We’ve all been there—sitting on the couch after a long day’s work and trying to summon the energy to chop up some vegetables or maybe make a salad. Sometimes you’re able to drag yourself to the kitchen, but sometimes you only get as far as the pantry, grab a bag of chips, and plop down for the rest of the evening with a vague sense of guilt and displeasure, trying to convince yourself that potatoes count as a vegetable.
Now imagine how your loved one must feel, especially if they live alone. If you haven’t read my article from a couple weeks back, “A Guide to Healthful Eating in Older Age,” I’ll sum it up. Eating right is hard, but as you age, a variety of factors make it even more difficult, including:
- Sensory changes
- Chewing problems
- Swallowing problems
- Financial limits
- Community resources
- Lack of knowledge about proper nutrition
- Lack of transportation or mobility
Cooking for or with your loved one is great, but the food only lasts for a meal, maybe two, counting leftovers. But not all is lost--there is a solution!
By making big batch meals or make-ahead freezer meals, you can help your loved one have healthy, tasty food ready for weeks to come! You may be thinking that your loved one will tire of eating the same thing every day. That doesn’t have to be the case! There are many ways to cook in large quantities while still offering the possibility of personalizing each serving. Plus, once you get the hang of it, you can keep a variety of different foods stocked in your loved one’s refrigerator and freezer so that they have options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
There are four major steps to cooking in advance.
#1: Choose the recipe and buy the ingredients
When cooking in quantity, the first thing to consider is your loved one’s personal preferences. Do they love Fettuccine Alfredo? Does brisket remind them of their childhood? Whatever their response, try to find a similar “healthy” version of the recipe online. There’s a high chance that someone out there has found a way to recreate your loved one’s favorite comfort food without all the added fat, sugar, and calories. Cooking Light and Eating Well have a large range of recipes to suit nearly any taste. On both websites, the nutritional information is listed below each recipe, and reviewers let you know whether they enjoyed the results. Sometimes low-rated recipes will turn out fine, but when I’m searching, I try to find recipes with 3.5 stars or higher. It can also be helpful to read the top reviews, as these comments frequently offer suggestions and tweaks that can make the recipe even better.
Cooking blogs are another great resource. Cookie and Kate focuses on nutritious vegetarian recipes, but don’t let the lack of meat scare you! Check out her post “25 Healthy Comfort Food Recipes,” which includes dishes like “Extra Vegetable Fried Rice,” “Italian Eggplant Parmesan,” and “Best Vegetable Lasagna!”
Another great resource is Love and Lemons, a blog co-written by a husband and wife that spotlights whole, seasonal food. You can even indulge your loved one’s sweet tooth with recipes like “Dark Chocolate Olive Oil Cake,” that replaces butter with heart healthy olive oil, “Soft Baked Vegan Sugar Cookies with Cashew Icing,” that uses a mixture of all-purpose flour and almond flour to give the dough a nutritional boost, or even “Walnut Pear Crisp,” that has a topping of rolled oats, walnuts, and a bit of brown sugar to draw out the flavors of the naturally-sweet fruit underneath.
#2: Modify the recipe, cook it, and let it cool
After choosing a recipe that you think your loved one will enjoy, the next step is to look at the serving size. Recipes can vary widely, from making two to twenty servings. Depending on the recipe, you’ll often have to scale it up to make enough for your loved one to enjoy for weeks to come. One way to figure out the correct measurements is simply to multiply all the ingredients in the recipe by 2, 3, or 4 (depending on how many servings you’re trying to make). You can also use this handy dandy calculator that will divide, multiply, or adapt any recipe with a single click. When cooking in batches, I aim to make 10-15 servings and adjust the recipe I’m using accordingly.
When modifying a recipe, it’s important to realize that the baking dishes, pans, and baking/cooking times will also change. This can take some practice. Sometimes doubling the pan size does the trick, but sometimes it requires a little more trial and error. Do your best, and you can always pour any leftovers into a smaller pan/skillet to cook alongside the rest of the dish. While cooking on the stove, be sure to keep an eye on the food, tasting occasionally, to know when it’s done. For oven-baked dishes, the recipe will often include a way to tell whether it’s finished, either by the internal temperature (using a food thermometer), a knife test (poking a knife into the center of the dish and seeing if it comes out clean), or a certain appearance (browned on the edges and bubbling in the middle, etc.)
#3: Store the food in convenient single servings
Once you finish cooking, there are a few options. First, serve yourself a plate and enjoy it while it’s fresh! Cooking for someone else is much more pleasant when you reward yourself for your hard work, plus sampling the dish ensures that it’s something your loved one will like. (If it isn’t, I know it’s frustrating, but don’t beat yourself up! If you like it, you can always save it for yourself, and if you don’t, consider donating it to your nearest food bank).
Now that you’ve finished eating, you have to decide on the best way to package and store the food for maximum convenience. One way, of course, is to simply throw the whole thing in a large Tupperware, bring it on over to your loved one’s, and put it in their refrigerator. But most of the time, this isn’t a great option. It’s likely that your loved one can’t eat that much food so quickly, and because it’s in the fridge, any leftovers will have to be tossed by the end of the week.
#4: Consider storing food in the freezer
For senior needs, storing food in the freezer can make life much easier. With many dishes, you can freeze the entire batch in a single container, but unless your loved one is having a party anytime soon, it’s pretty impractical.
Freezing in single servings is best solution. Pre-portioned meals will allow your loved one to pick and choose from the freezer and have a healthy meal ready in no time. No leftovers, minimal cleanup, and a chance to eat different things from meal to meal! Before packaging, the first thing you want to do, no matter the approach, is let the food cool to room temperature. You don’t want to put steaming hot food in the freezer, as it will defrost and potentially ruin all your other frozen goods. If you’re really in a rush, dump a bunch of ice in a big metal bowl, fill the bowl halfway with water, and float the bowl containing your finished dish on top (this technique is called an ice bath). Whichever option you take, after the food cools, there are numerous options to divvy it up into single portions.
Storage tips to make life easier
For baked goods like cookies, cakes, and muffins, the best approach is to cut them into normal sized servings (unless they’re already single-sized portions), and then throw them into a large ziploc bag with the name of the treat, the date it was made, and the defrosting directions (usually just moving them to the refrigerator 24 hours before consuming). For main dish and side dish recipes, single-serving-storage can be a little more complicated. Here are my favorite tried-and-true methods to make your life more convenient:
#1: Muffin tins
It may sound strange, but muffin tins tend to be the perfectly sized portions for older people. Spoon the food up to the top of each tin, place the tray on a level surface in the freezer, and let them solidify over night. Ideally, you have multiple muffin tins so that you can freeze the whole batch of food in one go. Otherwise, you can put the leftovers into a tupperware in the refrigerator and repeat the steps as soon as the tray is emptied. The next morning, take out your tray(s), let the food defrost fifteen minutes or until the sides loosen up, and then slide the portioned servings into individual Ziploc bags, one large Ziploc bag, or stack them in a Tupperware. You want the container to be as airtight as possible to preserve freshness, so squeeze out any extra air from your plastic bags and pack your Tupperware tightly to the top. Be sure to label the container with the name of the food, the date it was prepared, and the cooking instructions (coming up) with a sharpie and freezer tape for easy identification and preparation.
When your loved one is ready for to eat, instruct them to take one of the muffin cups from the container in the freezer, put it on a microwave safe plate, and pop it in the microwave until heated all the way through (often between 1-2 minutes). You can test out how long it takes a cup to reheat by doing a trial run at your house. Ideally, you can test it out in your loved one’s kitchen when you drop off the food, since microwaves have varying strengths. Then, you can write the instructions on the bag/Tupperware so that your loved one doesn’t have to guess!
If the food is something that tends to get soggy in the microwave (like frittata or bready casseroles), you have several options. Maybe your loved one doesn’t mind the texture (it never seems to bother me), but if they want to retain the food’s original quality, they can defrost a single serving in the refrigerator 24 hours in advance and then microwave on low power (3 or 4 out of ten) starting at 30 seconds and continuing with 30 second increments until heated through. You can also determine the time and temperature for reheating in the oven. I recommend preheating the oven to 300 degrees and starting with 10 minutes.
#2: Glass Mason Jars
Most people have some glass Mason jars lying around, and if you don’t, they’re easy to buy in bulk. Make sure to buy or use jars with the microwave safe symbol. Newer jars all tend to be microwave safe, but if you’re using older ones, be extra cautious. The advantages of using mason jars are their convenience, durability, and reusability. Simply spoon single servings of your dish into each Mason jar, leaving a bit of room at the top, since many foods expand as they freeze. Label each jar with freezer tape (as you did with the muffin cups), screw the lids on loosely, and then pop them into your freezer. Once the foods sets up (and expands to its full extent), tighten the lids and bring the mason jars over to your loved one’s kitchen.
A day before your loved one wants to enjoy the meal, instruct them to remove a Mason jar, place it in the refrigerator, and let it defrost for 24 hours. This is an extremely important step, as food reheated from frozen expand and cause a Mason jar to shatter while being heated. A day later, when your loved one is ready to eat, they should remove the metal lid, pop the jar in the microwave, and heat! Heating times may require a bit of experimentation, so if you have the chance, figure out the optimal time before bringing over the jars, or have a thawed jar ready on delivery so that you can determine the proper heating time in your loved one’s microwave.
Make sure to warn your loved one to take care when removing the Mason jar from the microwave, as glass gets hot when heated. Microwave-safe glass shouldn’t get too hot, but try it out yourself before delivering the jars to your loved one in case potholders are necessary. Once the food is warmed all the way through, your loved one can give it a couple of minutes to cool off and eat it directly from the mason jar or they can carefully spoon the contents onto a separate plate. Either way, mason jars can be thrown right into the dishwasher for easy cleanup, and you can recollect them periodically for the next batch!
#3: Ziplock Bags
The simplest of all freezer techniques, this method only requires freezer Ziploc bags, either quart bags or snack bags, depending on your loved one’s desired serving size. Once the food is cool, carefully spoon a portion into each bag, seal it most of the way shut, and then remove the excess air by pressing gently on the bag or by gently inhaling through a straw placed in the opening. Seal the bag completely, label, and then stack the bags in the freezer so that the lay flat and the food is spread evenly. You can freeze the bags in your loved one’s freezer or in your own before delivering them at your convenience.
A day before your loved one wants to eat one of the meals, instruct them to remove a Ziploc bag from the freezer, place it on a plate lined with a paper towel, and let the food defrost in the refrigerator for 24 hours. After 24 hours, your loved one can spoon the meal onto a plate or into a bowl and microwave until warm. For foods thawed in the refrigerator, I recommend setting the cook time between 45-60 seconds, removing and stirring, testing for warmth, and then microwaving for an additional 20-30 seconds, if necessary.
An online search will turn up even more tips and techniques for freezing individual portions. Ultimately, it boils down to your preference, the supplies you have on hand, and your judgment as to which reheating method will be simplest for your loved one.
Favorite healthy recipes
Below you’ll find some of my favorite healthy recipe resources for freezer-ready-meals. The advantage to using these types of recipes is that they often include specific reheating instructions so that you can avoid the testing phase:
This blog includes recipes that, once frozen, are ready to be tossed in the slow cooker, baked, grilled, heated on the stovetop, or microwaved. The wonderful lists of chicken marinades are especially great. If you freeze the sauces in ice cube trays, they can be used as a sauce for anything, not just chicken!
#2: Cooking Light
This site also has a great collection of freezer ready meals. They offer instructions on how to freeze, thaw, and reheat, so no guesswork required! Opt for the recipes with the least amount of work from freezer to plate, since the goal is to save your loved one the trouble of working too hard in the kitchen.
#3: Budget Bytes
This site’s “Top 10 Freezer Meals” is an especially great choice if you and your loved one have a limited grocery budget. However, make sure to watch out for excess sugar and sodium, and adapt the recipes accordingly.
The 37 Simple Freezer Meals listed on this website all focus on lightened-up comfort foods, making it the perfect resource for picky eaters who refuse to stray from their standard favorites.
Preparing food for your loved one may seem overwhelming or like too much of a hassle, but don’t knock it till you try it! Next time you have a free afternoon, start with one of the simpler freezer-friendly recipes and see what you can do! Cooking can be a great way to relax on your own after a long day. Open the window, put on some good music, even pour a glass of wine or enlist help from a friend. In an ideal scenario, you can recruit your loved one to help. You can bring all the ingredients and supplies to their kitchen, divvy up the tasks, and package the meals together. That way, your loved one will learn how to make freezer-ready meals on their own, and you can share a new and beneficial experience together.
Stay tuned next week for a primer on Food Safety. While make-ahead freezer meals require some cooling and defrosting, it’s important that foods always stay within a safe range of temperatures. Food-borne illness can be life-threatening for seniors. Educating yourself and your loved one on ways to prevent contamination and spoilage can make a huge difference!