In the first half of this article, I covered the basics for successful grocery shopping and how to choose a few simple ingredients based on seasonality and what will work for batch cooking. This time around, I want to give you some tips and tactics for cooking multiple meals at once and how to balance all the potential cooking in your life and around your schedule.
One thing that constantly amazes me is when someone tells me they never eat leftovers. I won't condemn someone for wanting to eat extremely fresh food, but this pattern of cooking and eating usually causes three things based on my observations:
- An unnecessary amount of time spent cooking
- Leftovers that are refrigerated but usually just thrown away i.e waste
- A reliance on processed or pre-cooked foods for their convenience and “freshness”
The first issue should be fairly obvious. Unless you absolutely LOVE cooking and have all the time in the world, cooking every single meal from scratch every time you are hungry is extremely time consuming. This directly ties into the following two observations. If you feel the need to eat things immediately and only once then if you choose to cook, most of your leftovers will inevitably be thrown away. Maybe someone really thinks they will eat that boiled cauliflower in the back of the fridge but two weeks later it's still there and gone totally south (south = bad or wrong). The third observation comes from one or a combination of the first two. If we get sick of cooking and sick of throwing away leftovers, then the next logical step is to buy either pre-cooked food, such as fast food or hot items from the grocery store, or we live off of packaged foods like quick oatmeal, hotdogs, lunch-meat, bread and whatever else can be eaten in singular portions.
Back when I used to work as a line cook, I can remember thinking of all the great meals I would prepare when I had free time. Then reality hit: after riding my bike to work, working twelve hours, drinking a beer while cleaning up and hitching a ride home, my nightly feast usually consisted of cereal and more cereal. The poison, it is said, is in the dose. If you never cook, then adding in a few home-cooked meals here and there is fun and exciting. But if you are always cooking, you start to view it as a chore and all of a sudden the joy is gone from the act. For me, cooking was a job. Even though I ate tons of cereal and oatmeal at home and pretty much nothing else, at least I was paid to cook at work and was able to taste and enjoy much of the food I was creating. For the rest of us, COOKING IS NOT YOUR JOB!
Having said that, our goal here is to not let something that should nourish you, taste delicious and promote community and closeness with others become a drudgery. Unless your kids or loved ones start handing you cash every time you set the table, try to keep it light and stress free. Here's how....
This probably seems obvious to most of us. The trap that is easy to fall into, and I am speaking from experience here, is to try to do it ALL at once. Take it from me, trying to make an entire week's worth of food in one shot is stressful, messy and only sounds good in theory. Mike Tyson said that in a fight, everyone always has a plan until they get punched in the face. Same applies to this type of cooking; all the planning and organizing for the average person sounds great until a pot boils over, you slice your finger, your roommate wants to make eggs with all the burners going and your run out of storage tupperware.
For effective batch cooking, I recommend cooking your starches, vegetables and proteins separately. This usually adds up to three cooking sessions per week, possibly four towards the end of the week. The goal is to stagger the cooking so you never run out of everything all at once, just one of the above items. Of course, if your fridge is empty as we speak, then the initial cooking will be more intense, but if you haven't been living off of ketchup packets for the past month, then you're probably ok.
Using our shopping guide from the first half of this article, pick up the items listed or at least a group of items with similar attributes. To recap, the list consisted of the following:
1. Choose one or two : 85%-90% lean ground beef/ground turkey/chicken breasts/pork chops or loin/beef chuck or other large roast
2. Two 12 or 18 packs of eggs
3. Two onions
4. Two heads garlic
5. 1 Lemon or lime
6. Two to three vegetables from the season we are currently coming out of or going into
7. Extra-virgin coconut oil or grass fed butter
8. Extra-virgin olive oil for salads
9. At least one kind of high quality vinegar: balsamic, champagne, apple cider, red wine
10. Three or four spices from the list above. I consider cumin, paprika, cinnamon and chili powder to be the best initial choices (kosher salt is mandatory)
11. Optional: A mixture of one to three dried or fresh herbs. Don’t worry too much about fresh when starting out, so dried basil and oregano would be good choices
In all honesty this is certainly not a long grocery list and won't cost you more than $50 if you shop for deals or buy in bulk. If it costs more, just remind yourself that this food will last you a while. Shopping and cooking this way is great too, because when you buy meat in bulk, the next time you run out of cooked food hopefully you have a back-up in the freezer and won't need to drive to the store on short notice. This also sets you up for only shopping big once in a while. If you have protein back-ups in the freezer, only 1 out of every 3 trips to the store involve buying meat and looking for sales.
HOW TO SET IT UP
Since protein is Greek for “of first importance” it just feel right to cook that first. I won't actually cover exact recipes in this article lest it become long enough to be published as a book, but I will give guidelines. If you purchased ground beef, chicken or turkey the most obvious and user-friendly options are burgers, meatloaf, chili and stir-fry's. I would recommend cooking two to three pounds of meat at a time in this way. Looking at all that meat at once seems scary and intimidating and if you don't think you can do it, just start smaller. For the sake of trusting me, let's say you decide to make burgers from 2 lbs of 85% lean ground beef. I wouldn't make the patties smaller than 4oz and would prefer something around closer to 6oz-to 8oz, just so you aren't forming ten tiny patties.
2 lbs = 32oz, 32oz/6oz = 5patties. 5 burgers is totally doable and will last you 4 or 5 days, no problem.
Along with this if you feel like you need a second protein option, you could boil a dozen of your eggs at once, cool them and put them back in the carton in the fridge. If this doesn't appeal to you, then choose a second option like chicken breast that you can saute, grill or bake. Just remember to choose an appropriate amount of protein that will last around the same time as your first option.
A critical point in regards to meat: Aside from those who claim that cooking any meat past medium is a sin, remember that the more thoroughly a protein is cooked, the longer it will last. All protein (and all foods actually) contain enzymes on and within them to break them down. This is why cooked ground beef lasts longer than raw. If you have four days of burgers in your fridge, cooking them medium rare might not be the best idea for freshness. I usually shoot for medium or a little higher if I am cooking in bulk, as this destroys most of the inherent enzymes that spoil your food.
With fresh vegetables, you basically have two distinct options. One is to buy primarily vegetables you can eat raw, as in a salad. This requires more assembly each day but gets you off the hook of cooking additional items. The other is to buy vegetables that lend themselves well to batch cooking and will last a few days in storage. Luckily for us, most veggies can be prepared in this way if you do it right. From the sample list of vegetables on the first article, I included, onions, kale, garlic, cucumbers and broccoli. From this list, the only items that need to be cooked are the garlic and broccoli. This means you could build a salad from kale, onions, cucumbers and whatever protein you cooked along with some oil and vinegar. Or you could choose to cook some broccoli and garlic and make that your main veggie for the week, or both. Either way, this is a very accessible list of items to cook and won't take much time at all. For items like broccoli, if you boil them and want them to keep a few days, shocking them in ice water after a quick boil will stop the cooking process, preserve color and keep them from getting mushy. Tactics like that are key to making this work; no one is going to eat mushy broccoli three days in a row and the food needs to be continually appealing for you to want to eat it more than once.
I've found that softer veggies like summer squash keep better when cooked quickly on a grill or in a stir fry. Other more hardy foods like winter squashes, turnips, rutabaga, cabbage and beets keep very well over a few days, so don't worry about over-cooking them.
Foods to quickly boil and then shock in ice water:
Hardy Greens : Beet greens, Swiss chard, collards, turnip greens, kale
Foods to Slow Cook:
Naturally there are exceptions to the rule. If you want to slow roast some cauliflower in olive oil in the oven or quickly grill some leeks, both work great so you can definitely use your imagination and experiment.
This is by far the easiest group of foods to cook in bulk in my opinion. This can be a double-edged sword though as cooking a huge batch of basmati rice is a breeze but it lends itself to over-consuming these foods at the same time. As I wrote about in my “Letter to Carbohydrates” article, I believe that carbohydrates should be used generally as fuel for exercise. A potato or cup of rice at dinner is perfectly fine for most of the population but eating these foods at every meal for the sake of convenience usually leads to some metabolic issues for more sedentary populations.
Having said that, one of the easiest ways to avoid consuming calorie-dense but nutrient-deprived starches is to avoid most wheat products as well as any carbohydrate food that doesn't need to be cooked to consume. These foods are breads, cereals, sweetened dairy products and baked goods. I still like organic rolled oats from time to time but would encourage you not to become reliant on it just because it is cheap and easy to prepare.
Ok, rant over! My favorite starches for cooking are any potatoes, especially yams as well as the starchy winter squash varieties like butternut, spaghetti and acorn. Next down the list would be rice varieties like Basmati, Jasmine, Arborio and black rice. At the bottom of this “good” starch list would be organic oats consumed on a less-frequent basis.
Rice cooking doesn't need much explanation, nor do oats. Instead, cooking potatoes in bulk requires a bit more finesse and I will post an awesome potato recipe following this post. Starches in general don't need to be cooled in ice water or prepared in a special way to preserve them. Rice benefits from being spread out on a large sheet pan after cooking to cool uniformly and drizzling some olive oil over it will keep the grains from sticking, same goes for oats.
Since boiled potatoes, rice and other grains are quick to prepare you may opt to make these on an as-needed basis and that makes perfect sense. If you are an extremely active individual or athlete then having starches on hand is convenient since you will be eating them more often, but if you only have them a few times per week, cooking in bulk is not necessary.
SAMPLE COOKING TEMPLATE
Assuming you have at least some food in your fridge right now, we will have two separate cooking days over a 4 day period. This means you are only cooking four times per week. You can do more or less depending on your preference but four times a week is very achievable for most people. I have noticed most people I speak to only have one kind of protein cooked at any one time so do not feel pressured to make more than one item at a time. Adjust amounts based on your serving size needs and how many people you might be feeding.
-Grill/Sear five 6oz burgers/bake a large meatloaf/stir-fry large portion of ground meat and veggies
-Boil a dozen eggs, cool in ice water and place back in carton
-Optional: Bake, grill or stir-fry additional chicken, pork or turkey if one protein option is not enough
-Boil two to three heads broccoli and shock in ice water.
-Saute garlic in olive oil and mix with cooled broccoli
-Slice one to two onions, cucumbers and one additional veggie and store in airtight container for mixing in salads as needed
-Wash and dry a large portion of kale or other leafy green and store in dry container for mixing as needed with salad veggies
Optional Monday or As Needed
-Bake two to four sweet potatoes in oven with cinnamon, paprika, salt and oil
-OR cook one to two cups rice and cool on baking pan with drizzled olive oil on top
This food should last you anywhere from three to five days depending on how much you eat and how much you feel comfortable cooking at once. If we split the difference and say you decided to cook 4 days of food at a time your cooking would look like this:
Sunday: Cook proteins
Monday: Cook veggies/starches
Thursday: Cook Proteins
Friday: Cook veggies/starches
This gives you option of cooking two distinct sets of proteins, veggies and starches per week meaning you don't have to eat the same thing all the time. Even if shortened your food prep to three-day batches, you would generally only be cooking four(possibly five) times a week as there would be some overlap into the following week.
The benefit of this system is that you have much more control over what you eat and don't need to scramble every day to find something to bring for lunch to work or eat when you get home. More adventurous people might decide to cook all their vegetables and proteins on the same day and this condenses your food prep into even less-frequent periods.
Whichever system you decide upon, make sure that it works for you. I don't think anyone needs to be forced into dietary habits that give them stress or make them uncomfortable, so experiment and find which system benefits your lifestyle. My final thought is this: when you cook, put your heart into making food delicious, healthy and fun, the rest of the time forget about it and focus on the rest of your life.