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Cook stress-free meals with advanced planning
JACKSON – Usually the question of “what’s for dinner?” inspires a last-minute mad dash through the nearest supermarket for a quick and convenient meal or a call to the local pizza delivery restaurant. But planning meals in advance can save time and money, keep diets healthy and reduce food waste -- all while saving the cook’s sanity.
Pamela Redwine, nutrition and food safety area agent with Mississippi State University’s Yalobusha County Extension Service, said taking some time each week to plan a menu will save time later.
“Planning meals keeps people from having to make daily trips to the grocery store,” she said. “Using the store’s sale paper will help trim the grocery budget, especially if the leftover items can be used later in the week in a different meal or frozen for future use.”
Meal planning also helps maintain or reach a healthy weight and keep meals more nutritious, Redwine said.
“People who are watching their weight can use menu planning to help balance out the week’s meals,” she said. “If there is a business lunch to attend one day, then the evening meal can be either lighter or more substantial in calories, depending on what was served for lunch.”
The first step in meal planning is to look at the family calendar.
“Consider what events will be taking place that week,” she said. “If there is a ballgame or a meeting to attend, it may be better to plan to go out or to put a meal in the slow cooker.”
Think about how many meals will be eaten at home and if lunches will be packed for school or work, she said. Once the number of meals is determined, plan the components by checking what is already available in the pantry, refrigerator and garden.
Using seasonal produce and what is on hand makes meals more nutritious and budget-friendly at the same time. Meals should be inviting and include foods from every food group,” Redwine said. “There should be different colors, textures and temperatures on each plate. The United States Department of Agriculture’s My Plate meal planner can suggest food group pairings within a meal.”
Once the menu is set, a few easy methods can save meal preparation.
“Batch cooking is a time saver,” Redwine said. “If the item will freeze well, make a double batch and freeze half. That way the shopping, food preparation and cooking is done once.”
Batch cooking is also a good answer for families who don’t like to eat leftovers right away.
“When I make a casserole, I will cook half and freeze the other half for later,” Redwine said. “When I make something like chili, soup or spaghetti sauce, it’s easy to freeze the leftover portion and use it in a few weeks.”
Cooking and freezing ahead of time allows for food to be prepared at the cook’s convenience and the oven to be used more efficiently. Special diet foods or baby foods can be prepared in quantity and frozen in single portions.
“You can freeze almost any food with the exception of canned foods or eggs in the shell,” said Lincoln County Extension Service Nutrition and Food Safety Area Agent Natasha Haynes. “Once out of the can or incorporated into a dish, these foods can be frozen, too.”
Some foods may lose quality after defrosting, and other foods, such as mayonnaise, cream sauce and lettuce, simply do not freeze well, Haynes said.
“For example, raw meat and poultry maintain their quality longer than their cooked counterparts because moisture is lost during cooking,” she said.
Properly storing frozen food will ensure the best quality later.
“Freeze food as fast as possible to maintain its quality,” Haynes said. “Rapid freezing prevents undesirable, large ice crystals from forming throughout the product. If your home freezer has a quick-freeze shelf, use it. Spread packages to be frozen in a single layer, stacking them only after completely frozen.
“Use freezer bags, not storage bags, and leave 1 inch of headspace to give the food room to expand. Freezer bags are thick and help prevent freezer burn on foods. Thinner storage bags are better for short-term food storage in the refrigerator or for taking sandwiches on a picnic.”
Mild freezer burn, grayish-brown leathery-looking spots caused by air coming into contact with foods in the freezer, is safe to eat but can be cut away before or after cooking. Discard items heavily damaged by freezer burn for quality reasons.