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“If you are going to make one, you may as well make two.”
– My Mum
While it is great to be able to pull out complete, homemade dinners from the freezer and simply defrost, heat, and consume, it may not be feasible, or you may not desire, to dedicate a few hours to making whole freezer meals. The preparation can feel like a big commitment and organisational undertaking. Advance meal prep does not have to be a huge campaign. Even having one element of a meal at the ready can mean less prep, less shopping, less time and, therefore, more relaxing and enjoyable cooking and eating. When you are preparing an ingredient anyway, it makes sense to make more than you need and to stash away the edible dividends for later. Here are five ways to bank some time and give your future self a little bit of help.
1 – Peel, Grate, Chop, and Mix Once
- Garlic: Peel and grate (or use a food processor) entire heads of garlic at once, mix with oil, and store in clean glass jars in the freezer. It will not freeze solid and can be spooned out of the jar in the portions required. Use 2 parts of oil to 1 part garlic. It melts quickly so you can add it frozen into dressings and marinades. N.B.: Do not store the grated garlic at room temperature. You can read more about why here: Garlic: Safe Methods…
- Ginger: Peel and cut it into thumb-sized pieces and store it in the freezer. It can be thrown whole or grated into dishes (soups, stews, stir fries etc.) and smoothies from frozen.
- Grate entire blocks of cheese and freeze the surplus.
- Spice Blends: If you make a particular seasoning blend often, e.g. taco seasoning, do a big batch of it so that you don’t have to pull out multiple individual jars each time you use this seasoning mix.
- A few things to prep at the beginning of the week (every little action helps) for use later in the week:
- Make salad dressings or marinades
- Wash and chop fruits and veg
- Season meat
2 – Make It a Double
- Chicken: I used to make 2 to 3 roast chickens at a time but these days I don’t really want to be bothered with the post-roasting tasks that come with cooking whole chickens (the chopping up, separating the meat from the bonier portions, and feeling obligated to make chicken stock). I prefer to roast a full tray of chicken pieces, usually drums or thighs as we favour the dark meat and find it more forgiving to re-heating. Once they are cooked, they need only to be left to cool and then put away.
- Sweet potatoes: while the chicken is in the oven, roast sweet potatoes in their jackets at the same time. They make for a healthy side and they freeze and reheat well. They can be dressed the same way as regular baked potato.
- Taco beef and bolognese sauce: perennial favourites which can be incorporated into a variety of dishes.
- Quinoa, rice, barley etc.: cook at least twice as much as you need and freeze the rest.
Freezing in individual-sized portions will make for quicker defrosting and greater flexibility. You can pull together portions of different items to make up a meal or work/school lunch for a single person or more depending on what is needed. It is also easier to accommodate different tastes and appetites this way.
- Burger patties: patties made from thawed ground beef tend to be dryer. However, burger patties made from fresh ground beef, frozen and then cooked from frozen turn out very well. They hold their shape better (good for those who like me, tend to not compact the meat very well) and they are less likely to dry out on the barbecue or in the pan. It’s nice to be able to have a quick weeknight burger. Burgers sound like a quick and simple supper but I find that the accompaniments and dressings can make it a bit finicky. Pre-prepped patties will speed up the process and reduce the prep quite a bit. The beauty of the burger is its versatility to go from simply good to gourmet.
- Smoothies or soups: prepare a big batch and freeze in ice cube/food trays or similar. Frozen in small quantities, it will be quicker to defrost and will give you flexibility in terms of portions. These make good additions to school lunch and snack bags. Blend oats and spinach into smoothies for a fiber and vitamin boost.
Quick side note: Two great food tray options are the BEABA Silicone Multiportions Food Trays (Canada: well.ca; USA: amazon.com*) and the Kushies Silitray (Canada: well.ca, amazon.ca*; USA: amazon.com*). We use them on a weekly basis. The portions (1/4 C capacity) are perfect for squirreling away ingredients. After freezing, the food releases very easily. You can wash them in the dishwasher. They are also oven-safe. If you can’t decide between them, the rectangular shape of the Kushies version gives it a slight edge in the practicality department (less wasted space when storing). It is also less expensive and holds 9 portions vs the 6 that the Beaba holds (the older version of the Beaba, which is still available, holds 7 portions).
- Pizza: you can find a multitude of ways to bank your time in this post, Minimum Effort, Maximum Reward Pizza.
- Wontons (click for printable recipe: Wonton Recipe For Print): The initial input may take some time and effort but once they are done and in the freezer, you will be very glad when, at the end of a long day, you are no more than 20 minutes from a warming bowl of wonton noodle soup or a plate of crisp and savoury pot stickers (these are good appetizers too). As for the effort part, make it pleasurable. My favourite time to make wontons is once the kids are in bed and the house is quiet. After mixing the filling together, I sit at the kitchen island and put on some music or Netflix while I assemble. There is something therapeutic about the rhythmic repetition of laying out the skins, doling out the stuffing, folding, sealing and laying the wontons on the tray. They are also perfect for a group effort gathering. Each person can attend to their own portion or you can set up assembly-line style. If you are doing them in a group, do more than a double recipe, enjoy the company, and share the spoils. If you are gluten-free, dispense with the skins, use gluten-free soy, hoisin, and oyster sauce and make meatballs. They are delicious in chicken broth soup with bak choy, zucchini, carrots, and spinach; in a sweetcorn, egg drop soup; and in stir fried rice with veggies topped with a softly poached egg. They can also be cooked in the same way as the pot stickers (see recipe).
3 – Do It By the Bag or the Bunch
- Lemons and limes: for baking and cooking, prep bags of citrus so that when you need it, it is ready to go. Zest the fruit first and freeze the zest in a container with a lid. Juice the fruit and freeze the juice in 2 tablespoon portions (equal to the juice from half a lemon or the juice of a whole lime) in an ice cube tray for marinades and dressings etc. If you like to have wedges or slices in your drinks, slice or cut them all at once, lay them on a baking tray in a single layer, and then transfer them to a storage bag once frozen. If you are looking for good, reusable food storage bags, see Replacing My Ziplocs: Stasher & Blue Avocado Review.
- Pomegranates: this can be messy and a bit time consuming so put on an apron, split a whole lot in half, and whack all the seeds out over a large bowl. They freeze well.
- Peppers: broil until blackened all over, skin, and freeze bell peppers for salads, sandwiches or as a side dish in a meal.
- Bananas: peel, quarter, and freeze them by the bunch for baking and smoothies. By quartering them, you can store multiple bananas in the same bag/container and know that you will need 4 pieces for each banana required by your recipe.
- English muffins and bagels: split them by the bagful and freeze them so that you can pop the slices straight into the toaster from the freezer. Storing each half with the cut side up makes it easier to ply them apart should they get stuck together.
- Caramelised/sautéed onions: freeze in ¼ cup portions.
4 – Bank Your Meal Ideas, Save on Thinking Time
If you tend not to, or prefer not to, plan in advance, keep a list of meals and add to it as you go. After you’ve made a dinner you liked, add it to the list. Nothing fancy, just a quick addition to the Banking Time checklist list (free subscriber printable which will be included in Wednesday’s newsletter), or on a notepad or on your phone. When you need inspiration, you’ll have a tried and true reference list tailored specifically for you and yours.
5 – Mise en Place
Translated as “set in place”, mise en place means having all of your ingredients measured out and prepared before you begin cooking. It saves time by streamlining the cooking process and reduces mistakes (like adding ingredients twice or finding out you don’t have everything you need halfway through making dinner). You can start your mise en place the night before or morning of by prepping your ingredients ahead so you only have to cook when dinner time rolls around. No time to do it all before the dinner hour? Take 15 minutes the night before or morning of to set up your work stations:
- If you are using a recipe, have it ready to refer to.
- Lay out your chopping board, food prep utensils (keeping safety in mind), and any appliances (e.g. food processor, blender, rice cooker). Include a bowl or plate to collect the garbage/compost. Ideally, set yourself up beside the sink so that you can do all of your prep in one place. Lay out ingredients that do not need to be refrigerated.
- Gather together all of the refrigerated ingredients and put them in a single container so that you only need to pull one container out of the fridge before you start your prep.
- Put any pots and pans you will be using on the stove along with your cooking utensils on a plate so that you will have somewhere to put them after they come into contact with the food during cooking. If you are going to be boiling water, fill the pot with water before putting it on the stove so you only need to turn on the heat.
Having everything at the ready will mean gaining time that would have otherwise been spent hunting around for and gathering what you need.
For a few suggestions as to when to bank this time, see Banking Time: 3 When-Tos. Free Banking Time printables are available for subscribers and include a checklist and 4 recipes (click to access).
If you found this post helpful, please do let me know by leaving a comment below. I would also love to know how and when you bank your time. If you have any questions, please get in touch using the “Contact Me” button or you can e-mail me directly at email@example.com.
Image credit for feature image: PACPUMI/shutterstock.com (clocks)