Ten Bags o’ Dinner, One Hour, and Serious Savings

Two Men with long ponytails in the kitchen prepping food
My husband and son. Teamwork is so awesome.

My husband, son and I took about an hour to make dinner for ten weeknights.  Yep, that’s right.  We were able to do that in an hour.  How?

Well, certainly teamwork counts, but it is also because when we’re really busy and we rely on the crock pot most weeknights. None of us really wants to come home after a long day and cook, and all of us have busy days.

So we take an hour an prep a few Bags o’ Dinner on various weekends.  To make this go smoothly, what we will usually do is choose five recipes that we like and work well in the crock pot, then double them so we’re doing two bags of each.  Spend two or three weekend mornings doing that, and you’re all stocked up with an adequate meal variety for a long time.

Bowls of food and candles
The candles are because they help burn off the eye-watering fumes of onions. You can use a food processor to get around this as well.

When we decide on meals, I will often make a list of what goes in each recipe so that we can streamline prep work.  Ferinstance, every meal we chose to make had onion in it.  It just made sense to figure out how many onions those ten bags needed and do ’em all at once.  While this sort of prep work does use up all your various bowls to hold chopped and prepared ingredients, it makes it a lot easier when it comes to assembling those gallon freezer bags.

Ten freezer bags with meals in them.
Ten bags of food ready to have the air pressed out, flattened, and frozen.

Once everything is chopped, any hamburger is browned and drained (I tried it without the browning step once and found the meals far too greasy), you can start adding ingredients to the bags.  I go with heavy things first like beans or meat.  It helps the bags stand up and makes adding other ingredients much easier.

Ideally, I try to make meals with several ingredients all of them will have, so I would do a hamburger session, then a chicken session.  I didn’t do that this time, and just made two meals based on hamburger and three based on chicken.

Two flattened gallon bags with meals in them to be frozen.
Taco stew and white chili. Two family favorites.

Some people use crock pot liner bags and freeze their meals in the shape of their crock.  If that’s what works for you, I see no reason not to run with it.  I don’t do that, though.  I freeze my meals flat.  Since I don’t use a chest freezer, I need to be able to fit all the meals I make in the freezer on top of the fridge.   Flat works better for that.  I am very careful to label what we do.  After it’s frozen, you’ll have a devil of a time telling the difference between three or four tomato-sauce based meals.    Don’t try. Label them.

I usually take a meal out to thaw the night before, then dump it in the crock pot before work in the morning, turn it on low and forget about it until I get home.  Lately, if the meal needs to be served with rice or pasta, my son will take care of making that in time for his father and I get to get home from work.  If you don’t have someone to make these things for you, yes, a little prep work will need to happen before dinner.  Just not much.

So, how do these meals taste?

Two gallon bags with food, flattened and ready to freeze.
Spaghetti and Malaysian curry.

They’re good.  Are they like the most amazing gourmet treats you could possibly sink your teeth into? Of course not.*  Don’t be foolish.  This is basic, everyday dinner -peasant cooking that’s stewed all day, and that’s what it tastes like.  Then again, ratatouille is a peasant dish, and so are many meals that taste pretty damn good when they’ve cooked a long time.  If you insist on gourmet cooking every night, this is not for you.   This is your guardian against fast food because you’re too damn tired to cook.  This is when you don’t want to (or can’t) spend a lot of money on restaurants, but just don’t have the time to make something every night.  For my family, we really either do this or have a rota for who wears the chef’s hat that night. We’d all rather just take an hour and get it done than have to cook every third night.

Coq au vin in a gallon bag
Coq au vin. Don’t bother. This is the only time I ever made it and it totally wasn’t worth it.

People keep asking for recipes and the link has a couple.   But really, anything that works in a crockpot will work with this.  Some people say that potato-based recipes don’t work well when you freeze them, but my curry has potatoes in it and does great.  So does the beef stew we made last week.

However, if you need recipes or shopping lists, you can check these links out.  The taco stew came from one of them, though I forget which.  Happy hunting! 🙂


*Except for the curry.  The curry is awesome. 



No Wonder I Love Bento

It’s no wonder I love bento.

To the left was my lunch box when I was in 7th and 8th grades. I don’t remember if I asked or it or if my mom, knowing my tastes, just got it for me.

I loved this lunch box so very much. You could put a sandwich in it that wouldn’t be all squished at lunchtime, and there were these little containers you could put other food in — a salad (which I often did. I like salads), cut up fruit in the little container, but best of all, you could freeze a drink in the cup and have it be cold with slushy bits come lunchtime, even in an un-airconditioned Virginia June.

But I also loved it because it was a little gadgety. All the pieces fit into the box perfectly, and the tops seals so the food wouldn’t mix. I was a picky little heathen as a youngster, and would have found the food mixing in my bento of my middle age horrifying.

I was once pondering with my husband whether or not I would have made bento had I known about them when I was a teenager. I think, in the 1970s orange Tupperware goodness of my youth, I have an answer.

I would have made bento. I would have adored making them, been proud of them and found them just as much of a respite in the middle of a difficult day as I do now. In fact, I can recall those neatly-organized lunches and the pleasure I found in them quite clearly.

Truly, it’s no wonder I started making bento as soon as I encountered the concept.

Back to School Bento, Bento Back to Basics

These bento boxes were the family lunches yesterday, as my son went back to school for his senior year.

The rolls weren’t really sushi, but tiny onigiri rolls. Tasty as onigiri always are, but bite-sized. I suppose at some point this year, I’ll make a bento-friendly maki roll, but this wasn’t it.

The yellow box has hot dog octopi as the meat, per my son’s request. The other boxes have chicken bits cooked in garlic and wine.

Then, I filled in the corners with various raw veggies and fruits I knew the family would like.

Is this a particularly special bento? Nope. Just lunch, though hopefully moderately attractive and appetizing when one opens the box.

And that’s the point.

A friend of mine bought his daughter a bento box recently. His wife (also a friend, though we’ve not met in RL yet) was looking for bento recipes, which kind of prompted this post.

Bento recipes are fine, but to make bento, you don’t really need recipes so much as you need to have a bit of a philosophy about how to make the food.

So, here my personal bento principles. (If you like them, awesome. If not… I’m not cooking for you, and you’re dealing with your food, not mine).

  1. 4:3:2:1

    Like everything else, this is a basic guideline. My usual bento meal is about four parts carb (rice, bread or pasta), three parts protein (most often meat or eggs, but sometimes beans), three parts veggies (usually raw, unless I’m making a leftover bento) and one part sweet (this means fruit).

  2. Fresh is best

    Most of my bento use fresh veggies, preferably in season. Yes, I know apple season hasn’t started yet. But fresh veggies taste so very good, don’t they?

  3. Lots of color from the food, itself.

    I like a colorful bento, but I like the colors to come from the food. Bright red peppers, sweet yellow tomatoes, lush green broccoli… I’ve heard it said the more colorful your meal the more nutritionally balanced. I have no idea, but bright color contrasts make it easier to do the next step.

  4. Arrange it to look nice.

    Yes, the elaborate bento that are animals and rock stars and video game characters are awesome. I don’t generally go further than octopus hot dogs and apple bunnies, myself. But I do give a little (very little) thought to presentation. It doesn’t have to be much. Just try to think a little about symmetry, color contrast, and shape. If you do this, usually something will suggest itself to you as you arrange your food.

  5. It must taste good at room temperature.

    Ideally, one does not refrigerate or reheat bento. It behoves one, then, to go heavy on the salt and spices. There’s a reason traditionally-made Japanese bento are very salty! Salt is a natural preservative. However, cold chicken is tasty, especially if strongly flavored. Onigiri (rice balls) tend to be an acquired taste, but are all the better for a strongly-flavored bit of tasty morsel at the center. Pasta? You’ll want to use a little oil and flavoring to make something pasta salad-ish. You can’t go wrong with raw fruits and veggies. If you’re worried about food safety, Maki over at Just Bento has a great article about bento food safety.

  6. It should be food you like.

    I love onigiri and lots of other Japanese food. You may not. In that case, just don’t make bento with rice balls. It’s no big deal. Do you like burritos? A burrito is a great basis for a bento, and a big family favorite at my house. What about wrap sandwiches? If you make a wrap rolled tightly enough, you can cut it into slices kind of like maki sushi rolls, which fit great into any box you’d use for a bento box. (And no, you don’t have to get the Japanese boxes!) Any casserole type dish you’re fond of can be baked in a muffin tin, which also fit well in most bento-sized boxes – meatloaf, mini quiche, or a mini shepherd’s pie, they all do well in bento.


The point is, though, that making miniature lunch boxes, which by the way, if packed right really are filling, don’t have to be complex. Nevertheless, they can be a lot of fun!