Who doesn’t love lasagna? The layers of pasta, ooey-gooey cheese and bright, meaty marinara, covered in more cheese and baked to perfection. My children love when their grandmother or I make it. My daughter always requests it for her birthday and it has become a tradition for me to make it for my family on Valentine’s Day.
On the other hand, who has time on a regular basis to make a traditional lasagna? To assemble it correctly is rather time intensive — boiling the noodles, cooking the meat sauce, preparing the cheese mixture and then layering everything in a dish and baking for an hour. My family could eat this every month and never grow tired of it, however, I do not posses the time or desire to make it every month.
So I began making this Italian Casserole for them. It’s a dish I created in my early married days when time and money were tight. I hadn’t made it in years, but, in an attempt to bring something new to the table, I brought it back. The meal was received with high praise and whenever my kids see that I am making it there are shouts of joy (with exception of my 8 year old, who isn’t fond of anything cheesy). Better than that, the meal takes little more than 30 minutes to put together and 30 minutes to bake. You can’t get much better than that! Keep in mind that the ingredient amounts that I list will feed my crowd of eight plus some! You might want to adjust accordingly if you are feeding less than six people and/or don’t want a lot of leftovers.
- Start with two pounds of ground beef. (You could substitute one pound ground sausage for the beef for a more exciting flavor profile). Brown it and drain.
- Add 8 cups of your favorite spaghetti or marinara sauce. I have begun making my own, I will add the recipe for that soon.
- While you are browning the ground beef, boil 20 ounces of your favorite pasta until just tender, then drain. My favorite pasta for this recipe is penne, but you could easily use bowtie or rotini just the same.
- Now its time to gather your remaining ingredients. You will need: 6-8 cups of mozzerella and parmesean cheese, and 16 ounces of cottage cheese. You will mix these ingredients together with the pasta and meat sauce in a large bowl.
- Now that it’s mixed, all that’s left is to pour the mixture in a casserole dish, sprinkle some mozzerella cheese and parsely on top, and bake at 350 degrees for around 30 minutes or until bubbly. This recipe fit into an extra large 10×15 pan with some overflow into a 7×11 pan. After baking, I put the 7×11 in the refrigerator for an easy lunch the next day.
You know those days: you have been busy all day, dinner time is looming, and you have no idea what to make. You defrosted some chicken breasts to do something with but failed to figure out what to do with them. It is on those days that one of my go-to dishes is Parmesan Crusted Chicken. It is a dish that I made up one day with on-hand ingredients, it’s fairly easy and everyone loves it.
First, I make the breading. There are two methods: the completely from scratch method or the one-step method.
The From Scratch method uses:
- 4-6 slices sandwich bread (I use whole wheat)
- 1/2 cup Grated parmesan cheese
- 1 Tbsp Parsley
- 1 tsp Garlic powder
- 1 tsp Onion powder — approx 1/2 – 1 tsp of each
- 1/2 tsp Salt
- 1/2 tsp Pepper
Basically, I take the sandwich bread and tear it into manageable pieces and put it in a food processor. Then I add the other ingredients and pulse until I have a fine crumb mixture. Pour the breading into a dipping bowl. This method only takes about 5 minutes and is great if I have a bunch of heels or smushed bread that I would just throw away otherwise.
The One-Step method uses the same ingredients, but substitutes Panko bread crumbs for the sandwich bread. I just throw all the ingredients straight into the dipping bowl and stir to combine. I get to skip the food processor step altogether, which works great if I’m completely out of time. Sometimes, however, I just really like to make my own breadcrumbs.
In another dish I will crack 2-3 eggs and beat lightly, then place both dishes side by side near the stove to make the process smoother and less messy.
I buy chicken tenderloins because they are a perfect, manageable size — and by this I mean no cutting — a characteristic I completely adore! For this recipe I am using 3 lbs of tenderloins which will feed my family of eight perfectly. Dip the chicken pieces into the egg, then roll in the bread crumb/parmesan mixture. Set aside in the bowl until I have about 6-8 pieces then the cooking can begin.
I typically pan fry it in about a half-inch of oil for a nice, crispy crust. Heat the oil in a 10 inch skillet until it is shimmering. There will only be enough room in the skillet for approximately 6 tenderloins at a time so it will have to be cooked in batches. After lining the skillet with the chicken, cook until bottom of the chicken is golden brown and the sides are white, then flip. When the new bottom side is golden as well it is done, but you may temp it to 160 with a meat thermometer if you are unsure. Meanwhile, I will continue to bread chicken while the first batch is cooking.
This last time, however, I tried baking it to make it a bit healthier. I poured a thin layer of olive oil in the bottom of the dish then placed the chicken in the oil, turning it once, so that both sides have a thin coating allowing it to crisp up. Bake in a 350 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted in the center of the chicken reads 160 degrees. This method was good and less time-consumming as I could simply put all the chicken in the oven and walk away instead of standing over a hot stove. My teenage sons ate it up! My husband, however, stated that while it was good, it did not compare to the stove top version. “It just didn’t crisp up the same.”
Serve with some rice and broccoli or a salad and you have a delicious meal in under an hour from start to finish.
Update February 18, 2019: Fast forward five years since I originally wrote this piece. I still do a lot of the same meal prep as I was trying out at that time. I still write out all my meals for the month and then pencil them into dates on the calendar. I still buy meat in bulk and process it into gallon-sized Ziploc bags by the meal. Some of the prices and portion-sizes have changed, but the overall system remains the same. It is the best money and time-saving routine I have found to feed my hungry family of eight.
Figuring out and implementing daily meals is a regular battle in my house. After a full morning of homeschooling and lunch duty, I’m ready to get on to other matters than need my attention. The 1:30-3:30 time block is really my only free time to work on blogging and other non-school matters, but more often than not it has been necessary for me to use that time just to figure out what’s for dinner and prepare it. After I decide what to make, I then have to defrost and prepare all the components so dinner can be on the table before five allowing us time to eat before we have to rush off to our evening engagements. All of a sudden, my afternoon is gone! This insanity must stop! So I began a search for a better method, something which I talked about in my post on freezer meals. I am trying to become more organized regarding daily meals by doing much of my dinner prep in advance.
Like normal, I bought a months worth of meat on Saturday from Sam’s Club, my local warehouse store. Shopping like this saves me from having to go to the store all the time thus saving me time and money. To feed my crew of eight, I typically buy three 6 to 7 pound trays of chicken breast tenderloins (I like that the chicken is already cut into manageable pieces) for about $2.18/lb. I also pick up a ten pound roll of 90/10 ground chuck for about $3.50/lb. Then I typically pick up either a pork tenderloin or some other meat that is on sale. For all this I spent approximately $80.
On Sunday, I divided the meat into meal sized portions. The amount of chicken necessary to satisfy my family in a typical meal is three pounds. I used to eyeball the amount and place the approximate portion in gallon-sized ziploc bags. But in order to make my prep time easier and more accurate I have purchased a kitchen scale to use at times like this. So I place ziplocs on the scale and fill. I was able to get seven meals out of the chicken. I do the same for the beef, except we only need two pounds of beef per meal and it fits in a quart sized bag.
This time I did an extra step, however. I planned what I was going to do with the chicken! I had previously gone through my favorite cookbooks and found four marinades I wanted to use. One for a stir-fry, a southwest, a BBQ, and a spicy Dijon that we’re going to try for the first time. It took just as long to pull out all the ingredients and mix four marinades as it does to make one. I poured the marinades in the ziploc bags with the chicken and labeled it. Now when I pull out the chicken to thaw two steps will already be completed — figuring out what to do with the meat and making/adding the marinade to the already thawed chicken. It is actually marinading as it thaws, thus also saving me time. The other chicken will be used for non-marinaded recipes. Two of the books that I got these recipes from are: Fix, Freeze, Feast and Not Your Mother’s Make-Ahead and Freeze Cookbook. These have become favorites and are some of my “go-to” recipe books!
I wrote a list of all the meals I was planning to make with the prepared meat and then divided the list into days on my calendar. It feels good to know what we’re eating every day this month. Now that this is completed I’m hoping to utilize Sunday afternoons to prep all the veggies and other things I will need to go with each of the the weeks meals. Let’s see how well I do!
How do you keep the insanity of meal prep at bay?
The idea of freezer meals have attracted me for a long time. Having something already prepared waiting for me to take out and cook. I’ve messed around with it here and there, bought several freezer cookbooks, frequented many internet articles and blogs dedicated to the subject, but have been unable to successfully create a freezer meal plan that works for me and my hungry family. Here are two of the plans I have used:
I got this plan from the book Fix, Freeze, Feast by Kati Neville and Lindsay Tkacsik. With this plan you buy the bulk trays of food from your local warehouse club and make a triple recipe from it. Viola! Three meals in the time it took to make one! Just freeze, then thaw and cook when you’re ready to eat it.
Pros: The basic premise of this book, that it is a time and money saving way to feed your family, is very accurate to it’s content. It’s concepts are well presented and the recipes are, for the most part, very good. This book continues to be a go-to book for some of the recipes as well as the general principles of a good freezer meal plan.
Cons: As I did not have the freezer space, nor the money, to make meals that we were not going to eat within the month, we grew tired of eating the same meal three times in a short span of time. Also, there was one meal we absolutely did not like, yet there were still two more of them in the freezer! It felt like a waste of food, space and money. Luckily, we were able to pawn those off on a couple church potlucks — shhh.
Concensus: There are a couple of meals I have kept from this book like the Lasagna (a family favorite), and the homemade red sauce. But as an overall freezer meal plan — it is not something I have been able utilize to it’s fullest potential at this time.
Slow Cooker Freezer Packs
I purchased an inexpensive plan for 20 meals (or ten if you need to serve 8 people like I do) from a freezer meal website. I received a shopping list including everything I would need to buy, 10 individual recipes, the assembly line instructions, and Ziploc labels. It was really well organized. It was something I had never done before, and had been nervous about trying, but I was tight on time (and brain power) so I decided it was worth a shot.
I started early in the morning and prepped all the veggies and set them out on my counter. The program boasts that it is a two hour process after prep, but as the prep took me four hours I felt like it was a little misleading.
I then followed the instructions on putting the bags together. It was really simple once I got to this stage. And the packages all looked very pretty and appetizing.
Result: Pretty food that, unfortunately, didn’t taste as good as it looked. What I ended up with was a low quality dinner experience. Putting everything together raw like that, freezing it, and then throwing it in the crock pot resulted in food that had a rubbery texture and all tasted the same. I enjoy cooking good food and was embarrassed to serve these to my family. While we did eat them all, we were counting down the days until they would be gone. I also cooked several of them in the oven so they would have better flavor and texture.
Will I Quit? … Nope!
As a busy mom with a full-time job, that is home educating my six children in addition to my many other hats, I need to find a way to make the household chore of feeding my family every night less time-consuming. So I need a new method, one that involves meals that I already know my family likes. One where I get to cook my way, but with less day-to-day prep.
I already buy my meat in bulk at the beginning of each month and separate it into gallon ziploc bags in meal-sized portions. So why not go a step further and prepare a marinade to pour in each bag prior to freezing. Most marinades have similar ingredients so I can make several fairly simply. This will save me having to thaw the meat and make a marinade on meal day. Plus, I already know what I’m making with the meat! Believe it or not, this small thing takes up a huge amount of my time in the afternoons.
I have also seen where working women will prep all the veggies and other side dishes for the coming week on Sunday, saving them valuable time in the evenings and still allowing them to eat good nutritious meals. I get lazy because I am at home and therefore I can make dinner in the afternoon. But that doesn’t mean I should! If I think like I’m a busy woman, which I am, and I need to have dinner prepared early, which I do, then it is more likely to happen. Read my post on attempting an organized meal plan to see how I implemented this idea.
To that end, I resolve to have a kind of partial freezer meal plan. With some components frozen leaving the fresh ingredients to be prepped on the weekend. Most importantly, I just want to be more organized when it comes to meals. To have a meal plan for the week set in place on Sunday will be indispensable when it comes to saving my time and sanity!
How do you serve dinner to your family every night while still maintaining your sanity?