extra BEFORE the Meal
If you leave out the extra where the family can see it, chances are they will eat it before you can get it tucked away. Go ahead and hide it in the fridge (or oven if you didn’t use it in preparing the meal) before you call the family for dinner, so they won’t eat the extra food. Most women find if they leave the extra food out, there won’t be enough for more than a lunch. Package the food up as you wish to freeze it, mark it with the name and date and place the food in the refrigerator overnight to cool. Move it to the freezer the next morning.
Keep a list of what’s in the freezer
You won’t use what you have if you don’t have it written down somewhere. Few of us have minds like a steep trap, and even if you do, you don’t need to devote those neurons firing to something as petty as running lists of what is in your freezer. Keep a page protector taped to the door of the freezer and use a dry erase marker to keep track of it all. Place all of the ready-to-eat meals in a particular area of your freezer, and write it on the page protector when you put it in and erase it when you pull it out to use it.
Finally, know that you do not have to freeze the extra food if you are going to use it within three days. If your family does not object to eating the same meal twice in a short period of time, this can save you the extra steps of freezing and thawing the meal.
KerryAnn Foster runs Cooking Traditional Foods, the longest running Traditional Foods Menu Mailer on the internet. KerryAnn has over nine years of traditional foods experience and is a former Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader. Founded in 2005, CTF helps you feed your family nourishing foods they will love. Each mailer contains one soup, five dinners, one breakfast, on dessert and extras. You can learn more about our Menu Mailers at the CTF website. For a free sample Menu Mailer, join our mailing list. You can also join our forum to chat with other traditional foodists and learn more.