Author’s Note: Many of my brides (and grooms!!) talk about eating healthy and getting fit for their big day… While I don’t think you should crash diet just to fit in a dress, I do think that planning your wedding might be the perfect catalyst for a healthy body overhaul – and a lifestyle change. Here is a little insight into my meal plan, which affords me the time to stay healthy at the gym.
Yes, you can go to the gym and serve a healthy home cooked meal every day. And you can do this while working outside the home, too. It’s the perfect mystery that challenges men and women every day – how do I maintain my professional life, while providing nourishment and quality time to/with my family and still have time to keep myself healthy and de-stressed?
As Super Why would say… “the answer to our SUPER big mystery is”… PLAN AHEAD!
This is mostly about the food. I’m hungry.
Once a month my bestie and I spend an afternoon creating freezer-crockpot meals – this is our hybrid meal planning mastermind, a bastardization of dream dinners, crock pot recipes, family secrets and willingness to throw whatever into a pot and see what happens.
A little context: My BFF and I both work full time during the day, and our husbands work swing / late shift. So, generally speaking, we are responsible for cooking dinner for ourselves and the kids roughly 5 days out of the week. For those of you taking notes, she cooks dinner 7 nights a week, 5 or so from our freezer meals. I am home for dinner 5 nights a week, and cook maybe 3 new meals and re-create leftovers for the other two. She has two almost elementary-aged kiddos and I have a pre-schooler. We combine families one or two nights a week, sometimes bringing extra food, other times stretching one crock pot meal to feed everyone. In other words – we adjust to life around this flexible meal planning system.
We started pre-kids, after attending a few dream dinners nights. The concept is simple:
And the results were AMAZING! Super quick dinners, happy husbands and no takeout. But at $16-22 per meal, it was still a little spendy. Yes, we were getting more variety (creating these meals from scratch, from the grocery store would run more like $25-40 a meal, since it would not be a bulk purchase), but the cost was still a little high.
This is what a dream dinners store looks like in action…
So we scratched our heads and started messing around with making our own freezer meals. And you know what? It totally worked.
We bought our ingredients in bulk, created a massive assembly line in my kitchen, and armed ourselves with Ziploc bags and foil containers. I forget what we spent, and how many we made, but ten hours later, we both had freezers full of dinners and spent around $15 a meal. Plus, we found our portions were larger then the ones we got at dream dinners. We were getting a dinner, plus loads of leftovers.
The meals were thawed ahead of time, popped into the oven / cooked on the stove and voila! a home cooked meal (baked for an hour, or actively cooked on the stove for 15+/- minutes). Gone were the days of slaving in the kitchen for an hour plus, after working all day. Gone were the days of having a trashed kitchen to spend 30 minutes to cleanup after cooking dinner. Miracles really did happen. And we were saving money. We actually ate at decent times, and the grocery bill was lowered.
The main trick is that you are pooling your money for silly things like capers. At $3-5 a jar, your Italian Chicken meal gets pricey (plus the $4 breadcrumbs, new $7 olive oil, $6.99/lb for the small pack of chicken, etc, etc.). Then you throw out the rest of the capers in two months after only using a tablespoon and the breadcrumbs are worthless in six weeks. And cardamom. Ever bought that little jar of ground up gold? Good Lord. At least now, when we found a recipe that called for it, we were splitting the cost! Chicken in bulk is more like $1.99-3.99 a pound. Breadcrumbs from Costco are less by the ounce – and by sharing, you CAN use up the 55 gallon drum they come in.
Things we learned from phase one of our meals:
Don’t waste money on foil containers to freeze then bake your meal in. Throw it in a Ziploc bag and call it good. Then, use that casserole dish your Aunt got you for your wedding (trust me girls, you have one coming in the mail at some point before you tie the knot). The exception is a layered casserole. Foil containers are a must there.
Don’t get overly creative with veggies on the front end. Buy a bulk bag of green beans, split into little ziplocs and call it good. Steam and season as you see fit when preparing your meal. No one missed the gym because they had to season their green beans. We pepped all these fancy sides and at the end we realized we did way too much work.
Do be willing to go outside your comfort zone and get away from chicken. Pork, salmon, beef and ground turkey all freeze quite well, but the recipes take a little more searching. The other day I read a blog that mentioned kangaroo, I’m not sure if she was serious.. but the point is.. push your envelope! Lamb or goat maybe? (no joke, my neighbor is raising TWO goats for meat…)
Do take chances. The worst thing that can happen is you have to order pizza. Not the end of the world.
Do label your meals. You might think you will be able to remember / tell the bags apart… Guess what, you won’t!! I promise. We have had several “I have something working in the crockpot. I couldn’t tell you what the hell it is to save my life, but it smells amazeballs” conversations.
A couple of years passed, we both relocated a couple times, both popped out kids and suddenly we were living a mile apart, having the same problem with dinner – now multiplied by the need to feed the kiddos something healthy and before 10pm. Here is where we entered phase two of our meals.
This time we spent about 6 hours, $400 and made a total of 28 meals, plus tons of “veggie sides.” We both have pretty stocked pantries for things like brown rice, these healthy-ish boxed mashed potatoes (don’t laugh! they are chemical free and work for a weeknight meal!) other starchy sides. How’s your math? $14.25 a meal. And we had larger portions then our retail experience. 14 meals each, lasting about three weeks.
And then my bestie re-discovered the crock pot – in the form of this All-Clad slow cooker.
I wrinkled my nose and we cooked independently for awhile. Then she brought up our freezer meals. But this time there was a catch – she wanted them to be crock pot friendly. Ugh. I hated crock pots. Dry, tasteless mushy food. No thanks! But she insisted.
And we all know, sometimes you just have to let your BFF win.
So we had another freezer meal session, this time, making recipes that were crockpot friendly. Somewhere in the process, her mom heard about this, and sent me a new Cuisinart Crock Pot. So, I gave it a try.
Ladies, I shit you not, I use this thing three to five times a week. It has been a godsend.
Last month, we tipped the scales at about 30 meals for under $350. $11.50ish for dinner, plus sides with leftovers? Sign me up. All in about three (yes, three) hours of prep. We go back and forth the week before meal prep, hunting down recipes, debating old favorites to use or to cut, creating a master grocery list and splitting up the shopping.
And get this – because you throw everything in the crockpot before leaving for work, all you do is toss some rice in the cooker and veggies in the microwave when you get home. Tell me that isn’t the easiest thing you have ever heard of. Faster than delivery, healthier than takeout, cheaper than going to the store on the way home.
Here we are mid prep! Well, here the kitchen is, at least. Not pictured is my prep station on the kitchen counter(s). We have settled into a Lizzy Mae dices, slices and browns (veggies and meat) and the BFF measures and assembles. I’m a fast fox and she is meticulous at following rules. Know each other’s strengths and capitalize on them.
What do we do with this extra time? Hit the gym, of course! No, seriously. Now we both have time to go to the gym on the way home from work. You see, if dinner only take 15 minutes from walking in the door to serving on the table, you can get off work at 5, gym from 530-630, home by 645, dinner by 7. Adjust for your schedule, of course, but you get the message. By planning ahead for the week, we know what to thaw, when to combine forces, and what nights to make a gourmet meal from scratch (aka, gym rest day).
And gone are the $50 trips to the grocery store and hour of prep for a home cooked meal.
A few notes and things we have learned in phase two:
Thaw. Your. Meal. Proper thawing prevents mushiness.
You don’t need a fancy programmable machine. I thought I wanted a delay start, but since the meal I put in the pot is cold (thawed, but cold), it can simmer for 10 hours and be OK. Or, I have hubby start it for me.
Washing the crock pot itself is a pain in the ass. But less of a pain if you do it while the pot is still hot/warm. Not slimy and cold, sitting in the sink overnight.
Double up / triple up on meals you really like. After all, this is a month +/- of dinners, so you CAN have sweet & spicy meatballs twice. And no one has ever said no to balsamic chicken for the third time in a month. Activate your bulk-buying power!
Alternate the master grocery list creation! BFF uses a spreadsheet and I use a list. Either way, no one’s feelings get hurt.
Know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Yes, I can break down 15 onions in five minutes, but I struggle to follow recipes exactly, and get bored easily. Enter my bestie, who keeps us in line by actually taking the time to measure the salt, instead of just throwing in “whatever.”
And it’s fun! We let the kids run around the house, laugh and tell stories, agree to disagree about certain cooking techniques, and look forward to providing reasonable healthy nourishment for our families.
I think this spring, we will transition into Phase Three – we are looking at buying a pig or half pig (locally raised and slaughtered) and possibly a side of beef. I really want to do chickens (some for eggs, some for meat), and have my dad help me put in raised beds for an extensive herb & veggie garden. We also have a neighbor that raises goats, and I would like to talk to him about that… Now that we have the science and mechanics down, I hope we can focus on being local, sustainable and organic. After all, it is the PNW and that is how we roll!
Does that give you some insight as to how we make time to hit the gym and spend time out of the kitchen? Do you meal prep? Have you tried it with a friend? Have any great recipes to share?