Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Cooking in Bulk for Two

Once upon a time, when Nathan and I both worked traditional schedules (8AM-5PM, Monday-Friday) making dinner was fairly easy, at least in retrospect. Get off work, maybe go to yoga or walk the dogs, then settle in with a few beers and whip up a fast, healthy dinner. 

Now, neither of us has a traditional schedule, and we probably never will again. Nathan's job as a paramedic has him working rotations that include 24 hour long shifts, and my schedule changes depending on the day. Which means I had to figure out a new way to get fast, healthy dinners on the table (or at least in our bellies) without resorting to take out, frozen veggie burgers, or the Whole Foods hot bar. Enter: cooking in bulk. 

Now, I didn't invent this system. It's been well documented on the Internet and in cookbooks, but the idea - in case it's new to you - is that you dedicate one day a month to high intensity cooking and meal prep, then freeze everything to consume later, at your leisure. (Ashley over at (never)homemaker recently did a great series on this for vegetarians - her tips and tricks gave me the confidence to give this a shot, so check them out at the end of this post). 

Every family has different needs and resources, so I had to adjust the bulk system to best serve us. We don't have a big freezer, so our space was limited, which meant I couldn't do a month's worth of dinners at once. That was fine with me - I like cooking, I just don't have the time or energy to do it every single night. I decided to focus on the days Nathan is at work. He averages about ten 24 hour shifts a month, so that's ten dinners to prep, cook, and freeze in individual servings. Twenty, really, because when he's not home, I generally default to cereal and popcorn for dinner. Having ready-to-go meals would force help us both to eat healthier. 

For my first attempt at bulk cooking, I kept things simple. A double batch of spicy black bean chili in the crockpot, a double batch of cornbread muffins in the oven, and a double batch of chickpea cauliflower coconut curry on the stovetop. I also chopped and roasted a few sweet potatoes for the week, because I like to throw them into omelettes. As things finished cooking, I portioned them out into individual, reusable containers (BPA free, y'all!) and let them cool completely before sealing them up and stuffing them in the freezer. 

I'd also planned to make a red lentil veggie pot pie, but I ran out of freezer space sooner than I thought. No big deal - I'll just make that mid-month, once we've freed up some space. And while there are only two options right now, I don't mind eating the same thing two or three times a month, especially if it's spaced out. And Nathan doesn't really care about food like I do - if he could get all his nutritional needs for a daily pill instead of actually eating, he would. Sad but true. 

So far, the experiment has been a success. I've had both the chili and the curry, and they freeze and reheat really well. (Though I would add a little more spice to the curry next time). The best part, of course, is that by the time I get home, all I have to do is reheat and eat. No cooking, no clean up, and very little patience required. I'm hoping that this cooking in bulk thing will save us time and money, and I'm already bookmarking things for next month's offerings.  

Have you ever cooked in bulk? Any recipes to recommend? I have a feeling chilis and stews will be our go-to, but I'd love to find other vegetarian meals that freeze well.