Fave Healthy Food Hack: Cooking for the Masses (Even if There Aren't Any Masses)
By now you've probably gotten sick as heck of cooking. Being a lock-down chef ain't no fun! And perhaps your creative juices are running as dry as that last stir-fried tuna loaf ala king you concocted was....
No worries! First off, you're certainly not alone in feeling like you could happily never step into a kitchen again. (I'm right there with ya!) Secondly, there are — thankfully — a number of strategies for beating the stay-at-home food-prep fatigue.
One of my faves is large-batch cooking.
Why Cook Enough to Feed a Small Army?
1. Save Time & Money
We are a household of just two. And it makes no sense time- or money-wise to make only two servings of anything.
The additional amount of resources required to cook six servings once is less than if you cook two servings on three separate occasions. Here are some examples of why that is:
You've already got all the ingredients and equipment out.
You're already heating the oven, boiling the water, etc.
You're already peeling, chopping and mincing away.
You can easily multi-task. (e.g., While one thing's broiling, you can work on a stovetop dish).
Planning ahead also rewards you by reducing the number of trips to the store and food spoilage and waste. You'll have everything you need on hand and ready to go, nothing more and nothing less.
I'm sure you can think of other ways making a big, multi-meal portion of a dish is more efficient. Go ahead. Think of how you'd personally save time, money, waste, effort, etc.
2. Eat Better
If you're anything like me, you start making the bad dietary choices when you're hungry and have nothing healthy and tasty on hand to eat. Sound familiar?
When I prep a few dishes in a big batch, I'm usually doing a few things:
Gotta figure out what I want to make, so I'm probably scanning recipes and making grocery lists. When I do this, I'm generally not hungry or in a rush.
This means I have the time to think about the foods I'll be consuming and how they impact my wellbeing. I'm not tackling the meal planning from a place of mental stress, cravings or impulse. (This is key because I have no willpower and marginal self-discipline at best....)
Net result: I'm selecting dishes that are more nutritious and well-rounded.
Committing to a Balanced Menu
Often, I'll pick out three or four recipes (or wing it, but with a few dishes in mind to make). When I do this I'm picturing in my head how the items will go together. This makes it easy to select foods that are a variety of colors, textures and flavors, which is a hallmark of a nutritionally diverse and sufficient diet. For example, I wouldn't make two pasta dishes — way too many refined carbs there and too much pale food.
A sample menu for me might be a turkey, bean and veg chili; roasted cauliflower; steamed butternut squash; a variety of crudité and a batch of mujaddara (healthfully made-over, of course). This sounds like a lot more effort than it really is. (I'll dig into that later.) And all this food would probably last me at least a week. (I'll touch on this later, too.)
Making It Easy to Eat Well on the Go
Don't have a lot of time mid-week? Don't worry! If you've prepped a decent quantity and variety of foods in your "free" time, you should have tons of options awaiting. They are in your kitchen just screaming to get into your belly. No fuss or time-consuming work is needed in the moment to pull together a wholesome, balanced meal or snack.
3. Enjoy Versatility with Ease
When you don't have to expend mental energy on figuring out what to make and the logistics of procuring the ingredients, your creativity is less encumbered. I find that my imagination really takes off.
It can be hard to think of what to cook (or to motivate yourself) when staring into an empty (or base-ingredients-filled) fridge or pantry. If you have a few dishes sitting the already, it's a lot easier to come up with a meal plan. It's like the difference between starting with a blank piece of paper versus an outline when you write an essay. It's so much easier to get things rolling if you have literally anything on that page, yah?
With some practice, the ideas just begin coming to you like bright little brain sparks. You'll feel a bit like Bubba in Forrest Gump: shrimp po'boy, shrimp scampi, shrimp bisque....
4. Self-Sufficiency for Others
If you have others in your household that rely on you for food, large-batch cooking is awesome. It makes it simple and straightforward to offer wholesome meals and snacks that they can grab on their own.
When my SO comes in asking what he can have for lunch, I can easily rattle off a few decent options. Or he'll know that leftovers are in the fridge for him. I feel good knowing he's got quality, nutritious food available.
What to Make
Obviously some dishes lend themselves to large-quantity cooking, storage and re-serving better than others. Considering you might be suffering from that cooking fatigue, perhaps you're looking for some suggestions or inspiration?
In my house, these are repeat winners:
Baked or roasted chicken. Bake or roast today, yum. Turn it into one of a gazillion other things tomorrow. So easy to make and extend or transform it's not even a challenge.
Bean and lentil dishes. Everything from refried beans or roasted chickpeas to edamame or lentil loaf work. Sometimes it's nice to take a break from the cluck-oink-moo. Beans and lentils are powerhouses of nutrition and pack a ton of fiber and protein — they're ready and waiting to be your meal's (or snack's) headliner. Plus, since B&Ls are pretty bland on their own, you can incorporate them into many dishes (even sweet ones — hello chocolate dessert hummus!) with ease. They take on whatever other flavors you surround them with.
Bowls. Buddha bowls, rainbow bowls, etc. These are tasty, loaded with texture and nutrients. So satisfying! I like that each person can customize the mix and proportion of each element of their own bowl. Make up your own or look for recipes online. I tend to do my own thing, so we end up having some sort of Asian-, Middle Eastern-/Mediterranean- or Latin-inspired bowl. I like to have at least three elements: a grain or carb (e.g., rice, noodles, potato cubes, grilled corn), a protein (e.g., seasoned ground turkey, tofu, beans) and a veg (sauteed peppers and onions, steamed broccoli, marinated roasted eggplant). Bonus for sauces, extra veggies and any other add-ins like nuts, fermented stuff or seasoning mixes.
Casseroles. I think casseroles are enjoying a second life. If the number of listicles with recipes is any indication, these dishes are more popular now than ever. What's awesome about many casseroles is that they are one-dish meals. My casserole even has a cover, so I can prep, cook and store the food without dirtying a zillion pots and pans. Have I mentioned that I hate washing dishes, and clean-up in general?
Chilis, soups and stews. These are super convenient to make and a great way to use up those vegetables you bought that are now sitting in your refrigerator starting to turn bad. They get better tasting with each passing day and freeze well. And heaven knows there's possibly an infinite variety of recipe options out there. Have fun! (Chances are that if you looked in my fridge, there's a vat of something soupy in the rotation.)
Ground meat medleys. I like to do half meat and half vegetables. This makes the meat (expensive and not as healthful) go further while sneaking in more plant-based nutrition. The ground meat mixture then goes into something like tacos or stuffed peppers, or is just spooned over pasta, potatoes, rice or salad.
Quiches and eggbakes. It seems every culture's cuisine has some riff on this. Also, it fits into so many of the many diet regimens people follow. For example, I often make a variation on this eggbake my friend recommended. This kind of dish is perfect for any meal or snack (it's lovely for brunch!) and pairs well with an array of sides and beverages.
Rice dishes. I use non-white rices. So, brown, black, wild, sprouted, etc. This really helps keep some of the nutrients in. I also like to cut the rice with vegetables like spinach. (So, for every cup of rice, I'd add in a cup of spinach.) I know I've heard that you aren't supposed to hang onto rice and reserve it. Not sure if this is because it can get dried out and yucky, or some other reason. All I can say is that I've had no issues with it and leftover rice is like a blank canvas — you can do so much with it!
Roasted vegetables. When I'm running low on time, this root veg blend is done in 20 mins. Otherwise, I usually opt for eggplant slices, bell peppers and onion wedges spritzed with a bit of olive oil and dusted with some seasoning. Easy, healthy, mmm-mmm-good! Eat these as a side, appetizer or in other dishes (like salads or a wrap).
Salads and slaws. I'm not talking [just] about a boring plate of limp and anemic lettuce here. Countless combos of ingredients can make for some seriously mouth-watering entree or side salads. Similarly, your imagination is the limit when it comes to slaws. Sometimes, a quick slaw made from pantry staples (e.g., oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper) and a bag of shredded cabbage is all you need to round out a meal. Chez moi we do a lot of Asian and Mexican-inspired slaws. Making your own dressing is a must if you want to keep things healthy. Everything from oil and vinegar, lemon or lime juice, soy sauce, salsa, hummus, amba or pureed cucumber with herbs and spices make for wonderful dressings. Get creative! With enough tasty ingredients (like taco meat, smoked salmon or marinated tofu) in your salad, you can even skip the dressing altogether. I just love the party of colors, flavors and textures! And, knowing I'm "eating the rainbow" makes me feel good about my food decision.
Sorbets. Yes, you can even big-batch wholesome desserts! See, it doesn't have to be all blah. My go-to is what I affectionately call I ❤️ TLV Fruit Freeze. It's a delish whipped and frozen blend of bananas, nuts and seeds, spices and magic that reminds me of one of my favorite treats in Israel.
Stir-fries. Bright, savory, hitting all the senses, these guys are quick and good for you (if you use minimal oil and make your own sauces). I like to build flavor by using high-quality produce and with potent seasonings like fresh garlic and ginger, miso paste, soy sauce (or Bragg Liquid Aminos), cream sherry (the regular kind, not the cooking kind!), black bean paste (a little goes a long way) or Chinese five spice. 'Nuff said.
Hopefully, now you've got images of what you'd make dancing in your head. The beauty of this is that there are so many ways to execute on this approach. You can do something different every week. And there's always something that will be a crowd-pleaser.
How to Be a Large-Batch Chef
I'm not going to lie: It does take effort to do big-batch cooking. You have to put forethought in meal planning, gathering your supplies, when you'll have time to do everything, etc.
After a few times through, though, it becomes a routine. And when you do something habitually, it becomes second nature. Meaning you get better and faster at this the more you do it.
And once you've got the hang of it and truly see its merits, you'll be hooked.
To help ya along, here are strategies I use to make the food prep part less burdensome.
Commit to a prep day. Designate a chunk of time to plan your dishes, get the ingredients and make the food. You can split these three tasks into more than one time chunk if you need to. Just be sure to schedule it in and book other activities around this. How much time this takes really depends on what you make, who fast you can gather the ingredients and your skill in preparing the foods you've selected. Just be realistic with yourself and maybe start out small — make only one big-batch dish this week and see how it goes.
Buy prepped ingredients. Is it worth it to buy that bag of pre-chopped onions? Heck yah! If you hate chopping onions and getting the prepped kind saves you five minutes, it certainly may be a legit purchase for you. I find that cutting up veggies is very time-consuming. And, since I add veg to everything I make, having the pre-chopped stuff on hand is so helpful. Notice I said prepped ingredients not processed ingredients. Stay away from processed stuff as much as possible. Processed products usually have additives (weird chemicals and colors) that you really don't want to consume if you don't have to. Prepped products are ones that are mostly whole-food based that have just been cut, cooked, etc. The item is the ingredient, for the most part. Prepped foods I frequently buy are canned beans, frozen or fresh chopped vegetables, canned fruits in juice (no added sugar or syrup), grilled chicken, canned tuna, quick-cooking rice and lentils, pasta.
Buy high-quality processed foods. Uh, so this is sort of an exception to the tip above. By "high-quality" I mean get processed foods that use wholesome ingredients and don't contain additives, fillers and so on. You have to read the package labels religiously. Processed foods I get on the regular include stuffed pasta (like tortellini), no-sugar-added sauces (pasta, pizza, amba, etc.), hummus and pickled or marinated vegetables (olives, capers, banana peppers, garden mix, etc.). While these aren't close-to-single-ingredient items like prepped foods, they don't have junky stuff added to them. What makes them processed is the addition of seasonings and healthy oils and some form of transformation (cooking, pickling, blending with other whole-food ingredients, etc.).
Buy in bulk. Like I said, we're a household of just two, so it doesn't always make sense to get a palette of kiwis from Costo. But, many ingredients have a long shelflife or freeze well, and it works to get them from your local warehouse store. In this category might be meats, rice, beans, seasonings, nut milks, stocks, marinated and pickled foods, dried and dehydrated foods, baking mixes, canned goods, etc. You'll figure this out based on your needs. But it's really nice to have ingredients on hand without constantly having to run to the grocery store.
Semi-homemade is OK. Not every aspect of the dishes you're making need to be from scratch to be legit and healthy. For example, I always use cartons of stock or concentrated broth base when I make soups. Sometimes, I use the packages of grilled chicken breast from Costco in my recipes. And you can be sure that any tortellini salads coming from me used packaged pasta. Those dishes still tick all the boxes: healthy, tasty, satisfying.... The key is choosing which parts of your dish to be totally homemade (like the salad dressing) and which can be high-quality prepped/processed elements.
Try preserving food. There are several techniques for preserving food. Get in touch with your pioneer roots and pickle, marinate, ferment, can and dry foods. These items are often good on their own as is. They also can be great ingredients (aka ingreatients) in your recipes. Preserved foods needn't take a lot of time or effort to prepare. You can bust out a jar or marinated olives or quick-pickled radishes in just a few minutes (and only need to let them sit for a few minutes before they're ok to snarf down). Also, depending on what and how you're preserving, your food may be safe in the cupboard for an extended period of time.
Use "neutral" seasonings. This doesn't mean cook only bland food. What I'm suggesting here is that you use seasonings that are versatile. For example, maybe you spike your veg soup with salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic and parsley. This is a yummy-but-neutral flavor profile, kind of a generic "savory." When you go to serve the soup, you can add other seasonings to make this an "Italian-y" or "Hungarian-y" potage. I'll speak to this more in the next section.
Use the right equipment. Going big without going crazy requires the proper supplies. You don't have to every gadget and device or drop bank to outfit your kitchen to make Gordon Ramsey weep. Just make sure you have a sharp set of knives that are adequate for cutting, chopping, paring, etc. Supplement this with only the gadgets that make sense for your cuisine. I eat a lot of salads with hard-boiled eggs, for example, so this salad spinner and slicer are musts for me. Oh, and my many cutting boards and mandoline, too. Make sure you have appropriate cookware. I recommend having at least a few different sizes of pots (including a stockpot) and skillets, bakeware, casserole dishes and some silicone steamers (love these and use them all the time). Lastly, you gotta have the right appliances for the jobs at hand. (Conversely, choose recipes/dishes that work with the equipment you have a home already.) My top appliances: egg cooker, immersion blender, electric kettle, filtered water pitcher and high-speed commercial blender. Lots of people rave over their Instapots and air fryers. Talent and creativity get you only so far; good kitchen equipment takes you to the finish line.
Breathing New Life into Leftovers (so You'll Want to Eat Them)
Yah, I know. You have picky eaters to feed. Maybe you just hate the concept of leftovers. (It's actually not a universally standard practice. In some cultures keeping the extra food for another time is not the norm.) Or perhaps you're just the type that wants something different at each meal. (Not me — if I strike upon something I like, I can eat it several meals in a row.)
So how do you resurrect yesterday's dinner so it's today's mealtime hero? Creativity, options and a willingness to explore your cuisine!
Some keys here:
Know your audience. Having a selection of dishes is a great way to ensure there's something for everyone. With the freedom to pick your menu, choose dishes that appeal to your peeps' tastebuds. Have add-ins and toppings that let them adjust the flavor to their liking.
Freezing is your friend. This is a vital tactic for me. Whatever I make, I freeze half of it. This provides me with several portions to feed off of now and several portions to come back to in the future. There's always a rotation of dishes — because you have to take something out of the freezer to fit the new items in. So, with the stuff you just cooked and the stuff thawing from the freezer, you have so much to choose from at any given time. This is a great way to not repeatedly fill your fridge with the same set of food options.
Condiments are commendable. If you've prepared your food with "neutral" seasonings, you'll probably want to jazz it up each time you serve it. Condiments (opt for healthy and/or homemade ones!) make this a snap. One day you'll top your baked potato spears with salsa; the next you'll dollop on some tzatziki. Tonight you dip your chick tenderloins in dijon; tomorrow you're dunking them in Thai red curry sauce. Yum!
Try different prep methods. This is a cool one that might be overlooked by some. There's no rule that states that the chicken you baked en casserole has to be presented en casserole every time. Take that chickie and shred it to make tacos or dice it up and crank out some teriyaki lettuce cups. Slip that day-old rice into the soup you made or add it to your garden salad. Switching up the reuse prep technique works especially great for foods that don't reheat well.
Mix-n-match like a boss. Not only do you have the dishes you just made, the frozen-now-thawed delights and the preserved goodies to draw from, you can also still cook once in a while. So, while my lunch might be leftovers from yesterday's dinner, tonight's meal might be fresh. This mix extends the food and options available to you without making it so you have to do food prep when you lack time or energy.
Breakfast at dinner isn't just for kids. The central idea here is that you don't need to lock yourself into having the items served at lunch today be just for lunches. I'm a big fan of eating leftover stir-fries for breakfast and pancakes for dinner or snacks. It all works. If that's too extreme for you, consider how you could repurpose an entree to be an appetizer or snack or an ingredient in another dish. You may be surprised by what you come up with and how well received it is by your hangry troops.
Don't forget about drinks and desserts. You probably think about entrees and sides when you think of a meal. Fair. But to keep things fresh and interesting, consider your meal more broadly. Could you elevate the leftovers by pairing them with a signature cocktail or finishing with a rockin' dessert? These are small, manageable tweaks that may be easy to dovetail in.
Honor the ambiance. Eating is an experience, right? It's not just the food you're serving. Attention to detail and taking care with the other aspects of your meal go a long way. Plating up the dishes on different dinnerware or playing with the table decor, lighting or music can really distinguish your meal. It can make it feel like it's new and special and unique, even if it is the exact same food.
From the Large-Batch Foodies
Why do you cook in big quantities? What are you making? How do you prep so much food? What are your favorite ways to make "old" stuff "new" again? Feel free to share your tips and tricks in the Comments section below. Thanks!
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