Most of us have cooked a lot more in the past couple of months during the coronavirus confinement than we had ever done before. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep it up even after we start to venture outside again? Well, we most certainly can, and eating home-cooked meals on a regular basis is a lot easier than it seems.
If you’ve already thought about stepping up your cooking game, chances are you have come across the term “batch cooking”. It may be a fairly modern buzzword, but the principles behind it are no secret to anyone who’s worked out a way to regularly prepare homemade meals despite a busy life.
So let’s look at what the principles of batch cooking are and how you can successfully prepare your own food without sacrificing too much of your time.
What is batch cooking?
As the word implies, batch cooking is a method of meal preparation which implies cooking in batches – more food, less often. You make a meal plan (typically for a week), do the shopping and the preparation, and dedicate a few hours of your weekend to cooking most of the meals you will eat that week. Instead of doing the work daily, you do it once or twice a week only. The idea is to save time but still be able to regularly indulge in wholesome, homemade meals.
But there are also some less obvious benefits to batch cooking:
- By planning your meals and preparing them in advance, you’re less likely to indulge in impulse eating and impulse food shopping, which is when we tend to make poor choices, nutritionally speaking.
- In order to ensure you have everything you need for your designated batch cooking day, you will probably buy in bulk as well, which means fewer trips to the shops, more mindful purchases, and consequently less money spent.
- You will also be saving money by reducing food waste – reusing ingredients and giving your leftovers a second life is big in batch cooking philosophy.
- More eating in, means less eating out, and even more money in your pocket.
Batch cooking, step by step
Step 1: Meal planning
Meal planning sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Actually, any kind of planning sounds scary if you’re not the type who thrives on lists and spreadsheets. But if you can beat the initial resistance and give it a go, you’ll soon realise how much easier everything becomes once you no longer have to think about what to cook every single day.
If you’ve never done meal planning, start small – make a plan for three days, and slowly move on to a weekly plan. You can also start by planning only your main daily meal, whether this is lunch or dinner in your case. You can later work in the rest of the meals if you want to.
There are a few things to bear in mind when you plan your weekly meals:
- Have a food seasonality chart at hand to always know what fruits and vegetables are in season before you start planning.
- Include plenty of vegetables in your meals, as well as legumes, quality proteins, and good fats.
- Think of what basic ingredients can be cooked in bulk and frozen. For example, you can cook some chickpeas for a stew and some more to freeze and use in a hummus or a salad at a later time.
- Aim for variety and balance, don’t just list whatever it is that you feel like eating at the time of drafting the plan. If you’re going to be eating chickpeas on Monday and Tuesday, maybe that’s enough legumes for the week and you can leave that lentil curry for the following week.
- Check if you have any previously cooked meals in the freezer that should be defrosted soon, and include them in your plan.
- Collect your favourite recipes somewhere and remember to look them up. It can be a simple list, a sophisticated spreadsheet, or a mouthwatering Pinterest board.
- If you don’t mind eating the same thing two days in a row, this is a great way to maximise your time and effort. You can also alternate between two different dishes, repeating each of them twice over the course of four days. Or any combination that works for you.
If you’ve never done meal planning and are a little nervous about pencilling it in straight away, you can start with a bunch of post-it notes. Write out your ideas and move the notes around until you end up with a plan that looks appealing and balanced, and then transfer it somewhere more permanent, like your journal or a piece of paper to stick on your fridge.
Step 2: Prep work
Before you actually get down to cooking, you want to ensure you have everything you’ll need. Batch cooking is all about efficiency, so being diligent about your prep work is important.
What does it include?
- Make a shopping list based on your meal plan and buy all of the ingredients. If you tend to split the tasks with your flatmates or your partner, a shared shopping list on the cloud is a great way to collaborate on it. Google Keep does the job perfectly.
- Will you be cooking any legumes that need to be soaked overnight? Do you plan to use any of your previously frozen sauces or soups? Go through your meal plan and see what other preparation you may need to do on your ingredients the day before.
- Make sure you have the right containers to store the food once you prepare it. Glass containers and airtight jars are great for storing food in the fridge, but you also want to have a good selection of freezer-friendly tupperware and a stash of freezer bags on hand.
- If it’s your first time ever batch cooking, do a complete fridge and freezer clean-up before you start. Batch cooking relies heavily on freezing already prepared food for later use, so you want to ensure you have enough space for it.
Step 3: The big day
The day has come to cook your meals for the week. Block 3-4 hours in your agenda, don your favourite apron, play some funky music, and get down to business. This is the day when you’ll want to prepare the bulk of the food for the week, and do the prep work for any additional cooking days mid-week.
The main piece of advice to ace this step is to plan the order in which you’re going to approach the tasks so that you maximise your use of both time and utensils. Do you need to grind some nuts and also grate a bunch of carrots? If you’re using a food processor for this, the best order would be nuts first, carrots second – some walnut leftovers in your carrots is fine, but once the food processor is wet from the carrots, you would have to wash it and dry it before using it again for a dry ingredient such as nuts. This is the general logic you should follow to use the fewest number of containers and to avoid having to wash your tools repeatedly.
Also think of what tasks can be performed in parallel. For example, legumes are notorious for their long cooking times, so let them simmer quietly on one burner while you sauté some vegetables on another. If you have to wait for certain ingredients to cool down before combining them, use the time to wash the dirty dishes and clear up the sink. You get the idea.
A few words about tools and appliances
If you’re going to be serious about your home cooking, investing in a few staple appliances is the best thing you can do. They will quickly pay for themselves in time and effort you will save and all the delicious healthy meals you’ll be more motivated to make. Here’s our top three:
- Food processor: It chops, slices, grates, and even kneads bread. You can grate cheese for pizza or carrots for a stew; you can make silky hummus or delectable nut butters (infinitely more affordable than store-bought ones); you can chop onions without bawling your eyes out and you can whip up the most scrumptuous banana nice cream. An absolute essential. If you’re going to buy one thing, get a food processor.
- Blender: It whirls your liquid ingredients into the silkiest smoothies, sauces, and gazpachos. You can use it to make smoothies or get your pasta sauces extra silky and free of lumps. Make sure you get a high-powered one (at least 700 W) that can do the job properly.
- Immersion blender (also called hand-held blender): A simpler version of a standard blender, it helps you create smooth sauces and vegetable purés. It’s easy to pull out quickly, doesn’t take up much space, and cleans in seconds. It works wonders on vegetable soups, and you can even use it to make your own mayonnaise.
If you’re only starting out, take a few weeks to gauge your real needs. What is it that you’d like to be able to make but find lacking the proper tools? That’s where you should invest first.
Step 4: Storing and freezing
Since you’ll be cooking larger amounts of food, you need to ensure it’s stored properly so that it keeps long enough without going bad. Anything that goes in the fridge should be kept in airtight containers in the corresponding compartment, for optimal storage. Any food you won’t consume within the next four to five days should go into the freezer.
A few useful tips about freezing cooked food:
- According to the USDA, if food was safe to eat when it was frozen, it can remain frozen indefinitely. The time it spends in the freezer won’t affect its safety for consumption, but it will affect the taste and how well it defrosts. This is what the optimal freezing times you often read about actually refer to.
- Not all food freezes equally, which means that what you get once it’s thawed may not be as appetising as you’d hope for. Potato is a particularly notorious example, as are mayonnaise-based salads and dressings, raw vegetable salads, or cream-based soups. What does freeze and defrost well is stews, casseroles, meatballs or meatloaves, sauces, bread, fruit, beans, muffins, and pies.
- Even the foods that generally freeze successfully won’t perform well if stored incorrectly. You want to avoid freezer burn, which sucks all the goodness out of your foods. Vacuum sealing is the best option, but a good alternative is using freezer bags instead of containers and pressing as much air out of the package as possible.
You can also flash-freeze the meal in its original dish (e.g. a casserole tray) lined with cling film, and then transfer it to a zipper bag for proper storage.
To avoid freezer burn, use up your food within three months of freezing it.
- A word about defrosting: the only safe ways to thaw food are in the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave. Do not leave frozen food on the counter to thaw at room temperature (or any food for that matter – as soon as it’s cool, store it in the fridge or freezer).
- Before you freeze any food, think of how you will want to defrost it – in small portions or in bulk? Freezing food in individual portions generally means lower thawing times and more flexibility when it comes to reusing it later on.
- Label all the food you store in the freezer, making sure to include the date you put it there. Masking tape and a permanent marker are your best friends here – the tape is easy to remove, it doesn’t leave any sticky residue on your containers, and it’s very economical.
Ready to get cooking? Now’s the best time to take a newly acquired quarantine habit to new heights. Once you’re out and about again, you will be happy you’ve mastered the art of preparing your own food without sacrificing other luxuries of life.
If you’d like more tips on how to live your best life at home, check out the Lifestyle section of the Badi Blog for articles on sustainable living, decoration, and leisure.