Monday, August 19, 2013

Organic Crockpot Freezer Meal Project Part 1

I posted on Facebook that I had made a month’s worth of food for the crock pot and a few people asked me how I did that.  So here it is broken down step by step.  

My main goals for the organic crockpot project:
  1. Save time especially since school is about to start and I have a clingy toddler that doesn’t let me do much with both hands at dinner time.
  2. Freeze enough Crockpot friendly recipes to last a month with a few easy dinners tossed in along the way accounting for leftovers.
  3. Feed my family yummy, healthy organic food on a budget.
A side note:  I tweaked these meals to be dairy free as my daughter has a sensitivity. 
First I started with Pinterest and the general internet looking for recipes that were either crockpot friendly or could be easily tweaked to work for the crockpot.  I tried to stick with food that is in season right now (New England) and buy local.  Here is a link to my board as it stands so far.  I am sure I will be adding to it, too!  I picked a few old favorites that I knew will be a hit and added a few new ones and one that I like and no one else does that I can refreeze into jars for my work lunches (Eggplant Stew, yum).

I also am totally tired of making purred food for my little girl so I wanted to make meals that would result in soft enough food for me to give her to feed to herself while introducing her to new flavors along the way.  The crockpot is perfect for that!  I also know that my family of 3 big eaters and one little eater will get one meal plus leftovers for one and sometimes two days out of these meals.  They are also easy to double if you want to do that!  I usually add a salad to all meals and sometimes rice, bread or whatever is in season for roasted veggies.  I also skipped browning the meats.  In my experience it doesn’t make enough of a difference for the time. Herbs like Basil and Cilantro don't always hold up in the crockpot but I added them to the freezer bags anyway.  I will add more to those meals that call for them the day of for more flavor but that is optional.

These are the recipes I used for this month and the sources where I found them.  They are all in one place on the Pinterest board, too.  I added my notes about what to add the day of and changes I made:

Recipe list:

                Left the chicken breasts whole.  Froze the cider I needed in a mason jar for the day of.

                Will add the Guinness the day of.  Skipped the oil and tossed the meat in the bag with the flour to coat.

                Used cumin, coriander and turmeric for taco seasoning.

                Used 2 bags frozen corn.  I’ll add soy milk and water the day of.

                Add PB the day of.

                Broth the day of and I'll skip the sour cream.

                Broth day of.

                Broth and quinoa day of.

                Broth day of.  I’ll cook the noodles or use rice that day, too. I skipped the lemon grass and added some lemon juice instead.

Stuff you will need (and some you don’t):

Gallon zip lock bags.  I’d really like to find another way to store food of this size inexpensively, neatly and without plastic but for now this will do.  Any ideas let me know!

Sharpie markers to write on your bags.

1 big fry pan

A couple of big bowls and several small bowls.  I stuck with bowls I could put in the dishwasher for the small stuff because I didn’t want to have to clean up all day afterward.

Big knife and big cutting board. 

Note: I have a TINY kitchen with very minimal counter space.  As long as you are semi -organized this is no big deal.

A place to put all of the ingredients nearby.  I used my kitchen table as the staging area and a counter within reach for spices, can opener etc.

Food processor is really helpful but not necessary.

A big bottle of water for yourself.  You will need it after standing, cutting, and zooming around.
A cup of tea doesn’t hurt either.

After I compiled the recipes I made a spreadsheet with all of the ingredients I needed to buy along with amounts of each.  I then read through the recipes and made a list of what I needed to physically prep (other than just tossing into the bag – chopping carrots for example) and then what I needed to add the day I decided to toss it in the crockpot.

I made the mistake of shopping at 6pm on a Friday night with two hungry kids and had to go back again the next day to pick up what I forgot.  Shopping the day before is helpful.   Getting a babysitter is also helpful. (Thanks Kevin).

The night before I laid out the freezer bags and wrote the name of the meal and what I needed to add the day I cook it.  I left out additional salt in all of these recipes because I find the chicken stock to be pretty salty and I like to add it at the end so I don’t overdo it.  I put everything in a folder so I had it all in one location.  A big deal in my house.

Day of:

Kick everyone out of the house.  Clear the freezer for space.  Put on NPR or some tunes.  Make my tea and have a slug of water. 

I set up one bowl specifically for putting the freezer bag in so the bag wouldn’t fall over or spill (or leak) when adding ingredients.  I debated about double bagging but I think they are safe.  I will update if I have issues.  

I then set up the food processor.  I also set up a bowl for veggie ends to make soup stock with later (also freezable).

All of these recipes call for onions and most of them for carrots so I started with those.  I quartered all of the onions and processed in batches.  Once the first batch was done I started browning them in the big fry pan.  It took about 3 rounds to brown all of the onions.  Some of the recipes didn’t call for browning first but for the sake of time and I like browned onions, I browned them all.  I put them all in a big bowl with a measuring cup on top.   I estimated about a cup of browned onions equaled about 1 large onion.  That proved about right.

I then processed a big bunch of carrots while the onions were cooking.  Next I peeled and chopped potatoes while the next batch of onions was cooking.  Several of these meals call for cilantro so make a bowl for that, too.  

One big time saver would have been to buy a jar of pre-minced garlic in oil.  I forgot it in the hungry haze at the store so I ended up peeling and using the garlic press.  I don’t suggest that – my hands were sore!

The corn chowder calls for bacon so I ended up cooking that later but could have easily done it in the oven.  It would have been easier and less in the way than on the stove top like I did.  The leftovers certainly didn’t go to waste, either!

After the produce was ready I started filling the bags.  I chopped veggies when I needed them, like the bok choy and celery.   I went one by one through the recipes so that I wouldn’t get things mixed up.  I had set up all of my spices and can opener etc. so I wouldn’t have to go searching for things.  

Another time saver/contamination saver I would do next time will be to have all of the meat packages open.  I started with all of the chicken recipes (I used all breasts no matter what the recipe called for to make it easier) and so on.  If I had all of the chicken breasts in a big bowl I could have used tongs instead of having to wash my hands so many times in between.   Live and learn. 

I made some minor substitutions to recipes.   For example: instead of lemon grass for the Thai chicken I just squeezed some lemon juice in there because I had it for another recipe.  I didn’t add any rice or quinoa to those bags – I will do that on the day off.  I also left out the peanut butter from the eggplant stew to put in once it has been cooked. 

The last and only non-crockpot meal (other than a quick batch of pesto with the leftover basil and garlic – also easy to freeze in mason jars) was the turkey meatloaf.  I love that recipe so I doubled it.  I find that is a doubled recipe the way it is written anyway.  It was perfect to do last because it is very forgiving and I just dumped the rest of the onions and herbs that I had left into the mix.  I lined my loaf pan with plastic wrap, formed the loaf then popped it out and stuck it in the freezer in the wrap so I still have use of my pan.  I’ll pop it out of the plastic and back in the pan when I cook it.

Then I was done.  And I was tired.  But I think it will be worth it!  Today I put some chicken I saved and vegetable trimmings in the crockpot to make a chicken soup – very little waste! 

Clean up didn’t take much time.  I used one cutting board, one knife, one big fry pan and lots of bowls that fit in my dishwasher.  I love big stainless steel bowls because they are light, cheap and easy to clean.

What I will do next time:

I will talk to my local farmers at the market to see if they are willing to sell to me meat in bulk.  If they can’t do that I will wait for a sale at Whole Foods to save a little $.  Meat was the bulk of $ spent. 

I will shop, preferably alone, in the morning when I am fully awake and not hungry! 

I am going to start looking for more recipes for next time and add them to my pinterest board.  I will also update and rate the recipes as we go along.  I hope this is helpful to anyone who wants to save a little time and eat in a healthy way.  Cheers! 

Comment with your favorite crockpot recipies!  I'd love to hear what your family loves! 

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