Saturday, September 20, 2014

Planning a Weekend Cook-Up

Eating clean, healthy food has always been a priority for us. I love to cook, so that's not ever been the challenge, however, time often has been! For the past several years, my goal has always been to prep like crazy on Sundays in order to make the week easier. Well, that's great if we don't have anything else going on, but the stress sneaks in when there are a million other errands on the list, or we just want to spend the afternoon with friends or be out and about.
This school year I decided to have a different approach. I wanted to do just as much prep- but less often. My goal is to only prep cook every 3-4 weeks, on a weekend when we don't have much else going on. I definitely cook at other times, so we have fresh meals to supplement, but when there isn't time, I have an arsenal of options in the freezer! I've done 3 cook ups so far, and I really think I'm onto something. 

Here's what happened this weekend:


English Eggy Muffins

6 English Muffins, split; I've used Food for Life Gluten Free and Glutino muffins- both were awesome, so just use whatever you like best.
6 eggs whisked with salt, pepper, and a splash of milk 
2 cups of vegetables, pre-cooked; I'm liking kale and broccoli these days... but whatever you're in the mood for or have on hand will work
2 cups of pre-cooked meat; I used ham that I cooked up with an onion
1 1/2 cups of shredded cheese- whatever you want to use is awesome

Have everything ready for assembly.
Spray a large cookie sheet with non-stick spray.  Dip each muffin half in the eggy mixture giving it time to soak everything in.  Lay them out on the cookie try, then top with veg, meat, and cheese.  Bake at 400 for 15 min or until the egg is set and they are lightly browning.  Remove right away to a plate for cooling.  Once they are cool, wrap each individually, put into a zip lock bag, and freeze! I keep plates at work and microwave them for a minute. 

Ready for the freezer!


I bought a 1.5 pound antibiotic and nitrite free ham nugget (I'm not sure why, but the word nugget always makes me giggle) at Whole Foods to use for the breakfast muffins.  They sell them where they have pre-cooked packaged sausages.  After cutting up what I needed for the muffins, I cut up a second batch diced for a future recipe, then cut the remainder into slices, which I weighed out in 2oz portions. (17g protein!)  I wrapped each in a little foil and then placed them all in a zip lock.  If you get them out the night before, you'll be set to make a sandwich in the morning, or just throw it in your lunch box with a Baby Bell and some crackers.  I've done this same thing with a turkey breast sold in the same section.  Instant lunch!

Wedding Soup

Whole Foods had a sale on grass fed beef for $4.99 (vs. $7.99) so we bought 10lbs.  We used 3 pounds of it to make meatballs.  Two pounds we froze in bags of one pound each, and the 3rd pound we used for wedding soup.  I consulted Giada DeLaurentiis for her Italian expertise, but changed it up a bit to make it my own.

1 pound of meatballs (recipe below) rolled smaller than you would normal meatballs, maybe 1/2- 3/4" in diameter
3/4 pound of fresh spinach, roughly chopped
12 cups chicken stock (3 boxes- buy the case at Costco!)
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
salt, pepper
Pasta, optional (I used about 1/2 cup gluten free Allenini, but next time, I'll just use 1/4 cup)  If you use pasta, use tiny itty bitty pastas.

Bring 12 cups of chicken stock to a boil and add the meatballs, reducing the heat a bit.  Give them about 8-10 minutes to simmer before adding in the spinach and pasta if you are using it.  Once spinach is wilted, whisk the two eggs with the Parmesan cheese and stir into the soup.  Allow to simmer for everything to come together and for the pasta to cook if you are using it.  
This soup is so delicious!  We ate it for dinner that night, saved enough for 2 lunches this coming week, and still had 4 servings to freeze. 


1 large yellow onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, grated
3 eggs, whisked 
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
3 slices of bread, crusts removed, torn into tiny bits
3/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
3 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper, some hot pepper flakes if you want... 
3lbs 85% grass fed beef.  You need some fat in meatballs, if you do a leaner beef, I'd sub some out with some pork, or if you use all lean, I'd add in some evoo.  That's my opinion on it anyway.

Giada had an awesome, yet obvious, tip.  Put everything in a bowl except the meat and mix well.  Then, add the beef.  Just mix until fairly well distributed.  I'm always worried about over working the beef when trying to incorporate all other ingredients, but never thought of just mixing everything else first?!?!  
Who knew Date Night could be so productive?
I highly suggest making this amount of meatballs with some help... Make it date night in like we did.  We opened a really nice bottle of wine, put videos on vemo on apple TV and had a blast.  There may have been spontaneous dancing... the best done by my very talented husband with a dish towel on his shoulder... and we might have sung Katy Perry songs a bit too loudly.  I never said you couldn't make food prep weekend super fun... 
Score the beef into 3 fairly even sections and get out plates for each section.  Roll, Roll, Roll each section into the size you'd like.  We did one section small for the soup, and the other two more normal size meatballs for whatever they end up in.  They might end up in wedding soup as good as it is, I'll just have to cook the meatballs longer.  

Place the plates in the freezer for about an hour, or until they are on their way to being frozen.  Remove and place the 1/2 frozen meatballs into separate freezer bags- pre-freezing will keep them from mushing all together.  If they stick to the plate, use a tea towel to help them off.  Get them right back in the freezer after bagging.
OR wake up at 2am remembering you never put them in freezer bags, stumble downstairs, remove from the freezer and give them 5 min so you can GET them off the plates- work quickly- you don't want them to thaw at all- and then bag and go back to bed.  There are options.


Both of these meals were inspired by Kirstin at  
I've not executed either of these meals yet, but... I did prepare a former chicken freezer/crockpot meal the following day, and I'm a little nervous.  The chicken breast was so dry!  Ew.  I've slow cooked chicken breast before, and it's been fine- but, never chicken that had been frozen.  I did thaw before cooking and cut back on the low cooking time for that reason, but maybe not enough?  A lunch time chat with some other teachers confirmed that it's not just me having this issue.
My thoughts for future meals is to use high vs. low and to check the chicken as I go, serving as soon as everything is cooked through, hopefully this will keep it from overcooking, which I'm thinking COULD be the issue.
I also may just do what I've done before with freezer meals and thaw, then cook in a casserole vs. slow cooker.
Because, really? Who is only away from their house for 6-8 hours anyway?  I've been slow cooking freezer meals on Sundays in order to keep them from overcooking (or trying...) and then we have them to warm up for the week.  If it's a busy weekend, we'll just have that for dinner that evening too.  If not, they are portioned out for a couple lunches, and the rest in a large container to eat for a couple dinners that week.
I should add that when I have used chicken thighs, they are totally fine and yummy- not dry at all- so there's that too.  Depending on what happens with these two meals, I may just switch to always using thighs.  
One more tip- Our wonderful ESL teacher said she always subs 1/2 cup of OJ or apple juice- depending on the recipe- for a 1/2 cup of whatever liquid chicken or pork recipes call for when cooking.  She said it will help tenderize the meat.  Thanks, Ginny! 
If you have tips, pul-eeze share.  That said... here is exactly what I did and my fingers are crossed that they will be awesome when prepared...

***See updates at bottom of post!  

Peanut-Braised Chicken

In Freezer Bag:
2lbs chicken, cubed
2 cups chopped onion
2 cups carrots, I matchstick cut them, but whatever
2 cups broccoli florets
zest of a lime and the juice
4 garlic cloves, minced

To Cook:
In crock pot:
Whisk together:
2 T tamari (or soy sauce)
2 T brown rice flour (or AP flour)
3 T peanut butter
¾ cup chicken stock

Cook 5-6 hours on low  (I'm going to start checking the chicken for doneness at 3 hours and go from there to try to serve (or remove from cooking) as soon as it's done...)
5 minutes before serving, stir in a can of coconut milk and a bag of frozen peas.  Serve as is, or over rice.




Rosemary Honey Chicken

In Freezer Bag:
1.5 pounds chicken, cubed
cup balsamic vinegar
cup honey
cup extra virgin olive oil
3 T fresh rosemary, chopped
1 t salt
Allow to marinate for several hours before placing in freezer.

To Cook:

Thaw completely before cooking.
In crock pot:
1 cup water and contents of bag
6-8 hours low, 3-4 hours high

Take out some liquid and whisk with a little cornstarch to thicken sauce before serving if it’s too thin.
I'm not sure how I'm going to approach this one... I'll thaw it and decide.  I'm sort of thinking casserole and oven.  I'll decide after thawing if I should add water, but at the moment, I'm thinking no.  Maybe 400 for 30 min or so... until the chicken is 165 degrees.
I imagine serving with roasted or mashed sweet potatoes and something green. 



Menu planning:  Planning menu items that share ingredients helps a lot when it comes to the grocery bill and to the convenience.  I've done better in the past, but here was my thinking on this weekend:
  • We had spinach and kale chicken salads for 2 dinners this week, so that was an easy way to use up the extra greens from the soup and breakfast.  I used broccoli to prepare breakfast and one dinner, and used extra for green stuff for our lunches this week.
  • Both dinners used chicken breast, so I planned fresh meals this week that would also use chicken.  I bought about 6lbs of chicken breast.  Whole Foods has their chicken at .50 less per pound when you buy family packs.  
  • The ham for breakfast is cheaper when buying the nugget (hee hee) and allows for several more servings for lunches.
Check out what meat is going to be on sale when menu planning.  As soon as I knew I could get grass fed beef so cheaply, it made the meatball decision come quickly- then the wedding soup.  It can help you narrow down what you want to make if you base it on what you can get the best price on.  Expect your grocery bill to be higher on cook up weeks, but know it will be much lower on off weeks! 

When building your crock pot freezer meals, label your zip lock bags w/ the meal and even w cooking directions if you choose.  The date can be helpful too.  What I then do is take a post-it and put it near each bag w/ everything that needs to be in the bag.  It makes it easier when you have a lot of ingredients that overlap because you can do all of the chicken, then the onions, the carrots, and so on.  Make sure to have your kitchen scale nearby as well.   

I hope these recipes and ideas will inspire you to prep ahead so that you and your family can eat healthfully and happily- and most importantly- stress free!  Enjoy!  

Grocery List 

If you would like make the exact cook ahead that I did this weekend, here is your grocery and pantry list all combined!

Blackforest Ham Nugget- only 2 cups worth if you don't want to have extra for freezing for lunches
3lbs Grass Fed Beef
3.5lbs Chicken Breast

11 eggs
2 1/4 cups Parmesan Cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded Cheese     

1 small bunch Dino kale- I really like Dino kale b/c it's flatter and easier to work with, but regular kale, or red kale... it doesn't matter
2-3 large broccoli florets
2 large yellow onions
3/4 lb fresh spinach
3-4 large carrots
1 small bunch rosemar
1 lime
7 garlic cloves 
1 bunch Italian Parsley 
1 pack of 6 English Muffins
13 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup tiny pasta 
1 can coconut milk

3 slices bread
Tamari or soy sauce
3 T peanut butter
3 TBSP flour  
Balsamic Vinegar
Extra Virgin Olive Oil 
Salt and Pepper 
UPDATE:  I have prepared both frozen meals- and I decided against the crock pot in both situations after reading TONS of information about crock pots and chicken breastsA summary from all of my research:  Just don't do it.  Chicken breast simply doesn't have enough connective tissue, so it's going to pretty much always overcook and dry out in the crock pot.  Stick to legs and thighs.  

For the Peanut Braised Chicken:  I defrosted it completely, then dumped the entire thing in a large non-stick saute pan that I'd prepared with a TBSP or so of EVOO.  I prepared the ingredients to add- stock, tamari, peanut butter, and rice flour- then added that to the ingredients.  I covered and allowed it to simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  It looked a little odd, but I was staying positive! 
As soon as the chicken was done, I added 1/2 a can of coconut CREAM- I only had cream on hand- so- if I were to use coconut milk, I think I'd have just used 1/2 of the stock.  After a taste test... a turn or two of tamari in the pan, 2 more TBSP of peanut butter, and 1/3 of a jar of green chile paste.  FOR REAL... this is SUPER good, but it needs some chile paste, or it's just too mild.   
I also added in the peas- about 1/2 bag seemed right to me.  We served it over a little rice and topped it with chopped cashews.  SERIOUSLY, this is so freaking amazingly awesome and good... Scott is already asking when I am making it again!  I've had leftovers once already and it's one of those meals that only gets better.  

For the Honey Rosemary Chicken: I defrosted it completely, then baked it in a casserole on 350 for 30 minutes.  I did not add any additional liquid.  The sauce is delicious.  I still think I cooked it for too long because the chicken was still a little dry.  The chicken in cut into small chunks, so I probably could have pulled back on the time 5-10 minutes.  I would make this again, though.  I do think I would like it better with thighs.  The sauce would just be better with chicken thighs in my opinion.  This would also make preparing in the crock pot an option.  We ate it with roasted sweet potatoes and green beans from the farmer's market.




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