A few weeks ago, I was in the middle of quartering 6 big onions when my eyes started tearing up. Sure enough, things got worse as I started pushing the onion quarters down the food processor chute to thinly slice them for the chana masala dish I was prepping.
My tearful eyes begged me to stop.
I only relented when I could no longer see well enough to safely continue. I probably teared up more than the first time I saw the Titanic movie when (spoiler alert!) when Jack dies of hypothermia in the water.
Thankfully, Alex took over and finished off the remaining onion quarters for me. (What an angel!)
Was I surprised to find myself in this position again? Slicing a gargantuan amount of onions to do more batch cooking? Wait a second. What
Didn’t I swear off batch cooking a year ago? How did I find myself slicing a Costco-sized bag of onions then?
The back story
If you’re new to the story: in 2017, I discovered that I spent on average 2 hours and 42 minutes a day on food-related activities — prepping, cooking, and dishwashing — when I embarked on a time journaling exercise.
Most of this cooking was what I call “no-value” cooking. This means I don’t get joy from this kind of cooking. It was cooking to make food for energy and sustenance. Not the fun kind of cooking to entertain our loved ones or make something fancy to please ourselves.
To significantly reduce our “no-value” cooking time, we became avid batch cookers. Splurging on a Costco membership further fanned our fanatic batch cooking ritual.
Until some drama happened. (Read the batch cooking story to find out why I blame it for how I ended up with an IV and at urgent care.)
Banish the batch cooking!
In the middle of 2018, we were cooking almost every day, using a tangled leftovers system. It was as confusing as it sounds.
So, we made a controversial decision in our household.
We decided to bring back batch cooking about 6 months ago.
Of course, that’s only the beginning of this story. We needed to find a way to fix the problems that plagued out last batch cooking experience, right?
The 2 biggest batch cooking problems we had to solve
Fortunately, we wised up and have a smarter system today. And in this article, I’ll share with you what we learned and how you can make batch cooking work for you and your family too.
But first, our new system had to overcome 2 major hurdles that soured us batch cooking:
- The cooking consumed our entire Sundays. We don’t have commercial-sized cooking equipment or a dozen line cooks to chop everything. It used to take hours to cook the gigantic volumes of food necessary to feed us 2 meals (lunch and dinner) a day Monday through Friday. We would fight after cooking because it was so stressful, and we struggled to put all the food away because there wasn’t enough fridge space.
- Going to urgent care and getting stuck with an IV. Yes, it could be correlation, not causation. But I’m blaming the rotten food for my illness.
How did we solve these 2 problems in our new batch cooking system?
We designed a system with an eye towards the three following questions:
- How do we avoid getting sick? Sick of eating the same boring thing every day, not only avoid getting sick from food poisoning
- How do we spread out the cooking time throughout the week? Is there a way to batch cook joyfully? Are we doomed from the start?
- How do Alex and I remain friends at the end of the process?
In other words, how do we approach batch cooking with an eye towards sustainability?
Through the experiments in our kitchen, we’ve uncovered 5 tips you can incorporate into your batch cooking system to make it a joyful and much less stressful process.
Tip #1: Freeze it
Freezing your food is the workaround to food spoilage.
We invested in a chest freezer when we got our Costco membership (guess where we got our chest freezer from? 😉 ).
Side note: We read the Frugalwoods’ analysis on chest freezers which convinced us to buy a new freezer versus scouting Craigslist for a used model. Our freezer was under $200, and I’m convinced we’ve already saved more from not eating out. Plus, our energy bill is probably lower than if we acquired a second-hand older freezer.
All our batch meals go into the freezer except for 1-2 servings. We eat the remaining servings the same day that we cooked it or save it as leftovers for the next day.
If you don’t want to buy a new chest freezer, you can do the baby steps version by cleaning out your existing freezer. I bet there are decades-old blueberries and freezer-burnt pesto ice cubes you’ve long forgotten about. Marie Kondo that freezer space!
Because we’re freezing our batch cooking creations now, we’ve paid a lot of attention to the next 2 tips to be successful.
Tip #2: Freeze in small batches
Imagine defrosting a block of chicken curry the size of Antarctica. You might as well go to bed hungry because that meal ain’t happening tonight.
We freeze our meals in plastic containers that hold 1-2 servings. We like to repurpose yogurt containers because they are the ideal size and stack well (in addition to the environmental benefits of avoiding the recycling pile).
Tip #3: Choose the right recipes
When you’re freezing cooked food, the most important factor to consider is: how well do these recipes and dishes freeze?
As you know, certain foods, especially fresh vegetables, don’t freeze well because water expands as it freezes and ruptures the plants’ cell walls.
Or, to be precise, vegetables freeze no problems. But they often end up mushy. It’s challenging to retain the vegetable’s defining texture, such as the crispness of fresh asparagus or the crunch of fresh carrots.
Knowing this, we discovered our three favorite categories of recipes that freeze well are the following:
- Soups & Stews: Crunch is less important in these dishes. Plus, more importantly, stews, soups, broths, and curries are easy to cook in large batches.
- “Foundation” Foods: Examples of foundational foods include cooked taco meat, shredded chicken thighs, pork with garlic and green onion stir fry. While you wouldn’t eat taco meat alone, it’s easy to transform the pre-cooked taco meat into nachos by adding corn chips, beans, and salsa or a taco salad with a bed of fresh romaine lettuce or even a burrito with a tortilla, rice, beans, and guacamole.
- Helping-Hand Assembly Line: I must confess, this is a rare category for us. The helping hands come in the form of friends and family “volunteering” to cooking together (hehe, “volunteering“). Sometimes, we make meals that require time and prep work to set up. But once you get an assembly-line system set up, it’s relatively easy to make double or quadruple the quantity by upping the ingredients. Having friends help speeds up the assembly, and we like to freeze the extras. Examples of recipes suitable for helping-hand assembly lines include casseroles, enchiladas, wontons, dumplings, and pizza.
The principle behind these recipes are:
- These dishes defrost well: tomato-based stews and soups are especially practical. If the soup calls for cream, be sure to add in fresh cream after defrosting. Don’t put in the cream then freeze the soup or else the fat might separate.
- These recipes are easy to make in large quantities: Or they give you an excuse to invite friends and family over to help out. 😀
- You can creatively spruce up the dishes using sauces and toppings: My favorite batch cooking recipes are not recipes at all. You could call them the anti-recipe. These food serve as the sturdy base of a dish. They await fresh greens, herbs, and seasonings to complement them to make a full meal.
The Anti-Recipe: Transforming dishes with tiny tweaks
I first learned this principle of tweaking dishes from Mireille Guiliano, one of my favorite food authors and thinkers. She shares how we can cook champagne chicken one time and then repurpose the cooked chicken in a sandwich or a soup for a second and third dish. The goal is to cook once and eat three times. Each transformation can be designed to seem like an original recipe, which allows for variety and novelty.
The French appear to be very astute with this repurposing technique. For sure, other cuisines do it too. But I like how the French elevate it by giving the dish a different name and treating it like a shiny new recipe.
And don’t forget, leek and potato soup is ideal for freezing (before you add the cream).
How many creative ways can you transform a dish with tiny tweaks?
What are my favorite recipes for batch cooking?
Soups & Stews
- Chas’ French Onion Soup
- Thai Green Curry with Sweet Potatoes, Green Beans, and Chicken
- Spicy Jambalaya with Shrimp, Chicken, and Sausage (note: the rice might be mushy after defrosting)
- Chana Masala (from Deb at Smitten Kitchen)
- Extra Umami Beef Broth
- Alex’s Spruced-Up Marinara Sauce with Extra Onions, Mushrooms, & Sausages
- Kari’s Pork with Garlic and Green Onion Noodle Topper
- Spicy Taco Meat Less than 25 Minutes (by DrDan at 101 C
Helping-Hand Assembly Line
How to batch cook without getting exhausted
Now that you’ve assembled a towering set of plastic containers along with an assortment of freezer-friendly recipes, it’s time to cook the food.
As I mentioned in my post about why we stopped batch cooking, it is exhausting to cook a humongous volume of food within a few hours.
Here are even more tricks I experimented with to ease the batch cooking strain so you can stress less and *gasp, dare I say it?* even enjoy the process.
- Use a food processor to chop, especially with onions, bell peppers, and carrots. Machines are our friends. Put them to good use!
- Choose vegetables that require minimal peeling. I avoid potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins unless I’m OK with unpeeled potatoes in my stew.
- Choose ground meat or sausages if
meatis a component of your recipe. Ground meat and sausages are ready to cook with minimal preparation. No brining or pattingdry with paper towels needed.
- Note the exception if you are cooking a dish where the meat is the main focus, such as marinated drumsticks. In this case, I make 5-10 pounds of drumsticks at once to take advantage of economies of scale.
- Chunk down the tasks into separate days. For example, split the shopping and cooking over 2 days.
- Wash and chop the vegetables, then take a break for a few hours. Come back later to cook.
- This works perfectly when marinating where food has to sit around absorbing seasonings anyway.
- Simplify the ingredients if the recipe is complex. Again, choosing a recipe that can be scaled for batch cooking and then freezing is key. It’s OK to skip some ingredients or steps.
Tip #4: Eat the same meal no more than 2-3 times a week
Alex is the king of variety. As we learned from his About intro, he doesn’t have a favorite food — his favorite is “variety”.
That’s why we don’t eat the same meal more than 2-3 times a week.
Once you “bank” enough frozen meals, it is not hard to rotate through them to the point where you can eat a different dish every day or so.
For example, you could:
- Plan for pasta with marinara sauce Monday and Tuesday.
- Then Tuesday evening and Wednesday lunch could be tacos.
- Thursday can be soup day with different toppings.
- Friday can be dumplings or casserole.
- On the weekends, you can cook whatever you like while setting aside the time to replenish the frozen food inventory.
For the next week, you can rotate through a similar pattern while switching up the dishes or the toppings or the sauces.
Tip #5: Defrost ahead of time
A pinch of planning goes a long way.
I take out the frozen foods from the freezer the night before and defrost them in the fridge.
I’ve also defrosted frozen meals in the sink a few hours before dinner time.
In the worst-case scenario, I’ve microwaved the frozen block of chana masala and still gotten dinner on the table on time. While not ideal, microwaving works quite quickly thanks to tip #2 (freeze the meals into small batches).
Final words on our batch cooking experiment
A bonus tip, just because I like you:
Avoid going to the grocery store in the middle of cooking.
Get the reverse shopping list.
Do a food inventory.
Eat stale crackers. Whatever you gotta do, do it. Avoid going to the grocery store in the middle of cooking. It is one of the most frustrating ways you can exhaust yourself while cooking.
If a curry recipe is calling for 5 different spices and you don’t have all of them in your pantry, can you omit the 1-2 missing spices and still have an amazing dish?
Omit?! But then the recipes aren’t authentic. What if the food turns out ‘meh‘?
It’s a fair concern if you’re worried that recipes optimized for batch cooking are bland and boring. Or not the most authentic dishes ever.
Well, what’s your goal? Are you aiming for the sexiest meal you will ever have in your life when batch cooking?
As I mentioned earlier, these recipes are easy to spruce up and still produce amazingly tasty food. For day-to-day eating, with an eye towards a nutritious yet delicious meal (again sustainability), these recipes will save you time and delight your tastebuds. So no need to worry about bland and boring if you add plenty of toppings and give your dishes fancy names.
We’re all really busy with kids, working extra hours for the promotion at work, doing one (or more) side hustles to speed up our path to financial independence
I truly believe batch cooking will help you free up more time to spend with your loved ones and achieve other goals in life.
Plus, you can use your new-found time to cook banquet dinners that rival the most ambitious Michelin-rated 7-course meals on your weekends.
Or, you can use the time savings to develop a new skill and compound your wealth. Or watch YouTube. Ain’t nothing wrong with watching some YouTube (in fact, check out our stir fry videos).
And yes, I’m pleased to report, Alex and I are still friends.
If you’ve never batch cooked, it’s worth trying for 1-2 weeks. Why not? If you currently batch cook, have you tried the frozen food system? Leave a comment to let me know how this system works for you!