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Make ahead meals for fast-paced lives

April 24, 2002|BY LYNN F. LITTLE

By Lynn F. Little

With all the publicity about nutrition's relationship to health these days, who doesn't want to make sure their family is eating a balanced diet?

One way to eat more healthfully in our fast-paced world is to prepare meals at home ahead of time, and serve them when it is inconvenient to cook.

A good place to begin is by preparing double the amount of food your family will consume each time you prepare a main dish. For example, make two pans of lasagna or two meatloaves and freeze one for later.

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This "stocking the freezer" method of meal preparation works well whether you are cooking for several people or just one or two. The only limitations are the size of your freezer and the size of your food budget.

Doubling up on entrees twice a week means that in just one month you will have eight meals ready and waiting for those nights when you are just too rushed to cook a complete meal.

Keep in mind, however, that not all food freezes well and some foods are still better when made on the spot. Save those meals for days when you have more time and can enjoy the preparation as well as the eating.

Another idea that works well, if you have willing friends, is to share your favorite main dish. When you make two meals, you can trade one with a friend instead of putting it in your own freezer.

If the thought of getting a week's worth of cooking done within one evening appeals to you, try this plan: Set aside one night, or a Saturday morning, and prepare a week's worth of dinners. This is easier than it sounds and the reward of time and energy saved on shopping, preparation and clean-up are well worth the extra effort.

But, if the task of preparing one meal at a time is overwhelming, five or 10 meals might be more than you can handle. Take heart - it doesn't take five or 10 times as long. In fact, it usually can be done in just 30 minutes more than your usual meal preparation.

Impossible, you say! Read on.

Begin with a menu plan. Be easy on yourself and plan at least three of the five meals using the same food as a main ingredient. This allows you to prepare only once for three of the meals.

Entrees for one week might look like this:

Monday: Spaghetti with meat sauce

Tuesday: Lemon Pepper Fish in foil

Wednesday: Cheeseburger Casserole

Thursday: Chili Fries

Friday: French Bread Pizza (made from leftover meat sauce)

Time and energy savings come from frying all of the hamburger in one pan rather than on three different nights using three pans. Determine how much hamburger must be prepared for each recipe and then brown it all at once.

After the meat is thoroughly cooked and drained, place the amount needed for each recipe into separate containers and refrigerate immediately. It's not necessary to compromise food safety while cutting corners on time.

If you don't use prepared spaghetti sauce, you can mix the ingredients for the sauce and let it simmer while you tend to the hamburger.

On Wednesday night, you will need only to combine the other ingredients with the hamburger and simmer in an electric skillet or in a skillet on the stove. On Thursday, add your favorite spices or a seasoning packet to the prepared hamburger and you'll have chili ready before the frozen oven-baked French fries are done.

Each meal will need a fruit and vegetable to make it part of a balanced diet, but preparation time should be less than 15 minutes because you have a head start. A final hint: Shop one day and cook the next and, on the night you cook, order a carry-out meal to eat while you get ahead on food for the next week.

Homemade Hamburger Helper Seasoning Mix

1 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons dried parsley

1/2 cup instant onion

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 2/3 cups fat-free dry milk powder

3 1/2 tablespoons beef bouillon granules

Mix together and keep handy in well-sealed container.

Cheeseburger Casserole

Brown 1 pound of hamburger; drain fat. Add 1 1/2 cups water, 1 cup uncooked macaroni, 1 can chopped tomatoes and one-half cup Homemade Hamburger Helper Seasoning Mix. Simmer, covered, 20 minutes or until macaroni is tender. Remove from heat and add 2 cups of grated cheese.

Chili Tomato Macaroni

Brown 1 pound of hamburger; drain fat. Add 1 1/2 cups water, 1 cup uncooked macaroni, 1 can chopped tomatoes, 1 tablespoon chili powder and one-half cup Homemade Hamburger Helper Seasoning Mix. Simmer, covered, 20 minutes or until macaroni is tender.

Potato Casserole

Brown 1 pound hamburger; drain fat. Add 1 cup water, 5 or 6 peeled and sliced (very thin) potatoes, 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon Homemade Hamburger Helper Seasoning Mix. Simmer, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Stir. Uncover and cook until excess water is evaporated.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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