Make homemade convenience food by cooking when it's convenient for you

Homemade Convenience Food

by Donna Cook

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Everyone has times when they're too busy to think, let alone cook, and that's when expensive convenience food is so tempting. Is there a way to get homemade convenience food without the price? You bet.

While the notion of freezer dinners has been around for some time and works for some people, the idea of planning and cooking a month of dinners on one day can feel overwhelming. It doesn't need to be that complicated. All you need are a few tips and an open mind.

Say you're making tacos for dinner. Double or triple the taco meat, divide the extra into containers, and stash it in your freezer. This adds maybe five minutes and minimal effort to a dinner you're making anyway. Next time you want tacos, pull the container straight from the freezer and into the microwave. Five minutes later, it's done. This is my favorite go-to convenience meal for Friday nights. I can chop tomatoes and tear lettuce while the meat cooks, and if we use corn chips and make taco salad, I don't even need to heat the shells. This meal is considerably faster (and cheaper) than ordering pizza. The same technique can be used for any plain or seasoned ground beef.

The frugal-minded will love this tip. If you're working with just a regular-sized freezer and go through your frozen items relatively quickly (two to four weeks), you don't need special freezer containers or bags. Only invest in those items if you have a spare freezer you're using to really stock up.

Focus on those parts of the meal that take time. Taking time to portion out and baggie things like shredded cheese and uncooked rice does little for you. A fried rice and veggie dish we're fond of only takes five minutes to make if I have the meat prepared ahead of time. When boneless pork is on sale, I cut at least half of it into bite-sized pieces to fry and then portion that into several resealable bags for the freezer. Since fried rice dishes taste better with cooked rice that's two to four days old, I'll periodically make more rice than I need for a meal, put the rest in my refrigerator, and plan on having fried rice some time in the next several days. It doesn't get much easier and more flexible than that.

As you go through your cooking and baking routines, watch for ways you can make things easier for yourself by preparing a little extra. If you're not sure how well something freezes, Google it or just give it a try. I've frozen homemade potato and broccoli soup (people will say you can't freeze potato), but it turned out fine because it was in a soup and only in my freezer for a couple of weeks. It was in a standard container too! The key to avoiding freezer burn is to pick containers of the appropriate size. You don't have to fill a container exactly to the top, but if it's only half full, the air inside can contribute to freezer burn.

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The best trick I've learned is how to make my own "break and bake" cookies. I like to make cookies for our weekly family nights, but my recipe makes a lot, meaning cookies hang around my house for days while the kids and I snack on them. Now I bake what I need for that night and freeze the rest. Lay out sheets of aluminum foil, scoop the dough into balls, and place them on the center of the sheet right next to each other. Since my cookie pans hold 15 cookies, I put 15 cookie-dough balls on each sheet. Wrap and stack them flat in the freezer. I can get five to six packages of "break and bake" cookies (depending on how many I bake initially and how much dough my kids eat!). To bake, I place the frozen dough on a cookie sheet and put it straight into a pre-heated oven. Baking time is the same. For the amount of effort I used to put into making cookies for one family night, I now have enough to last another month and a half. I enjoy convenience that I created myself. Easily.

I use the same technique to expand our breakfast options. I frequently double a muffin batch and put the extras into an old bread bag and freeze. A week or so later, I'll pull down the bag at night, and by morning, we have delicious muffins ready to go. When I make waffles, I double or triple the batch and freeze the cooked waffles in a large zippered bag. Why pay for frozen waffles when you can just as easily put your own waffles into the toaster?

This approach to homemade convenience food is a simplified version of the monthly freezer meals, and works because it requires very little advanced planning. By adding just a tiny bit of effort to meals you're already making, you can reap the rewards of convenience in the future. You'll be saving money and time with your homemade convenience food.

Reviewed June 2017

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