Teaching myself to cook, one recipe at a time.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

My Life as a Working Mom: Slow Cooker Marathon

Last time I posted, I was sleep deprived and overwhelmed. The baby wasn’t sleeping through the night yet, and despite enthusiastic nursing, she was also consuming massive quantities of homemade vegetable purees that took a surprising amount of time and effort to make. I never felt like I had any free time to spare.

Now, I feel like I have a handle on things. She sleeps, and she eats real food. Watching her is still like playing in the midst of a tornado, but the fact that she goes to bed and generally stays asleep means that it’s all okay.

Cooking is still tricky. I feel a lot of pressure (most of it self-inflicted, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less anxiety-provoking) to have dinner on the table 30-45 minutes after walking in the door with the baby at the end of the day. We have spaghetti, nachos, baked chicken, anything I can do super quickly without thinking too much. Pre-bagged stir fry mixes and individually-frozen chicken breasts or fish fillets are my friends.

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted a link on facebook to a blog post about preparing 7 crock-pot meals in an hour. The same site also had posts about “20 meals in 2 hours,” “30 meals in 3 hours,” even “40 meals in 4 hours.” The appeal of spending a Sunday afternoon prepping meals that would be delicious and easy to have during the week was indescribable. So, as soon as we were moved into our new house with an actual basement, I bought a deep freezer with the idea that I’d try it out.

Prior to this weekend, I’d done two slow cooker marathons so far. Not all of the recipes were winners (in fact, some were dreadful), but some of them really were amazing. And the process is just so appealing – I get to indulge in my cooking bug once, and then don’t have to expend effort for a few weeks. Granted, it took me a lot longer than the one hour or two hours that the blogger did everything in, but in the end, it was still worth it to have prepared 14 or 20 meals in an afternoon.

It had been a while since I’ve done a slow cooker marathon, though. Part of it is inertia, part was weariness about the up-front groceries cost. It does cost a lot. I know on some level that it is cost effective because of the reduced bill in the next few weeks, but it still hurts.

But it was time to give it another shot, and since my life feels back under control, I thought I’d share the process. I do believe that regardless of how many will follow my lead, many of my friends are at least partially seduced by the appeal of not having to cook every night – even those of us who enjoy cooking. So this post is for everyone who occasionally feels overwhelmed.

Step 1: The Planning Process

The key to marathon slow-cooker preparation is planning. You have to pick out a bunch of recipes, go over the ingredients list of each, and take the time to combine them into one giant list. Sounds simple, but it took me hours to dig though link collections to pick recipes that looked good, then to consolidate a list  of ingredients from all the recipes, then organize the list into categories, and finally go through my pantry to identify what I already had and what I needed to purchase.

For those who are interested, I will share my list of recipes and my list of ingredients. I chose 10 recipes, with the intention of doubling each one so that I would end up with 20 total meals.

This is my list of recipes:
(1) Skinny Slow Cooker Creamy Chicken
(2) Crockpot Cheese Tortellini
(3) Crock Pot Santa Fe Chicken
(4) Slow Cooker Cheesy Buffalo Chicken Flautas
(5) Creamy Crockpot Chicken Stuffing and Green Beans
(6) Crockpot Angel Chicken
(7) Slow Cooker White and Garlic Chicken
(8) Slow Cooker Honey Garlic Chicken
(9) Slow-cooker Mexican-Style Shredded Beef
(10) Chicken and Dumplings

Meals 1-2 and 4-7 were new to me. I made meal 3 once, ages ago, and don’t really remember much about it, but I think we liked it. Meal 8 was shared with me by my brother and sister-in-law, after they served it to us for dinner and we loved it. The last 2 are favorites in this house.

Here's a link to my recipe sources and ingredients list. I divided the ingredients list by section (i.e. meat, produce, pantry items), and even divided the pantry items by aisle number at my local Wegman’s. That was an easy step for me, thanks to my OurGroceries app, which I have set up to organize my shopping list like this, and certainly not necessary if you are not stupidly anal about things like me.

Step 2: Shopping

I recommend going to Sam’s Club, BJ’s, Costco, or wherever you can go to get bulk food. It’s easier and cheaper to buy 10 cans of diced tomatoes or chicken broth at one of those stores. It’s certainly better to buy the meat in 10lb packages at a warehouse store instead of 1lb packages at the grocery store. You may need to follow up with a regular grocery store to get more specific items, though. I did.

This wasn’t my complete set-up, either. I’d forgotten to add soy sauce, honey, Frank’s sauce, spices, and a few other things from my pantry. But you get the idea.

Step 3: Getting Set Up

You’ll need the whole kitchen – make sure it’s cleaned up and that there’s plenty of counter space available. Do all your breakfast dishes in advance so you have your whole sink available. You’ll also need a whisk and plenty of measuring cups and spoons, not to mention 3 bowls: two to hold in-progress meals (picture to come) and one to mix sauces in. I recommend having an easily accessible (and empty) trash, as well as a place for the big pile of recyclables that’ll pile up real fast as you empty out cans and bottles. I filled up an entire trash can while doing my slow-cooker marathon, plus two plastic shopping bags of recyclables. It’s nice to have a place to put that stuff at the beginning so you don’t have to stop in the middle of everything to take out the trash.

Very important: take the time to lay out all 20 of your gallon-size ziplock bags. Label them in advance with the name of the meal, plus whatever cooking directions apply (i.e. “Cook on low for 6-8 hours”). Also write if there’s any additional ingredients that need to be added (i.e. “Add cream cheese in last 15 minutes”) or served with (i.e. tortillas, rice, etc.).

You won’t want to dig out the original recipe when you’re ready to cook these, so it’s nice to have that information handy. Plus, things are about to get chaotic in your kitchen, and staying organized helps.

Step 4: Start Your Food Prep

Rather than prepping recipes one at a time, it makes more sense to do things in bulk. For instance, rather than chopping one onion, then another one 10 minutes later, chop all 10 at once. If you chose recipes with meat that needs to be cut up, do all that prep work at once. You’ll thank yourself. One of my recipes required browning sausage. This was the first thing I did so that it would have time to cool before I combined it with other ingredients.

Step 5: Assemble Meals

First, divvy up your meat. For instance, 2 lbs of chicken in this bag, 2 lbs of chicken in this bag, etc. I have a handy drawer in the fridge I can stick all my bags in at this point so they stay nice and cold once I’m done with this.

If you’ve cut up all your onions in advance, it’s helpful to divvy them up now, too.
Finally, begin going through your recipes one at a time, adding ingredients to the bags as needed. I have found that it’s easier if you place the in-progress bags in large bowls so that they don’t spill over. This isn’t essential, but it is helpful.

I have also found that when you’re making a sauce, it works better to take the time to whisk together the ingredients in another bowl before dumping it in the bag. I just double the recipe, then pour half in each bag for that recipe. You can use the same bowl and whisk over and over, so it’s not like you’re adding a lot of dishes.

As I start finishing up bags, I lay them in the freezer to harden. When I run out of room, I put them in the fridge until I have room in the freezer. I do my best to freeze them laid out flat so that they’re easier to deal with in the deep freezer.

Step 6: Clean Up and Recovery

This is what it looked like at the end:

If you notice, there are only 16 bags, rather than my intended 20. One issue is that I was a little too conservative when buying chicken (trying to save on cost) and didn’t quite buy enough, so I scrapped two meals. Two, the baby was starting to wake up from her nap and call out to me before I’d done the final recipe. I did a quick clean-up and called it a day.

I finished the last recipe the next morning – I put one portion straight into the crock pot and the second in a freezer bag.

The kid helped. I told her to wave for the camera.

To be honest, clean-up wasn’t terrible. I used the same bowls, measuring spoons, and other utensils over and over. And I put a lot of pantry items away as I went. So clean-up really wasn’t worse than it would have been for just a regular dinner, except for the massive amount of empty cans that I had to take outside. But since I’d planned for that, it wasn’t a big deal.

So that’s how you do a ton of slow-cooker meals in one afternoon! I’ve been considering how many meals is ideal. I see the appeal of keeping it small, but I also see the benefits of going big. Do whatever works for you!

EDIT: There's one more thing I forgot to mention. There's no rule that says you HAVE to put any of these in your slow cooker! Some, you could just thaw in the fridge and then throw them into the oven for a little while in the evening. I've done stir frys in the past with meals that I've prepped for the slow-cooker. It's still easier than mixing everything at the last minute. Do what works best for you :)