5 Tips to Eat More Home-Cooked Meals from a NON Meal Planner
We all know that home-cooked meals are healthier for our waistlines and our budgets, but it can be so darn hard for those of us who don't like to be in the kitchen! Even if you do like to be in the kitchen, maybe you're in a particular season (like stress at work or caretaking children or elders) that makes it more challenging. Maybe you wrote yourself off as someone who is destined to eat out every few days. Well, let me tell you, you don't have to waste your money on that sub-par restaurant food, even if you're not a meal planner! I'm going to share my tips for getting easy home cooked meals on the table while still spending minimal time in the kitchen.
By the way, folks, I know home-cooked meals aren't all candle-lit relaxing evenings with a nice bottle of wine, like the photo above. Ours are often more like kids jumping on the table, entire mountains of food dropping on the floor and a half-drank glass of wine. But I wanted to use the photo above as a reminder of how our home-cooked meals can be at least some of the time. Cheers to chaos!
#1 Batch-Cook Simple Ingredients
If you're like me, you don't want to spend every evening cooking a big fancy meal then having to clean up a huge mess before you collapse into bed, exhausted. It's not that you don't like cooking, but doing it day after day is exhausting. Batch cooking is a great work-around! If you're going to be cooking, then make sure you're cooking enough for 3-5 meals.
I rotate my batch cooking. One day I'll cook a big side dish of veggies. Another day I'll cook the meat and so on. That way I'm in the kitchen a little bit every day and I don't have to do a giant kitchen day. Other people batch cook once a week or once a month. The secret to successful batch cooking is to make it work for you! My personal secret to successful batch cooking is to cook the individual ingredients separately (see below), then incorporate those ingredients into different types of meals throughout the week. Here are some of my favorite ingredients to batch cook:
- Beans of all kinds, with or without meat. I cook 3-4 cups of dry beans at a time. With all the steps of soaking, sprouting and rinsing, this saves me a lot of time.
- Carbohydrates such as rice, quinoa, potatoes, etc. I don't freeze these, but I'll cook enough for 3-5 meals so we can eat them at least once a day for a few days.
- Meat - Again, I'll cook enough for 3-5 meals. I don't usually freeze cooked meat, unless it's in a liquid (like soup, beans or a marinade).
- Steamed or roasted veggies - Again, I cook enough for 3-5 meals. Veggies are half of most meals in our house, so it's a lot.
- Bone Broth - I suggest you invest in at least a 12 qt pot if you're cooking broth for a family. The 6-8 qt instant pot or slow cooker just doesn't make enough broth to make all the steps worth it. We have a 24 qt that's usually about half full and it's been a game-changer!
- Soups of all kinds!
Here's are some more ideas for meals to batch cook:
- Slow-Cook or Oven-Roast 1-2 Whole Chickens. Put half into the fridge for other meals and put the rest into a big soup for freezing.
Slow cooker Pulled Pork and Beans for a Main dish. Freeze the extra, which can be turned into burritos, chili, tacos, casserole or sliders.
Beef Tomato Sauce for Spaghetti. Freeze the extra sauce, which can become the base for lasagna, chili or stew, or be used as pasta sauce again.
Quiche or Oven Casserole x2
Hamburgers (make extra patties and freeze)
Personally, I prefer to batch cook for 3-5 days because I'm not great at sticking to a weekly plan. My laid-back form of batch cooking doesn't require hardly any planning, which works great for me.
The final point is, when you're putting effort into cooking, that is the best time to put in a little EXTRA effort and take care of a few more meals. Nearly every recipe has some part that lends itself to batch-cooking. So do your future self a favor and batch-it!
#2 Use Your Freezer
Another secret to making batch cooking work for you is your freezer. If you're like me there's been more than a few times when you've made a huge batch of something that you're absolutely sick of by the 2nd or third day (mo-om, chili again??). Your freezer is the secret to transforming your batch-cooked leftovers from totally over it to home-cooked heaven! I prefer freezing things that are in liquid such as soups, stews, beans, and marinaded meat. I don't mess around with freezing casseroles and meatloaf, but I did include some guidelines for those below if you're into that.
How to Freeze and Thaw Foods in Liquid (soups, marinades, beans, etc.)
All you need for storage is yogurt containers. When the food is surrounded by liquid you don't have to worry about freezer burn. Make sure to leave an inch or so at the top of the container for expansion.
When it's time to thaw, place the yogurt container in warm water for 2-3 minutes until the frozen chunk can slide out of the container into your pot. Put a little water in the bottom of the pan and start heating it. You can thaw a quart of soup in about 20 minutes this way, which is a life-saver when you have little ones!
How to Freeze and Thaw Everything Else (casseroles, meatloaf, etc.)
Double-wrap before freezing. Saran-wrap or beeswax wraps are your best friend for the first layer, as they cling to the food and displace almost all the air. For the second layer a ziploc bag, butcher paper or aluminum foil works well. I suggest opting for reusable items as much as possible. I use ziploc
When it's time to thaw, place the frozen food in water (in a plastic bag so it doesn't get soggy) and wait 1-2 hours. Refresh the water when it gets cold to speed the process up.
Quick tip: Many foods, such as casseroles, meat pies, enchiladas, fajitas and lasagna, can be frozen in aluminum baking sheets and go right from the freezer to the oven.
Pro tip: make sure the food is fully cooled before putting it in plastic storage containers or saran wrap. You don't want to leach plastic chemicals into your home-cooked meal!
#3 Build a Recipe Repertoire
Half the battle is figuring out what to cook. Every household needs a few simple recipes that are quick to make and have 10 ingredients or less. Imagine having 7-10 recipes/meals that you know how to cook quickly and easily. These become your go-to recipes for those days (or seasons) when you're tempted to order take-out (I'm looking at you pregnancy and parenthood!). When you take those recipes and cook enough for the month, you'll find you only have to cook a couple times a week.
#4 Focus on Condiments, Sauces and Spices!
Condiments and Spices are the secret to enjoying your home cooked meals just as much as the restaurant food. Eventually you might find you don't want to eat out because it's not as good as what you eat at home. That is happening to us more and more1
Sometimes we eat beans and rice or potatoes, meat and veggies twice a day for 3 days (Remember how I said I don't like to be in the kitchen?). I've found the secret to making the same meal exciting is varying the condiments and spices! You can eat the same foods but have endless flavor combinations. You'll notice a lot of restaurants actually use this trick. They have a lot of the same base ingredients in their meals, but they vary the sauces and spices. Our favorite condiment, hands-down, is sauerkraut. I like to have homemade sauerkraut on hand because then I can eat a lot more of it! A pint of store-bought sauerkraut only lasts us a few meals, which gets expensive when you're on a budget. Here are some of our favorite condiments:
- Sauerkraut - either homemade or purchased from our friends at Blue Bus Cultured Foods or Oregon Brineworks
- Goat cheese or really any cheese
- Mayonnaise - look for brands that are free from Soy, Corn or Canola Oil. Avocado Oil or Olive Oil are best for a healthy ratio of Omega 3:6
- Ume Plum Vinegar
- Hippie Dust (usually known as Nutritional Yeast or Brewer's Yeast)
- Hot sauce
- Toum (Lebanese garlic sauce with a texture similar to mayonnaise, but it's vegan). I buy it from Mother's Market in Hood River.
- Nut Butters are great as a base for sauces and dressings
A lot of the spices we use are strong on the umami flavor, which really kicks up the enjoyment factor! This is just a tiny list, as I'm sure you know. You could spend years trying all the fun sauces out there. It truly will never get boring. Just remember that store bought sauces often have a lot of strange ingredients that you don't want in your diet, so read the labels. If you want to make your own, here are the 5 basic European sauces that can be modified for almost any flavor.
#5 Focus on Embracing Your Helpers and Enjoying Yourself
Before you step foot in the kitchen turn on some music, lie down on the floor and stretch a little, maybe even meditate for a few minutes. Make a yummy drink to enjoy. This is about changing your mindset and relaxing before you get to the kitchen. Pretty soon your brain will start to associate cooking with something enjoyable.
Also, embrace your helpers! If you're like me, you think life would be easier if you could just do everything yourself and not have to think about showing someone else what to do. But you can accomplish so much more when you work together with your family - and you can have fun doing it, too!
If they can eat it, they can help cook it. Both of my babies enjoyed "peeling" garlic in their hi-chairs while I was in the kitchen. The paper was a fun texture for them to play with and it usually helped me out just a little. An 18-month old can help with simple jobs such as washing and tearing lettuce. The key with these young ones is to work with them and enjoy yourself. They'll move on to something else when they're ready.
The key to enjoying it is to let go of the end result, which allows everyone to enjoy the process. Let your kids (or partner) make mistakes. They're doing their best and that's what counts. By including your whole family in a fun kitchen atmosphere, you're giving them a gift that lasts a lifetime: a positive association with cooking and eating!
Focus on what really matters: be grateful that you can be together and that you have an abundance of food to cook. If you do this, cooking and eating at home could become one of your family's favorite past-times.
So turn on some music, get a relaxing drink to sip and try out this whole cooking together thing!
The family that cooks together, stays together.
Those are my 5 tips to eat more home-cooked meals. Do you have any tips that I didn't include here? We'd love to hear what works for you! Let us know in the comments below.