Winter in Wisconsin is the time of year for comfort food. When it is cold outside, bring me all the savory soups, rich casseroles, hearty sauces, cheesy pasta dishes. Oooooohh, is your mouth watering yet? If only these homemade meals didn’t require spending hours in the kitchen! Enter my “cook once, eat twice” meal prep solution.
Start with a meal plan
I’m a firm believer that “Failing to plan means planning to fail,” especially when it comes to dinnertime in busy households. Before I started meal planning, I was guilty of way too many evenings of standing in my kitchen, staring blankly into my fridge or pantry while cranky children whined, “I’m hunnnnngry!” I wish I had practiced “cook once, eat twice” when my girls were much younger! You can read this posting on meal planning for ideas and inspiration, but the basic premise is that you sit down with your calendar at the beginning of the month and scout out which evenings will be busy ones for you. The night that you are running kids from play practice to Scouts to dance rehearsal (once those events resume, of course) is NOT the night you want to be trying a new or complicated recipe.
If your family thrives on routine, check out these ideas for themed dinners. They make meal planning super simple and, best of all, help you avoid a last-minute run for a drive-through dinner.
Your freezer is your friend
So how do you “cook once, eat twice” anyway? It’s simple. Time is the one resource that is distributed evenly to all, and I figured out that it takes exactly the same amount of time in the kitchen to make one large batch of spaghetti sauce, for example, as it does to make one small batch. The same is pretty much true for soups, pans of lasagna, batches of meatballs or pans of meatloaf, pulled pork, Mexican enchiladas, taco meat, Sloppy Joes… the list is endless. It’s the shopping and the planning and the prep work that takes the time. The actual assembly of ingredients and cooking time is almost the same, regardless of quantity.
So, after you put together your meal plan with your family’s favorite, kid-approved dishes, go back and circle any meals that can easily be doubled and stored in your freezer. Cooking a double pot of chili essentially means browning two pounds of hamburger and dicing two onions instead of one, then opening twice as many cans of fire-roasted tomatoes and hot chili beans. Cook once, eat twice or more—the leftovers are delicious! Pro tip: If you are really on your A-game, freeze the extra servings of chili in a gallon freezer bag that lays flat for maximum storage space. Don’t forget to label the bag and add a date so that it gets used in the next two or three months!
Practice makes perfect
Obviously “cook once, eat twice” isn’t foolproof for every meal. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Chinese stir fry, scrambled eggs, or grilled cheese sandwiches are best when served fresh. (Or maybe not?! If you have time during quarantine, maybe give them a try?!) Also, if you tend to forget about food once it’s out of sight in your freezer, you might need to remind yourself with a sticky note about what is waiting for you within; the last thing you want is for freezer burn to set in because you forgot about an entire gallon bag of shredded barbeque chicken.
Some additional tips:
- With my soups, I find that noodles don’t freeze well. If you are making a double batch of the aforementioned chili, chicken noodle, or tortellini, put everything together except for the pasta, which tends to get mushy. Add that right before serving.
- Lasagna, on the other hand, tends to freeze exceptionally well. (Especially if you cook the noodles just to al dente.) You can even bake it before freezing; I use an aluminum baking pan and wrap it really well in Press N Seal to keep it from drying out or getting freezer burn. Reheats beautifully! Garlic bread and a salad, and dinner is served!
- If you want to “cook once, eat twice” with sandwiches, I’ll oftentimes cook a bunch of pork, chicken, or turkey in my Crock-Pot. Mix the meat with barbeque sauce or the poultry with a box of Stove-Top stuffing and chicken broth. Serve on hamburger buns and freeze whatever is left. You might need to add a bit more liquid after thawing and reheating.
- If mornings are chaotic in your house, you can make a bunch of pancakes on a sleepy Saturday and reheat those bad boys all throughout the week. Better yet, show your kiddos how to warm up frozen pancakes in the toaster, and take a few extra morning minutes for yourself!
Do you “cook once, eat twice” in your kitchen? Drop your ideas and suggestions in the comments below!