shelf-stable DIY cooking kits?
May 24, 2016 12:00 PM   Subscribe

I have been visiting older relatives in their late 80s still living on their own. They were once wonderful cooks and still enjoy good food but they are losing the ability to cook from scratch on a regular basis. What are some DIY cooking kits I can put together for them so they can still cook for themselves?

These days they seem to survive on junk food often purchased from dollar store ("but they're so cheap!" although most of them are on the verge of expiring!) or some cooked vegetables and meats that have been over-reheated to death until they are literally disintegrating and inedible. It is really depressing because whenever they get to have fresh, home-cooked meals, I can see them really, really enjoy themselves. But they are very, very stubborn and resistant about accepting ANY "outside" help.

Things I've considered/tried:

-I've tried buying some healthy frozen meals but they were vehemently against it (we almost had a scuffle in the grocery store). They may go through boxes of Twinkies but they will not eat microwaved Amy's Veggie Pot Pie. End of discussion.

-They have a slow cooker but it didn't seem to work for them since it requires planning and cooking ahead of time.

-I've looked into Blue Apron and other delivery service but delivery timing can be iffy since they live in rural areas and they may not always feel like cooking it when they receive it.

The only thing that really worked for them is when I made them a bunch of "soup mix in a jar." It is relatively simply to cook (just add canned/frozen veggies/ground meat and water and cook!) but they still felt like they were still doing the cooking part, which gives them a sense of control and agency. Also it is shelf-stable so they could cook whenever they felt like and it's no big deal if it sits in the shelf untouched for a while.

So I've been also going through a bunch of "soup mix in a jar" recipes online but could you recommend anything you've tried and liked? What are some of the other options for DIY meal kits that are shelf-stable (I guess it can be frozen as well but their freezer is a bit of maze at this point so shelf-stable is preferred)? I'm looking for something like "add X,Y,Z to this mix and cook for an hour." It doesn't have to be soup - could be dessert, side dishes, etc., etc. Oh, but no recipes with dehydrated veggies/meat, please!
posted by Sparkling Natural Mineral Water to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to investigate some of the backpacking recipes on the Dirty Gourmet web site. That's a site devoted to cooking for camping, and the backpacking section in particular assumes that you're going to need things that are shelf-stable and can be easily put together without complicated equipment (since you will only have with you what you are willing to bring in a backpack).

In particular, this coconut lentil couscous stew seems like it would go over well, if you think the flavors wouldn't be too "weird" - you cook the lentils and a chopped zucchini first, then dump in powdered coconut milk and a bunch of seasonings, then dump in the couscous and let it all sit in the pot for ten minutes. That would lend itself well to parceling everything into three baggies - lentils in one, coconut powder and seasonings in the second, couscous in the third - and then it's just a matter of "add baggie 1 and a chopped zucchini to a pot and simmer [whatever time], then add baggie 2 and stir well, then add baggie 3, turn off heat and cover pot and wait 10 minutes."

You may indeed find a lot of other options in the DIY camping-food set.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:13 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

This seems like maybe a slow cooker or an immersion circulator would work well. My husband is the cook in our family and recently discovered sous vide. Now at least a couple of times a week now we have meals that consist of "put chunks of meat or vegetables in a Ziploc with a bunch of spices and throw it in the water for 12 hours at the temperature you dialed up." If you put the baggies together with the spices and stuff, all they would need to do is put the meat or veggies in the bags and the bags in the water. You can cook a couple of dishes (meat, veggies) at the same time if you get the timing right. Plus the nice aspect of sous vide is that it doesn't get hot enough to hurt you.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 12:30 PM on May 24, 2016

If you're interested/inclined, this is a great opportunity to do some pressure canning - soups, stews, vegetables, and yep, even meats. It all becomes shelf-stable and you can add any ingredients you like (rice, noodles, meatballs, etc) as you heat it up. It's a bit of work ahead of time on your part, but also adds a lot of variety.
posted by VioletU at 12:38 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Does it have to be shelf stable? What about incorporating frozen ingredients?
posted by quaking fajita at 12:38 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Pasta + jarred spaghetti sauce + whatever dried herbs you think they would like to add in during cooking to make it feel more homey. A jar of spaghetti sauce, open in the fridge, lasts a good long time. They can add ground beef from the freezer for more protein.
posted by praemunire at 1:11 PM on May 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Dessert's ok? Baked good ingredients layered in a jar is also totally a thing.
posted by aniola at 1:39 PM on May 24, 2016

I think if I were in this situation I might wander up and down the bulk aisle at the grocery store for inspiration.
posted by aniola at 1:40 PM on May 24, 2016

If pasta and some jarred ingredients are acceptable, there is a ton you can do. You can get dried and/or frozen pasta; pepperoni and other long-lasting sausage to slice and add; feta, parmesan and other cheeses. Try shopping the European markets not only for tomato sauces but for tuna, capers, olives, eggplant compote and so on. If you want to go high end, canned anchovies and other seafood from Spain are very special.
posted by BibiRose at 1:47 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

In the past I've made some homemade lasagna and mini-meatloafs from scratch and then put them in the freezer for homebound relatives who couldn't cook, but enjoyed good food.

Maybe your relatives would feel better about microwaving a frozen meal if it had been made first?
posted by brookeb at 1:52 PM on May 24, 2016

How are they with freezers? Would something like this work?
posted by peppermind at 1:54 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Make casseroles and stews, freeze and bring to them when you visit. Lasagna, mac and cheese, chili, beef stew.

I'm pretty sure they'd really like your home cooking.

Manaschewitz makes really good soup starters. I grew up on these. Easy to doctor up, so convenient and homey.

My Kroger just had a "Spanish" event with TONS of amazing things imported from Spain. Now it's all on sale dirt cheap. I just got some Tapas sauce with parsley and garlic. I can throw that on chicken breasts and roast in the oven.

Frozen veggies are amazing now. With plain rice, white and brown, that's easy to heat up. Individual servings of veg.

I get it, most frozen food is gross. (I do like some Amy's stuff.) There's a weird flavor in processed foods, as I get older, I'm getting pickier about such things. Perhaps you can take them to the store, shop for ingredients and then you can prepare with them so they have a freezer stocked with easy to heat and serve meals.

My parents are older now and my Mom's desire to cook elaborate stuff is diminished. They do smoothies (perhaps your folks would like smoothies?) Salads and sandwiches. Nothing wrong with any of that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:56 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

rice cooker
posted by Jacqueline at 2:01 PM on May 24, 2016

If you want to go high end, canned anchovies and other seafood from Spain are very special.

Yeah, you may not want to pay Zingerman's prices, but if you look at, e.g., their Pantry and Tinned Fish section, there are plenty of ideas for tinned and jarred things that could go nicely into a pasta sauce, or even just mixed into pasta cooked and tossed with olive oil (also long-lasting).
posted by praemunire at 2:05 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

although most of them are on the verge of expiring

As a note, unless it's something like fresh meat or vegetables or prepared food (e.g. hummus), this doesn't matter very much in most cases. The expiration dates are mostly a "tastes best by" date rather than a "not safe after" date and most brands tend to be very very conservative with their estimates.

If you have a Trader Joes (or possible Aldi's) near you, they have quite a few shelf stable foods that can be easily combined into relatively tasty and healthy meals. If they'll eat Indian, there's a variety of reasonably good meals. The soup in a box that just require reheating come to mind.

Target used to have some tolerable meal kits under the Archer Farms brand that were basically a shelf stable version of Blue Apron et al, but they've disappeared from the website. They might still have something like that in the stores. Here's an example.

You can assemble chili kits for them.

Better quality Mac and Cheese.

Will they use a bread machine? There are ones that you can buy all the dry ingredients already mixed together. Being able to make fresh bread might make them feel like they have some control.

If they're willing to accept your help to an extent, you can do cooking days with them where you do some simple baked chicken breasts and then individually vacuum seal and freeze them. That way they only need to reheat as much as they're going to eat with a meal, ending some of the endless reheating cycles. Similarly, you could do ham/roast beef/etc. and slice it up as lunch meat and individually package that for the freezer as well.

I would not recommend home sous vide cooking with elderly people. If done slightly incorrectly, it is easily possible to create a food poisoning friendly environment which can be life threatening at that age. Slow cookers or a pressure cooker like the Instapot line are similarly easy to use but much safer if there's some cognitive decline. OP mentioned that the slow cooker doesn't get any love because of the prep time, so perhaps the pressure cooker would be for the win here - it'll do chicken in 20 minutes and stew in 40.
posted by Candleman at 2:51 PM on May 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Stuff you grow is "shelf stable" until you harvest it - One thing that's been really nice for "there when you need it" is having a planter box with snow peas and chives - these are great in ramen soup.

Other herbs are nice too, but the snow peas this year have been a clear winner. If you're only cooking for one or two, that one harvest of fresh legumes can be just wonderful, and it's also great to just add one or two pea pods (or a few herbs) to whatever you're cooking.

A bay plant topiary is really great, also.

Plus, taking care of plants gets you just a tiny bit of sun and fresh air, which is awesome.

My shelf-stable ramen recipe:

1 pack ramen noodles
1 box shelf-stable silken tofu
some dried shiitake mushrooms
dried onion powder (optional)
soy sauce
some kind of green vegetable (frozen edamame, fresh snow peas from the deck planter, frozen peas, dried seaweed)

*do not add/cook the noodles until the end*

Reconstitute mushrooms (see instructions online or on package).
Start heating ~3-4 cups water on the stove, add cubed tofu, mushrooms, soy sauce, onion powder; simmer a few minutes.

Add noodles for final four minutes of cooking.

Add snow peas late in cooking, depending on how mature they are. Very young snow peas which are very tender can be added in final 1 minute or so.

Thinly sliced carrots can be added in final 1 minute or so (I like carrots because they keep in the refrigerator for a loooong time, and are fine to eat raw, so cooking time isn't critical).

Add any fresh greens you have (parsley, spinach, chard, seaweed, chives) or dried greens (parsley) after removing soup from heat.
posted by amtho at 3:05 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Homemade granola?
posted by bluebird at 3:33 PM on May 24, 2016

What did they typically make when they were wonderful cooks?
posted by aniola at 8:15 PM on May 24, 2016

There are also beans and rice mixes to which you just have to add olive oil or butter and cook. Not too expensive, and decent-tasting, if not spectacular.
posted by praemunire at 9:19 PM on May 24, 2016

Canned food works wonders. I regularly have canned anchovies and canned tomatoes, simmer for 30 minutes to 1 hour to make a pasta sauce. Lots of vitamins! Canned veg is shelf stable and makes a good addition to any meal.

I make dahl a lot, and all you really need is pulses - yellow split peas and a curry powder mix. You can use canned veg to spice it up
posted by moiraine at 11:53 PM on May 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Preppers just love to put everything in a jar*, e.g. 101 meals in a jar (and almost all shelf stable). They use a lot of freeze dried stuff that you would have to buy (online) but a lot of the recipes also have the option to add in fresh stuff at the time of cooking. "shelf stable meal in a jar" is your search. *Or a mylar bag.
posted by anaelith at 3:59 AM on May 25, 2016

Chili is always my go-to. You could get them together a little box of canned beans, canned tomatoes, a chili starter and/or spices, and then all they have to do is dump it all in a pot (or slow cooker--normally chili can be "ready" in as little as 3hrs), brown and add some ground beef if they want, and let it simmer for awhile.

Plus--if you also give them some dried rice, they can have chili and rice. Yum!
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:18 AM on May 25, 2016

If you're going to do stuff like chili, curry etc. some packages from The Spice House or Penzey's might be good.
posted by BibiRose at 6:40 AM on May 25, 2016

Try looking in google for "cooking with cans" to find a lot of recipes that are literally: buy these canned goods, put them together in a pot and stir. Here are some that I've used with my family for years:

My daughter liked this one from Vegetarian Times magazine: Gnocci with Fava Beans. It has six ingredients that come in cans or vacuum-packed boxes. You heat some olive oil and garlic in a pan, throw in all the cans one at a time and stir.

This is how I make chili - once you brown the beef, you throw in a can of red beans, can of black beans, 3 cans of tomato sauce and some chili spice mix (I use Wick Fowlers). To make the meal extra special, use a box of Jiffy corn bread mix - add one egg and some milk and put it in the oven to have cornbread with your chili.

Macaroni and cheese casserole: use the Kraft box, boil and drain the pasta, add the box mix and butter/milk, then add a can of tuna and a can of peas. Extra special puts it in a casserole with cheese on top to bake, but we don't usually bother with that step.

While looking at some of the sites I googled, I also found a Shepherd's pie: brown the beef, then put in a can of peas and carrots, can of diced tomatoes, can of potatoes for the top. They make gravy with flour and meat drippings, but I would just use a jar of gravy or a packet of dried powder. I would also substitute powdered mash potatoes for the can of sliced potatoes on top.

Oh, and I made thanksgiving dinner one year with only a microwave: turkey breast cooked from the deli (we decided we liked ham better - get a small honeybaked-spiral sliced), then cans of sweet potatoes, powdered mashed potatoes, Stove Top stuffing, jar of gravy, can of green beans. I don't usually bother with the green bean casserole, but if you do, it is another add-all-the-cans dish that doesn't require any other work.

Maybe your contribution to this whole project is to go there and brown some meat and put it in the freezer in one-pound already-cooked packages.
posted by CathyG at 1:51 PM on May 25, 2016

Oh, and to add on to the folks suggesting pasta plus jarred sauce: you can get the fancy types of pasta like tortellini or ravioli in vacuum packed shelf stable packs now. You still just boil it like spaghetti, but it seems much more upscale to me. Choose a really nice jar of sauce rather than just the store brand.
posted by CathyG at 1:57 PM on May 25, 2016

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