Focus on Your Staples

Staple foods form a huge part of our diet and food bill. They’re the things we have on hand at all times, because we use them so much. If you focus on your staples when doing Meal Prep, you can have a huge chunk of your meals for the week taken care of. You don’t have to do it all at once, but you should aim to get one staple food cooked and portioned each time you do your Meal Prep. “So how do I focus on my staples?” you may ask. I have a few tips for you.

First and foremost, you need to take stock of everything you have on hand in your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator, and make a list of those items, with approximations of how much you have of each item if you want (for example, estimate how much cinnamon you have left in the jar). You can keep these lists on your computer if you want and update them as you use things up and buy new ones. There are also several good apps available to help you keep track of what’s in your pantry, fridge, and freezer.

From your list of things you have on hand, such as rice, pasta, frozen vegetables, etc., you can then formulate a Meal Plan or menu of things you want to make in your next Meal Prep session. All you really need to do is make a list of 4-6 things you want to make and portion out for the freezer. I always keep some kind of rice in my freezer ready to reheat because I eat it all the time. It doesn’t matter if these items are traditionally “breakfast,” “lunch,” or “dinner” foods either. Just make what you can (and want to) with what you have on hand.

You can use up any leftovers in a variety of ways. Casseroles and soups are ready-made for leftovers. You can (and should) set aside one night a week where you have leftovers for dinner. If you do a weekly Meal Plan, you can plan your meals around a theme/ingredient/flavor so that they will all go well together in making a casserole or soup with your leftovers.

Once you have your list of staple items, you’ll need another list for specific dishes you want to make with those staples. If you’re like me and you make a huge pot of rice every so often, you can portion some of it in recipe-size amounts to make, for instance, fried rice. You can also make the fried rice with a portion of your freshly made rice. Just cool a portion of it and make the fried rice, then portion that out and freeze it.

If lists aren’t your thing, that’s fine. However, you do need to come up with some sort of system for keeping track of what you have on hand and using it up in a timely fashion. In the food service industry they have a system called FIFO, which stands for First In, First Out. All too often when we go grocery shopping, we just put the new stuff away in front of the old stuff, or else wherever it’ll fit. Stop doing that; that’s the number one way things get lost in the abyss of the freezer, fridge, and pantry, which leads to most of our food waste. Instead, make a habit of putting the new stuff behind or underneath the old stuff, so you’re sure that the old stuff will be used up.

Having staple foods on hand, portioned and ready to use, isn’t just confined to freezer foods. You can also portion out shelf-stable items such as crackers, cookies, and dry cereals. My go-to is always the snack-sized resealable bag, because you can fit one cup of anything in it. Below are some staple foods most people have on hand, and how to store them in the freezer or pantry. If you’re not sure whether a food can be portioned and frozen, there are several informative guides available online.

Pasta: Cooked pasta can be frozen plain or with a variety of sauces. I portion my small or medium pasta shapes into 1-cup servings and put them into snack-sized resealable plastic bags. For long pasta such as spaghetti or fettuccine, you should portion it into a plastic or glass lidded container. Label and date the containers; put the small bags into labeled and dated gallon-sized bags (each gallon bag fits 6-8 snack bags). Freeze up to 3 months. There are a lot of blogs out there that tell you to undercook your pasta because it tends to soften over time in the freezer. However, I cook my pasta to al dente and have never had that problem.

Rice and Other Grains: Cook them as you normally do, and portion the same as for pasta. For hot cereals, spray a 12-cup 2½” muffin pan with nonstick spray. Portion the cooked cereal using a level ice cream scoop, which holds about ¼ cup. If you want to add any raisins and/or nuts, do so at the end by sprinkling them over the filled muffin cups and pressing lightly to adhere. To freeze, stack muffin tins with a cooling rack or sheet pan (sprayed if necessary to prevent sticking) between muffin pans. Do not use muffin liners; they do not freeze well and will stick to the food. You can freeze just about anything in a muffin pan, such as mini meatloaves, egg bites, and other muffin pan recipes you may have. After you’ve frozen the food for 2-4 hours, remove from muffin cups and place in labeled and dated gallon-sized bags. Lie them as flat as possible in freezer and freeze up to 6 months. Include reheating instructions on the label.

Fresh Vegetables: Slice or chop the vegetables however you want, depending on how you normally use them for cooking. Spread them in a single layer on 1” deep cookie sheet lined with parchment; freeze 2-4 hours. Remove from sheet and portion into recipe-sized amounts (e.g., 1 cup chopped onion). Freeze up to 3 months.

Whenever you trim fresh vegetables of any ends, skins, etc., save those pieces. Put them into a labeled and dated gallon-sized bag (write a date that is about 3 months after the date you begin filling the bag, like “use by May 1, 2022”). Continue adding to the bag until either it is full, or you’ve reached the use-by date. You can use these odds and ends to flavor homemade stocks and broths. For added flavor and color, you can sauté or roast the veggies until they caramelize and soften somewhat.

Frozen Vegetables: Place a colander inside a larger bowl; put one kind of frozen vegetables into the colander and let thaw a couple of hours. Any liquid will drain into the bowl; save it. Fill desired size container or resealable bag and freeze up to 3 months. If you’re doing a few different kinds of vegetables, rinse the colander out before you start with another vegetable, keeping the other vegetables out on the counter in their bags to start the thawing process. You may or may not want little bits of broccoli in your carrots! You can combine any accumulated liquid from all the vegetables in a small freezer-safe lidded bowl and freeze it, adding more as needed; thaw it and use it as a portion of the cooking water for pasta or rice to give it added flavor. Side note: You should also save any liquid from canned vegetables in the same manner.

Fresh Fruits: Wash and pat the fruit dry with paper towels; for larger fruits such as apples, peaches, etc., slice or chop and toss them in lemon juice to prevent darkening (this will not affect the overall flavor of the fruit very much if at all). Portion into desired size container or resealable bag and freeze as for frozen vegetables. You can make smoothie packs, too. Chop and measure your fruit as usual and portion into bags or containers. Freeze as above.

Meats: One pound of any kind of meat, when cooked, is going to yield about two cups ground, chopped, shredded, etc. A resealable sandwich bag holds two cups. Cook your meat as you wish, with or without seasoning, onions, etc.; cool briefly and portion by 2-cup amounts. If you want whole pieces of meat, such as chicken breasts (cooked or raw), cool them briefly if cooked. Take those fold-close sandwich baggies and turn them inside-out. Put one hand into the inside-out baggie and grasp the piece of meat; with your other hand, pull the baggie right-side-out and around the meat. Tuck everything in. Put up to twelve pieces of meat (depending on the size of individual pieces) into a labeled and dated gallon-sized bag and freeze up to 6 months.

You can freeze your deli meats and cheeses as well. Amazon has several kinds of burger patty papers available. They’re sheets of waxed or parchment paper that are about five inches or so square, and they typically come in boxes of 1,000, so it usually takes forever to use them up. Place your deli meat and/or cheese slices between two sheets and put into a resealable sandwich bag. Put them into a labeled and dated gallon-size bag and freeze up to 2-3 months. They take about an hour to thaw on the counter, but you can also transfer a few at a time to the fridge to make your sandwiches for the week.

If you buy things such as hot dogs or small sausage links or patties in bulk, put one or two into a snack or sandwich bag. Chicken tenders can also be portioned this way. As with vegetable odds and ends, save any bones and other things you trim from your meat. Roast everything for color and flavor (and to remove any impurities) before making a stock or broth.

Breads: Breads do very well in the freezer; not so much in the refrigerator. Many people don’t know this, but putting your bread in the refrigerator hastens the staleness. The exceptions are tortillas, bagels, and English muffins. Portion your sliced breads by two slices at a time, which is perfect for sandwiches. Put them into resealable sandwich baggies and then into a labeled and dated gallon-size bag. Freeze up to 3 months. Bread takes a very short time to thaw on the counter, only about an hour or so. You can take your bread pack out of the freezer at the same time as your deli pack, before you get ready for work or school. When you go to make your sammy, everything’s ready. You can also make whole sandwiches, minus the condiments and veggies, and freeze them the same as you would the bread. PB&J can be made and frozen as well.

Garlic bread or Texas toast can be made ahead of time and frozen, too. Buy Texas Toast Bread, which is a regular bread item found in the bread aisle. Soften unsalted butter until you can stir it with a fork. Add whatever seasonings you want and mix well. You want to use unsalted butter because then you can control how much salt you have in the finished product. You can make these kinds of butters, called Compound Butters, any time for any use; shape them into a log, wrap them in waxed paper and then foil, label them, and keep them in the freezer until you’re ready to use them. Keep them in the fridge the same as your regular butter while you use them. They can be sweet or savory, and the varieties are endless. Spread the butter over each slice of the bread and place a patty paper over the butter. Put them into resealable sandwich bags and then in labeled and dated gallon bags. You don’t need to thaw them before toasting them. Heat a skillet or griddle over medium heat and remove the patty papers. Put the bread butter-side-down in the pan and toast a few minutes. You can probably also put the slices into your air fryer; I just haven’t tried it yet.

Muffins, Quick Breads, and Other Home Baked Goods: Bake your favorite muffin, quick bread, cake, or brownie recipe and let it cool completely. Slice bread loaves or leave them whole; leave brownies unfrosted and slice into squares. Leave cakes unfrosted; if you want to frost it later, wrap the whole cake (or individual layers) in plastic wrap and then foil. Label and date foil. Place individual muffins, slices of cake or bread, or brownie squares into sandwich bags (either fold-close or resealable) and then in labeled and dated gallon bags. Freeze up to 3 months. Leave on the counter to thaw before eating or assembling and frosting the cake.

Cookie dough does really well in the freezer. There are a few ways you can portion your dough for the freezer; regardless of which way you do it, always include the baking instructions in the label. You can portion your dough into balls and place them about 1″ apart onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet; freeze 2-4 hours. Remove balls from sheet and place in quart or gallon bags by the dozen or two; return to freezer and freeze up to 3 months. To make portioning the dough easier, use a scoop (see my post “Disher, Disher, Who’s Got the Disher?”). A level 1″ scoop will make approximately 2″ diameter cookies; a 1½” scoop will make approximately 3″ diameter cookies. Place cookies on a parchment-lined cookie sheet to thaw before baking; you may need to add a minute or two to the baking time if the dough is colder than it normally would be if you made the dough fresh.

You can also form most cookie doughs into a log (you may have to divide larger recipes into smaller portions first). Form the dough on a lightly floured surface, making it as uniformly shaped as possible; flatten the ends. Wrap in parchment or waxed paper and then foil. Label the foil, including baking instructions. Freeze up to 3 months. Thaw dough in refrigerator at least overnight. Slice log to desired thickness and place cookies on parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake as directed, adding a minute or two if needed.

Another way to portion cookie dough for the freezer is to weigh smaller portions and put them into lidded containers. Label and date the containers with baking instructions. Thaw the dough in the fridge at least overnight, then scoop or spoon the dough onto parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake, adding a minute or two if needed.

Dairy: Some dairy does well in the freezer, some doesn’t. Milk can be frozen indefinitely, according to some sources. Cheese does well, too. I save the rinds of my hard cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano, or Asiago; they can be used to flavor anything you’re boiling or simmering. Remember to remove and discard the rind when the food is done. Cream cheese and sour cream have a tendency to separate and curdle in the freezer, so be careful with them. You can save milk that has gone slightly sour. Portion it into recipe size amounts (usually a cup) into lidded containers. Any time you have a recipe that calls for sour milk, thaw the needed quantity in the fridge at least overnight. Remember to have all of your refrigerated ingredients at room temperature for some baking. Discard any unused sour milk after about a day or two in the fridge.

Eggs can be frozen, either raw or cooked. It’s always best to keep whole eggs whole and in the coldest part of the fridge, which is the center. Never, ever, ever use the egg container that comes with most refrigerators. These containers, while certainly convenient, are usually meant to be stored on the door shelf, which happens to be the very worst place to store fragile, perishable things such as eggs or milk. Think of it: You open and close your fridge door several times every day. This exposes the foods kept on those shelves to the ambient temperature and air, which hastens spoilage. Limit the items on your door shelves to things that don’t spoil as quickly, such as condiments, butter, cheese, or beverage bottles, cans, and boxes.

Scramble however many raw eggs you want to freeze. Portion the mixture by ¼ or ½ cup into plastic or glass lidded containers; ¼ cup is approximately equal to one large egg. Freeze up to 2 months. For cooked eggs, there are a few different ways to freeze them. I like to make breakfast sandwiches or burritos sometimes. I have an automatic breakfast sandwich maker which cooks the eggs to desired doneness, anywhere from about a minute and a half to five minutes; I time it for 4½ minutes. I freeze the sandwiches or burritos in sandwich baggies inside gallon bags up to 3 months.

You can make casseroles or breakfast bowls, too. If you want to freeze a whole casserole, do not bake it first; unbaked casseroles almost always do better in the freezer. Baked casseroles can be portioned and put into lidded containers. To make a breakfast bowl, cook each ingredient, such as potatoes, meats, or veggies, separately, or mix them all together if you want. Always start with the items that take the longest to cook, then work your way down; the eggs are cooked last. If you’ve cooked each individual ingredient, transfer each item to a large bowl as it’s finished and toss them all together. Portion mixture into 1- or 2-cup servings into the containers. Label and date the containers, and include reheating instructions. Regardless of how you do your eggs, they should never be frozen more than 3 months. They’ll get watery if you leave them frozen too long.

Shelf-Stable Foods: Things such as crackers, store-bought cookies, and other shelf-stable snack foods can be portioned and kept in baggies or lidded containers in the pantry for up to two months. I can never say this enough: One cup is a very good-sized portion for a lot of foods. I portion things such as dry cereal, goldfish or oyster crackers, or pretzel twists into snack bags in 1-cup portions. Chex Mix is good for this, too, but I’d stay away from popcorn; it goes stale too quickly. Portion larger crackers such as saltines or thin wheat crackers by the count, however many you want or can fit into the snack bag. Don’t portion graham crackers this way; they will go stale quickly.

You can also portion uncooked rice or other grains, beans, lentils, or small pasta shapes in 1- or 2-cup portions. For rice and other grains, however, I’d actually weigh it. One pound of rice is just a skosh over two cups, so half a pound of rice will fit into a snack bag. Besides, weighing your rice for cooking is more accurate than measuring in cups; when you go to cook the rice, keep the same amount of water per cup of raw rice indicated on the package. Store these foods 2-3 months in the pantry.

I hope this list of staple foods is helpful and informative. If you have any questions or suggestions, let me know in the comments below!

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