Preplanning in the kitchen saves time, money, and brings people together
By Jeanne Drennan
What if there was a way to save you hours in the kitchen and considerable money on your grocery budget? What if you could have more time for your family and the things that you love to do? What if you could enjoy greater good health? Well, those things are exactly what the simple art of meal planning and batch cooking can help you achieve.
The two go hand in hand. According to Mickey Trescott and Angie Alt, co-authors of The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook, meal planning is the practice of mapping out your meals for the week and letting that guide your shopping list and cooking days. This pre-planning allows for batch cooking, or preparing meals in large enough quantities to be frozen or otherwise stored for enjoyment at a later date. This “magical combination,” as the authors call it, takes the guesswork out of the perpetual dilemma of what to cook for dinner, frees up your time, and eliminates the need for you to be a short-order cook every evening.
Batch cooking can be customized to accommodate any palate or health concern, and with some experts claiming that Americans spend upwards of 40 percent of their food budgets on eating out, this technique can actually keep money in your pocket, not to mention excess fat off your waistline. It’s no secret that fast foods, processed foods, and packaged foods are detriments to our health and nearly devoid of all nutrients, making us susceptible to degenerative conditions that are, for the most part, completely avoidable. Meal planning and batch cooking help put the control back into our hands—control of our health, our money, and how we spend our time.
When I was a busy mom of young children, I got into the practice of once-a-month-cooking to save time and stretch our hard-earned dollars. It took one day of exhaustive activity in the kitchen, but the satisfaction of seeing a month’s worth of meals in the freezer was worth every second of preparation. It eliminated the 11th hour “what on earth am I going to cook for dinner?” scramble and saved us a noticeable amount of money at the grocery store.
Today, with an empty nest on the horizon, meal prep in my household looks a bit different. Now I batch cook to help manage a chronic health condition, but instead of preparing actual complete meals like I did with the once-a-month cooking, now I tend to prepare ingredients to be combined in various meals throughout the week—soups being the exception, because they are fantastic reheated and can be frozen easily.
Regardless of whether you batch cook or batch prepare, the key to sustaining this healthy habit is to keep it simple until you get the hang of it. Once you’re comfortable, you can easily integrate more involved recipes into your routine and try new ingredients. Simplicity is especially important if you are starting this practice to manage a health condition: focus on nutrient density and a variety of vegetables to regain and maintain your health.
Here is an example of the kinds of foods you might want to have on hand or prepare for a batch-cook day:
2 pounds cooked ground beef
1 whole roasted chicken or 2 pre-cooked rotisserie chickens
1 pound cooked bacon
1 pound ground turkey
Pork or beef roast
Canned tuna and salmon
Ground beef can be used in nachos, taco salad, and burritos, or combined with veggies for a quick skillet meal. Whole roasted chickens can be served as part of a meal along with roasted veggies or chopped up to make chicken salad. I also immediately transfer the chicken carcasses to an Instapot electric pressure cooker (I love my Instapot!) to make bone broth, or I freeze them for later use. Bone broth, an especially nutrient-dense food, can be used in soups or taken alone for gut healing and overall health.
Bacon can be eaten alone, crumbled on a salad, or added along with chopped veggies to scrambled eggs, omelets, or bakes. I use a pound of ground turkey to make breakfast sausage patties, which I freeze and then fry up as needed. These can be served at breakfast with high-protein muffins, which you can buy in bulk at your local bakery or supermarket. They freeze well and can be unthawed overnight.
Washed and chopped lettuce will keep in the refrigerator for about a week, and can be paired with pre-chopped veggies, hard-boiled eggs, leftover roast chicken, etc. for a variety of salads. Pork or beef roasts can be prepared in a crockpot or electric pressure cooker and served as part of a meal paired with roast potatoes or veggies. Leftovers can be made into chimichangas or barbecue beef for sandwiches.
Canned tuna or salmon can be made into salad for sandwiches or fried into cakes. Sliced fruit and nuts make quick and healthful snacks. Sauces, breads, homemade jerky, and granola can all be batch cooked or pre-prepared.
And buying quality food doesn’t have to break the bank. If you have a green thumb, growing fruits and vegetables is an economical way to get your fill. You can freeze and/or can just about anything to ensure a year-round supply. Farmers’ markets and growers co-ops are fantastic options in-season, but Costco and Sam’s club are also stocking more and more organic products every day. Since they sell in larger quantities, having a membership to one of these stores is an ideal option not just for large families but also for batch cooks.
Warehouse stores also offer proteins in bulk, so you can save quite a bit of money buying large portions of fish and ground meats or multi-packs of steaks. One of my favorite tricks is to bag individual slices of pork, salmon, and chicken with a marinade, label, and freeze for future use. You can do this with individual steaks as well.
As an occupational therapist who specializes in lifestyle medicine, I love it when an activity serves more than one purpose, promotes a healthy lifestyle, and encourages social interaction. Batch cooking can be an opportunity to get the entire family involved in prep work and cooking. For example, older kids can chop veggies and younger ones can bag up snacks, label baggies, and store meals in the freezer—and everyone can get together and brainstorm a week’s worth of meals. Bento box lunches are a hit with kids and adults alike, and the kids can even fill them up themselves, giving them a sense of ownership in their health.
Batch cooking is also a great way for people outside the family to socialize. You and your friends can take turns hosting batch-cooking parties, in which everyone is assigned a series of items to contribute to the meals. These items can be pre-prepared, or, if the host home has a large enough prep area, everything can be prepared in one place and added to various recipes. With four or five people all contributing, everyone can go home with several meals for the week and, of course, it’s time well spent with friends.
Ultimately, preplanning and batch cooking can lead to healthier eating habits. You’ll be less likely to make unhealthy choices in those weaker moments when you’re tired, short on time, over-worked, or not feeling well. It won’t take long before you begin to feel better, realize that you’re spending more time with your family, and even see that your grocery and eating out expenditures are decreasing. Meal planning and batch cooking require a bit of a learning curve on the front end, but the benefits are well worth the investment of your time over the long term.
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