Thursday, October 31, 2013

Penny Pinching Healthy- Time Saving Tips

Welcome back!  I hope you had long enough time to take in all I put out there last week.  Hopefully you tried your hand at meal planning, or explored some good fail safes?

This week we move on to some time savers.  For some people it's a matter that they want to save money, for others, it's a matter of not having enough TIME to prepare a home cooked meal.  And, for a lot, it's a combination of both.  I'm going to share a few things that have made our lives easier.

Let's pick up where we left off last week.  Once you've planned out your meals, you have to go buy the food.  Organize your list.  I take a piece of printer paper or notebook paper and fold it in half horizontally (bring the two short sides together).  Open it back up.  Across the top write "Produce, Meats, Other."  Right below the crease in the paper write "Canned, Refrigerated, Household."

  • "Produce" includes freezer stuff because the freezer section is next to produce at the front of the store, and the refrigerated stuff is at the back of the store.  
  • "Meats" are self explanatory.  
  • "Other" is going to be anything in the middle isles that is not a canned good, and is not household stuff such as toilet paper, cleaners, etc.  
  • "Canned"...well, if it comes in a can, it goes here.  
  • "Refrigerated" is pretty easy to figure out.  
  • "Household" is as previously stated.

When we first decided to stop eating out of our freezer it was when my husband got out of the navy and we moved back east.  He was working anywhere from 8 to 12 hour shifts (more often than not, 12 hours), and I was working as well.  When we became pregnant our hand was forced to eat better, unfortunately with pregnancy comes the need for better food, and yet a lot less energy to make it.  Introduce, batch cooking!

What is batch cooking?  Well, it's exactly as it sounds.  Make a batch, a big batch, of your favorite foods.  For us it started as a large batch of brown rice, mixed peppers, and shredded chicken all drizzled with some Jamaican jerk marinade.  We put about a cup of each in a 3 cup Tupperware, made a weeks worth at a time and then simply had to heat it up in the microwave when we were ready to eat.  It was pretty easy, and super convenient.  While I was doing peppers with jerk sauce my husband was enjoying mixed veggies and a sesame ginger marinade.  So while the foundation is the same, you can really mix and match your flavor combination.  Eventually it branched out into stews, the occasional lasagna or noodle based meal, and of course our fail safe of chicken chili.

We still revert back to this some weeks that life is busy.  We make 2-3 large batches of a meal, portion it out in Tupperware, and it's ready to heat.  Sometimes a combination of this with home cooked meals 2 or 3 nights a week gives you just enough variety without consuming a lot of time.  We found a great Tupperware set at Walmart for $5 and it has a large piece which is great to hold an entire batch to serve out of, and then it also comes with 3 cup containers and 1 cup containers.  I think we own 3-4 sets and once every 6 months to a year we throw out the dingy ones and buy another set of them.  But, they get used so much it's easy to justify.

To make this batch cooking business even easier, consider a worthwhile crockpot.  We have this hamilton beach programmable slow cooker and it's a life saver.  You can set it for half hour increments, I don't know the maximum time but I know I've gone at least 10 hours, you then pick whether it's to be on high or low, and when the time is up it will switch to keep warm for the next 8 hours.  So, you should definitely come home to a warm meal and one that hasn't been sitting at room temp out of the safe zone breeding bacteria all day.  You can also drop your roast right in here, stick the thermometer in it, and tell your slow cooker to cook it until it reaches a certain temperature.  Can't beat that!

Another trick to make life easy?  Frozen veggies.  

Frozen diced onions is a big one for me in terms of time saver.  When it comes to these my recommendations is if the recipe you're using calls for the onion to be sauteed or cooked then these are great.  If you would ingest the onion raw (such as in a salad) buy them fresh.  But, for the time it takes me to cut an onion while wiping away the tears, it's just easier to break open a small bag of frozen onion and use it accordingly.

Rather than pay for a 1 time serving in a can (plus all the salt), grab some frozen peas, carrots, and corn.  Maybe a bag of mixed veggies?  You can use them as a side, in your meals, to snack on, etc.  If you're looking for an alternative to fresh, I'd say go with this.  They're already cut, it's measure and go, less waste and more versatile.  To cook them outside of a dish you can either use a handy dandy microwave vegetable steamer, or just drop them in a microwave safe bowl with enough water to make whatever it is float.  Toss it in the microwave at full power and I usually start around 1 minute 30 seconds.  Cook it to your desired texture/temperature, drain the water, season however you'd like and it's good to go.  Quick and easy side.

Last but not least, prepare and tricks.

1st up, salad in a mason jar.  Have you seen this floating around Pinterest or your Facebook page?

These guys were my life savers this summer.  Between the fact we were moving (states) and it was crazy hot, I had zero ambition to cook (assuming I could find the box my cookware was in anyway).  I don't put my croutons in until I'm ready to eat it because I've never had good luck with croutons in the fridge.  However, if the most I needed to do was add croutons, shake vigorously, and pop the top and start eating then it had to be pretty easy, right?  The lettuce in fact lasted the week long without any wilting or brown coloring.  It was just as fresh at the end of the week as it was at the start.  We did chicken caesar salads, taco salads, 3 bean salads.  They all last, and they're all fantastic!  And mason jars aren't too expensive, they're glass so they don't retain the flavor like plastic does after you wash them, and they're pretty versatile.  A win win I'd say.
Freezer Meals were another great one we discovered.  Recipes like soups and stews where I could cut the raw meat and put it in a freezer bag, and cut the veggies and any sauces and put them in another.  All I had to do was take them from the freezer to thaw, and then cook.  We used a recipe for chicken spaghetti from a friend of ours and combined the canned soups, ro-tel and diced veggies ahead of time and dropped it in the freezer.  It meant I only needed to let that thaw during the day, when I got home that night I boiled chicken, boiled noodles, combined it with the frozen mixture and sprinkled some spices and then cooked it.

Also a winner, stuff and marinade your chicken in advance.  As I was stocking our freezer in preparation for our first born, my husband and I went out and bought a LOT of chicken breast, a lot of marinades, some stuffing and some other stuff.  When we got home, we dropped 2 chicken breast in a bag with an appropriate amount of marinade, labeled it (labeling is important, what it is in the date you made it) and put it in the freezer.  All we had to do was pull whatever chicken we wanted the following day out that night when we went to bed.  It not only defrosted but marinaded throughout the day.  When we were ready to cook it all we had to do was dump the bag into a small oven safe dish and toss it in the oven.  With a side of steamed veggies (of course from the freezer) and we dinner was done in 30 minutes or less.  And really, with the amount of space this takes up in your freezer, you could prepare this for the entire month!  It also makes a pretty great, low cost, minimal ingredient fail safe.  And you can probably thaw it in a bowl of water in about an hour or 2.

I made stuffing, as well as a broccoli and cheddar mix, and seasoned butter.  I cut my chicken so that I could stuff it with any of the aforementioned fillings, and then froze it (I did this 1 per bag for variety sake, but you could do it 2 per if you wanted).  Again, let it thaw and bake it.  You could sprinkle some shake and bake on it right before it goes in the oven if you want for some variety but, not necessary.  The easiest way I found to prepare it was to put your chicken breast on a cutting board and cut a slit (not all the way to the cutting board) from one end to the other (the longest way).  Then, with your knife in that slit, cut the breast in half on the left and right, again not going to the edge.  What you essentially do is make it so your breast is a little box, if you will (I promise, next time I do this I'll add in a good picture because ya'll are probably looking at your computer like I'm nuts right now).  But, the long and short of it is that not only does it contain your fillings while it's raw and freezing, and while it's thawing, but it does it while it's cooking too.  No more trying to roll the chicken breast up and hope everything stays inside, no watching all the fillings ooze out during cooking and get left in your baking dish instead of in your chicken.  The chicken holds it all.
Lastly, preparing anything you can in advance that can't be frozen.  We do a dish, a Thanksgiving ring (which will be on the blog in a few weeks).  In it is mashed potatoes.  The goal of this recipe is to use up your Thanksgiving left overs, without living on turkey sandwiches forever.   However, if we're eating it at any other time throughout the year, I usually grab a rotisserie chicken, some instant mashed potatoes and microwave stuffing.  If I knew this was coming in the week, on a night I didn't have a lot of time, I could make the potatoes and stuffing ahead of time, and pull the chicken.  Therefore, on dinner night, I didn't have to deal with all of it.  This week I'm making a mirepoix so that I can make chicken stock for our chicken pot pie (so as to use the ENTIRE rotisserie chicken).  I knew I wouldn't have time to do everything the day I needed to, so one night where I did have extra time I diced up the carrots, celery, onion and parsley and put it in a bag in the fridge.  Now, all I have to do is throw it with the chicken bones that are in another bag in my fridge (because I already pulled the meat off the bones) into a pot with some water, salt and pepper and then ignore it for 3 hours.  Preparing in advance doesn't always mean that dinner will take 20 minutes to cook and then you're done.  It means make life easy where you can.  When you have the time, even if it means after dinner and after the kids have gone to bed, prepare what you can for any meals that week you know you're not going to have a lot of time to do the day of.  Doing this means the ease and convenience you have in dumping out the ingredients from your hamburger helper into a skillet, will be just as easy with home made ingredients when you go to cook.  

So, sit on this for the next week and figure out what can and can't work for you.  Hopefully something here will make your life a little easier.  I'll see you back here next week with Buy Bulk or Bye Bulk?

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