Batch Cooking – Saving Time and Reducing Food Waste

I just don’t have time to cook a healthy home-cooked meal every night of the working week. With work commitments, a long commute and an attempt to keep up some sort of fitness regime /social life, it’s just not possible for me to cook every night if I want to sit down before the witching hour for dinner.

With a bit of organisation and time to set aside at the weekend, I think I’ve found the solution. I’ve found that by batch cooking a couple of dishes on a Sunday afternoon, I can save time during the week and come home to a gratifying and nutritious meal on week nights minus the late night cooking.

There’s no secret guide and nothing particularly demanding about batch cooking; all you need is a plan, a few hours and ideally some spare freezer space. The concept of batch cooking is that you cook multiple portions or multiple meals in one go and store for a later date. If you do some research, you’ll find that some people recommend planning a whole 30 days of meals in advance although I haven’t quite got to these extremes yet. Seven days of forward planning is enough for me in terms of batch cooking, however regardless of how many days meals you want to plan, the concept of batch cooking remains the same.

Pretty much anything can be batch cooked; I find items such as stews & casseroles, pasta dishes or curries and Asian dishes work great. You can cook these dishes in large quantities; they freeze well and can be reheated quickly.

I tend to cook two different dishes on a Sunday which will serve four meal times, sometimes all of these portions will get eaten during one week which means eating the same meal two nights in a row. Repetition doesn’t bother me, I’d rather have a repeat of something home-cooked, healthy and fulfilling than grabbing a ready-meal or take-away because I don’t have time to cook. There are other ways of mixing it up, for example if you’re having stir-fried chicken and veg, you could have it with rice one night and the following night, knock up a salad or serve up the leftover chicken with some potatoes for that bit of variety.

If you really can’t handle eating the same meal twice in one week, why not cook up more than two dishes at a time? If you cook up a number of dishes that incorporate some of the same ingredients, this will make batch cooking all the easier, for example if you need onion for three different dishes, cut all the onions up at once and so on. Going back to the chicken example, if you have the base ingredients of chicken and vegetables you can fry them up with a sauce to create a stir-fry and then save the additional portions of the plain chicken and veg and cook it up with some stock, potatoes and tinned tomatoes for a homely hearty casserole. By simply switching, two or three ingredients and varying the cooking style, you’ll find the same base ingredients can actually create really varied dishes.  There’s still no harm in creating double the portions of what you need for the week, as long as you have the freezer space to store the additional servings, you can keep the dishes for a number of weeks. You might even find that you manage to build up a nice stockpile of homemade ready meals and some weeks you won’t have to shop or cook at all.

I mentioned that there are some other quick wins, which just require a small change in habits. I’m sure you’ve all had veg that you bought in bulk and haven’t been able to use it up before it starts to go all wrinkly, or maybe you’ve cooked a bit too much mashed potato one night? Well the trick is to not chuck this stuff out but freeze it to be reused at a later date. Most fresh veg can be frozen; I tend to chop the veg up, pop in the freezer and it’s ready to thaw at a later date.  Some people recommend blanching or cooking veg first, I tend to find it depends on what the item is, the internet will give you the answers on the best methods for various vegetables. Learning how to freeze different items and what the best method is will come via and trial and error, I wrote a few tips that I’d discovered in my last blog post about the benefits of the humble freezer.

My advice is don’t be daunted about what some people deem to be batch cooking, start small and gradually change some of your daily habits, hopefully you’ll find that by investing in a few hours of batch cooking once a week, you’ll have much more time to spend with family, doing the things you enjoy in the evening as opposed to slaving over a hot stove.

Ice Ice Baby – Freezer Benefits

In an earlier post, Sausage, Chilli & Tomato Pasta, you probably noticed that a lot of the ingredients I used had been frozen.

Now I’ve spent a large proportion of my adult life in shared housing where I’ve had to store my entire grocery shop on one lonely fridge shelf, and freezer space was nothing but a luxury to dream of.

It’s only in the last couple of years where I’ve had the very grown up pleasure of not only my own flat but also access to a fridge & freezer that’s all mine.

The benefits of having a freezer came instantly, I was suddenly allowed to take advantage of supermarket offers that I never could before such as Sainsbury’s meat, poultry or fish 3 or £10 which is one of my most purchased offers.

Batch cooking and the ability to freeze leftovers has also been a huge benefit. If I cook 4 portions of Spaghetti Bolognese, no longer do I have to spend an entire week eating it as the wonders of Tupperware mean I can freeze it for a later date. For days when I’ve got caught back late at the office, it’s great to come home, not have to cook and still be able to eat a nutritious home cooked meal that’s awaiting me in the freezer.

Recently, since I embarked on my food waste frenzy, I’ve started to freeze even more stuff, not just fresh meat and leftovers. Half of the stuff I wasn’t even aware you could freeze.

Ice cube trays have become my new found friend, I’ve used them to freeze home-made stock, the left-over dregs of an unfinished wine bottle and the end of bunches of those pesky supermarket herbs which never get used up in one portion. Once frozen, you can tip the ice cubes of stock, wine etc. into a freezer bag, label up and keep until a later date when a recipe calls for the ingredient. Freezing items such as stock & wine, not only stops you throwing left-overs out, it reduces the need to buy big packets of these ingredients when a recipe only calls for a small amount.

In my experience, a lot of what you do and don’t freeze comes out of habit, for example I’d never thought to freeze items such as butter and milk but I’ve tried both recently with no adverse effects. The butter I’d taken advantage of a 2 for 1 offer and the milk I’d picked up a couple of pints only to arrive home to find my partner had done the same. In days gone by, both of these ingredients would probably have lingered on my fridge shelf, past their best and been confined to the bin, but the freezer came to the rescue.

Other items I’d never dreamed of freezing were fresh fruit & veg, but my foray into food waste has taught me that a lot of fresh fruit & veg can indeed be frozen with little detrimental effect on the ingredient. So far I’ve frozen chillies, celery, lemons and peppers. The advice seems to be in all instances to chop up the veg first and then freeze in freezer bags. The ingredients probably won’t be up to being used in a nice fresh salad but for stews & stir-frys etc. I haven’t noticed any negative effects on the flavour or the texture. I suppose if you think logically, you can already buy a lot of frozen vegetables so what’s the difference in doing it for yourself.

If you’re unsure about what you can and can’t freeze, Google and the blogging world will come to your rescue. As mentioned the positives of this are not only reducing waste, it also helps to reduce costs as you’ll have ingredients on hand and not have to buy new over-sized packets of stuff and you can take advantage of those supermarket offers that I generally advise against. I’ve also found that I do not have to visit the supermarket quite as often as I regularly find that I have enough ingredients in my freezer to knock up an ad-hoc meal on demand. So don’t be afraid to get cold and get freezing, hopefully you’ll start seeing all the benefits that I have

No Shop Week

One of the fundamental factors of reducing food waste is to plan meals in advance before heading out to the shop. I’ve written about how to do this before in my blog post Fail to plan, plan to fail (the basics of meal planning).

This is probably the one thing that I do consistently every week. Even if I haven’t written the whole meal plan down, the ideas and ingredients are in my head before I go off on my weekly shop. The meal plan makes sure that I avoid the purchase of any unplanned items which later become items of food waste.

Now I’m not a chef, so I generally rely on other people’s recipes to help me use up the ingredients which I have in stock. This method of meal planning normally means that I need to buy additional items to create a finished dish. However, as it’s a new year, I’ve decided to be a bit more adventurous and create my own recipes where ingredients enable me to. An unexpected bonus of this is that I didn’t have to step foot in a supermarket for a whole week.

By using frozen items, leftover veg and store cupboard essentials I managed to create enough dishes to feed my partner and I all week.

The ingredients I had were as follows:

Frozen items
Pork mince
Salmon
Leftover Caerphilly cheese scones

Fresh items
Green beans
Baby carrots
Celery
Tomatoes
Potato
Coriander
Tomatoes

Store cupboard essentials
Ginger paste
Soy sauce
Worcester sauce
Sesame oil
Ketchup
Stock
Eggs
Cheese

And the Dishes created are as below: (Now linked to the recipes)

Pork and Potato Broth
Sweet chilli salmon with Asian Vegetables
Caerphilly cheese scones with poached egg & tomatoes
Cheese & tomato omelette

I know there’s only 4 nights recipes here but I was lucky enough to be treated to a meal out one night, hence only 4 week night meals to plan.

I found that knowing how to cook the base of a number of dishes such as casseroles and Asian dishes enabled me to be creative. Keeping in stock cupboard items such as chicken stock, soy sauce and so on, you should be able to come up with a few creations to use up the perishable ingredients in your fridge. Heck, it’s not always going to work out perfect, but taste as you go and over time your confidence will increase and become a chef if your own right.

Shop but don’t drop! (How to shop to reduce food waste)

Following on from last weeks blog about the basics of meal planning, the next stage is the shop.

You should already have your list for all the ingredients needed for your planned meals, so make sure that you don’t leave the house without it. Sticking to the list should make your shop relatively easy, although the supermarket can be littered with many potential food waste mine fields.

Now I have the benefit of living very close to a supermarket, this means that I can pick up ingredients throughout the week with little or no effort. I tend to pick up the bulk of my shop on the Saturday but leave any perishables that I know I don’t need until later in the week. I’ll pick up these remaining items later in the week which means they’re fresher when I come to use them and if there’s been any curve balls during the week, with meals being missed, it will help to reduce food waste.

One of the important things about the list is to ensure that you’ve got down quantities needed for the recipes, this will stop you buying bulk ingredients that aren’t needed and will later rot.

The fruit and veg aisle for me is the most likely to result in food waste, I tend to never buy pre-packaged vegetables. Generally the quantities are much higher than needed, you also can’t always assess the quality of the vegetables and quite often pre-packaged fruit is actually higher priced than the individual items.

Another supermarket trick that I find can lead to increased food waste is the BOGOF and multi-buy offers. Now I’m all up for saving cash but in reality, you’re not saving if the food ends up in the bin. Before I take advantage of any offer, I ask myself the following 2 questions:

Will I use it before the use by date?

If not, can it be frozen?

If the answers no to both of these questions, then I leave it on the supermarket shelf.

My final tip would be the food storage, I basically freeze all items that can be if I’m not using them over the next two days. This again means that if any thing crops up during the week and I have to skip any of the meals planned, the products don’t have to be thrown away. Before I freeze the shopping,  I split up the packages into portion sized freezer bags to avoid having to defrost more than needed when it comes to use the food

And to be honest, as shopping tips go, that’s all I have. The meal plan and list really is the key, but I would love to hear from anyone who has their own tips.

Fail to plan, plan to fail (the basics of meal planning).

Now I’m certainly no saint, and food (very occasionally) gets thrown away in my house. This tends to happen when I’ve not planned ahead.

Saturday mornings in my house are spent with a cup of tea, a scurrage around the kitchen cupboards to see what perishable items need using up, and some time in front of my computer planning the meals for the week ahead.

This might not be the ideal Saturday morning for many of you, but believe me, a quick 30 minutes of planning will not only reduce your food wastage, but is likely to reduce your food bills as well.

THE BASICS

Little Miss Hubbard…

The first step in my weekly meal planning is to see what ingredients I already have in stock. These ingredients will form the basis of the following weeks meal plans. Perishable items such as fruit and veg are to be used up first, whilst any items that are frozen or have long-shelf lives can be used if they fit into a recipe that incorporates the “must use” perishables.

Planning ahead…

My partner and I have pretty busy lives and our schedules are never the same each week. Sometimes we’ll be home and eating together every night at 7pm, other weeks we’ll only see each other at breakfast. To ensure that this doesn’t result in thrown away food, I check our expected schedules for the week before I plan the weekly shop. This means that I’m not planning additional meals that won’t get eaten, it also takes into account time available which impacts whether I’m cooking up a culinary storm or emptying a tin of beans into a saucepan.

Where to start…

So, mentioned earlier were the perishable items already lurking in the kitchen cupboard, these will be the starting point for the meal plan. The ingredients might include an onion, some potatoes, cheese on it’s use by date etc…so therefore my recipes for the week have to contain these items. How you plan your recipes is up to you, you might have a full database of recipes in your head, be an inventive chef who can knock up a new invention with the available ingredients, or be like me who uses the powers of the internet and a meal planning app.

The meal plan…

To start, I’ll use the above 3 ingredients as a basis for my meal plan. I’ve got potatoes and onions, and I might have some sausages in the freezer, therefore with a few extra ingredients I reckon I can knock up a yummy sausage casserole. What I have will make 4 portions, therefore I can take left-overs for lunch, save them for a night when I haven’t got time to cook, or freeze for a later date.

I’ve now got some cheese to use up, I probably had to buy some tomatoes for my sausage casserole and cheese and tomatoes sound like a pretty tasty base for a pasta bake. I’ve now used up all the perishables that I had in, but probably had to buy some additional ones for the recipes above. Therefore I repeat the same process for the new ingredients and keep repeating until I’ve got a full weeks plan.

Don’t worry if you’re not a confident cook, the fundamentals of meal planning still apply, whether you cook everything from scratch or rely more on sauces and meals that come out of a jar or packet. However, hopefully you’ll find that introducing new recipes into your meal plan will increase your kitchen confidence.

The List…

The final piece of the plan is the shopping list, write down all the ingredients and quantities needed for your weekly meals, don’t forget the weekly essentials and add any snacks that you want for the week ahead, and hey presto, your meal plan is finished and you’re ready for your shop… 

 

UK families throw away almost a meal a day!

I’ve wanted to start a blog for a while, but could never quite motivate myself to get started. The motivation came last week, when yet another news story broke about the insane amount of food wastage in the UK.

According to statistics in the Guardian, the average UK family is throwing away  almost a meal a day, a cost of £60 a month. When converted to food quantities, the numbers are mind-blowing (86 million chickens, 24 million slices of bread, 5.8 million potatoes….). In a country where food poverty is on the increase, as is the reliance of food banks, it’s staggering to think that the solution to these problems, may partially lie in our own kitchen cupboards.

In my experience, most food wastage in the house occurs due to over-buying, poor planning and a lack of cooking skills. We’ve all seen the Jamie Oliver campaigns on teaching the nation to cook and eat healthy meals, the consumer programmes advising how to reduce food waste & shopping bills, alongside the media criticism of the supermarkets’ contribution to the problem via BOGOFF offers and use by dates.

This blog, on the other hand, isn’t meant to be a campaign or a lecture. It isn’t intended to be a criticism of other peoples habits, it’s simply a narrative of how me, as a busy working professional, keeps food waste to the minimum. I’ll be updating people with weekly meal plans, shopping lists and attempts and failures at new recipes & ingredient combinations, for any one who’s interested in not only reducing food waste but also food in general.