I am on break from rotation right now to regroup and intensely study for boards (anyone else catch the oxymoron there, ugh!). However, each break I take out a day to food prep. Whenever people hear that I food prep, they panic. This makes me so sad! I eat "fast food" daily for nearly all meals by eating my own home-cooked goodness. Let me share some tips I definitely wish I knew when I was first starting at university.
1) Free is the best! I have only purchased one starter set of food containers, a few additional pieces, and a couple fun items. Then I found a better way: everything else I acquired for free from online sales pages or I started saving from food I already purchase regularly (lunch meat, cottage cheese, yogurt/sour cream). In less than a semester or two, I had collected numerous identical, stack-able, dishwater and microwave safe, store-able containers.
2) Cook everything at once, as much can fit in your freezer, in one sitting. Turn on your favorite TV show (binge watching TV is my guilty pleasure!), and prepare everything in one go! This saves me amazing time, time I "think" I am spending watching TV, and it saves on energy and water bills because I reuse almost all the dishes while I cook (food safety in mind of course). Plus, if you do all the heavy cooking in the Winter/cooler days, you save on heating/AC bills, too!
3) You can freeze almost anything as long as it was not already frozen, and frozen food can last like 6 months. I was very sick over this weekend, and I ate soup I made over Spring Break one day in March! ...March!
From here we will transverse my cooking style...
Start the day off right with a lovely breakfast and a beloved longer-ish TV show. Quietly enjoy; let yourself wake up a bit. Then, show still running, I pause it and grab a measuring cup, mini-chocolate chips, nuts, and instant oatmeal plus a bunch of mini stack-able containers. I return, turn the show back on, and start measuring oatmeal into each cup, then nuts, and finally mini-chocolate chips. I make about 12 containers worth, so about 1/2 large instant oatmeal can from the supermarket.
Now it is time to get into it! You are already emotionally engulfed into your show, but, the kicker, you only get to keep watching (and not *cough* study for boards) if you are doing something else very, very important. Below is a list as if I was starting from scratch. I NEVER do all of this in one sitting because I have meals cycling out of my freezer, but it gives you a nice idea of my flow.
1) Boil a humongous amount of instant rice. While that is running, I start prepping ribs. I purchase two racks at a time, prep them both on a the same baking sheet, and pop them in the oven -key here, at a temperature I know my other meals will also cook. Set phone timer for ribs!
2) Rice is done. I section that off into small cottage cheese containers, and leave it to cool. Now, get ready for this madness, I use that rice pot to start boiling water for noodles. Nobody got time to waste cleaning pots! While the noodles are running, I chop up onion and green/red pepper, about two to three of each, and I pan cook all of it in a large pot -nothing but pot and heat. After they finish, I start cooking up some pre-sliced fresh mushrooms and spinach the same way.
3) Noodles are probably done by now, but it is fine because they will get soggy anyway in the backed mac n' cheese. Always (always always!) purchase the largest sack of shredded cheese you can find; it is cheaper, and cheese lasts forever in the freezer. Whip up the mac n' cheese goodness, and pop that into the oven with the ribs (just turn things sideways to make them fit!). Set a phone timer for baked mac n' cheese!
4) All that rice I left out is now cooled. I add frozen chicken chunks, frozen broccoli (buy the giant bags!), some pepper and onion, and a small piece of butter (or olive oil) with spices. I pop on lids with date labels (very important!) using some tape and a permanent marker; then I stack them into the freezer. Any remaining peppers and onion are put into plastic baggies. I am trying to avoid baggies (tree hugger!), but they work great for "flattened" items and seem to keep my veggies fresher than containers.
5) Then, I start on chicken drumsticks (biggest package I can purchase). They all get thrown on the same sheet, seasoned, and popped into the oven with the ribs and mac n' cheese. Set a phone timer for chicken drumsticks!
6) I take my giant pot used to make the veggies and throw in ground beef or turkey to make taco meat for tacos and taco salad. While that is doing its thing, I start hand rolling ground pork into meatballs. I LOVE meatballs, but the pre-packaged ones are incredibly expensive considering how many I can eat in one sitting, so I roll my own. Remember, this is allllll happening while watching my favorite show or even advice videos on streaming sites so I can learn more tips! In my mind, this is the best day ever! The meatballs go into the giant rice/noodle pot.
7) Once the taco meat and meatballs are done, I package them off! Taco meat goes into single-serve yogurt containers, and the meatballs go into a baggie -I tried a container once, but they all stuck together. Everything gets a date label and thrown into the freezer.
8) Usually at some point in here, I have some free time to start some crockpot soups. My crockpot broke, but I kept the inner container and lid after buying the exact same crockpot anew. I make chicken and dumpling soup using chicken breast and pre-made biscuit dough (that stuff in the tube) with some green onion and spices, and that cooks away on my kitchen floor (counter space is gold on cooking days!). At some point, I start on the second crockpot bowl, usually beef stew. I throw everything in: canned carrots, corn, green beans, tomatoes, whatever, and for meat I now use beef heart. Beef heart can be super cheap, tastes wonderful, and it comes already pre-shredded, which saves me major time! I put this crockpot bowl with its lid into the fridge to run later that evening or tomorrow. Eventually, all the stews get packaged into giant yogurt containers, and, like the others, labeled and stacked into the freezer!
By now I have a ton of food, but I have only "dirtied" two large pots, two baking sheets, and three casserole dishes plus some utensils and cutting boards. None of my meats have been allowed to cross contaminant (very important!), but I now have tons of meal staples! I put the ribs into the large containers because that is all they will fit into (about 2-3 servings per rack); the drumsticks go into 1-lb family lunchmeat containers (3-4 per container); and the mac n' cheese goes into the smaller lunch meat containers (as much as I can squeeze in!). Everything gets its date label and popped into the freezer.
9) Now I crack open a big package of chicken breast, butterfly them, and stuff them with the mushroom and spinach mixture! So good! My oven is already hot, and food has started cycling out, so I pop these into an empty place and set a chicken breast phone timer!
10) Finally, (show still a playin'!) I close up on breakfast again. I purchase an 18 count of eggs, and I cook nearly all of them as scrambled eggs in one frying pan or electric skillet. I divide that up into flour tortillas with some shredded cheese, ham lunch meat, and salsa. Then I throw them all on an electric grill (BEST purchase, ever), pan, or toaster oven. I take them out, let them cool, and then wrap them individually in plastic wrap. Again, I am working on avoiding non-reusable plastics, but they re-heat very well in these and stack like bricks in my freezer door. Periodically, I swap out the breakfast wraps for egg muffins, which are just scrambled eggs-with-stuff cooked in a muffin tin.
This entire process takes about 4-6 hours (aka, 4-6 of my favorite TV show), but the food I have prepared feeds me a very long time with minimal eating-out trips or pre-made meal purchases. I pull out a mix and match of a few meal items in the morning, label the date I removed them (food lasts about 7 days in the refrigerator), and I can reheat them in the microwave in about five minutes. Other things I have made include numerous pasta-and-meat dishes, stir-fry preps of veggies and sauces, gravies, bean and ham soup, an entire turkey I acquired for free when I purchased a small ham that I divided up into numerous meals, and many casseroles. All of these things have frozen and re-heated great! To keep my fridge fleshed out, I purchase large chunks of fruit (e.g., half a watermelon), that I cut up (you guess it, while watching my favorite show!), and store in some tall containers. I go through that in about a week or so, and replenish as the urge hits me.
For those curious, I nearly do absolutely everything without a recipe. You know what you like! My staples are just some simple spices (garlic salt, pepper, onion powder, paprika, Italian seasoning). I look in my cupboards to see what I already have on hand, and I search food images using those items. I look at the images and think, 'I can make that!,' and I make it based off how it looks. Periodically, I will jot down how long to cook something at what temperature (especially meat dishes) or the instructions for a unique dish (I learned to make the chicken and dumpling soup SO EASY off a YouTube video!), but I never let myself stress if I only have 3.5-cups of cheese instead of 4, or garlic powder instead of raw garlic. Life is too short, and it will still taste good. This technique has helped me save considerable money, made me enjoy cooking "every day," and has gotten me eating much healthier. It is also incredibly easy!
I hope you find this helpful!
Sarahbeth Barlas (: