Who Needs Lean Cuisine?

Note: I have nothing against Lean Cuisine meals, or any freezer-section meals for that matter. Not at all. I don’t buy them–even the healthy-ish ones like Amy’s–because they generally have one or more ingredients I don’t like (e.g. mushrooms! cabbage! peas! Alfredo sauce!) Well, you get the picture. I’m kind of picky.

But who needs store-bought frozen dinners anyway? Right this very minute, I have 15 entrees ready and waiting in my freezer–all containing only Cammy-approved ingredients. Of course, I had to make them with my own two (overly large) hands to ensure no wayward vegetables or spices (curry!) were included, but it was well worth the effort. And this from someone who’s not exactly smitten with cooking!

Batch cooking isn’t anything new to a lot of people, many who cook and freeze weeks or months worth of full meals (desserts included!) in a single marathon cooking session. Those folks are often cooking for families and many have one or more extra deep freezers to hold all the extra food. Usually, I’m cooking just for me, so one shelf is plenty of space.

Given my lack of interest in cooking, my freezer meals are very basic. In addition to some taco soup, I have a few lean hamburgers, a couple servings of barbecued chicken, some turkey taco filling (lean ground turkey, taco seasoning, green chilies), and what I call Mexican Chicken even though there’s not really very much that’s Mexican about it. Simple meals with few ingredients. Simple preparation, too. The chicken and turkey entrees were slow-cooker meals, and I made the burgers on my George Foreman grill.

Of all those, the Mexican Chicken is my favorite, both for its taste and its versatility. It’s my version of a recipe Sahar gave me some time ago.

Mexican Chicken, Cammy-approved
1 pound (or more, if you like it meaty) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 15-oz. can chili beans (kidney beans in chili sauce)
1 16-oz. container salsa (I usually use a locally-produced refrigerated salsa, but jars are good too)
1 4-oz. can of chopped green chilies

Dump Carefully layer the ingredients in the slow cooker and cook on low for 4 or 5 hours. Or if you’re in a hurry, like maybe you forgot you were supposed to be cooking it until early afternoon, you can cook it on high for 2-3 hours.

Remove chicken breasts to cutting board and use two forks to shred them to small pieces. A friend of mine dispenses with the forks and just pulls her chicken apart with her fingers. She says it makes for a more “rustic” dish. I say, who cares?

Before returning chicken to cooker, use a potato smasher (or your forks if you don’t have a smasher) to mash the beans (fun factor!). Then dump the chicken back into the cooker, stir it all up, and cook for another hour or so. Or until you get good and ready to eat dinner.

This usually produces 7 or 8 1/2-cup servings for me, with a calorie count of around 150.

There are lots of ways this dish can be served. Here are a few of my choices:
1) as is, with some side veggies (yawn)
2) on top of a salad of Romaine, tomatoes, and cucumbers with 1/8 cup of 2% cheese
3) in a wheat tortilla with a 1/8 cup of 2% cheese
4) as a sort of Mexican lasagna, with 1 six-inch corn tortilla, halved. Bottom layer is 1/2 the tortilla, then 1/2 the chicken, then the other tortilla half, the remaining chicken. I sprinkle a few sliced black olives and 1/8 cup 2% cheese on top and bake it in a 350° oven for about 20 minutes. Or until the cheese melts. I tend to forget it overbake it, but another tablespoon of salsa takes care of that little problem.
5) I haven’t prepared this one, but I can imagine this would be tasty as a filling for stuffed green peppers.

If you’re reading your ingredient labels (and if you’re not, you should start NOW) and watching the sodium content, you can serve any of these dishes with some yummy blue corn tortilla chips and salsa. If not, there’s good old celery sticks for dipping. (I’m kind of over celery right now, so I’ve just been going with salad for a side dish.)

I suppose you could also make this with your own homemade salsa and fresh green chilies, but as long as I can find good quality versions of those products already prepared, I’m taking the super-easy way out. :)

That’s my version of batch cooking, with a recipe at no additional cost to you. After being caught a few months ago with nothing for dinner in the house, I much prefer this version of the good ol’ TV dinner. It doesn’t take long to prepare any of these (duh!), and it’s much cheaper per serving than most of the frozen entrees at the grocery store. (The Mexican chicken is around $2/serving the way I make it, including the cheese and tortilla.) Plus, it removes the nothing-for-dinner-so-I’ll-have-to-get-a-pizza excuse. I haven’t decided if that’s a positive or a negative.

A few web references to batch cooking, for the more serious cooks:
Assembly Cooking for Newbies (Wisebread)
The Five Day Freeze: Batch Cooking for the Rest of Us (also Wisebread)
Batch Cooking and Freezing (Netmums)
Large size Recipes and Tips for Quantity Cooking (Ellen’s Kitchen)

Anyone here a batch cooking diva or dynamo? Please feel free to share any tips or lessons learned!

27 thoughts on “Who Needs Lean Cuisine?

  1. Loved this post. I’m not much of a cook. That’s why I look the way I do (too much dining out or picking up fast food). I love the idea of batch cooking. My husband does some soups and chilli for lunches but not too much for dinner. Thanks for sharing the links, this is something I will try out.

  2. Thanks for this recipe Cammy. I think I like version number 3) in a wheat tortilla with a 1/8 cup of 2% cheese. Sounds delicious.
    I’m with you on the Lean Cuisine meals too – a friend told me they base their low fat advertising on some pretty shonky science and if we really read the labels…anyhow I think you probably agree. Low fat food options are often not what they seem.
    So thanks for your much healthier and nutritious recipe. Look forward to adding it to my menu!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am definitely going to be looking into this batch cooking. We raise chickens and have a freezer full. Can’t wait to try your recipe!


    PS – I just really hate Lean Cuisine. Haha

  4. I love making my own freezer meals. Cheaper and usually tastier b/c I can control what goes into them. I just wish I had more time. *sigh* Lately, I’ve been “cheating” by buying batches of pre-cooked chicken and bean or grain salads at our hippie grocer’s deli. Still better than premade frozen, but I miss homemade.

    But now this Mex Chicken recipe seems pretty quick and easy to make. And would be great on some brown rice and slice avocado. *drool*

  5. Sounds yummy! My teen would never eat it since it has bean mashed in but I could follow your example and freeze it. I am not a good cook and I don’t like cooking, so I tend not to do anything like this. But in the winter I will sometimes put some soup in the freezer if the batch I make is particularly large. But my “best” dishes don’t make it that far!

  6. that recipe sounds good! i love the crockpot, i think it’s probably that time of year to get mine out again. and thanks for the links, i’m going to check them out right now :)

  7. I don’t really do whole recipes in advance for the freezer but I do things like cook up extra chicken breasts on the grill and then freeze them to use for salads and other recipes later. I’ll also cook up extra ground meats to use for sauces, salads, tacos, etc.

  8. I hate to cook; I love Mexican food. This one I gotta try out! And, any recipe with instructions that start with the word “dump”, that’s my style of cooking!

  9. That sounds really good! We do bulk cooking of certain things, like lots of chicken or brown rice. It’s nice to have those things around for quick meals. Even though I work at home, I sometimes am cooking dinner at the last minute. Go figure that one out LOL!

  10. Thx Cammy! I don’t do frozen meals & not a great cook either BUT I do cook multiples of things & put away for the week…. I am a bit boring but it works for me & I tend to look to mustards, seasonings & salsa & things like that to add on after I reheat…. I know boring but I am fine with it. Will check out your links!

  11. I just came across your health and fitness blog. Your article about marathon cooking was especially interesting. I especially liked your comments about making healthy meals and freezing them for weeks or months to come. I am adding you to my favorites. We’re in the same industry, the business of encouraging health and fitness. We market a product called The AbStand: http://www.theabstand.net. We would love for you and your readers to check out our ab workout product. Any feedback would be appreciated as well. Thanks!

  12. Yummy recipe. I shall have to try it soon. Speaking of reading labels… I was in the grocery store the other day reading the label on some chicken stock. (I didn’t have time to make my own.) A woman gave me a short shove and asked me to please read elsewhere, or buy the damned box of stock!!! Apparently, I was obstructing her ability to procure a case of Top Ramen noodle soup that was on special….12 for $1.99. Well, excuse me.

  13. I do “batch cooking” too. Especially since I have to send my Hubby off on Sunday evenings with 5 days worth of breakfasts and lunches. And there has to be a variety.

    And since I’m cooking for me too, low carb, I have to do different things for me. Funny you wrote about this today, but I was cooking thai turkey and taco meat for me, and thai chicken for hubby … part of what I planned for next week.

    Great posting. Thanks! Vee at http://veegettinghealthy.blogspot.com

  14. Yeah, since I like to cook, and there’s just me, if I cook something that ‘serves 4′ that is batch cooking. I love having stuff ready in the freezer, esp. for work days. The only thing I don’t like is that I sometimes get carried away and have too much food in the freezer.

    That mexican chicken recipe sounds delish.

  15. Awesome. W/ two kiddos, making dinner in advance saves us tons of time.
    We even have some businesses locally that let you come in and do it on site – for a nice markup.

  16. hmmmm…I want to do more batch cooking. (Tuesday night is going to be madness this year!) I’ll have to check out the websites. Your Mexican lasagna sounds intriguing! and my crockpot has been calling my name of late. (could be its loneliness…) 😉

  17. Great post. Batch cooking is tastier, healthier, more economical solution to highly processed frozen meals. Since I enjoy cooking, I don’t tend to keep cooked things in the freezer beyond homemade chicken stock, but it is a great time saver as is the crockpot. I love my crockpot. I have a similar recipe for slow cooker salsa chicken, but prefer to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I think they turn out more tender and less stringy than breasts.

  18. Thanks, Cammy. Recipe copied and pasted to my chicken file. Between you and Tami, I may have to start a Crock Pot file, too! I used to rely on Lean Cuisine type meals for lunches when I was teaching but they were not my friends–too much sodium. Now I have enough time to make ahead to use as needed. I love time.

  19. I’m a good cook, but I don’t like to do it! What does that make me? (Answer: Lazy.)

    I do the cook ‘n’ freeze for my family. When I make a roast beef or pork roast, I purposely cook large amounts to freeze the leftovers. Then, I have the meat entree for future dinners. I don’t eat much meat, but the two men in my household! The beagles, too. There is nothing they won’t do for a scrap.

    Also, cook ‘n’ freeze for spaghetti sauce with ground beef, and prepared taco meat.

    I admit to adoring Lean Cuisines and Healthy Choice dinners. When Sonny goes to college, buy some stock, because those will be my staples.

    On another subject, thanks for understanding about my “dismay” over being back in the office Habitrail. I hope you don’t have to resort to that; I believe you are investigating all avenues of avoidance, and I hope that works out for you.

    I am grateful to have a job! I don’t want anyone to think that I’m not. But, you know what “the office” is like. People with self-perceived creative minds are not good fits. Too much pretending to care about Form A, Co-worker B, and Boss C. What a waste of energy!

    Fifteen years ago, when I was a re-entry after taking some time off with Baby Sonny, my battlecry was “I don’t want to have to put on nylons and act like I care!”

    Now, it’s pretty much the same, except modern women in the office don’t wear nylons anymore! (If I wear a dress or skirt–rarely–no way could I skip the hose.)

    OK, gotta go. Sonny wants his pancake breakfast. I only cook BF once a week, so I’ve got to get into the kitchen.

    P.S. I prepared a delicious chicken and veggie stir fry last evening, if that helps my image.

  20. That sounds like a great crock pot recipe. I like how the beans are mixed in and ready to go! I do something like that with just chicken, salsa and taco seasoning mix. We love it!

    I like to cook a large amount so we have leftovers and I freeze things for future meals too. It sure comes in handy when I am running late or feel short on energy at the end of the day.

  21. I cook a lot and in batches! I really enjoy cooking, although I didn’t when I first got married. When I was obese I liked cooking desserts, but not real food.

  22. Yummm! Will definitely need to try this.
    Of course, now that I’m a proud owner of a food processor, I’m finding delicious recipes for a slow cooker – which I have yet to buy. Hmm. Sounds like that’s the next kitchen gadget I need to set my sights on!

    I don’t do much batch cooking because the bf’s weird about leftovers. He won’t eat anything made more than 24 hours earlier. Even if it looks and smells great. He’s just weird like that. So I tend to cook enough for a meal each and maybe leftovers for my lunch the next day. Though he might be okay with it if it was made then frozen in convenient meal-sized containers…

  23. I can’t believe how much I needed this reminder and great recipe right now! I’ve just been trying to plan some batch meals to make for my family. I just have to dig in and do it. Thanks for the inspiration!, and the links…

  24. I have some great recipes from a Pampered Chef Power Cooking show I did. You put all the ingredients into a freezer bag. You can put it out in the morning to thaw, then cook it when you get home. Or you can put the whole thing in the crockpot on low all day. There’s a similar Mexican Chicken recipe. Another good one is Taco Soup. I use chicken because I don’t eat beef.

  25. Hey Cammy, thanks for the yummy recipe. Just about everything I cook is batch cooking, but one of my favorite things is catching skinless boneless chicken breasts on sale. I’ll buy three pounds, cut it all up into pieces (size doesn’t matter as much as making them uniform, so they cook evenly), broil it with a little spray butter and basic salt and pepper, and then freeze it in a resealable container after all the pieces cool. This way I always have cooked chicken breast on hand, and I can usually scrounge up other stuff from the fridge, freezer, and/or pantry to make a full meal (which, I readily admit, may still be pizza — but homemade chicken pizza!). One note: I reheat what I need using the “defrost” mode on my microwave, because I have accidentally neared chicken jerky (not jerk chicken — chicken jerky, like beef jerky, only more chicken-y) on full power. Of course, I’ve baked chicken to a saw dust-like consistently in the conventional oven, too, so … . Anyway, I never said I was a good cook, just had a good batch-cooking tip! :)

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