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Is it possible to have a balanced (healthy) diet if one only cooks once a week? I am talking about batch cooking, not eating lots of costly pre-made foods.

”Pre-made food” refers to pre-prepared salads, microwaveable dinners, and other similar foods, which are invariably expensive.

If so, how?

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    This is off-topic as it's about nutrition, and is also open to opinion. It's also extremely broad. – GdD Oct 1 '18 at 12:27
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    Whose definition do you use for a "balanced diet". How do you define "cooking" (for instance, is microwave and/or stovetop reheating considered "cooking"?) – Keeta Oct 1 '18 at 14:25
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    What is a "pre-made foods"? Is a can of peas and carrots considered pre-made? What about a can of gravy, or a can of stew, or a box of crackers, or container of lunch meat? – Keeta Oct 1 '18 at 14:31
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    @Keeta I assume OP means the pre-made ready-to-eat meals you can get at most grocery stores. Such as pre-made salads, or "adult" lunchables sort of things (with chesse, fruit, crackers, meat, etc). Those are all expensive options if used regularly. – SnakeDoc Oct 1 '18 at 15:04
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    I make no assumptions on the OP, and I based my question to OP on how vague the rest of the question is, I can't assume what is and what is not allowed. If I had the rep, I would ask the question to be closed as "too broad" or "out of scope". With how broad the question is, it could even be answered with something like "Find 6 friends and have each one choose one day for each person to cook for all of the others." I am trying to use comments to clarify the question, and unless you are OP, I don't see that we can assume anything. – Keeta Oct 1 '18 at 15:12
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The types of foods that reheat well are also quite suitable for being balanced in one main dish. Generally speaking, dishes with stuff in sauce freeze/chill and reheat well. So stew, curry, chilli, ratatouille etc. should work. Any of those can be made with plenty of veg, which is important if you're aiming for a balanced diet. An accompanying carbohydrate side can often be cooked in a similar time to reheating the main dish, so this doesn't need to be included (unless you want to of course). From the point of view of sticking to nutritional guidelines you can do much better this way than buying ready prepared stuff, and cheaper.

Freezing in single portions is important; I tend to use containers intended for takeaway meals. Freezing means after 2 or 3 sessions of cooking you've got a variety of meals. I tend to defrost in the fridge, allowing 24 hours.

Personally I batch cook about 5-6 portions most Sundays, but don't rely on reheating these every night. Quick simple meals (like a stir fry or an omelette) add a nice variety.

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    Often, you don't even need to defrost: just put the block of frozen food in a pan that's big enough for it to lie flat and use a low heat until it's melted. – David Richerby Oct 1 '18 at 17:17
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    @DavidRicherby, indeed, but by choosing the night before and defrosting I get to eat sooner! As a bonus it saves energy – Chris H Oct 1 '18 at 17:48
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    @Tim that's wrong I'm afraid. In fact it will help keep the fridge cool, reducing the electricity use of the fridge (consider a cool box with ice packs in). If you heat the house, you're right in that it takes heat from the air, cooling the house (in fact this applies to the fridge case as well, because the waste heat contributes to keeping the house warm). So you get into things like relative efficiencies. But if you only heat your house for a few months of the year the saving is real if small. Maybe I'll run the numbers later – Chris H Oct 2 '18 at 5:48
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    Did the same thing when I was studying, make 4-6 meals, freeze 4 of them and then just cycle through the last 3 cooking sessions frozen packs for variety. And even the de-frosting wasn't too hard, picked a weekend where I was able to cook two days and so was able to not have anything in the fridge for a day – Hobbamok Oct 2 '18 at 9:17
  • A quick calculation suggests that it takes ~0.03 kWh to get take a frozen meal (modelled as 250ml water) from -20 °C to 4°C defrosted. But that assumesd Energy use: 100% efficiency which we don't have on a stove or in a microwave (defrosting at room temp heated with a modern gas central heating system probably reaches around 90% marginal efficiency, but gets into food safety issues). So doing this 3x/week saves a grand total of ~5kWh/year, AKA next to nothing (efficiency and use of food as an ice pack in the fridge ignored, but small effects) – Chris H Oct 2 '18 at 11:45
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Yes - this process is often called "Meal Prepping".

Typically with Meal Prepping, you would prepare and cook dinner for the rest of the week - either by cooking something that can be portioned out into individual servings (chili, soup, casserole, crock pot meal, enchiladas, etc), or by cooking multiple portions of the same meal (chicken with rice and vegetables, etc).

There are entire cook books dedicated to meal prepping! Here's just one example:

The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook

For breakfast and lunch, meal preppers often take easy and quick items that can be portioned out for the week. Such as cheese cut into cubes, baby carrot sticks, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, grapes, crackers, etc.

One caveat that derails people from their meal prepping plans is the monotony of eating the same thing every day for a week. If this happens to you, maybe try food prepping twice a week, and prepare fewer meals. This way you can get a variety of food items, and keep a better variety of nutrients in your system.

For storage, I personally use the RubberMaid Brilliance collection. They have locking covers, can stack easily, are dishwasher safe (I'm lazy), and come in a variety of shapes and sizes - including "Bento" box style, and salad prep style.

Meal prepping can be a lot of fun, can be very healthy, and can save a lot of time!

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    @Demi Prep twice a week - that's what I usually do. Eating the same thing every day for 7 days gets old quick... Or prep on Monday and over the weekend cook normal meals since you're home anyway and have more time. – SnakeDoc Sep 30 '18 at 21:03
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    Freeze some. I like rectangular Ziploc containers. A little hot water over frozen container and the "brick" of frozen food will pop out. Then that fits into a rectangular ceramic Corning casserole dish which I microwave. – MaxW Sep 30 '18 at 21:06
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    With careful use of a freezer and portion-sized containers it's perfectly possible to have good variety and convenience. It takes a few cooking sessions to build up a decent stock in the freezer but after that it can be maintained on one session a week. I tend to make a big batch on a Sunday evening, and cook once or twice properly in the week, with the other dinners coming from batches. Sometimes I make a second dish as well, like a pasta sauce (not much extra washing up if you're making chilli/curry etc. at the same time) – Chris H Sep 30 '18 at 21:29
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    A mistake I sometimes make is to cook too much when the freezer is full. Eating the same meal 8 times in 6 days is a personal worst in that regard. – Chris H Sep 30 '18 at 21:31
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    @ItalianPhilosopher with the use of a freezer it's trivial, at least after the first couple of weeks. – Chris H Oct 1 '18 at 14:13
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I recommend a mix. Batch your sauces, soups, and protein. Put some in the fridge and the rest in the freezer. I will make noodles, cold sandwich, and salad fresh.

Chili and chicken thigh are my go to. On chicken thigh I crook with skin on and then remove the skin when cooked. Boiled eggs work on salad and as a snack.

I also clean the vegetables. You can get like 4 days in the fridge. You can get a week on some fruit like oranges.

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    Cooked chicken cut into slices goes wonderfully on salad or as a snack too. It can even be cold! – SnakeDoc Oct 1 '18 at 16:26
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There are a few very important key things to do, but yes it's generally possible. With some practice, it's even less wasteful (though not at first probably), and some could argue time-saving.

So, the first real problem to tackle is storage. You don't really want to store things in plastic containers. You want to favor glass or pyrex (soda ash) with a good sealable (plastic works well here) lid. Generally, you should avoid Rubbermaid or Tupperware plastic containers. If you do want to use plastic get the disposable kind. The main reason is strongly caustic foods (like tomato sauce) tend to "melt into" the plastic making them hard to clean, and very hard to remove that taste. Using glass, even if it has a plastic lid, removes that problem. As do disposable solutions, but those make a lot of waste.

Next is going to be storage. This is tricky. Avoid the freezer for foods that separate. Normally this is foods that have fruits or high water content. Honestly I never freeze (preference) but that limits me to about 4-5 days. If you freeze you can get longer (weeks I suppose), but I hate when the act of freezing changes the flavor of the food. Do not store at room temperature. At best you will get a day or two, and that can be pushing it.

Labeling is very important. You should label what the food is and most importantly when it was cooked.

Store like foods together. For example, if you make a ton of Penne (just the noodles) store the 10 pounds of pasta together. In one bowl. Save the mixing it in with the sauce for later.

You will have to experiment a bit for this one, but try to stick with foods that have simple textures. You don't want to store food that isn't right if it's a bit too soggy, or that is nasty if it's a bit too crispy. Instead things like corn, green beans, peas, chicken thigh or breast. Things that don't rely on texture much. Conversely, don't try anything that has a texture that needs to be just right. I find that sauces, soups, and stews work well. Crisp foods like salad do not.

Finally, for your own sanity. Don't stop eating out. It's easy to rely on the pre-made meals, but that means you miss out on relaxing or taking a break from the sameness.

  • I am scared of thermal shock with glass. Soup around 212°F on the inside, and water at a much lower temperature on the outside, doesn't sound safe. – Demi Oct 1 '18 at 19:25
  • I would be much happier if I could get true borosilicate glass, but I have no idea where to find it. – Demi Oct 1 '18 at 19:26
  • @demi: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/32571/… would seem to cover that – Foon Oct 1 '18 at 20:43
  • If you defrost gently (up to low power in the microwave) and reheat in a metal/pyrex/ceramic container then you can freeze in plastic with no trouble at all. I do this all the time with tomato-based sauces. Reheating many foods in many plastic containers is problematic (or putting them in really hot). – Chris H Oct 2 '18 at 19:58

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