Around here there is a lot of work that needs to get done in a day. I don’t always have the luxury of standing over a stove to cook meals. While there are some meals that are wonderful and worthy of that time investment, generally a well-balanced meal is all I have time for and all that I need. To that end, I have some tricks for producing quality meals that seem like they took all day. Here’s a good look at what I mean.
1. Prepare ahead of time
We’re big on portion size and nutrition so when we make food, we make it in bulk and freeze or can what is left. Yes, you can pressure can or freeze all kinds of things. A great example of this is a basic red sauce for spaghetti or lasagna. We can our tomato crop each summer so that it provides for us all winter and spring. Making a great pot of spaghetti now takes only the amount of time needed to cook the pasta.
A Basic Red Sauce
A basic red sauce is a perfect tool for a busy family. It is tomatoes, herbs, and broth. All I do is fill up a crock pot with cored fresh tomatoes, add in a cup of broth – I prefer vegetable broth, which I make by the gallon. The reason for choosing vegetable broth over chicken broth or beef broth is that later you can adjust this basic sauce to fit your needs. Vegetable broth is easy to adjust to match whatever you are cooking – for poultry add another cup of chicken stock. For beef or hearty dishes, add a cup of beef broth. It is more difficult to try to make a beef stock fit a poultry recipe than it is to adjust a vegetable broth to fit chicken, fish, or meat dishes.
- Fill a crock pot with cored tomatoes
- Add a cup of vegetable broth
- Season with your favorite herbs – oregano, basil, thyme, a bay leaf, salt, and pepper.
- Cook on medium until reduced and stir as needed.
- Cool and freeze or can.
You can adjust the seasonings later so don’t get crazy with flavoring the sauce. It is a starter sauce that adjusts easily and from here you can go many places with taste.
For spaghetti, just chop up an onion, bell pepper or sweet pepper, a few cloves of garlic, and sauté in a heavy bottom pot. Being a big fan of Wertz canned meats, I add a can of their beef to this and let the onions and garlic cook. Add the desired amount of sauce bring to a simmer and add your spices – a splash of Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, and herbs. All the while this is cooking the pasta water is boiling and the pasta is cooking. This whole process takes about 20-minutes – if that. Add to this a salad and you’re good to go. You can also adjust this recipe to make a vegetable stew by adding corn, squash, beans, rice, and either some of the Wertz canned beef or pork. You can “internationalize” this too by changing the spices. For example, filling for tacos or burritos requires only some Mexican oregano, cumin, and chili powder.
So, when you cook, do so in batches and make some for next time. If I am making lasagna, I make two or three and then freeze 1-2 as future meals. If I make chili, I make a lot of it and freeze it in containers for later. That is one trick to having great food available on short notice.
2. Big Batches of Fresh Ingredients
Every Sunday or Monday we make a large pot of beans and a big pot of organic brown rice. Usually, we cook 2-3 pounds of dry beans. These are just plain, and they are for use in meals throughout the next four or five days. There is no broth in the beans or the rice, so they keep just fine in a sealed container in the fridge. We use them in nearly every meal and because they are already cooked, they take no time to use.
In the above example – hearty vegetable stew – you can add beans and rice without having to spend the hour or two to cook the beans. This works in these types of recipes because the beans and the rice are ingredients not a main dish. If I were going to make rice and beans, then I would start with dry ingredients and make the entire dish using those rather than the pre-cooked staples. That is because you can add more flavor to those kinds of dishes whereas, in a vegetable stew, much of the flavor comes from the broth.
Potatoes are another great staple to cook ahead of time for use in meal prep for the whole week. Simply wash and cut the potatoes into chunks and simmer in water until tender. You don’t want to overcook these else they will fall apart when you finish cooking them. You can use these in all kinds of meals from potato and egg casseroles for breakfast to potato salad for lunch and dinner. You can, like the beans and rice, add the potatoes to stews, soups, and other dishes too. Because they are already cooked, it saves you a bucket full of time in meal prep.
Easy Potato Breakfast Casserole
- Drizzle a large skillet or #10 dutch oven with olive oil. Toss in 2-3 cups of your cooked potatoes with one medium chopped onion and a sweet pepper or two, cut into bite-sized pieces – fewer potatoes if you want the casserole to be eggier than potato rich. Over medium heat, crisp the potatoes on one side. Add to this as soon as the onions start to soften, a can or two of Wertz Canned Pork – with the juice. Simmer until the mixture thickens.
- In a large bowl, whisk together 6-7 eggs – fewer eggs if using more potatoes – you can also adjust the egg volume based on the amount of other filling used. Add to the eggs, a ½ cup of milk or cream a pinch or so of salt and pepper. Whisk until well blended.
- If baking in a separate dish, grease a 9×13 inch casserole pan or dish. Add the potato mixture to it and spread out the mixture until it evenly coats the bottom of the pan. I bake it in the same dutch oven used to crisp the potatoes so there is less cleanup at the end.
- Add ½ cup of grated cheese to the egg mixture and stir until the cheese is incorporated. You can use almost any type of cheese you love, such as Asiago or a blend. You can also use cheddar or pepper jack. Dump this mixture evenly over the potatoes, meat, and vegetables.
- Cover the casserole dish with foil or if using a dutch oven, put on the lid.
- Bake in a 350°F oven for 45-90-minutes – check the casserole at the 45-minute mark to see how the eggs are cooking. Because all these ingredients are pre-cooked, the casserole is ready when the eggs have cooked. The cooking time varies based on the oven, the amount of liquid in the mixture and the number of eggs used. Just keep your eye on it. This is also a recipe that you can vary to make it your own.
- Optional – Ten minutes before the casserole is done, remove from the oven and remove the foil. Sprinkle the top with more of your cheese mixture and let return to the oven uncovered.
When the cheese is melted, and the eggs are set, the casserole is done. Serve and enjoy.
3. Learn to Make Broth or Stock
Homemade stock or broth is amazing, and it brings many recipes to life. Vegetable stock is easy to make and highly versatile. The basic vegetable broth consists of water, simmered vegetables, and sometimes a dash of oil. Here’s how:
- In a large stock pot drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil.
- Cut up a medium onion and several cloves of garlic – add to the oil and cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent.
- Add 8 cups of water to the pot plus a dash of salt.
- Cut a large carrot into rounds and add to the mixture.
- Chop two stalks of celery into small chunks and add to the mixture.
- Add herbs. If using fresh include about ½ cup of parsley, a few sprigs of thyme, a tablespoon of chopped oregano leaves, a sprig or two of rosemary and a bay leaf or two. If using dry herbs, then several pinches of oregano, thyme, and rosemary work. A rounded tablespoon of dry parsley flakes and a bay leaf. You can add pepper if desired or not. Remember that fresh herbs can be very potent.
- Simmer in the post for 1.5 hours or until the liquid has reduced by 1/3. You can also do this in a crockpot too.
- Cool and strain before using. This mixture will last 2-3 days in the refrigerator or you can freeze it and use it as needed over the next six months.
Keep in mind that broth is an ingredient. It should be hearty and tasty so flavor it to your tastes. If you find that your broth is weak, adjust the volume of vegetables and herbs that you use. Mushrooms are also a great ingredient in broth.
Here, I save the peels from vegetables – all kinds of them – and I toss them in a freezer bag in the freezer. When the bag is full, I follow the above steps, but I omit the chopped vegetables and just use the peelings. The broth varies each time I make it because of the difference in vegetables in the pot.
It pays also to learn how to make hearty chicken and beef stock. If you consume a lot of fish, then learn to make fish stock too.
These three tricks help to speed up meal prep on a daily basis. They give you more control over the nutritional quality of the foods you eat. A healthy lifestyle is something every prepper should embrace. This means giving your body the best nutrition possible, exercising regularly, and being ready to fight or flight as needed.
Author Bio: David Stillwell is a lifelong naturalist with a background in healthcare and biology who lives in the heart of wildfire territory in Northern California. Prepping for him is a way of life and necessary on a daily basis. He focuses on food production and agriculture and grows 80% of what he consumes.