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Friday, November 15, 2013

Chill Out! Freezer Meals & Strategies to Make Cooking a Snap

After blogging about the freeze-able breakfast burritos, I've received requests for more freezer meals and ideas.  I love that folks are wanting to do more in-home cooking and eating!  So let me start by giving a few freeze-worthy ideas to make meals easier.  Watch out for future blogs on specific frozen meal recipes.

Problem:  I'm a real breakfast-lover, but find I don't have the time in the morning to prepare some of my favorite breakfast foods so I end up grabbing a granola bar or cold cereal.
Solution: Put breakfast on your dinner menu then cook extra.  Some great breakfast foods that freeze well are pancakes (I prefer to reheat them in the toaster), french toast (toaster reheat as well - gives a little crispness to the edge so it isn't so soggy) and crepes.  Make sure that when you freeze these foods, you do so in small single serving bags.  This keeps you from having to chip off a single pancake from the solid lumpy stack.  Zip-top sandwich style bags work great for this - toss a couple pancakes, slices of french toast, or folded crepes in and stack in your freezer.  Nothing jazzes up a Tuesday morning like a hot breakfast.  You can toss them in the microwave for a few seconds to thaw, then finish in the toaster (with the exception of crepes - they heat quickly in the microwave, top with a little homemade jam (another freezer staple), add a glass of milk and a banana and you're good to go!
Another option is hot cereal - this freezes well when cooked so whether you go for steel-cut oats, teff or wheat berries, cook up a batch then freeze in single-serving, microwavable containers.  A minute or two on high and you've got a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast without waiting 30 minutes for the grain to cook.

Problem: I crave a hot lunch, but don't have the time to cook in the middle of the day.
Solution: I always recommend leftovers for lunch.  Not only does it give you a hot lunch that is more likely to be a good balance of grain, veggies and protein, but it also reduces food waste and cost.  However, if you're not big on traditional leftovers - think hot sandwiches, quesadillas and burritos.  No, I'm not talking about the cheap burritos you lived on in college. Again, using dinner as the ideal prep time, try making a few extra grilled cheese & ham sandwiches.  They defrost well in the microwave, then finish them in a toaster or a few seconds in a grill pan.  This will crisp up the outside nicely while the microwave helps get the inside delectably hot.  Try something a bit more exciting, like a little chipotle, monterrey jack and some grilled onions and peppers for a southwestern twist on the classic grilled cheese.  There's also my favorite - caprese grilled cheese - fresh mozzarella, slice of tomato and plenty of basil.  Same theory applies to quesadillas - add in some black beans, a little salsa or maybe some shredded pork or chicken.  A few seconds in the microwave and a quick flip in a hot skillet or grill pan and you're set to go.  Burritos follow the same plan as the breakfast burritos in the previous post.  When you put them on your dinner menu, make sure you have enough leftover to wrap up some refried beans, pepper jack cheese, smoky salsa and maybe some sauteed corn and onions.  Perhaps you'd rather go with a more southern style - mash up a can of baked beans, add some shredded bbq pork and a little cheddar cheese, fold up burrito style, wrap in foil and freeze.  A couple minutes in the microwave and you've got a burrito a good sight tastier than those college standbys.

Problem: I want to serve my family more home-cooked meals and less take-out and processed foods, but I simply don't have the time or energy to spend 1-2 hours in food prep after work. 
Solution: Make the freezer and the crockpot your friend.  Ok, I'll save crockpotting for another day, but simply having some things prepped and in the freezer make pulling dinner together a snap.  Here are a few things I love having in my freezer for that last minute dinner plan:
  • Browned, ground beef.  Buy it on sale, take 30-45 minutes on a weekend and brown it all up.  I freeze mine in 1 cup quantities (about 1/3 pound).  Then I can pull it out and after 1 minute in the microwave I can toss it into spaghetti sauce, add taco seasoning for taco night, or layer it with frozen veggies and use my Sunday leftovers of mashed potatoes and gravy to pull together a quick shepherd pie.  (Microwaving each component as you go and layering them hot cuts the baking time down to less than half.)  Sloppy joes take mere minutes when the hamburger is browned and ready.
  • Shredded pork, beef and chicken.  Crockpots come in very hand here.  Having a few different meat options makes it easy to pull together enchiladas, taco salads, exotic salads (like teriyaki pork, black bean and mango) and hot sandwiches. 
  • Never make just one.  At any given time I have lasagne, chicken pot pie, shepherds pie, enchiladas and sloppy joes in the freezer.  I always make two and freeze one, while making sure to write the cooking instructions on the foil so that my kids can easily pull it out and get dinner going if I find that I'm running a little late.  
If you've got some good bread in the freezer, some cooked meat, frozen veggies, and shredded cheese - you can pull together a myriad of meals from as many cuisine types without the long cooking/prepping time.  The key (as it is with everything successful in life) is planning it out in advance and taking some time on a weekend or evening to get your building blocks in place, then put your menu down on paper.  After all, decision making takes up a large chunk of meal prep time as well.  Good luck and good eating!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Don't Bake Your Apples - Crockpot Them!

I love baked apples.  They smell and taste like fall, plus they are loaded with lots of health benefits. There might actually be something to the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away."  But I don't always have an hour to wait for them to bake in the oven when I'm ready for an afternoon snack or a dessert for dinner.  My solution?  Crockpot.  Yep - take 5 minutes in the morning, and they are ready and waiting for you anytime that afternoon or evening.  Here's what it looks like:
Slice and core your apples and place them in your crockpot.
Put a small (1/2 teaspoon) amount of butter in the center of each apple half.
Sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon.  (I love cinnamon and it has wonderful health benefits - so I don't skimp on this step.)
Cover and turn crockpot on low heat.
You can look, but don't take off the lid.   You'll love the way your house smells as the apples cook.
When you're ready - they are waiting for you in all they gooey, apple-ness.  There's a cold front moving through my area tomorrow - and I know what I'll be putting in the crockpot that morning!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Avoiding the Thanksgiving Food-Coma

We all have experienced the painful effects of overeating at a holiday meal – the dreaded “food coma” and even though we all know that we should listen to our body and  stop when we are satisfied, we somehow end up revisiting the food coma every year.  There are few strategies you can put in place to help you enjoy a meal-centered holiday without ending up sprawled on the couch with your pants unbuttoned. 
1.    Put your favorite Thanksgiving foods on the menu before or after the holiday.  Knowing that you’ll see your favorite foods again can prevent “now-or-never” bingeing. 
2.     Eat a decent breakfast – don’t go into Thanksgiving meal starving because excessive hunger leads to overeating.  
3.     Try to keep your Thanksgiving plate balanced: ¼ meat, ¼ grains, ¼ starch.  Start out with normal-sized portions and keep second helping to your absolute favorites.  
4.     Make visiting a priority – slow down during the meal and enjoy some conversation.  This will allow your body time to register when it is beginning to be full.  
5.     Plan some fun physical activity after the meal.  Knowing that there is a family football game or even a walk around the block after the meal is cleaned up not only aids digestion but also gives one more reason not to push our eating over the brink. 

One thing worse than a food coma is food poisoning, s o be sure to:
  • not leave food out for more than 2 hours
  • use refrigerated leftovers within 4 days
  • if you can’t use leftovers that soon, toss them in the freezer and use within 2 to 6 months
  • always reheat your leftovers to 165 degrees F.
Fresh Living segment on holiday eating