I love to cook and eat good food, but I do not like to spend a lot of time shopping for food, prepping food, or washing dishes. I think that I am a little lazy in some ways but that might actually be an advantage in helping others who are crazy busy and need every time saving tip they can get.
Basic principles that save me lots of time and money:
Please see Colorado State University Extension’s “Food Storage for Safety & Quality” for detailed information on food storage in the frig and freezer.
Buy in Bulk & Freeze
I have discovered that I can afford certain items if I buy them in bulk and then freeze until needed. Costco comes in handy in this regard. Unfortunately, shopping at Costco can be a little like working for a high tech start-up company – here today, gone tomorrow. I have fallen in love with food products only to have them disappear off the Costco planet, forever. No warning, no explanation, just gone. Sigh. Still, most of my favorite items have stayed put, so I think Costco and other food clubs are worth the membership price.
Some cheeses freeze well. I do not try to freeze ricotta, cottage cheese, or creamy brie or camembert types, but I have found that cheddar, Jarlsberg, fontina, parmesan, romano, and mozzarella cheese (including shredded) do fine in the freezer. I cut the block into chunks that my household can consume in 1-2 weeks, and then wrap those portioned chunks in plastic to freeze. I try to label and date everything that goes into the freezer.
When I need to thaw cheese, I pull from the freezer at least a day in advance and then place in the frig. I do not thaw perishables on the counter.
Rolls, Muffins, and Bread
My husband and I cannot get through a large loaf of bread or a bag of rolls before they go stale. I have found, to my delight, that freezing these in an airtight bag and then allowing adequate time for thawing, provides a better texture than simply putting the bread in the frig or storing at room temperature. I simply take the item out of the freezer and allow it to thaw on the counter, still wrapped. If you use the microwave to defrost, then be careful not to heat for too long as a “protein concrete” will develop and make the bread impossible to chew.
Quick breads (muffins, banana bread, biscuits, etc) do very well in the freezer – just be sure to wrap them well. If you use foil to wrap these types of items, then wrap it again with a plastic bag. The more you can do to minimize air contact and loss the moisture, the better the product will be when thawed.
Tip: to help you “portion control” higher calorie treats, cut the portion to be eaten right away and then freeze the remainder in single-size portions.
Pork tenderloin at Costco is quite a deal. The package comes in two plastic bundles, with two 1-lb tenderloins per bundle. Separate the bundles and freeze one as packaged. With the other bundle, roast the two tenderloins at the same time – this not only saves time, but money as well. After roasting, freeze one tenderloin immediately, and then use the other for the dinner meal. The leftovers from that meal can then be used the next day in a sandwich or possibly in a rice dish with veggies. This strategy saves me a huge amount of time.
I try to get the biggest cooked bird I can find, and if there is a choice, one without MSG. I remove both leg/thigh sections for dinner that night (or they go in a plastic container for freezing). With the rest of the bird, I remove the skin, and then essentially remove all edible meat and then place in a plastic container for freezing. I use flat shallow containers for freezing so that the meat cools quickly.
When I want to use the frozen chicken for a meal, I either thaw in the frig for about a day or I simply use the microwave to defrost or heat.
To save browning bananas for banana bread or other treats, simply peel, cover in plastic, and then freeze. Remove from freezer and thaw in the frig the day that you need to use them. Unlike freezing, thawing is messy! I recommend putting the wrapped frozen bananas in a dish to thaw to catch sticky moisture.
I typically don’t freeze any other type of fruit. I don’t like how fruit changes its texture with freezing. Smoothie drinkers, you might appreciate the virtues of frozen fruit more than I do.
Most mixed dishes can be frozen, but soups and casseroles do especially well. I freeze in shallow containers that have a lot of surface area relative to volume (e.g. a large flat rectangle vs. a big deep bowl) to allow these foods to cool quickly. However, I don’t allow foods to languish indefinitely in the freezer. I try to use my frozen leftovers within the week or so. This is not so much for food safety as it is for food quality. Technically, items properly sealed should last a few months in a freezer that correctly holds its temperature around 0°F.
Reheating tip: I sprinkle a little water on frozen rice and pasta dishes before reheating in the microwave to help keep the dish moist. This is especially helpful if you cook with brown rice and whole grain pasta.
Sauces, Rubs, and Pastes
These typically freeze well. I’ll sometimes make a double batch of a time-consuming but favorite sauce and then freeze the extra. I do not store sauces, rubs, and pastes that have touched raw meat, fish, poultry, or egg.
A friend of mine showed me a great trick for canned pastes. Remove both ends of the can, use one end to push the paste out as a log. Still intact as a log, wrap with plastic wrap, then store in freezer. When you need the paste, simply take out of the freezer and slice off the amount of frozen paste you need. Put remainder back in the freezer. This is will really cut down on wasted paste.
Lettuce & Tossed Salads
I prep most salad ingredients for multiple servings, but I do not make a large tossed salad for multiple meals. To keep salad ingredients tasting extra fresh, I keep the ingredients cut up and stored separately so that I can combine fresh for each meal. I store washed lettuce in the salad spinner in the frig – it stays moist but doesn’t get soggy (a full head of lettuce fits in my salad spinner). Tomatoes are one of the few salad veggies that I will cut fresh just before serving.
Basics on Preventing Foodborne Illness
I can’t write about food handling without mentioning food safety. Here are tips to avoid getting sick from food. Most home cooks do not realize that their kitchen habits might cause illness. Although these steps are essential for foodservice operations to follow, the home cook would be wise to follow them as well. Here are some notes that I took from my Food Safety Manager’s Certification Training Course (from the Foodservice Operator’s Training Achievement Program).
Avoid contamination from:
Ø Your hands – wash them before you start prepping and after soiling.
Ø Your nose – are you dripping? Cover up or better yet, don’t prep, cook, or serve.
Ø Other foods such as raw meat, poultry, fish, egg, and unwashed produce.
Ø Equipment that has come into contact with those raw foods.
Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
Ø Bacteria found in food will multiply “exponentially” (like gangbusters) when a food’s temperature is between 41°F – 140°F (the “danger zone”).
Ø Four hours in the “danger zone” is the upper limit – this includes cooling time.
Ø Keep hot foods hot - above 140°F.
Ø Keep cold foods cold – at or below 40°F.
FIFO - “First In, First Out”
Ø Label and date foods, and use older items first.
Cook raw meat, poultry, fish, and egg to the appropriate temperature
Ø See Colorado State University Extension’s “Doneness versus Safety” for temperature goals.
Rapidly reheat food to 165°F.
Ø Storing food in the frig will reduce but not prevent bacterial growth.
Ø Frozen food will suspend bacterial growth but will not kill already present bacteria.
Ø Use leftovers once – do not reheat and cool multiple times.
Do you have strategies for saving time when it comes to food shopping, prepping, cooking, or storage? Please share your strategies by leaving a comment.
Disclaimer: this information is not intended to serve as medical advice nor as instruction for foodservice personnel.