Today, around six o'clock, millions of us are going to do exactly the same thing.
We're going to open the fridge and stare into it. Then we're going to open the freezer and stare into it. And then we're going to open the pantry and stare into it.
And then we're going to realize there's absolutely nothing for dinner--at the very same moment that our kids, spouses, or roommates hit the front door and say: "I'm starving - what are we having tonight?"
I can't tell you how many times I've faced this moment of panic. I have two boys, and do you know how hungry boys get after school and baseball practice? Just try telling them that dinner isn't ready yet. Trust me - they don't take it well.
I'm betting that the six o'clock panic frequently happens in your house, too. And if you're committed to feeding your family real food, like I am, this isn't a problem you can solve with a box of macaroni and cheese or a frozen pizza. You can't dash out for burgers and fries, either. So what can you do?
The Solution: Batch Cooking
Luckily, dinnertime panic happens less and less these days around my house. That's because over the years, I've come up with a solution: batch cooking.
A couple of times a month, I schedule a whole day (or at least a good chunk of one) to do nothing but cook. Then I pack everything up in freezer containers, and voila: I have a dozen or more ready-to-go meals that I just need to thaw.
Batch cooking takes a little planning and organization, but it's well worth the effort. Here are some tricks that can help make this approach successful.
• Stock up on different sizes of freezer bags. Also, buy tons of containers of different sizes. Go with glass if you can, so you don't need to worry about any chemicals from plastics leaching into your food when you store or microwave it.
• If possible, get one of those gadgets that shrink-wrap your food. This way, precooked chicken or hamburger will stay fresh longer.
• Create a menu plan and a shopping list. Aim for at least four recipes that you can cook in quantity.
• When you recalculate the ingredients in your recipes for double or triple batches, double-check your math.
• Be careful with spices, because they don't always react like you'd expect when you double or triple a recipe. Err on the side of under-seasoning, and correct later.
• On cooking day, start by assembling the ingredients for every recipe ahead of time - that French mise en place or "putting in place" technique. This way, if you're missing an ingredient, you'll know before you start and you can dash to the store or borrow it from a neighbor.
• Figure out ways to multi-task. For instance, cook up a crockpot full of butternut squash soup while you roast meatballs in the oven and simmer spaghetti sauce and boil eggs on the stove.
• Invest in two or three kitchen timers. That way, you can easily keep track of different cooking projects. If you wind up setting several timers, put a sticky note next to each one so you'll know which recipe it's timing.
• Date everything when you put it in containers.
Here's What I Like to Make....
Here are some of my favorite things to cook in batches. I just double or triple the ingredients in these recipes (but remember my caution about spices).
• Curry recipes
• Chili recipes
In addition, I save time by prepping ingredients for other recipes. For instance, I brown two or three pounds of hamburger with onions and garlic and freeze the meat in one-pound packages. That way, I can quickly make zoodle spaghetti or chili later on. Or I'll boil one or two dozen eggs so I can devil some, toss some into salads, and still have enough left to make egg salad for lunches.
I also cook chicken ahead of time. The trick here is to keep it moist, so it doesn't taste stringy when you thaw it out. Here are some good instructions from - of all places! - the Betty Crocker website.
I'll grant you, "batch day" is a big project. However, it's also a fun time to share with kids (even the littlest ones can help stir or mix) or with your significant other. It's also sort of sensual to stand in the middle of a kitchen where wonderful things are simmering, sautéing, roasting, and slow-cooking, and the smells of basil, garlic, onions, cilantro, sage, and roasting meat are enveloping you.
And trust me: Even though it's a lot of work up front, you'll be glad later on that you did it. Because one day, not too long from now, you're going to come home exhausted and starving, and realize that you don't need to cook dinner. So instead of panicking, you're going to pour yourself a glass of wine, put your feet up, and relax - and say a big thank-you to yourself.