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Taking the chaos out of batch cooking

When my husband and I were much younger, we stayed a week with the children of some friends who wanted to go off skiing on spring break. In preparation, the mother batch-cooked a huge dutch oven each of chicken breasts and brisket for the week–just for their two young children and us. She left elaborate instructions about how to reheat it (I’m not sure she trusted us to know how to cook anything). I can tell you that even in my 20s I thought that was an awful lot of meat, and by the end of the week we were really, really tired of it. Even the kids.

On the other hand, a friend out here who has something in the range of adult ADD has a hard time cooking anything that takes longer than about 5 minutes because she’s so easily distracted she forgets to eat. Keeping track of multiple cooking steps  is genuinely daunting to her, as it is for many people with ADD and ADHD. She’s taken the expensive brown-rice-bowls and organic-microwaveable-freezer-meals-for-one route (keeping brand names out of it for the moment) but wishes she could find a better and cheaper way to deal with dinner. I suspect she wishes my east coast friend could supply her with a couple of dutch ovens’ worth of meals…

I bring up these two friends because lately I’ve started running across Meals-for-a-Month how-to books. They pop up every once in a while in the cookbook aisles of your favorite bookstore (or the 641 section of your local library). They’ve been reappearing since at least the early 1970s, when a major recession under Nixon led people to rethink their household budgets. Now these books are back in “For Dummies” and “Everything” versions, complete with tie-ins to About.com and other popular web portals.

The basic premise sounds ideal: shop and cook just once a month, the books promise, and you get a month of frozen real-food reheat-and-serve meals at your convenience, and you still save money. I keep hoping there’s some kind of solution in them for people short on time, cash and kitchen tolerance, but so far I’ve been disappointed.

Read one of these books and you quickly realize why almost no one follows them for long. First, if you hate to cook, you’re going to hate cooking marathons even more. Especially if they look like all-kitchen circus-style nightmares of boiling chicken and roasting AND stewing beef and slicing ham and cheese while also cutting vegetables while mixing sauces while separately packaging just enough gingersnaps for each package of the sauerbraten (assuming you even like sauerbraten or know what it is anymore) and finding the right sized bags and labels and and and and….

If you batch-cook the way these books suggest (in the intro section “game plan” complete with NFL-style charts), your once-a-month cooking scheme will probably take you all weekend (shopping alone is a full day) and wear you out from dawn til dusk. One weekend a month. I bet this is where most people flipping through to see if it’s the solution to their dilemma quietly shut the book, put it back on the shelf and edge away as quickly as possible.

These books also seem to replicate the worse aspects of frozen tv dinners, only without the convenience. The food’s too elaborate and long-cooking–mostly heavy meat stews and casseroles taken straight out of the 1950s Americana repertoire, and the scale-ups still only stretch to two or three meals for a family of four. If you go that route, you’d need ten recipes, and a huge freezer.

Also, there are no, and I mean no, shortcuts. I’ve looked. Each main dish is an hour or more by conventional methods. The reheats alone typically take at least half an hour and some extra cooking steps–and this is after having thawed the packages overnight in the fridge. Have the authors never heard of a microwave? Wasn’t avoiding repetitive, excessive cooking the whole point of once-a-month cooking? Do you really want to have to plan so much and follow so many steps–especially if you’re on the ADD end of things? Or even if you aren’t.

It would make so much more sense to simply buy a big resealable bag of frozen chicken parts and some bags of frozen vegetables and large cans of beans and tomatoes and boxes of spaghetti and relearn some cheap, easy and fast-cooking techniques from your college student repertoire. Wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, this is not the way people who traditionally have to cook big on a tight budget cook. Most people don’t have as much money at any one time as they’d need to pay for a month’s worth of food in a lump sum, nor do they generally have a dedicated extra freezer to fit it all in.

But batch cooking itself can work out and still treat you gently on a more modest scale. You just need to choose what makes sense to cook in multi-meal batches, and not do every possible big job all at once.

Unless you hunt and dress venison for the winter or have a garden with enough produce that you need to harvest and put up in bulk at the end of summer to keep it from spoiling, you don’t really need to do marathon-style cooking. And huge, heavy 3-4 hour dutch oven meat casseroles never need to be made for ordinary dinners, in my humble opinion. (Then again, I don’t live in Minnesota and I’m happy about it this winter.)

However, routine and simple staples that freeze and reheat well in a microwave, for example rice and beans, are handy and inexpensive to cook in bulk and divide up, and it might take only five or ten minutes more than usual to cook a pound–or even two–as opposed to a cup. If you tend to eat rice or beans as a side dish most nights, cooking them in bulk only once a week or every other week is a really simple, efficient, low-pain-in-the-tush way to save yourself several hours of repetitive cooking. Especially if you’re a brown rice type. Cooked rice freezes beautifully and reheats in just a couple of minutes in the microwave.

If you have a rice cooker, you’re really in luck: most of them are designed to cook batches up to 2 lbs. of dried rice, which is about 10-20 servings for the price of one lousy frozen oversalted factory-cooked rice bowl. It’s a pretty serious time savings and a huge cost savings. You can also cook a couple of pounds of brown rice on the stovetop in the same 50 minutes it would take to do a cup, or you can use my microwave absorption technique that takes about the same amount of total time but only about 8-10 minutes with the power on. When it’s done, divide it up in dinner-sized amounts in stackable cheap freezer-to-microwave containers, cool completely, and freeze.

Meatless stews, chili, etc. also go together pretty quickly and many of them can be microwaved rather than stuck in a slow oven. You can always add some quick-cooked or leftover meat to them when you reheat.

If you want a cook once, eat twice or three times kind of inexpensive meal, why not do a big batch of microwaveable 10-minute-max black or kidney bean chili (onion and carrot, maybe chopped pepper, wilted in the microwave a couple of minutes, a couple of cups of cooked or low-sodium canned beans, a big salt-free can of tomatoes chopped up, some TVP and/or frozen corn kernels optional, vinegar or lime juice, garlic, cumin, hot pepper flakes, maybe part of a jar of salsa, mx it all together and microwave another 5-7 minutes to heat it through…) That’s much more my idea of low-labor cooking, especially if you make enough for a couple of meals that week (or some to eat, some to freeze).

So are lentil stews (takes a little longer for the dried lentils to cook up, say maybe half an hour). Or palak or saag paneer the 5-minute food-processor-and-microwave way. Or eggplant and chickpea stew or red lentil dal, if you’re going to cook in a way that includes browning onions and other vegetables –just nuke the vegetables first for a few minutes to cook them through; then when they hit the frying pan, they start browning much sooner.

Microwave casseroles–spinach lasagne made with eggroll wrappers, or eggplant parmigiana, for example–are a little trickier. Theoretically they can be doubled without too much trouble or extra time, but you still might want to split them up into two regular-sized batches for cooking so the larger food volume and container dimensions don’t affect how well or evenly they cook–always factors for a microwave. You’ll probably still come out ahead compared with conventional oven methods, but it might be just enough extra effort that you shouldn’t attempt it on a rushed weeknight.

For example, I tried doing a double batch of stuffed shells in the microwave the other week, hoping it would only cost me about 15 minutes extra for twice the servings–but it was not a great success. Whether I par-cooked the shells themselves too soft or let them sit too long or simply didn’t have enough water for the extra when I cooked 40-plus shells in one go instead of 20, I’m not sure. The food volume for one larger casserole started to overtake what the microwave could handle cooking evenly once they were stuffed and the result was just not as good as usual.

Kind of a shame, but next time–there will be one, it was almost good enough to recommend–I’ll know what to watch out for. I suspect if I do it on an afternoon when I can pay a little more attention to the pasta precooking step and divide the stuffed shells into two casserole dishes for the final cooking (which is only about 5 minutes apiece),  it’ll work out better without doubling my time or effort. Or spoiling the microwaveable cool factor.

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