When the twins started Baby-Led Weaning so too did my love of batch cooking! I know that it isn't for everyone and not all families have a freezer that is large enough, but it was a lifesaver in those early days especially on occasions when my parents would be babysitting or if we'd been caught in a traffic jam and were late home for dinner! Here are my top 5 tips for Baby-Led Batch Cooking:
1. Waste Not, Want Not!
Even if you're not intentionally batch cooking it can be great to keep any leftovers for a quick ready meal. Homemade ready meals are particularly beneficial when someone else is babysitting, you are too tired/frazzled to cook or if you are late home from a day out and want your little one(s) to eat something nutritious before bedtime. Batch cooking and creating homemade ready meals can be reassuring as you know exactly what your child is eating and that their food will be free of any unnecessary additives and preservatives that are often present in factory produced ready meals.
2. Variety is the Spice of Life
It is useful to bear in mind that in the same way that adults can become fed up of eating the same thing day after day, babies can also become bored and disinterested. Having variety in your stash of batch-cooked meals means that not only will it be easier to keep your child's interest, but additionally the variety of ingredients used to cook each meal will certainly broaden the nutrients that they are consuming. However, when first starting batch cooking for your Baby-Led Baby it can be a good idea to make basic staples that can be adapted into multiple meals. This will save you time and effort but also give you enough flexibility to create several "varied" meals from the same basic ingredient. Here are a few of my favourite of batch cooking staples:
Bolognese sauce made with vegetables, pulses or meat (or all of the above!) can be served with pasta or you can add spices (cumin, paprika, cayenne etc.) and beans to make chilli with rice or a jacket potato. Alternatively, mix the bolognese with spices and cooked rice before wrapping it in a tortilla with some avocado and sour cream/Greek yoghurt to make a homemade burrito (you can cut this into smaller pieces as appropriate for your child). I personally like to batch cook a vegetarian bolognese to give me more flexibility as I can then add whichever meat or additional vegetables I like (or sometimes tuna for tuna pasta which the twins love!).
Cheese sauce can be used on pasta or with vegetables (e.g. to make cauliflower or macaroni cheese) but be careful of the salt content in this for your little one(s). Perhaps try making your own (see our book for a basic recipe), be sparing with the cheese and refrain from adding extra salt. You can also mix vegetables, fish or chicken into it before topping with mashed potato or putting in a pastry case and baking to make a pie. Another relatively nutritious dish that you can make is eggs benedict by boiling some eggs and baking them in the cheese sauce with breadcrumbs over the top. Alternatively, try making potato or vegetable gratin by baking sliced boiled potatoes or your choice of veg in cheese sauce.
Vegetable or meat stews are perfect for batch cooking and very nutritious as you can pack lots of healthy ingredients into them. Serve your stew with rice, pasta, cous cous etc. or turn it into a pie by topping with mashed potato or baking in pastry.
Mashed potato can obviously be served as is or as a side dish but if you want to make it more exciting you can mix it with vegetables or fish and breadcrumbs before pan frying to make vegetable or fish cakes. Use your mashed potato as a topping to make pies or cover it in breadcrumbs to make croquettes.
Stewed or pureed fruit can be frozen and defrosted as needed to be used as a natural sweetener in yoghurts, porridge, cakes and other desserts.
(See our book for some basic staple recipes)
3. Portion Control and Food Containers
I originally bought branded baby food containers, but as your baby grows bigger then of course so do the portion sizes and this can get quite costly! Eventually I took myself down to the pound store (local supermarkets also often have good deals) and bought sets of plastic containers. I tend to favour the containers with clip lids as sometimes the lids can come off in the freezer if there is nothing to hold them down! Additionally, although we do have some circular containers at home, you may wish to opt for square or rectangle ones for ease of storage.
I started using small pots then gradually as the twins started polishing off that portion with no problem then I would move up to a slightly bigger pot etc. It is a good idea to ensure that the plastic containers you use are microwavable to save effort when reheating, but it has been said that some plastics can contain dangerous chemicals so you may wish to empty the food/portion into a bowl for reheating. It is also useful to check whether your containers are dishwasher safe (if you have one!) and BPA free before purchasing.
It is a good idea to freeze food in portion sizes suitable for your baby so that it is easier to defrost and reheat without having to hack to pieces a baby-sized portion from a family-sized frozen meal! (Freezing in portion sizes also helps to reduce food waste) However, depending on how much I have batch cooked I do sometimes freeze family-sized portions and also a few smaller, individual baby/toddler portions so that we will have something for both eventualities.
When using plastic containers for freezing remember that the contents will swell slightly when frozen due to the water content of your food so be sure to leave a little space at the top rather than filling your container to the brim (this will hopefully help you to avoid any leakages!).
4. The Freezer is your Best Friend
As mentioned above, freezing your leftovers, batch cooked staples and meals is a convenient way to keep your food fresh and safe until you need it. We have a larder-style freezer so I try to rotate the contents to ensure we don't have things stuck at the back for ages that go uneaten. However, (as Daddy W will profess) I do tend to throw tantrums as quite often the freezer is so full that every time I open it something falls out!
In the early days I even used to freeze pancakes (I would mix in stewed fruit for sweetness) and defrost/reheat them straight in a pan for the twins' breakfast! Tasty desserts like homemade rice pudding can also be frozen as well as snacks such as sweetcorn fritters (you can find these recipes in our book).
You'd be surprised how indistinguishable things can become once frozen so it is helpful to label your food before freezing so that you know what it is! Be sure to include the date on which you prepared it as ideally frozen food should be consumed within 3 months of the date that you cooked it. If you are using plastic containers you can get cheapish labels from the pound store or supermarket. Most food storage grade bags now have a useful section on the side for writing the contents and date on.
If you are using food storage bags to freeze your meals then try to squeeze out as much excess air as possible. This reduces the chances of freezer burn and additional water from the trapped air affecting the flavour, texture and freshness of your food. It obviously depends on what food you are storing, but I prefer zip lock bags as the seal is less likely to react to the cold temperatures in the freezer and become unstuck.
5. Defrost and Reheat Thoroughly
There are a few important facts to remember when defrosting and reheating your batch-cooked meals to ensure that they are safe to consume, but once you get used to these it will become second nature (for more detailed information on defrosting and reheating food, see this article from the NHS):
Make sure that your batch cooked food has cooled completely before you put it into the freezer (preferably within 2 hours of finishing cooking).
Ensure your food is reheated so that it is piping hot all the way through to kill any harmful bacteria before cooling it to suit your child.
Defrost your batch-cooked meals by taking them out of the freezer the night before and allowing them to defrost in the fridge. This will give them a better texture when reheated and also reduce the reheating time. Alternatively, it is safe to reheat (to a piping hot temperature) from frozen although the texture may be a little different.
Make sure that you reheat and consume any frozen meals within 24 hours of removing it from the freezer.
Once you have defrosted your meal, only reheat it once as the more times you cool and reheat food the higher the risk of food poisoning.
Never re-freeze meals that have been defrosted.
I'm sure that you will come up with your own routine and tips/tricks, but I hope that a few of these suggestions help you to claw back what precious time you have when caring for little ones!
(For more detailed information on the benefits, nutrition and methods of starting Baby-Led Weaning please refer to our book.)