Thursday, October 31, 2013

the scoop on "bonus hours"... FAQ on the Stock Your Freezer in a Snap program

NEW - Stock Your Freezer in a Snap - Second Batch (2015) is now available for those looking for vegetarian and/or gluten-free freezer-friendly meals! Read about that ebook here. 

The make-ahead meal plan that has simplified dinnertime for countless families is one-year-old! Cheers to stress-free family dinners and more "bonus hours" for all of you busy parents! 


What if you could open your fridge or freezer door each day and know you were going to feed your family well-- no matter how busy the day might be? Sounds like a kitchen fairy-- or maybe a personal chef-- stopped by overnight, doesn't it? Like many of you, I am a super busy mom. I have two young children, work part-time, volunteer in my community, and am constantly on the quest for "me time" as I try to be a good mom, wife and friend. But still, I want to feed my family well. This post will answer some of the questions I have been asked about how I do this, and how I create "bonus hours" for myself while feeding my family well on the busiest of days.

"The pesto was amazing!! I make pesto once or twice a month-- it is a staple around here. But this is so much better. Great recipe!" - H. Wells, New Canaan, CT

"Sloppy Joe's super popular to the point the kids wanted the meat in a thermos for lunch at school the next day..." - J. Valanzuela, Pasadena, CA

"The meatballs are out of this world...they are so darn sweet and delicious...Home run with me. Cannot wait to give it to the kids tonight. Yahoo!" - C. Taubner, Stamford, CT

It takes a lot of effort to feed your family well day in and day out. It is a lot of work to prepare a nourishing, family-friendly homemade dinner every night. Which is why I don't.

"Best day ever...EVERYONE inhaled [the meal]... VICTORY!! Eila, there are no words..." - J. Nedder, Darien, CT

As a former personal chef, I am an expert in cooking ahead. I know what freezes well, and what doesn't. So, I spend a few hours here and there getting my favorite freezer-friendly recipes made... and then I can take a few days off of cooking and reap the rewards of a freezer stocked with homemade meals.

Here are the recipes that the First Edition of this make-ahead meal program includes:
  • Baked Zucchini-Carrot Fritters (veg)
  • Cheesy Baked Taquitos (veg or chicken)
  • Creamy Pot Pies (chicken or root veggie)
  • Easy Comforting Lasagna (beef, sausage, turkey, or veg)
  • Simple Layered Butternut Squash-Black Bean Enchilada Casserole (veg or add meat of choice)
  • Mediterranean Beef Stew (a flavorful take on traditional beef stew)
  • My Go-To Chili {That Always Gets Rave Reviews} (beef, turkey or veg)
  • Oven-Baked Meatballs (beef or turkey)
  • Power Green Pesto (veg)
  • Everyone's Favorite Sloppy Joe's (a modern take made with beef, turkey or veg)
  • Super Fast Mexican Posole Stew (chicken or veg)
  • Tahini-Flax Crusted Chicken Parmesan (chicken or eggplant)

It is bliss to open the freezer and see it stocked with meals my family loves. I feel good about the nourishing meals I am feeding my family... and I have realized that by cooking ahead, I actually created "bonus hours" for myself. Yes, you read that right. Bonus "me time". And it's awesome. These "bonus hours" are an hour at the end of most days that I claim as my own. Dinner either goes straight from the freezer into the oven, or was thawed in the fridge, and as it reheats and I can call a friend, play a game with my kids {if they've done their homework!}, workout, check my email, read a book... heck, I can just sit and have a glass of wine if I want.

Moms have a tendency to burn the candle at both ends. We all want to take care of ourselves, take care of our kids, take care of our spouse, have the house in order, squeeze in a workout, be as interesting as we were before we settled down and had kids, be involved in our schools and communities. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Which is why I took the time to put this make-ahead meal program together. Having everything in one place-- done-for-you shopping lists, the recipes culled down to a set of family favorites, and a totally doable cooking schedule-- makes "bonus hours" attainable for any busy parent, me included. But you shouldn't just take my word for it! Here are what a couple of busy parents who completed the "Stock Your Freezer in a Snap" program had to say about it:

"Just did first week's shopping... SO easy. Took me 20 minutes with that organized list! Heavenly..." -A. Scott, New Canaan, CT

"It was VERY nice to come home, pop dinner in the oven, and be able to actually do stuff (dishes, clean up, help w/ homework) rather than cooking away. And the kids ate it, enjoyed it, and with all that spinach/squash/beans it was pretty healthy! Week #1 - thumbs way up!" - R. Sekhar, Chicago, IL

"Such a relaxing, rainy Sunday thanks to the already made chicken pot pie I pulled from the freezer for dinner!" - J. Borden, Darien, CT

"Beautiful green pesto! Two lasagnas in the freezer-- my husband is starting to get suspicious that I may be high-tailing it out of here because of all the food I am putting up ;0)!" - J. Valanzuela, Pasadena, CA

"Your packet is SO GREAT b/c it holds your hand the entire way-- from shopping lists and even where to get stuff to exactly what to do!... Dinner time no longer means a s*** show!" - J. Nedder, Darien, CT

First question I am asked: what is the costs of this make-ahead meal program? {OCTOBER ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY SALE PRICING OF $9.99!!!} $49.99, making it about $12/week to have your own set of my tried-and-true recipes, done-for-you, efficient shopping lists {laid out by aisle... yep, I am super organized-- some might say anal-- like that}, and access to all of my knowledge about how you should package meals, and how to freeze and reheat meals successfully, so you gain "bonus hours" when you would have been scrambling at the end of the day, trying to figure out what's for dinner.

Is this a book I am sent or I need to pick up? No, since I know some of you are like me and patience is not one of your virtues, this is an *instantly* downloadable pdf. {Meaning: you can say, "hot damn, I want some of these elusive 'bonus hours' too," sign up... and within minutes, have the plan in your hands! How cool is that?} Upon payment, you are sent a link from SendOwl, and you have the option of saving the pdf to your computer, or printing it out. I know some of you are more tech savvy than me and like to keep a computer on the counter while you cook. I am old school and like to print the recipes out, put them in {sauce splash-proof} plastic sleeves, in a notebook... You get to choose the way you want to view everything!

How will this Kitchen Coaching program help me stock my freezer? Short of me coming and cooking the food for you, this packet contains everything you'll need to take the stress out of mealtimes. It includes:
  • My lists of go-to cooking equipment and pantry items, so you start off right
  • My tips for successfully freezing meals, including recommended packaging
  • My go-to culinary short-cuts, to save you time
  • 12 of my most-popular freezer-friendly recipes, split into 4 weekly cooking sessions
  • Done-for-you weekly shopping lists, so your grocery marketing is as efficient as it can be
  • Done-for-you shopping lists for each individual recipe as well, for those who just want to make one or two freezer-friendly recipes here and there
  • Simple thawing and reheating instructions for each meal, so you can enjoy your "bonus hours" and still put a family dinner on the table on the busiest of days
Some have asked how much time it will take you to cook these meals? That depends. Conservatively, I tell participants to set aside one hour per recipe. But some of you may be very comfortable in your kitchen and may whip through the week's recipes much more quickly. I have had parents who were true beginner cooks-- moms, who were absolutely uncomfortable in their kitchen-- successfully complete a round of the program, and claim at the end, "psst...I'm starting to enjoy cooking!". This program really is about making your life easier. The longest the cooking should take you is 3 hours once/week, if you follow the recipes as I have them laid out by week.

A few of you have asked whether you need to cook on a certain day of the week, or four weeks in a row? No! That's the beauty of this program. It is completely flexible. When you purchase the program, it's immediately available to download and either print out or save to your computer. I recommend spending the first week just reading through the recipes, taking inventory of your pantry items and cooking equipment, stocking up on freezer-friendly packaging, and clearing out some space in your freezer. Then you cook on the day of the week, and the time of day that best fits your schedule. I do recommend actually looking at the weeks ahead and blocking time out on your calendar {creating an "appointment" to cook-- the same way you block out a yoga class, volunteer commitment, etc.} just so you actually commit to cooking and creating these "bonus hours" for yourself. The way the program is laid out, there are four weeks of shopping lists, and recipes that balance quick ones with ones that may take more time to either cook or cool down. Some of you may want to go gangbusters and do all four weeks of cooking at the beginning of the program, and that's totally fine! Others may cook one or two week's worth of the recipes, stock a few meals in their freezer, and then take a few weeks off and come back to it, say, after the holidays. That works too!

"Taquitos ROCKED! So amazing!!" - C. Herdeg, Pound Ridge, NY

"Made the taquitos last night to great reviews." - H. Wells, New Canaan, CT

"...My hubby and kids had taquitos again last night and they loved them! I love having them in a freezer!" - L. Somerville, Darien, CT

What if I am a vegetarian or follow a special diet {like gluten-free, paleo, etc}? First, I recommend perusing the recipes in the program to make sure they sound like meals you can typically enjoy. You will know best. Whenever possible, I gave a meatless option for each recipe. But there are a few, like Mediterranean Beef Stew, for which that was not possible.

How often are you eating these meals? If you have been a reader of the Full Plate blog for a while, you know that I believe in everything in moderation. Some of the meals in the "Stock Your Freezer in a Snap" program are on the more decadent end of the spectrum of things I cook {like pot pies}. But keep in mind that for every night you're enjoying Creamy Pot Pie, Mediterranean Beef Stew, Butternut and Black Bean Enchilada Casserole or Cheesy Baked Taquitos, there's a night when you're also going to enjoy Power Green Pesto, Baked Zucchini-Carrot Fritters or my super easy Posole Stew. It's all about balance. On average, our family enjoys a meal from my freezer stash about 2-4 times/week.

How long does it take to reheat the meals? I tend to use the oven or stovetop, instead of the microwave, to reheat my homemade meals. If you plan ahead, and follow my safe thawing instructions, your reheating times can be quicker… but since I usually don't plan ahead, and come home to select a meal straight from the freezer, for me, thawing/cooking meals takes either :30 minutes, 1 hour or 1.5 hours, depending upon the recipe. I view any  reheating time as my "bonus time". No matter how crazy my day may have been, or how much chauffeuring I might have had to do that afternoon, it is simply awesome knowing I have :30 minutes to 1.5 hours "off" while our dinner is heating {filling my kitchen with amazing aromas}, and that we get to sit down to a family dinner and enjoy a meal I feel great about.

Next big {deer in headlights} question-- what do you do with these "bonus hours"?!!  I know, I know-- busy parents may go into shock having an hour of free time built into their afternoons/evenings. I did. But once you overcome the initial shock, I recommend calling a friend, working out, or just having a glass of wine. And if you have extra hours in your day when you used to be grocery shopping, I recommend going for a walk instead. Those are my three favorite uses for the bonus time.

Will I need any special equipment for cooking or packaging the foods? Basic cooking equipment will do. I list all of my go-to cooking equipment in the packet, and have created an amazon store where you can purchase any loose ends you might still need. If you give the store a peek, you'll see that I do recommend having a food processor for quick chopping/shredding of ingredients. Big bowls/stock pot, and at least two baking sheets are necessary since we're making big quantities so we can enjoy one meal tonight and tuck others away for busy nights. And, other than that, it's just the basics-- a good knife, cutting board(s), spatulas. etc. I go in depth re: the best packaging in the packet, and have also created an amazon store for my freezer-friendly packaging recommendations.

I really want to do this program, but I can't cook? Really? I find that a little hard to believe. If you can read and you're willing to try something new, I think you can. To ensure your success, I have made the recipes really easy to follow. Trust me.

"Made the Sloppy Joe's from the freezer tonight... [my husband] declared it even better after it had been frozen. WINNING" - J. Nedder, Darien, CT

"I consider myself an awesome cook, and I don't mind cooking every day." That's cool. Then you keep on going being your awesome self. You do not need this program. I, personally, dread cooking dinner each and every night. I would much prefer to set aside a few hours here and there and stock my freezer with fabulous homemade meals, so when we roll in just around dinner time, I can catch a break and enjoy that "bonus hour" several nights/week.

Let's hear a little more about the recipes...

"Love a recipe where I just throw a bunch of things in a pot and look brilliant. Vegetarian-version of Posole. Yum!" - J. Atkisson, Atlanta, GA

"The Posole is soooooo good-- even my Mexican husband was impressed!" - J. Valenzuela, Pasadena, CA

"The Posole is awesome. Great lunch for mama... what's so fantastic about it is how great it is on its own but an easy platform for simple changes (e.g.: cater to cilantro lovers/haters, add extra spice, mellow it out with sour cream, etc). This is my favorite recipe so far!" - C. Taubner, Stamford, CT

"OMG!! I have a favorite recipe!! I have 3rd degree burns in my mouth because it is so good I can't wait for it to cool off!! It is seriously amazing!!! I may finish the whole pot...and I forgot sour cream...can only imagine how good it would be with that on top!!! Thank you Eila, you rockstar!!!" - C. Herdeg, Pound Ridge, NY {aw, sometimes these moms make me blush}

It's ok, go ahead and start planning out those "bonus hours"...

Just think of how much more relaxed you'll be at the afternoon game knowing dinner is made as you're sitting on the sidelines of your child's afternoon game/meet/class.

"Okay that pot pie is OFF THE CHAIN!! So, so yummy..." - J. Nedder, Darien, CT

"The chicken pot pies were a huge hit at dinner tonight!!! Delicious!" - J. Lee, New Canaan, CT

Another question I get: What if I have picky eaters in my family? OK, I just have to ask-- who is in charge when it comes to mealtimes at your house? You, as the parent, have the opportunity to be a role model-- and superhero-- when it comes to feeding your family well and modeling good eating habits. As you can see in the photo above from one of our recent dinners, my children do not like everything I make. That's ok. Most of the meal {except the mushrooms and "grass" (aka rosemary)} happily went down that little hatch. Need more help in this department, I recommend my friend, Jill's book, Fearless Feeding.

Wondering who the parents were that tested my program? They're moms like you. But every so often, they get tarted up and let someone else make dinner. {Those are two of my test group moms on either side of me, enjoying a much-deserved night out… after feeding our families one of our frozen homemade masterpieces!}

"The chili is one of my ENTIRE (which is saying a lot with some picky kids over here!) family's favorite meals, and it freezes wonderfully!" - L. Keogh, New Canaan, CT

"Just tried the enchilada casserole-- it was simply unbelievable-- SO delish!" - A. Scott, New Canaan, CT 

"Week 3 grocery shopping done in 15 minutes!! Thank u" - J. Nedder, Darien, CT

"I started on Week 2. Holy cow, if Week 1 looked good wait until you start Week 2. The stew is unbelievable!! My girls helped roll the taquitos (they look delish) and they loved helping with pot pies... all very easy and everything looks great!! Now I will take a little break but was super excited after completing Week 1 cooking last Friday...we just couldn't stop!! Left a pot pie and small enchilada casserole out to enjoy this week. Thank you! Thank you!" - A. Scott, New Canaan, CT

"Thank you Eila!!! This has been such fun." - A. Scott, New Canaan, CT

"I brought one of the frozen [meals] to my parents as a last minute thank you. My dad just called to say how awesome it was. Nourishing the parents is a great feeling too. Thank you!!!" - C. Taubner, Stamford, CT

Now, you may be thinking, this all sounds great, but what about freezer space?  I have a big freezer, but still I just set aside the door of my freezer for soups/stews and 1-2 shelves in the freezer for my frozen homemade meals. There are several different ways to stock your freezer. You can package everything up in glass/ceramic baking dishes that can go straight from freezer to oven to table, but those will take up more space. You can package some of the meals {taquitos, chili, posole stew, pesto, sloppy joe's, etc} more efficiently, in ziploc bags that can be easily stacked, as several in my test group did. Or if space is really at a premium, you can just make a single freezer meal here and there. {Shopping lists are given two ways-- as four weekly cook days when you make 3 recipes at a time, and 12 single stand alone shopping lists, for those who just want to try a recipe here and there}.

I hope this has answered questions you may have had about the "Stock Your Freezer in a Snap" program.

I cannot wait to hear how you spend your "bonus hours". Cheers!

Note: Anything you purchase through my Amazon links will help support swellmom and the full plate blog. Thanks in advance for the support.  

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hearty Vegetarian Three Bean & Pumpkin Chili

I'm on a soup kick + stocking the freezer for chilly days to come. The latest batch? A super easy, vegetarian chili with 3 kinds of beans, and lightly sweetened with pumpkin puree. My kids LOVED it. We had a total "clean bowl club" at dinner, so this one's a keeper. Plus the fact that you can have almost everything on hand in your pantry makes this a good one to keep in your back pocket.

First, I chopped the sweet potato and onion before my afternoon "chauffeuring" so the soup would be ready within a half hour of us rolling in from after school activities. When we got home, all I had to do was assemble, then sit back and relax for a half hour. I sautéed the onions and sweet potatoes, in a bit of olive oil, over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until the onions began to soften and become translucent.

Next, I added a 32 oz carton of Pacific Organic Soup Starters Tortilla Soup base.

Then, a 28 oz can diced tomatoes, including the juice. {Don't drain them.}

2 cups of frozen organic corn, a 4 oz can of mild green chiles (optional),

one can each of rinsed and drained black beans, white beans and pinto beans, and

two 15 oz cans of pumpkin puree were added to the pot. {I started with one can of pumpkin puree, and then decided that I wanted to chili a little thicker and sweeter, so I added a second.}

Give everything a quick stir, then cover with a tight-fitting lid, lower the heat and simmer the soup for about 20 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are tender.

 Done! So easy. {And the kitchen smells ahhmazing.}

This chili will freeze beautifully, which is good because you know that I like to make at least twice as much as we'll eat that night so I can stock my freezer... I cooled the chili down and packed some into generous single-serving 16 oz tubs and some into bigger 32 oz containers that we can enjoy on busy evenings or weekends to come. Here is the simple, delicious recipe:

Hearty Vegetarian Three Bean and Pumpkin Chili
makes 8-10 servings

2 Tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2" pieces
32 oz carton Pacific Organic Tortilla Soup Starter (4 cups)
28 oz can diced tomatoes and their juice
2 cups frozen corn
4 oz can diced chilies (optional)
one 15 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
one 15 oz can white beans, rinsed and drained
one 15 oz can pinto beans, rinsed and drained
one or two 15 oz cans pumpkin puree
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pot, or Dutch oven, saute the onion and diced sweet potatoes in olive oil over medium heat until onions begin to soften. Add remaining ingredients: tortilla soup starter, diced tomatoes (with their juice), corn, chilies, rinsed and drained beans and pumpkin puree. Give everything a quick stir, then cover with a tight-fitting lid, lower the heat and simmer the soup for about 20 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are tender. Serve warm. Soup will store in fridge for up to three days, or in freezer for up to three months. 

Serving suggestion: with a dollop of Greek yogurt, some pickled jalapeños, and a side of cornbread. 

Disclosures: the links to my favorite tubs for freezing soups within this post are amazon affiliate links. The pricing is exactly the same for you, but I earn a small commission when you purchase products via these links. {Thank you for helping to support recipe testing on the Full Plate Blog!} Also, as a food blogger, I was sent four cartons of Pacific Soup Starters to try. I was not compensated in any other way for developing this recipe, and purchased the rest of the ingredients myself. Rest assured that-- as always-- I only share recipes my family truly enjoys, and that are keepers!