What can I add to my Modular Meal System™?
January 9, 2012 4:00 PM   Subscribe

What can I add to my Modular Meal System™?

I'm disabled, and live on VA compensation, so for a while now I've been trying to simplify my foods so I can still eat healthy stuff but also make it cheaper and less demanding pain-wise. So I've done stuff like cook a bunch of chicken breasts, cut them into little cubes, and then have a container of chicken in my fridge that I can add that to a cold salad or put on pre-cooked rice and throw it in the microwave for a couple minutes. I was using one of those George Foreman grills to cook the chicken, it was too hard on my back to tend it; because of that I've switched to buying pre-cooked meats, like the cooked turkey breasts that my local Costco has, which are still affordable and not too processed.

This ramped up a couple weeks ago when I found some neat rectangular four-cup containers that are just big enough for a lot of things. They also fit much better in my smallish fridge. Before where I would have a much larger container of brown rice that I had made in the crock pot, now I have a bunch of little containers that are a perfect size for the smaller bowls I have. I also found cans of corn and peas in the beat-up discount section, mixed those together, and put them in the containers. Right now I'm eating half a container of brown rice mixed with half a container of the corn and peas with chicken and teriyaki sauce on top.

So, what else can I throw into the mix that's easy to prepare (the crock pot has been great for this), stores well in the fridge, but is also healthy? Here's what I've got so far:

- salad mix (romaine, spinach, some cabbage)
- brown rice
- whole wheat pasta (whatever's on sale, cooked and then coated in olive oil so it doesn't stick together in a lump in the fridge)
- mashed potatoes
- cubed turkey breast
- the corn/peas mix

I also have smaller more snacky options like an apple and a banana for breakfast, or a handful of peanuts, peanut butter on a piece of wheat bread, a fiber/protein bar, depending on how hungry I am. Drinks I keep around are water, nonfat milk, orange juice, and Arizona green tea.

I like whole wheat/grain types of foods, but haven't had much luck with most vegetables in the taste category. I'm still willing to try any suggestions, as I might be letting my childhood tastebuds speak for me.

Please, go wild, I'd like to hear any ideas you have on any part of what I'm already eating or should try, or different methods, or whatever. Thanks!
posted by Evilspork to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I don't know how much chopping or standing you can do, but roasted cubed sweet potatoes, and roasted cut-up broccoli or cauliflower are delicious. You cut 'em up, toss with olive oil/salt/pepper, and roast in 350-ish oven until they're carmelized. They last well and are good hot or cold. And roasted broccoli does not (to me) taste like steamed broccoli - its not completely dissimilar, but there's a sweetness and a...brownness to it that make it even more delicious.

Ditto for roasted brussel sprouts - halve them, toss with olive oil etc. and roast on a cookie sheet. Don't crowd them too much or they'll steam instead of roast.
posted by rtha at 4:07 PM on January 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Putting in another vote for roasted veggies, although I do them at a higher temperature (around 400).

If the chopping is too much work or the fresh vegetables are too expensive, this is really not bad done with frozen vegetables (if I am pressed for time I will dump a bag of frozen cauliflower in a roasting pan with some oil and roast until tasty). It's a little waterier than if you use fresh cauliflower but not bad at all (haven't tried this with frozen broccoli or frozen sprouts).

How do you feel about beans? Black beans mix well with rice (corn, rice, and beans with salsa: a tasty combination!), you can put them in a salad, etc. Chickpeas are also good in salad, or tossed with pasta (and you can roast them and make them crunchy).
posted by mskyle at 4:16 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another vote for roasted veggies. My favorite is roasted beets; wrap 'em in foil and roast for, oh, 45 minutes or so, until they're tender? Chop them, and either add to a salad or eat by themselves with vinaigrette. They last in the fridge much like your cubed chicken does.

Also, quesidillas work well with your cubed chicken, frozen corn, jarred jalepenos (one jar in the fridge lasts forever), tortillas, and Mexican shredded cheese. The jalepenos and cheese can add flavor to any of your other meals as a garnish. I find tortillas from Trader Joe's hold up pretty well in the fridge for me. Assemble, flip once, eat.

I also find black bean stew freezes really well, and it'd go well with your rice.
posted by pie ninja at 4:26 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Beans? They're cheap and easy to make in a slow cooker. Lentils + cauliflower + bay leaf + water cooked to mush is pretty delicious.

Other proteins? Tuna salad? Eggs? You can hard-boil eggs in the microwave if the stove is too hard.

Other grains? Barley and oatmeal are both pretty great. Savory oatmeal rules (spinach + protein stirred in?). Wheat berries are tasty if you can get them. Six inch corn tortillas are cheap and you could warm them pretty quickly in the foreman, which makes them much nicer. I tear them up and eat with them ala taco salad or make quesadillas.

For veg, I often buy a bag of cole slaw mix and eat it with salad dressing. Cheaper than salad mix, if a little less nutrient-packed. Sweet (red/yellow/orange) bell peppers are spendy but might be an attractive "gateway vegetable". Salsa keeps forever in the fridge and is a tasty vegetable.
posted by momus_window at 4:30 PM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: If you'd rather not buy pre-cooked meat (I have trouble fitting that into a tight budget), it's really easy to braise large pieces of meat in your crockpot. It goes right on top of whatever else you have there, dripping delicious juices onto everything below. Pork shoulder and pork country ribs are good for this, as are beef briskets, eye round, bottom round, and tri-tip.

If you're up to mashing potatoes, colcannon is an easy way to get more vegetables. Just chop up a bunch of kale, steam it, and mix it into the mashed potatoes. I like to use quite a bit of kale and very little potato, just enough to bind everything together. The dutch version is stamppot, potatoes and peas mixed together.

On preview, yes, lentils are great. Lots of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates, though you'll need to add some oil or a ham hock for the fats. I often use bacon ends, which are cheaper than rashers and come already cut up into small (albeit irregular) pieces.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:41 PM on January 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: ...roasted cubed sweet potatoes, and roasted cut-up broccoli or cauliflower are delicious.

Sweet potatoes are something I've been meaning to try, I'll look into that one. I favor crispyness so I'll try the higher heat like mskyle suggested.

How do you feel about beans?

It's weird, I love the smell of beans, or chili, or roasted coffee, but can't stand the taste of any of them. I do like hummus'd garbanzos, though. I haven't tried whole ones in my salad yet, would you suggest canned or dried and cooked? Do they even sell fresh ones? I've never looked.

My favorite is roasted beets... quesidillas work well with your cubed chicken...

Beets are kind of one of those ur-vegetables that in my head are destined to be gross. It doesn't help that they're tied to a scene in one of the Ramona books where she found a huge beet on her way to school, got all dirty digging it out, was late for class, and for the rest of the day was covered in mud and beet juice. So anyway, I'll try beets. I generally avoid buying cheese, because I end up using it in everything and eating extra quadrilles or taquitos or garlic cheese bread, so yeah.

Eggs? ... Sweet (red/yellow/orange) bell peppers... corn tortillas in the foreman...

I can't stand any kind of solo egg dish. They HAVE to be in pancake mix or something. The taste isn't that bad, but the texture of any kind of prepared egg is barf. My brothers absolutely love bell peppers and olives, but I've never liked them. The tortillas sound like a good idea, I saw some frozen ones at Costco the other day.

My pain stamina is generally 10-15 minutes of standing, if I can lean on the counter while I work, less if I have to move back and forth from counter and oven or whatever, longer if I push myself. No specific activities are difficult (like chopping), just the standing/walking/moving around. Then I have to sit and rest for about an hour, more if I had to push. When I'm doing chores around the house I do those bursts of cleaning or organizing interspersed with resting. I can usually get in 3-4 bursts a day, depending.
posted by Evilspork at 4:46 PM on January 9, 2012

The cool thing about roasted beets is that you don't need to peel them first. Just quarter and roast in foil as suggested above. When they're done, the skins slip right off.
posted by ottereroticist at 4:50 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: ...colcannon is an easy way to get more vegetables.

That sounds pretty good, I was putting kale in my salad mix a while back, but had to buy the big heads of it and chop it, and I'd always end up with extra that was wasted. Putting it in the mashed taters would be pretty great.
posted by Evilspork at 4:51 PM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: Do you also have a freezer?

Your crock pot setup sounds perfect for making stews and soups. Since the stew would simmer for a while, you have a good amount of time to rest after the initial prepping. Once you're done, just portion out the servings, freezing what you won't eat in the next few days. When you're ready for a meal, just heat up real quick on the stove.

When I make my stew, I tend to use things like canned mushroom soup, chicken stock, lentils, barley, assorted veggies, etc. Very little prep involved. I'll use potatoes, too, though they get a bit mushy after going through a freeze cycle. If you have the energy to brown stew meat (it's usually already cubed for you), it makes a great addition (plus a little goes a long way).

Another idea -- If you already have rice and chicken and the other veggies, you can expand your palette by making a sauce/curry and storing in one of the containers. There are many delicious yogurt curry sauces that do well chilled and are extremely easy to prepare.
posted by Wossname at 5:13 PM on January 9, 2012

Response by poster: My fridge isn't one of those miniature college ones, but it's definitely not a full size one. Because of that, the freezer in it isn't that large, and is mostly taken up by ice cubes, OJ cans, and some other random stuff. I've been thinking about getting a small chest freezer, but... money.

If it's a frozen portion, how long does it generally take to heat up?

And curry is yet another thing I've been wanting to try.
posted by Evilspork at 5:20 PM on January 9, 2012

I only roast my veggies at a lower temp because I might sometimes forget about them, and there's a bright line between "crisp" and "burnt, ick." Either way, keep an eye on them! And then eat them nomnomnom.

Oh, and you can toss the cauliflower with some curry powder (also chili powder, etc) before you roast them. Also delicious. Toss with crumbles of feta when still hot and again, delicious!
posted by rtha at 5:28 PM on January 9, 2012

For what it's worth, I don't have pain or mobility issues, and I often cook somewhat this way. "Modular" food is great; I do it by cooking up largish quantities of meat (like a potroast, say) and then using the freezer to store small portions of the meat alone as well as mini-meals using the meat (like risotto with the potroast, say). It's a super efficient way to cook, and it means that you never have the "there's nothing to eat in the house!" problem.

But what makes it work is having some freezer space -- there's no way to do this with a fridge alone without getting tired of the little meals. What's great is having a chest freezer full of tasty little meals and meal parts, so meal prep is as simple as opening it up and grabbing something yummy. (Key detail: clearly label and date every container; otherwise, it is a total disaster.)

If it's a frozen portion, how long does it generally take to heat up?

If you put the frozen container in the fridge in the morning, it will be mostly thawed by dinner time (taking it out of the freezer the day before is even better, but that takes a level of planning ahead that I don't always have) and ready to toss in the microwave. Easy peasy.

Regarding the vegetable question, I tend to buy bags of frozen vegies when they are on sale, because this way I waste almost nothing and there is always a good selection in my freezer. Open a bag of frozen vegies, take out the amount you need for dinner, and put the rest back in the freezer for later. No prep, no fuss, and no waste. (And at 78¢ per bag on sale, pretty much no cost, either.) Working from fresh vegetables is fun, but the bags of frozen mean that I eat more vegies, especially on work nights, than I would otherwise, honestly.
posted by Forktine at 5:31 PM on January 9, 2012

Just thaw your frozen portion in the fridge. Usually by overnight, it's thawed enough where you can warm it up just like normal soup, probably 5-7 min. So, keep a few portions in the fridge for starters, and when you eat one, just transfer one over from the freezer.

If buying ziplock bags isn't too wasteful for you, they are a good way of freezing portions when you have awkward freezer space. Tip: freeze your portions after they have cooled a bit. (So, you can eat your first serving warm, right from the crock pot, have a rest, then divvy up what's left.)
posted by Wossname at 5:32 PM on January 9, 2012

Oh, yeah, you can just microwave your portion if you want to do that, derp.

If you have a friend who can help you every now and then, there is an entire school of food prep called "once a month cooking" you could research (it's very popular among frugal types, to boot). While some of the recipes are a bit much (and not the healthiest), I'm sure there are several that you'd enjoy. With a friend to help prep over a half day or so, you could build a lot more variety in your diet and have access to re-heatable meals you may not be able to fix solo. The trade-off is a little repetition in your diet.
posted by Wossname at 5:39 PM on January 9, 2012

(Ms. Vegetable commenting)
I've found that alternative bean-hummus is tasty, too. So instead of garbanzos, use white beans, or black beans, or some combo. It makes for a good veggie dip. Eggplant might work, too - baba ganoush in Middle Eastern restaurants.
I'd recommend canned beans for you; rinse them first to get rid of excess salt.
I also really like cottage cheese. And yogurt. Specifically plain yogurt with whatever I'm eating - sweet or savory. Very tasty as a sour cream substitute.
What about just raw veggies? Carrots, celery, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes. All yummy. I'll dip them in the aforementioned hummus (try roasted red pepper hummus or roasted garlic hummus for something different). Or in mustard - I eat a lot of mustard. Or bbq sauce, or ketchup, or salsa, depending the day.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:38 PM on January 9, 2012

Best answer: I have found kale keeps quite well unwashed & uncooked in the fridge.

Sweet potatoes do not need to be refrigerated and they are amazing - roasted in chunks, baked whole, boiled.

Remember that there is no rule you have to stand while chopping or peeling veggies.

Roasting a whole chicken (slather with olive oil & salt, stuff with lemon) and then carving or cutting it up is another way to get many meals cheaply.

Quinoa is a tasty alternative to rice sometimes, and cooks in 15 minutes.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 9:11 PM on January 9, 2012

Try your local library for Some simple cookbooks. I like "More with Less" by the Mennonite central committee, Donna Hay's pantry staples book and "not your mother's casseroles" by Faith Durand.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 9:15 PM on January 9, 2012

My pain stamina is generally 10-15 minutes of standing, if I can lean on the counter while I work, less if I have to move back and forth from counter and oven or whatever, longer if I push myself.

Get a table you can do your cutting at from a seated position. Or cut on the counter, it is harder sitting down, but it can work. Also, sit as much as possible while doing the actually cooking. Nothing says you have to stand at the stove, or the grill. I don't as I can stand for only very short periods of time (well under 10 minutes.)

Adjust things to yourself. If you need to sit, sit, if you need to work on a lower table, do so. It makes things easier in the long run.
posted by SuzySmith at 10:26 PM on January 9, 2012

On beans:
- chickpeas I mostly use canned, although I keep dry ones on hand because there are a few recipes I like that require starting from dry beans.
- black beans I often use canned (especially if they're going into a salad or onto nachos) but I love them cooked from dry - black beans cooked in water with salt and maybe a little onion are practically a soup unto themselves (and you can do them in the slow cooker).
- lentils I always cook from dry because they don't take very long

Canned white cannellini beans have a nice creamy hummus-y texture that you might like.
posted by mskyle at 6:08 AM on January 10, 2012

Response by poster: Quinoa is a tasty alternative to rice sometimes, and cooks in 15 minutes.

Yet another thing I've been meaning to try.

Remember that there is no rule you have to stand while chopping or peeling veggies.

Yeah, that's true, but I have a weird-shaped long and narrow apartment so I don't have a dining table, and eat meals at my computer desk. I don't really have any other flat working areas.
posted by Evilspork at 6:37 PM on January 10, 2012

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