Prepare Ahead Meals and 15 Minute Meal Tips and Recipes
Do you want to cook once or twice a week and only spend 15-20 minutes in total from start to finish making dinner each night...even if casseroles are never on the menu? Below you will find my tips, links to my favorite recipes, and more to help you feed your family (or yourself) home-cooked meals each night of the week no matter how packed your schedule is!
What is your family's favorite type of meal?
Cooking 1-2 Days a Week
Over the past 11 years that I've been married, I've implemented numerous methods of easy prep, streamlined, and prepare-ahead meals. The method that's working for us right now is pretty simple. We eat almost every single meal at home every day of the week, but I only cook 1-2 times a week. I spend about 15-20 minutes in total from start to finish each day for lunch and dinner. The way I do that is that when I actually cook, I make double, triple, or quadruple of whatever I'm making and freeze the leftovers of the main dish. You really can freeze and successfully reheat anything with it tasting like it was freshly cooked. The only exceptions I've found so far are deep-fried foods and mashed potatoes. They don't taste good reheated.
Prepare-Ahead Meals for Casserole Haters
When most people think of prepare-ahead meals, they think of casseroles. My husband hates casseroles. He doesn't think food should be mixed. He will separate out stir-fries and mixed vegetables. Whether you have a family who loves casseroles or one like mine that will need to McDonald's if the dreaded "c" word is mentioned, you too can make prepare-ahead meals!
Basics on Freezing & Reheating Cooked Meat
I freeze the meat in reusable small square Zip-lock brand plastic containers. You can use glass Pyrex ones if you don't use plastic. You can also use Ziploc bags (which are good for freezing 2 months or less) or aluminum foil (which keeps frozen foods for many months). I usually try to add some sort of liquid, usually broth that I make from chicken bouillon cubes, marinade liquid, or pan juices, to keep the meat from drying out when it thaws and also to keep ice crystals from forming on the meat itself. Sometimes I tape a paper on top that says what it is and when I cooked it. I then put it in the freezer. When I want to serve it, I pull it out of the freezer, plop the cube out onto a plate (because I never microwave in plastic containers since that may cause cancer), and microwave it for about 5 minutes.
Cooking the Meat: Pork Roasts, Beef Roasts, Ground Beef, and Chicken Breasts
My cooking methods are currently pretty simple. With pork roasts, I always use the crock pot. I'll usually make 2 at a time. I stab them with a fork so that the marinade will penetrate throughout the meat. I pour a marinade on top. It's really easy to make your own marinade, but I don't do that right now. I just buy marinade Lawry's from the store when it's BOGO and I have coupons. I put the lid on and turn it on. It's ready 4-6 hours later.
Easiest Crock Pot Pork Roast Recipe
Place pork roast into crock pot. Use a fork to pierce holes in the pork roast so that the marinade can soak deeper into the meat. Pour marinade over the pork. Cook on low for 6-8 hours if you want to slice it. Cook on low for 10 hours if you'll be shredding it.
Yes, my family would get tired if I just served this over and over again. I'll serve it as is. I'll shred some of the meat and add BBQ sauce. I'll serve some with a sauce over it. I love combining any form of jam with mustard to make a sauce to go over the pork or chicken. I'll also use cranberry sauce. I heat the sauce and then pour it over the thawed-out meat.
I cook beef roasts the same way, though sometimes I'll mix it up with the 3 envelope recipe: add an envelope each of dry Ranch dressing mix, Italian dressing mix, and brown gravy mix. Click here for the recipe for the beef pot roast. I also usually make 2 beef roasts at a time (so I double the seasonings).
With ground beef, I buy the 5 pound roll of ground beef (or whatever size I can get for around $3 a pound). As soon as I get home, I start cooking it in a big pot. I dump in a couple containers of dried onion flakes. I drain off the grease. When it cools, I divide the meat into 4 of the plastic containers. When I want to make spaghetti, lasagna, baked ziti, chili, sloppy joes, tacos, or whatever, I just defrost the meat. Then I add the pasta or BBQ sauce or the taco seasoning mix. I always make double or triple of these dishes and then I either freeze them, or we eat the leftovers for lunch.
With chicken breasts, I buy the family pack. I currently stab them, pour marinade over them, and bake them at 350 for 25 minutes. If you prefer shredded chicken, boiling it in salted water is a good cooking option. I used to grill them. Any method works. Then freeze them using chicken broth or marinade. I pull these out and use them with various sauces, stews, stir-fries, or add it to flavored rice.
My Absolute Favorite Cookbook for Dinner Ideas
I get a number of my recipes and recipe ideas from the Best 30-Minute Recipe. If you can concentrate fully on preparing the meal, you can really make it in 30 minutes. I used to be able to do that, but now with all my young ones, it's become a bit more challenging. That's when my pre-cooked meat saves the day. If your meat is already cooked, you can make many of the recipes in 10 minutes or less. That's what I usually do now. I'll find a recipe for a glaze, sauce, stew, etc. and prepare it and then add my precooked meat.
This is my absolute favorite cookbook for finding recipes for dinner. The recipes are quick to make (30 minutes or less) and they taste wonderful. I have probably made half the recipes, and I'm never disappointed! (I do usually tweak the recipes based on what I have on hand.) Do be forewarned, that this is not filled with lots of glossy photos. The recipes make up for that, though!
If you're new to cooking or need lots of photos, Taste of Home magazine of any of their cookbooks is a good choice. The recipes are usually tasty and the recipes are fairly simple.
Leftovers: Soup Night...and Steak...and Bread Rolls
I also serve soup every couple of weeks. I make chicken broth using chicken bouillon cubes. Then I dump in all the leftovers from the last week. Just so long as everything is bite-size, it's good. Some soups taste better than others, but it's a meal. I usually serve a steak to my husband on those nights. And yes, steaks just like everything else are frozen and re-heated because I buy the family-pack, grill them, and then freeze them. I'll also usually serve homemade dinner rolls with the soup. I follow the same method that I do with the main dishes. I make a huge batch. I bake them, and then I freeze them in zip-lock bags. It just takes 20 seconds or so in the microwave to thaw them out.
Cut and paste this link to see the recipe for my favorite dinner rolls: http://www.food.com/recipe/sister-schuberts-parker-house-rolls-80788
The Rest of the Meal: Side Dishes
Our family meals almost always include a main dish, carb/starch side dish like rice or pasta, a steamed vegetable, and sliced fresh fruit. When I make side dishes, I think inside the box...or package. Simply Potatoes, pasta, instant mashed potatoes, stuffing mix, and rice mixes usually make their way onto our plates. These items always go on sale for BOGO, and I can usually get coupons as well. I stock my pantry with these when they go on sale. When I make steamed rice or pasta noodles, I usually make a large pot and store the extra in containers in the refrigerator for us to reheat for upcoming meals that week.
The Rest of the Meal: Vegetables
While I'm thawing out the meat, I cook the vegetables. We eat steamed vegetables with every meal. I usually make them in a steamer basket. I sometimes also use the microwaveable bags made by Bird's Eye. You just put the bag straight in the microwave, cook it for for 3 or 4 minutes, and it's done. No pans to clean! If you have extra time, I would recommend roasting your vegetables. It caramelizes the sugar in them, making them sweeter and less bitter. I always roast a huge pan of them and then we eat them for the next few days. Sprinkle some oil over them and a bit of garlic salt and cook them for 20 minutes at 425. Cut and paste this link to see my favorite recipe for roasted vegetables: http://www.food.com/recipe/oven-roasted-vegetables-south-beach-81585 .
The Rest of the Meal: Fruit
I usually serve sliced fresh fruit for dessert. I buy whatever is in season and on sale for about $.99/lb. If no fruit is in season at the time, I sometimes buy bags of frozen fruit and thaw it out. My family especially loves the frozen mango and frozen pineapple!
Aluminum Foil, Casseroles, and Cooking for 4 Hours
Every December I make and freeze at least 20 casseroles, chili, and stews to take up with us for our Christmas family get-together. I put aluminum foil in the casserole dish so that I can later remove the dish. As I make the meals, I place the food into my aluminum-foil lined casserole dish, top it with more aluminium foil, and then use a sharpie marker to write what it is on the top. I freeze it in my regular freezer because it gets colder faster in it. Then I put it in my deep freezer after it's frozen. Aluminum foil does an amazing job at keeping air and ice crystals out of the dish and allowing the casserole to be stored for months. I've pulled out these casseroles a couple months later, and they still taste fine. You can reheat it in the casserole dish or on a baking sheet. If you thaw it out in the refrigerator the night before, you'll cook it at 350F for about 20 minutes. If you're reheating from the frozen state, you'll cook it at 350F for about 45-60 minutes. Just be sure to leave the foil on the top so that the casserole doesn't dry out.
My Method Summed Up
Find dishes that your family will eat. Make double, triple, or quadruple the dish when you prepare it. Freeze the extras.
My Favorite Meal Planning Blogs
A Year of Slow Cooker Cooking includes all the recipes a mom used as she cooked using a slow cooker every single day of the year. Many of her recipes she makes using meat that hasn't even been thawed, which is perfect for people like me who frequently fail to defrost meats the night before. All her recipes are gluten-free! As an added bonus, she's honest and frequently hilarious in her reviews of each recipe that she makes.
Make 40 Crockpot meals in 4 Hours includes all the recipes and ingredients that one mom used as she prepared more than a month's worth of meals in 4 hours!
OAMC Topic Thread offers free schedules of various people's OAMC cooking. They provide ingredients lists, recipes, and the order in which they made each dish.
This Week for Dinner includes a weekly menu for a busy family. Recipes are included.
50+ Menus & Recipes provides more than 50 free weekly menus to follow. Each weekly menu includes a shopping list and recipes.
Watch Other Families Make Fast or Prepare-Ahead Meals
© 2012 Shannon