04 March 2015

Freezer cooking II: revenge of the microwave

I know, another cooking-related post after two weeks in a row of Eats! I just can’t seem to get out of the kitchen lately. You make progress where you can with an infant around, even one as good-natured as Baby P.

Speaking of Baby P, this is a big week for him: he’s not going to have his mom around 24/7 anymore. Yes, it’s time for me to go back to work! I confess I am ambivalent about it. I’ll certainly miss spending my days with him, dancing to classic rock with a tiny dance partner and mushing my nose into his burgeoning crazy-Conan-O’Brien-hair. But I’ve been missing doing science every day. So I’m also excited that my mom will be managing his many feedings and diapers and naps so I can get back in the lab!

So while I’m not worried about Baby P’s day to day – he’s in good hands with his Mimi! – or even my day to day back at work, I am a little nervous about our evenings. Getting dinner together has been a bit of a challenge even when I’m home all day long. You guys, there are days that I have started cooking dinner at 2pm, only to barely have it together by 7pm. So asking my mom to cook is just not fair when I know how hard it is. But still... what am I going to do when I get home and everyone, including the nursing baby, needs to eat within an hour or so?

And so: freezer cooking. Yes, again. Longtime readers may recall that this is not my first rodeo with stocking the freezer. I freezer-cooked a whole month last time, when I needed to write my dissertation. In the end, I had mixed feelings about the whole business, which is probably why I didn’t try it again for over three years.

But I did say then that it seemed reasonable enough to try it again for certain reasons, like, say, having a baby. Ding ding ding! It wasn’t necessary during my leave, but now that I’m officially a working mom, my freezer is STOCKED.

Like I said, though, I didn’t have a fantastic experience freezer cooking last time. So what am I doing differently this time, after learning from my mistakes?

1) Not so much dang chicken

There was a reason that I used so much chicken last time, and it wasn’t because that’s all I could cook, or because we liked chicken all that much. It was because chicken was regularly $2/pound in Nashville, and I am cheap. But holy moly, did I burn out on chicken during that month of freezer cooking.

Here, though, chicken is as pricey as most other types of meat (if not more!). So it’s easy enough to avoid a month of baked-chicken-a-dozen-ways. I made some, but the only chicken casserole-esque dish was enchiladas. And it’s right alongside plenty of other non-chicken dishes (like these gnocchi I recently told you about).

And the chicken I did prep won’t all be baked. I made a stir-fry that can be reheated, as well as some breasts marinating in Italian dressing that Mr. P can grill.

Because freezer cooking doesn’t have to be a month of baked chicken! And about that “baked” part...

2) Microwavable containers

Last time, I stored all my dishes in metal trays, so that I could pop the whole thing in the oven and be done cooking dinner. But in practice, that method took FOR-EVER. I had to remember to thaw things in advance, because if not, it might take nearly two dang hours to cook a single pan. Even thawed, it took upwards of an hour to bake dinner every night. Our electricity bill did not take kindly to that.

So this time? Many dishes are pre-cooked, and in microwavable plastic trays. Yessss.

I got a set of these from Amazon, and so far I guess they’re okay. One was broken when they arrived, but I weighed the dollar it was worth against my valuable time writing an email and decided not to bother. The important thing is that they are microwavable, which means dinner won’t take an hour to heat up every single night. Crucial when I have twenty minutes to chow down before the baby wants to eat!

3) Freezing as I cooked normally

All the big freezer cooking enthusiasts (you know the type I’m talking about) talk about freezer cooking “sessions”, in which all the food for the month is made at once. I did something similar last time – all our meals were prepped in two short evenings.

But what did I really have to show for that? Mostly, a bunch of portioned but uncooked food... that then took an hour to cook later. It doesn’t really feel like it’s saving time when it takes two evenings PLUS a ridiculously long time to cook that day, even if it’s not hands on.

This time, I just made double batches of everything I was cooking anyway for a week or two. All the leftovers got frozen. I did it for everything, like seasoned beef for tacos and sausage for pasta.

This method took very little extra time, if any (just to juggle the larger batch?) and the freezer-cooking food is, you know, cooked. We can reheat in minutes. So much easier!

And finally, I decided to...

4) Schedule for the week, not the month

You guys know how much I love a good color-coded spreadsheet. And I tried, I really tried, to make a meal calendar for the next month (or... if I’m being honest, the next two months). My compulsively-organizing brain really really wanted a complete calendar to know what and how much to cook. But I felt like there were too many moving parts and what if meetings came up and I might need more containers and my freezer wouldn’t be big enough and bzzzzz fioomp POP my overwhelmed brain short-circuited and gave up.

Finally I realized, DUDE. Just cook some stuff and freeze it! And then when you’re meal planning, do like you do every week and survey what’s in the kitchen to make the meal plan.

Um, duh. This way we eat what we want to eat, when we want to eat it. Hopefully, this will prevent the awful food blahs I got trying to plan and cook for a whole month, just by leaving room for actual cooking occasionally, using the other ingredients I stocked in our freezer (meat and veggies, mostly). Why does this feel like such a novel freezer-cooking concept?!

So basically, I bought a bunch of containers to freeze leftovers of the stuff we normally eat for a couple of weeks... and called it “freezer cooking”. But I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t go way better for us than the traditional freezer-cooking setup! I’ll report back to let you know how it went this time around.

Hope you’re not getting too tired of adventures in my GREEN GREEN GREEN kitchen – I’ve another kitchen-related project to show you next week. That is, if I can finish it up while juggling and baby and a job. Fingers crossed for us all!