Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Crockpot Cooking for the Time Crunched Athlete

I am not one to get up early to train. That means that about 90% of my training happens in the evenings after work. This leaves little time to cook during the week. For the past few months, I have been doing the majority of my cooking for the week on Sunday afternoon.

I have always been a fan of cooking in the crockpot. You can just throw all your stuff in there, turn it on low, and eight to ten hours later, dinner is ready. Well along came this post on Frayed Laces's Blog. She had just finished making a large batch of freezer ready crockpot meals. I read it and immediately sent it off to Cathy that we needed to do this as well. I picked out a few recipes from Frayed Laces post and a few I had pinned on Pinterest (for those interested, I have created a Crockpot Freezer board on Pinterest for keeping these recipes

We decided on 5 recipes, each of which I would double up. I built 10 bags, each bag with approximately 6 servings. For one day's effort, we end up with 15 days worth of lunch and dinner for Cathy and I.

I tried to find recipes that tended to share core ingredients, but had different spices and such so that they didn't all taste the same. We ended up choosing these 5 recipes:

Frayed Laces Chicken Enchilada Stew

Chicken Fajitas

Cilantro Lime Chicken

Moroccan Stew

Lentil Sweet Potato Soup

Once we decided on recipes, the next step was putting together a grocery list. Being the analyst/spreadsheet junkie that I am, I built a spreadsheet that allowed me to easily add up all the ingredients I needed for all the recipes. I added a column for the category the item belonged to and sorted it by that column so it made it easy to check items off the list. I then totaled up the rows and multiplied each by 2 since I was making 2 batches of each. I loaded it up on my phone since my printer was out of ink and headed off to Super Wally World to get everything I needed. All of the items on my list, plus a few other staples cost me just under 200$

Once I got home, I unloaded the groceries and sorted them into piles for easy prep.

Most peppers I have ever bought at a single time - 15 of them

Once all the ingredients were sorted, I sat down and devised a plan of attack. I decided to break up the prep into two phases. The first phase included all of the meals with chicken. I labeled all my freezer bags with a sharpie, listing out the ingredients I would need.

During phase I, I prepped the majority of my veggies. All of the peppers were deseeded and ready for slicing/chopping. I peeled all the onions and garlic so they too were ready for chopping. One thing I debated on was whether or not to chop the veggies all at once, or as I prepped the individual bags. Because I didn't feel like have to measure the chopped veggies to divvy them out, I decided I would chop/slice them as I prepped each bag. This seemed to work smoothly for me without adding much time to the process

As I finished up a bag, I laid it out on the oven, so I could get them all in the freezer at the same time

I learned one important lesson along the way: always make sure the bag is sealed. One of my bags wasn't and it fell over and dropped all over the floor. What a mess that was to clean up

About 4 hours and 2 pumpkin beers later, I had a freezer full of food. What you see below is most of the meals, but not all of them, They took up almost two shelves in my freezer

When you are ready to make a meal, all you do is put the frozen contents of the bag into the crockpot (i have had to cut open the bags), cook it on low for 10 hours, and in the end you have a healthy easy meal with very little cleanup.

I still have a few things to work on to perfect my process, but I am happy with the results. Our first cooked meal was the Moroccan Stew. I was pleased with it, but Cathy felt it was a little spicy for her liking. Last night I cooked the Enchilada Stew and packed it today for lunch

10 Tips for prepping multiple crockpot freezer meals

1. Order of items in the bag and/or how you put it in the crockpot is important.

As you see in the picture above, the lentils were on top of the frozen pile. The lentils did not soak up as much liquid as they would have if they were on the bottom. The end result is that they were a little chewy when they came out of the crockpot. When I ate the leftovers the next day, this wasn't as much of an issue

2. Need to put something between the bag and freezer shelf

My freezer has metal grates on the shelves. As you see in the picture, the bags got into the grooves of the shelf as it froze. Luckily, I have been able to pull them out with a little force, but I would like to avoid that in the future

3. "Shaping" of bags as they freeze

I placed all of these bags in the freezer with the opening facing up. This seemed to work okay for my crock-pot, but you need to think through what shape the bag will freeze into and ensure it will fit into yours. Had I placed the bags on their sides, I may have had to "chisel" the blocks in order to make them fit.

4. Have plenty of bowls for prep.

When I picked up all my groceries at the store, I decided to pick up an extra set of glass mixing bowls. Having these extra bowls kept me organized

5. Use one bowl as a "trash" bowl to save time

One trick I picked up from Rachel Ray is that when you are prepping a bunch of food, it is helpful to have one bowl designated as a garbage one. As I peeled onions and deseeded peppers, I had a bowl right in front of me to dump the trash into and keep moving along.

6. Try to tie meals together with common ingerdients

This saves time and money. By choosing my recipes carefully, I could buy the bigger package of chicken and pay less per pound. In addition, there was no waste. I used all of the veggies I bought and had no ingredients left over, other then the new spices I had to buy

7. Invest in good can opener.

One thing about crockpot cooking is that it usually calls for lots of canned goods.. My can opener was on it's last leg and it took longer to open cans then it should have.

8. To save time, buy some of your veggies already chopped

While the majority of my vegetables were bought fresh and had to be chopped, there were a few that I decided to pay a little more for and buy pre-chopped. This included green beans and butternut squash

9. Buy a crockpot with a timer.

Early crockpots only had an on/off switch with low/high options (and maybe warm). Nowadays, they have gotten pretty high tech. My crockpot has a timer, where I set the cook temp and time, and once that time elapses, it switches to warming for up to 2 hours. This way, the food cooks only as long as necessary and when you get home, it is still warm

10. Crank up your favorite music.

I was in the kitchen for about 4 hours, but the time went by quickly because I had my favorite music blasting in the kitchen.

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