Wednesday, March 29, 2023

I am considering learning a new skill. Okay, I mean besides Instagram. I would like to learn the art of meal prepping, or as it is referred to across the pond, “batch cooking.”

Meal prepping is cooking one or more large meals to store in your freezer in portions for future meals when there is no time or inclination to cook, and it is also the process of making a week’s worth of food at one time to serve in different combinations for that week.

Meal prepping can also mean cooking for your family and another family at the same time, giving you the opportunity to do a mitzvah on a regular basis.

You may want to start meal prepping slowly and ease into it by preparing a single item, like a red sauce. Half can be used for that night’s dinner and half stored in the freezer. It is up to you how many containers you pour that sauce into before freezing it. Another idea is to cook two whole chickens at once. I am not talking only about preparing for Shabbat. Serve one chicken for dinner and totally shred the second one and freeze it in four zip lock bags. The four zip lock bags are key to meal prepping, because you prepare four times as much of each dish as you would need for one meal. Keep one fourth out for your meal that night or for the next day. Package the remaining in three containers or zip lock bags for future meals.

There are some meal preppers who use all the food in a week’s time by using all the prepared food throughout the week in different forms. You could say they create variations on a theme. For instance, you could cook up a bulk amount of two different starches, maybe quinoa and rice in your pareve pots. You could also pre-cut vegetables. Use the quinoa on Monday for a base to your grain bowl with a protein of salmon and lots of veggies. Expert meal preppers will cut up the veggies and assemble them in containers when they return from the grocery store. When I read articles asking people to make the time after unpacking all their groceries to then cut vegetables, I feel the authors may not be familiar with the demands of a busy household. As a novice meal prepper, I am going to give myself a break and not plan to do this right away. Happily, however, there is the option to buy pre-sliced or pre-chopped or spiralized veggies from several kosher stores.

Gardeners employ this same method, taking harvest overflow, parboiling the veggies, separating them into single portions and freezing them in storage bags for enjoyment well beyond the growing season.

Continuing with the menu, on Tuesday you can serve the pre-made rice along with roast chicken. Remember you prepared two chickens at one time? On Wednesday you can feature the quinoa with a veggie stir-fry (using the veggies you cut up after you put away your groceries or the ones you bought already cut-up from the store) and on Thursday you can shred leftover roast chicken or pull out the zip lock bag of shredded chicken from your freezer and heat it up with the leftover veggie stir fry. Is everyone keeping up with me? Because I’m not sure I’m keeping up with myself. Still another way to meal prep is to make a larger amount for each dinner meal and use it as lunch the next day.

There is a need for organizational skills as well as cooking skills to batch cook. Before you start to cook, make sure you have room in your freezer. If you do not yet have room, do a shelf-by-shelf inventory of your freezer. Now I am in my comfort zone and in my element. Do you date and label all the food you store in your freezer? I keep blank labels handy in a kitchen drawer. Each time I place anything new in my freezer, I label it with the description and date. If something is particularly tasty, I put that on the label as well. For instance, the brisket my husband made for Shemini Atzeret is labeled “yummy brisket (10/9).” My rule of thumb is if a frozen food is older than six months, it is ready to be introduced to my garbage can.

When you look through your freezer you will likely see at least one item that is covered in ice crystals, often called “freezer burn.” Up until preparing to write this column, I thought food with ice crystals was no longer good. My husband and I jokingly refer to them as “protective ice crystals,” an expression we picked up from a movie called “Mother” by Albert Brooks. The FDA, however, says “Freezer burn does not mean food is unsafe. Freezer burn is a food quality issue, not a food safety issue. It appears as grayish-brown leathery spots on frozen food. It can occur when food is not securely wrapped in air-tight packaging and causes dry spots in foods.” As you purge food, keep your eye out for food you really don’t like and know you will not be eating. If you feel guilty for throwing out good food, ask yourself if you have a family member, friend or neighbor that may enjoy this.

Perhaps you feel ready to take the plunge and make several dishes at one time. I have been told by someone close to me, who is a big fan of meal prepping, that it can all be done within one to two hours. I don’t know about that. I am talking to myself. I think as a beginner I would expect it to take more time.

The next important step after making sure you have room in your freezer is to establish your menu and make a shopping list. It makes sense to choose dishes that share some ingredients. (Remember the quinoa and veggies/veggie stir-fry and chicken/chicken and rice?)

You can also use your instant pot or slow cooker to cook all ingredients for a delicious meal. Prepare raw ingredients for a one-dish meal and separate them into one or more zip lock bags and freeze. The morning you wish to make that meal in a slow cooker, remove one bag from the freezer and place it in your slow cooker. Alternatively, the evening you want to cook it up for that dinner, place the frozen ingredients in your instant pot. There is a large difference in the amount of time these two appliances need to prepare your food, but not a large difference in the amount of taste. In my experience, either one delivers a delicious meal.

Lisa Harris, a professional organizer in northern New Jersey and owner of Organize With Lisa, LLC is a meal prep maven. Lisa says, “Meal prepping is not only personally productive, but it also demonstrates great time management skills. Additionally, you (and your family) benefit from having your meals mostly done at the end of a long day!” Who wouldn’t value being able to manage their time better?

Lisa, you have inspired me to take on meal prepping in order to have more time to work with my puppy Shepsi on her obedience training.

Ellen Smith is Central Jersey’s kosher organizer and tzniut wardrobe stylist. For over 13 years, Ellen has helped people restore order and create calm in their homes and souls. Ellen believes “clutter clogs, but harmony heals.” Contact Ellen for a complimentary consultation at [email protected]

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