Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ready, Steady, Cook! Using a Cook Up to Simplify Meal Planning

I've long been committed to avoiding processed food, making things from scratch and buying local. But by the time I prepped three meals a day for my family of four and the odd snack here and there, I felt like I was spending half my day in the kitchen. It was ridiculous.

Something had to change.

Lack of time is often a reason cited for not cooking at home, and I can appreciate why. It is time consuming to shop, chop and cook. And then there's the clean up... oy. But peeps, it's worth it! You can cook a great dinner for a fraction of what it would cost in a restaurant, and you know what's in it. You can control what goes into the pot and how much. Yes, it takes time, but there are ways to cook at home that won't require you chained to the sink well into the evening. One way is...

The cook up! Also called 'batch cooking,' and maybe a few other words I can't mention on my family blog, the cook up will take you some time, but only on the front end. It involves making different things all at once, then mixing and matching those foods to create a variety of meals you can have throughout the week.

Here's how it works in my house:

  • Plan to make a soup or salad, at least two vegetables, and at least two protein sources. 
  • Clean out the fridge and determine what needs to be used up, then shop for whatever else is needed.
  • Block off about two to three hours when you won't be distracted and gather all your ingredients and equipment (pots, pans, etc.) Try to reuse as many items as possible to make clean up easier.
  • Make sure you have plenty of leftover dishes for all your yummies.
  • Cook the items that need the longest cook time first, then work down from there. 
Last Monday morning I did a cook up for the week. I planned to roast several different root vegetables, saute onions, peppers and broccoli, prep carrots and broccoli for a stir fry, cook chicken breast and ground beef, make a pot of rice and and a stir fry sauce. I budgeted two hours and targeted using only one cutting board, a knife, vegetable peeler, large saute pan and a roasting pan.

(I posted this on Instagram (@momsatthebarre) and most people were interested in whether or not I actually only used one cutting board, a knife, vegetable peeler, large saute pan and a roasting pan. Stay tuned for THAT...)

Here's how it went:

I started by preheating the oven for roasting. I washed four small sweet potatoes, pricked them with a fork and put them in the oven to bake whole on the roasting pan, which I had covered in aluminum foil.

While the potatoes were baking, I peeled a butternut squash and chopped it into cubes. I tossed the cubes in olive oil and sprinkled them with salt. I pushed the sweet potatoes to one side of the roasting pan and tossed the squash on the pan. 

Then I peeled the parsnips, another sweet potato and the beets, and halved the acorn squash and scooped out the seeds. I chopped each vegetable separately, tossed them in oil and sprinkled with salt and roasted them--again, separately so I can use them how I want later. I did use another roasting pan here, but I covered it in foil, so clean up was easy.

Next, I chopped up a few onions and some garlic and sauteed them in oil. I took out about half the onions and set them aside, then I added a bell pepper to the pan. While those were cooking, I chopped the broccoli stalks and added those to the pan. Finally, I added the florets and cooked them until they were just barely done. (This way, when I reheat the vegetables later, the broccoli won't be overdone.) 

I also chopped up some carrots and broccoli and left them raw. 

Finally, I cut up the chicken. I did this last so I wouldn't have to wash the cutting board before using it on the vegetables. I cooked the chicken in the saute pan, then I browned the ground beef. I made a gravy of sorts with the pan juices, which took all of two minutes. 

While the meats were cooking, I mixed up the stir fry sauce, started some rice in the rice cooker and put the soup together in the slow cooker. I made the soup with the butternut squash. I put the roasted squash, the onions/garlic I had set aside, and some chicken broth I had made yesterday. I'll add cream later and puree with a stick blender later. (I LOVE my stick blender, by the way. I have a Cuisinart model. The blade detaches and can go in the dishwasher! Score!)

So how did I to use these delights?

I made a stir fry, a shepherd's pie, a lentil stew, quesadillas, and a frittata. We had the soup as a side dish a few times. Last night I made some fish and we had what vegetables remained. 

This cook up took about two and a half hours, including clean up. That's longer than I had planned, but I decided to assemble the soup. I also made a little mini pie with an apple that one of the little darlings had bitten into and left to die. Clean up took maybe ten minutes, tops. I planned this one pretty well so I was able to reuse the same equipment. Yay!

I can't take credit for this idea--I've read about it in a few different places. For me, it's been great, especially when my husband is traveling for work, which is often. My early attempts were not great successes (translation: HUGE mess at the end), but after a few tries, I've gotten more efficient. Each time, I learn something new. This time I wish I had made more of some of the vegetables. I used up most of them early in the week and had to make more, which was a pain.

Ah well, live and learn.

If you're a fan of the cook up, or want to be, give me a shout! I'd love to hear what works and what doesn't. Happy cooking!

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