Perhaps since the era of the TV dinner, “convenience” has reigned king in food marketers’ appeals to consumers. From the overwhelming variety of store-bought snack options to instant meals in boxes and bags, food is always at the ready, and its preparation is largely outsourced. Even homesteaders and advocates of eating nourishing, local foods may have difficulty avoiding processed, store-bought options when the goin’ gets busy.
But all of this so-called convenience comes at a cost. Additives, stabilizers, preservatives, artificial coloring and trans fats — along with sugar-packed, sodium-stuffed, and refined-carb-loaded recipes — are part and parcel of processed food. In a nutshell, we lose control over ingredients. But convenience food doesn’t have to equal junk food, and quick meals don’t have to mean a stop at a drive-thru. Some MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors, plus a few of our resourceful readers, rallied together to offer you these fresh ideas for using seasonal produce and healthful ingredients to create simple, make-ahead snack foods and meals. For two homemade snack food recipes, see Nutty Energy Bites Recipe and Homemade Fruit Roll-Ups Recipe.
Pantry Prep and Meal Planning
A good first step is to pack your pantry with an arsenal of ingredients you can use to make grab-and-go foods. One smart approach is to buy certain ingredients in bulk, and use large jars with screw-top lids to keep these foods at the ready. Dried beans, whole grains, nuts, dried fruits, maple syrup and honey are a handful of items worth stocking.
Keep plenty of serving-size, freezer-safe containers around, so that when you make a big batch of a shelf-stable or freezable food, you can easily stash it. Ideally, for snacks, you’ll want the containers to be small enough so that you won’t have to re-portion foods when you’re hungry or heading out the door — 4- and 8-ounce Mason jars will work well.
Don’t wait until your tummy’s grumbling, you’re leaving for an appointment, or it’s 10 minutes to dinnertime before you think about preparing something wholesome to eat. Carve out a bit of time once a month to prepare freezer-safe or pantry-stable meal and snack recipes, plus a bit of time weekly to prep fridge-friendly morsels.
Kitchen Equipment for Making Convenience Foods
Arm yourself with a food dehydrator and a good blender or food processor, so homemade beef jerky, dried fruits and vegetables, hummus and other dips, healthy smoothies, and so much more become readily accessible.
Managing Editor Jennifer Kongs says the two biggest players in her kitchen are her Vitamix blender and Instant Pot electric pressure cooker. Even if you don’t buy these brands, a food processor and a pressure cooker can make any meal more convenient. Kongs grinds grains into fresh flours, makes nut butters, and purées dips, soups and smoothies in her Vitamix. This allows her to keep a pantry of whole, unprocessed ingredients to combine into whatever she desires based on her recipes, taste buds and available time. The Instant Pot speeds the process of cooking beans, rice, or even a whole chicken or roast. “I can put any of these items into the cooker, set the cook time and pressure level, and then prep the rest of the meal. Within an hour, I can have dinner on the table — even if I forgot to soak the beans!” Kongs says.
A water bath canner and pressure canner will help immensely, too. You can put up seasonal produce during summer and fall, and use any downtime (think winter, when your canner isn’t working overtime) to can beans, soups and chili.
Senior Associate Editor Rebecca Martin cans fruits or vegetables nearly every weekend during the growing season, but never a big batch at a time. “Smaller batches are less labor-intensive, and you can wedge them into a tight schedule more easily than larger batches that require a full day in the kitchen,” she says. She preserves salsa in her Instant Pot, which can double as a water bath canner. “I just pop in four pint jars of salsa and process them for 10 minutes. There’s no open stockpot filled with boiling water pumping heat and humidity into the air, so the kitchen doesn’t get uncomfortable, even on the hottest days.”
Freezable Snacks and Make-Ahead Freezer Meals
Savvy snackers also need to befriend their freezers. “I’m a fan of freezing because it’s fast, doesn’t require special equipment, and preserves the food’s flavor and nutrients,” Martin says. You can easily package many snacks as individual servings, and then pop them into the freezer for later. Instead of using plastic bags, Martin cuts down on waste by freezing snacks and individual servings of meals in canning jars.
Kongs makes small, freezable hand pies (a DIY version of Hot Pockets) for a snack or light meal. Start by making a batch of any standard roll or bread dough. Next, cook the filling, which can be anything from breakfast-style eggs and cheese to savory ham and mashed beans — all with chopped, seasonal veggies. Roll out the dough and cut it into 5-inch squares, and then place a mound of filling into each square. Fold the corners of the dough up around the filling, pinch them to seal, set them seam-side down on a baking sheet, and then brush the tops with melted butter. Bake in an oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes, until golden-brown. They’ll freeze perfectly.
Reader Lesley Montenaro makes big batches of hummus, puts one large jar of it in the fridge, and then divides the rest into 4-ounce Mason jars for the freezer, where they’re ready to grab when needed. To make hummus, cook garbanzo beans (using a pressure cooker for faster prep), and whiz them in a food processor with tahini, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and salt. Hummus dip adds a flavorful protein boost to a snack of sliced vegetables.
Martin recommends kohlrabi patties for unique freezer eats. Cut peeled kohlrabi into quarters, and then shred them in a food processor. Toss the shreds with a little olive oil and salt, spread it out on a shallow pan, and roast at 375 degrees until tender and some crispy browned bits have formed around the edges. Cool slightly, and then shape into patties. Layer parchment paper between the patties, and freeze.
Martin also likes to whip up homemade graham crackers to freeze. “Recipes for these abound on the Web,” she says. “I like to make them on the weekend and, as soon as they’ve cooled, pop them in the freezer, where they’ll stay good almost indefinitely. They’ll thaw in less than 10 minutes when you pull out a few for a bedtime snack with a glass of milk.”
Reader Elizabeth Smith blends 1 cup of homemade yogurt with a ripe banana and a few blueberries, pours the mixture into Popsicle molds, and then freezes the molds to make homemade yogurt pops.
Frozen fruit is always good for smoothies. If bananas start to brown, peel them and throw them into the freezer to toss into smoothies or banana bread later.
Bake double recipes of wholesome muffins or quick breads for the freezer. Store what you can eat readily in the fridge, and whenever you grab the last one, transfer a few more into the fridge so they’ll be thawed.
Senior Associate Editor Robin Mather uses her freezer for now-and-later cooking: Cook and eat some now, and freeze even more for later. “If you’re going to go to the trouble of making a big pot of spaghetti sauce, why not freeze some — or even can it — so that another night, you only have to reheat it?” she says. The same is true of lasagna, pizza (freeze it topped but unbaked), meatloaf, enchiladas, soups and so on. Mather also considers homemade vegetable, beef and chicken stocks convenience foods, because she uses these broths in so many recipes, and they’re easy to make in big batches and freeze in 1- or 2-cup containers.
Homemade Snack Foods for the Fridge
A simple, classic snack to stash in the fridge is a batch of hard-boiled eggs. Boil a dozen on Sunday, and they’ll last the week. Transform a few into deviled eggs if you have an extra 10 minutes.
Slice and store vegetables and fruits in snack-sized servings in the fridge, too. Set aside several portions right when you harvest the veggies from your garden or when you bring them home from the farmers market or store. If you’ve already refrigerated small jars or zip-top bags of carrot sticks, cucumber slices or small broccoli florets, plus mini-jars of hummus or other dip, you’ll be able to rely on them when you’re busy.
Reader Lucinda Wehrkamp loves chia seed pudding for a simple, satisfying snack. Combine 1 tablespoon of chia seeds, 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder, 1 tablespoon of honey, and 1/2 cup of milk in a pint jar, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. Swap in yogurt for the milk if you prefer, and toss in nuts if you like.
Many readers and editors culture homemade yogurt at the start of each week, and enjoy it with homemade granola or fruit, drizzled with honey or jam, dolloped atop baked goods, or in smoothies.
Homemade Snack Foods for the Pantry
Mixed nuts, trail mix and homemade granola divvied into small bags or jars are perfect pantry snacks. Make homemade granola bars packed with nuts and dried fruit, and package each individually. Many of our readers prep dry mixes — for biscuits, pancakes, cornbread and cookies — ahead of time in glass jars, too, for speedy baking. (Who needs Bisquick?)
Use beef or turkey, plus simple seasonings, to make jerky. You can use a food dehydrator for this, or just your oven. Portion the jerky into airtight containers, and it will keep in your pantry for two to three months. Find a jerky recipe at The Kitchn.
Home canners can fill the pantry with jams (perfect to spread on homemade crackers or bread), dill pickles, dilly beans and applesauce.
Crackers don’t have to come in a box. Make your own — such as the savory almond-flour crackers at Against All Grain — and store in airtight containers in your pantry for up to two weeks.
Let Local, Seasonal Ingredients Shape Your Convenience Foods
Taking back snack foods and prepping food for larger meals are key aspects of embracing overall food conscientiousness that go hand-in-hand with local, seasonal eating. For instance, as sweet peppers and eggplant become ripe, roast some and then purée the roasted vegetables into a handy base for dips and spreads. Slice seasonal produce for fresh eating; make pumpkin muffins for the freezer in autumn; and go crazy with kale chips when your plants are at peak production. Live near a coast? Pressure can 8-ounce jars of tuna to spread on crackers or to make a quick sandwich or tuna casserole. Or, for inland eaters with limited freezer space, pressure can chicken, beef and other meats you can source from local producers. Of course, learning how to smoke meat and fish will up the flavor options of these preserved foods.
Martin notes that taking charge of snack foods and freezing meals allow her to support small farmers and ranchers. “I find it satisfying to buy only toilet paper and a few non-food necessities at the chain grocery store. Nearly everything else comes from the freezer and home larder, and was made with ingredients from local producers whom, I believe, deserve my money and patronage more than huge commercial firms,” she says. “It’s self-sufficiency at its finest.”
Shelley Stonebrook is MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine’s main gardening editor. She’s passionate about growing healthy, sustainable food and also runs Stonegrass Farms Soap Co. in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.