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Make-Ahead Meals


ScotteeM
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My health challenges (chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia) seem to hit me most often right when I'm needing to cook dinner for myself and my husband, and sometimes my best-laid menu plans have been thrown over in favor of ordering pizza when I just can't face the kitchen.

After this happened again last night, I decided that I need a better plan.

My idea is to take advantage of times when I'm feeling well and cook a few things ahead that I can freeze and that even my wonderful husband could pull out and heat up for us if I can't do it. I've thought of meat loaf and ziti, mac & cheese, and even lasagna. But what else would lend itself to preparation, freezing, thawing, and reheating?

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You'd be surprised at what survives freezing well. I routinely make huge portions of meals since we pack leftovers for lunches and love leftovers for dinner. Occasionally the family only wants a dish for one dinner and one lunch it and in those cases, I often just freeze the leftovers for another day. Things that have frozen/thawed well for us: marinated grilled chicken (especially thighs), cooked kafta (purchased from Lebanese Butcher) and rice pilaf, curries, soups, most anything that won't change texture after freezing. Fruit and fresh veggies don't tend to fare too well but grilled veggies seem to do just fine. When you do feel like cooking, making double and freeze half.

Sometimes when I can't bring myself to get in the kitchen and make dinner, we have breakfast for dinner. Somehow it doesn't seem as hard. Bowl of oatmeal dressed up with cinnamon and maple syrup with some fruit on the side. Waffles with fruit. Scrambled eggs with some toast and nice jam. It's not fancy but it's satisfying. Those little packs of breakfast sausage from Ecofriendly thaw quickly in a bowl of warm water and cook up in just a few minutes.

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I don't know how you feel about this, but Trader Joe's has some great options for this, ie frozen cooked shrimp that de-thaw under running water, and salmon burgers that are a cinch to heat up in the microwave. They also carry Indian and Spanish meals (in boxes) that are surprisingly good and taste very fresh. There's usually enough extra sauce that I add some steamed vegetables to round out the meal. They also carry pre-marinated chicken- I'm a big fan of the Tandoori, actually very spicy- and fish.

I second the breakfast for dinner idea. Omelettes are easy and require virtually no prep work.

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Those little packs of breakfast sausage from Ecofriendly thaw quickly in a bowl of warm water and cook up in just a few minutes.
I have the same challenges-albeit for different reasons-in the winter. It becomes a game of finding ways to have great flavor with little effort.

I keep a few nights worth of good, meat like Ecofriendly's pork chops in the freezer. Their pork chops, after spending some time under the broiler, don't need anything more that a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper. For me, the clean up keeps me from cooking sometimes when I am not feeling well so when broiling anything I line the pan with tin foil and it makes cleanup a breeze.

Also, I keep a hunk of good Parmesan or piave in the fridge. Worst case scenario you make scrambled eggs and cheese, frittata with cheese, pasta and cheese, or just crackers and cheese.

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Also, I keep a hunk of good Parmesan or piave in the fridge. Worst case scenario you make scrambled eggs and cheese, frittata with cheese, pasta and cheese, or just crackers and cheese.

...or pasta carbonara (if you've got bacon or pancetta).

This is not really freezing and thawing, but helps with ease of prep during the work week: boston butt. I'll smoke (or braise) one on Sunday and eat it most of the week. Shred it and make bbq sandwiches. Put it on top of polenta, egg noodles, or baked potato. Use it for tacos, tostadas, fajitas, etc. Get some rabe and provolone and do philly-inspired sandwiches.

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If you own a crock-pot, consider putting together ingredients for soup, stew, or braise when you feel at your best. If that is in the morning, you have an evening meal ready when you are too tired to cook. If it is later in the evening, you'll have a completed dish ready in the morning to put in the refrigerator or freezer for later consumption.

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If you own a crock-pot, consider putting together ingredients for soup, stew, or braise when you feel at your best. If that is in the morning, you have an evening meal ready when you are too tired to cook. If it is later in the evening, you'll have a completed dish ready in the morning to put in the refrigerator or freezer for later consumption.
The two things I do this most for are pork shoulder--which melts into pulled pork by the end of the day and can be put in tortillas or any kind of bread--and beans. I'm amazed at how well beans do in the crockpot.
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The two things I do this most for are pork shoulder--which melts into pulled pork by the end of the day and can be put in tortillas or any kind of bread--and beans. I'm amazed at how well beans do in the crockpot.

We've owned a couple crock pots, either as a gift or purchase, and could just never make them work for us. I found I had to brown everything to begin with anyway to achieve the effect I desired, and since that's the messiest part of most braised dishes the labor saved was negligible. The fond from browning then had to be deglazed and scraped into the crock pot--an otherwise unnecessary step that can waste flavor. I also found that the resulting dishes tasted steamed, with muddled flavors and the texture of institutional food.

Now a pressure cooker--that's another matter. I had never cooked with one and thought it might end up being a vain attempt to save time and effort like our crock pots, but we are complete converts. With the right size you can brown and braise in the same pot, and the time saving is enormous. It doesn't have the set-it-and-forget-it aspect of a crock pot, of course, but you can finish a braise fairly quickly. They are great for corn on the cob, potatoes, and especially for bean and lentil soups. The newer models (we have a Kuhn-Rikon) turn out food that is fresh tasting and with good mouth feel--not like the models of old. And, unlike a crock pot, a pressure cooker can do double duty as an extra regular pot.

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Quiche work very well as a make ahead meal. We just made two types on Sunday and stuck them in the freezer. Take them out and thaw in the fridge the day before you want them and then either serve cool or warm them up in the oven. That and a salad make an extremely easy make ahead meal

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These are great suggestions. Along the same vein, I have a friend that is recovering from chemo and getting ready for radiation. A bunch of us have volunteered to make meals for his family of four which include two teenage sons. The family will eat anything, and the cancer patient has been craving spicey foods. First time I went over I made a lasagna, next was jambalaya. What should I do the next time? It has to be somethign I can make the night before and then keep in the fridge at work and take over around dinner time.

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These are great suggestions. Along the same vein, I have a friend that is recovering from chemo and getting ready for radiation. A bunch of us have volunteered to make meals for his family of four which include two teenage sons. The family will eat anything, and the cancer patient has been craving spicey foods. First time I went over I made a lasagna, next was jambalaya. What should I do the next time? It has to be somethign I can make the night before and then keep in the fridge at work and take over around dinner time.

How about a szechuan beef stew with daikon?

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We've owned a couple crock pots, either as a gift or purchase, and could just never make them work for us. I found I had to brown everything to begin with anyway to achieve the effect I desired, and since that's the messiest part of most braised dishes the labor saved was negligible. The fond from browning then had to be deglazed and scraped into the crock pot--an otherwise unnecessary step that can waste flavor. I also found that the resulting dishes tasted steamed, with muddled flavors and the texture of institutional food.
That's one of the things I don't like about crock pots. It took a long time to narrow down applications that were useful for me. It's like figuring out what bulk products are worth buying at Costco :lol:. There are not many things I use it for, but for the things that work, it's great.

I refuse to prebrown anything that goes into a crockpot. A pork shoulder or comparable cut with a can of green chilies or any other small amount of liquid will produce a gorgeous pot of self-shredding meat by the end of the day.

Most of the beans I use are Rancho Gordo and don't require soaking before they go into the crockpot. Yesterday's RG beans were a bit old and I also included some non-RG black-eyed peas, so I soaked all of the beans for 2 hours before putting them in the crockpot. Beans + water + ham hock + ancho chile + dandelion greens for the last half hour made an amazing meal.

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What should I do the next time? It has to be somethign I can make the night before and then keep in the fridge at work and take over around dinner time.
If you can make Indian food or just a spicy curry dish, that usually heats up very well the next day. That or stir-fry with rice? Beef stir-fry tends to reheat well, I think.
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These are great suggestions. Along the same vein, I have a friend that is recovering from chemo and getting ready for radiation. A bunch of us have volunteered to make meals for his family of four which include two teenage sons. The family will eat anything, and the cancer patient has been craving spicey foods. First time I went over I made a lasagna, next was jambalaya. What should I do the next time? It has to be somethign I can make the night before and then keep in the fridge at work and take over around dinner time.

Chicken and white bean chili? Regular chili?

Two weeks ago I went up to Philly to visit my parents--Mom is getting chemo 5 days a week and radiation twice a week. So far, she has not gotten really sick, but I made chicken stock in my pressure cooker, packed it in 8-oz and 16-oz containers and froze it. She can sip it as is if she can't do solid food at any point, and Dad can use it to make soup or risotto, etc. I also took her 6 cans of Goya unsweetened coconut water--the best electrolyte drink to prevent or reverse dehydration in case of digestive disaster. Other family members are taking things like you mentioned, that they can warm up for themselves and/or serve when company arrives at mealtime.

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Thank you all for the great suggestions, and please keep them coming. I should be able to think of these things myself, but when the flare-ups hit, my brains dissolve. I'm not used to planning meals ahead, which adds to the challenge, but I'm learning!

And I do have a digital pressure-cooker that browns and slow-cooks as well, and shuts off at a preprogrammed time, so if I fall asleep or forget about it, no harm done.

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These are great suggestions. Along the same vein, I have a friend that is recovering from chemo and getting ready for radiation. A bunch of us have volunteered to make meals for his family of four which include two teenage sons. The family will eat anything, and the cancer patient has been craving spicey foods. First time I went over I made a lasagna, next was jambalaya. What should I do the next time? It has to be somethign I can make the night before and then keep in the fridge at work and take over around dinner time.

Just an FYI - while your friend is craving spicy food now, once radiation starts the appetite and cravings may change and he/she may not be able to tolerate spicy foods. You may want to have a more mild backup dish in mind just in case.

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Just an FYI - while your friend is craving spicy food now, once radiation starts the appetite and cravings may change and he/she may not be able to tolerate spicy foods. You may want to have a more mild backup dish in mind just in case.

you are right about that. As a cancer survivor myself, I remember that many of the foods that I wanted then I can't even touch now. Kind of like that bad gin experience you had in undergrad, I can't eat kale or feta cheese anymore. eek. and urp.

But my friend on the other hand says everything tastes the same right now and he wants something that is real flavorful. I have never made Indian food, but the chili idea is a good one.

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I hadn't noticed this thread earlier. But a quick and easy mapo tofu (note the further discussion of the recipe below) is pretty delicious, and you can add the hot sauce afterward to taste, which makes it easier for the other family members if they don't want as much spice. This also comes out pretty well with ground turkey.

A rice cooker is one of those perfect tools for the nights you can't get up the strength. You can't get easier than measuring rice, adding water, and flipping a switch. Make or buy char siu pork (which freezes well) or buy some Chinese sausage for fried rice with eggs, and scallions. Peas if you like.

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I think I've posted this elsewhere on the board, but one of my favorite make-ahead meals is chicken with tomatoes and thyme. You don't even have to thaw this one.

Slice 1 lemon into rounds, and combine in a small bowl with a 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, 8 sprigs thyme, and 1 tablespoon capers. Season 4 small chicken thighs and 4 small chicken drumsticks with Kosher salt and pepper, and place 1 thigh and 1 leg in each of 4 quart-sized freezer bags. Divide the bowl mixture among the 4 plastic freezer bags. Freeze, for up to 3 months, until ready to cook.

To cook, heat oven to 400° F. Remove the bags of chicken and tomatoes from the freezer (you’ll need 1 bag of chicken and tomatoes for each serving). Empty the contents of each bag into a baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil, using 1 1/2 teaspoons for each serving. Roast until the chicken is golden brown and cooked through, about 50 minutes.

Again, you don't have to thaw before cooking, and it comes in individual portions in case you're only cooking for 1-2 people. I use the same freezer bag technique for fajitas, too, slicing up beef and peppers/onions and then just throwing it into a skillet when I'm ready to eat.

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We've owned a couple crock pots, either as a gift or purchase, and could just never make them work for us. I found I had to brown everything to begin with anyway to achieve the effect I desired, and since that's the messiest part of most braised dishes the labor saved was negligible. The fond from browning then had to be deglazed and scraped into the crock pot--an otherwise unnecessary step that can waste flavor. I also found that the resulting dishes tasted steamed, with muddled flavors and the texture of institutional food.

I've got very little time to cook these days, and I keep pulling out my crock pot thinking there must be something it's good for. Every soup, stew, or pot roast comes out exactly as Banco describes: steamed, with muddled flavors. Large pieces of meat suffer from what I call the "pot roast paradox," where meat cooked slowly in liquid ends up dry and flavorless. Browning and deglazing adds flavor, but adding food prep to our already hectic mornings is not appealing. Sometimes I can cook things ahead of time, but my weekends are often as busy as weekdays.

I'm interested to hear about some succesful slow-cooker recipes, before the crock pot goes to a yard sale.

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I've had more success with stew-y sorts of things when I cook on low, starting with frozen meat chunks, and add my herbs & spices in the last hour or so of cooking. For example, 2 frozen skinless chicken breasts, a can of black beans drained, a can of Ro-tel (reg. or spicy), a can of corn. Makes a good , simple enchilada filling (I add sour cream once the cooking is done), or you can add some broth near the end and torn up tortillas for chicken tortilla soup. And if you're doing enchiladas and don't have time/mental energy to make your own sauce that night, Target sells Frontera (Rick Bayless's brand) enchilada sauce and it is yummy! It comes in plastic pouches instead of cans -- I almost didn't spot it on the shelf b/c of that. Now I try to always have it in the pantry.

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I've got very little time to cook these days, and I keep pulling out my crock pot thinking there must be something it's good for. Every soup, stew, or pot roast comes out exactly as Banco describes: steamed, with muddled flavors. Large pieces of meat suffer from what I call the "pot roast paradox," where meat cooked slowly in liquid ends up dry and flavorless. Browning and deglazing adds flavor, but adding food prep to our already hectic mornings is not appealing. Sometimes I can cook things ahead of time, but my weekends are often as busy as weekdays.

I'm interested to hear about some succesful slow-cooker recipes, before the crock pot goes to a yard sale.

My most successful slow cooker forays have entailed less conventional ingredients; i.e, sausage, parts, or ground meats over whole cuts, leek and fennel over onion. Rather than re-create a stove top favorite like chicken soup, I aim for slow cooker-exclusive concoctions. Perhaps it's a psychological trick to encourage me not to compare/contrast textures with other cooking methods, I am not sure, but I do know exceptional results have emerged.

Spicy Makenek slow cooker recipe; sausages seem to do really well in the slow cooker; avoid cooking times over five or six hours

Bison and Mushroom slow cooker recipe; including a lesson learned from adding bell pepper too soon

Chicken and Sweet Potato slow cooker recipe; the higher heat setting with the shorter cooking period yields optimal results

Adobo Chicken slow cooker recipe; no browning step required

Split Pea Soup ham hock or other smoked component is the flavor must-have for this one; can probably skip vegetable browning without much impact

A few lamentable circumstances confirm the observations you have already made:

  • After dozens if not hundreds of recipes, I have found browning the meat is generally necessary for flavor development in the slow cooker. This can happen the night before, however, and leave all ingredients in the fridge, then plug in the slow cooker anytime over the next two days. And it's not a 100% truism--see the Adobo Chicken and Chicken with Sweet Potato for seasoning-rich examples that bypass the browning hassle.
  • The slow cooker is not the ideal "fix it and forget it" device, unless your work day is six hours or you have an auto shutoff switch and a high tolerance for unmonitored temperatures. Said another way, most of my outrageously successful recipes have a cook time of four to six hours, not eight to ten. Eight to ten hours nearly always brings the mush and muddle factor.

If time savings and flavor intensity are desired outcomes, how much experience do you have with a pressure cooker? Place chopped vegetables, cubed meat, flavorful liquid and seasonings in the cooker, and leave it in the fridge while you are at work. Anytime during the next day or two, you can then put it on the stove, bring it to pressure, and within the hour (sometimes half hour if not dense ingredients) have a masterfully flavored concoction with a clean kitchen and very little effort except keeping an eye on the pressure level. With this method of cooking, browning the meat does not seem to be as critical; cooking at pressure brings so much flavor to the party the possibilities are more varied.

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Speaking of make ahead meals. Any ideas for a good slow cooker cookbook, one that doesn't require tons of sear off this, then saute that, then do so much stuff it doesn't make it worth using a slow cooker when you have a dutch oven? Just basics really- beef stew/pot roast, sloppy joes, etc. But I also don't want the Sandra Lee version. Is there a happy medium?

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My most successful slow cooker forays have entailed less conventional ingredients; i.e, sausage, parts, or ground meats over whole cuts, leek and fennel over onion. Rather than re-create a stove top favorite like chicken soup, I aim for slow cooker-exclusive concoctions. Perhaps it's a psychological trick to encourage me not to compare/contrast textures with other cooking methods, I am not sure, but I do know exceptional results have emerged.

Spicy Makenek slow cooker recipe; sausages seem to do really well in the slow cooker; avoid cooking times over five or six hours

Bison and Mushroom slow cooker recipe; including a lesson learned from adding bell pepper too soon

Chicken and Sweet Potato slow cooker recipe; the higher heat setting with the shorter cooking period yields optimal results

Adobo Chicken slow cooker recipe; no browning step required

Split Pea Soup ham hock or other smoked component is the flavor must-have for this one; can probably skip vegetable browning without much impact

A few lamentable circumstances confirm the observations you have already made:

  • After dozens if not hundreds of recipes, I have found browning the meat is generally necessary for flavor development in the slow cooker. This can happen the night before, however, and leave all ingredients in the fridge, then plug in the slow cooker anytime over the next two days. And it's not a 100% truism--see the Adobo Chicken and Chicken with Sweet Potato for seasoning-rich examples that bypass the browning hassle.
  • The slow cooker is not the ideal "fix it and forget it" device, unless your work day is six hours or you have an auto shutoff switch and a high tolerance for unmonitored temperatures. Said another way, most of my outrageously successful recipes have a cook time of four to six hours, not eight to ten. Eight to ten hours nearly always brings the mush and muddle factor.
If time savings and flavor intensity are desired outcomes, how much experience do you have with a pressure cooker? Place chopped vegetables, cubed meat, flavorful liquid and seasonings in the cooker, and leave it in the fridge while you are at work. Anytime during the next day or two, you can then put it on the stove, bring it to pressure, and within the hour (sometimes half hour if not dense ingredients) have a masterfully flavored concoction with a clean kitchen and very little effort except keeping an eye on the pressure level. With this method of cooking, browning the meat does not seem to be as critical; cooking at pressure brings so much flavor to the party the possibilities are more varied.

Just wanted to say thanks for the above. We've had a slow cooker for a few years and every time we make something in it, I'm underwhelmed by the results but never articulated why as well as the posts above, culminating in yours, KMango. More importantly, love the suggestions and the specificity; super useful. dr.com at its best. thanks again!

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Just wanted to say thanks for the above. We've had a slow cooker for a few years and every time we make something in it, I'm underwhelmed by the results but never articulated why as well as the posts above, culminating in yours, KMango. More importantly, love the suggestions and the specificity; super useful. dr.com at its best. thanks again!

Agreed, these are great! We got a slow cooker for Christmas this year and have really put it to good use. With two little ones and otherwise full schedules our dinner routines were in a rut (basically a few quick go-to meals with variations here and there). The slow cooker has actually opened up a much wider dinner repertoire for us. I'm going to try a couple of these this week.

The model we received seems to be one of the higher-end Cuisinart ones. Wide, flat non-stick pot that can be used for browning and sauteeing right in the slow cooker. That usually takes a couple steps out of some of the more complicated recipes.

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