instant pot

The Instant Pot: A Working Mom’s Best Friend

“Oh no,” you’re probably thinking, “not another lunatic raving about the wonders of that Instant Pot contraption.”

I too was initially skeptical of the Instant Pot, but I’ve come around.

What Is The Instant Pot, Anyway?

In a nutshell, it’s a pressure cooker, which is a device that cooks food by heating liquid to boiling, which forms steam within a sealed pot. The steam cooks the food rapidly and also forces liquid into it, which increases moisture and helps quickly tenderize cuts of meat. Once it’s done cooking, you vent the steam out of the pot through a valve on the top.

I knew nothing at all about pressure cookers prior to getting my IP, but from what I understand, they’ve never been considered a reliable cooking device. I read horror stories about spaghetti sauce and beef stew spattered all over kitchen ceilings because the steam built up and caused the lid of the pot to blow off. The IP, however, has multiple safety settings designed to prevent that sort of thing from happening.

It is intimidating and even a little scary to use at first, but once you learn the ropes it’s like a whole new world of cooking possibilities opens up before you.

What Else Can It Do?

In addition to being a pressure cooker, the Instant Pot is also a slow cooker, a vegetable steamer, a porridge maker, a yogurt maker, a soup/stew pot, a rice cooker, and more. Here are some of the things you can make (some of which I’ve tried, others I haven’t).

  • Steamed vegetables (fresh or frozen)
  • Steamed seafood, such as shrimp or scallops (fresh or frozen)
  • Hardboiled eggs – I usually screw up hardboiled eggs on the stove, but they turned out perfectly in the IP (which worked well when I made Scotch Eggs, a great recipe from my Hobbit cookbook)
  • Roasted garlic
  • Cheesecake (I haven’t done this yet as you need a 7-inch springform pan, and I only have a 10-inch one at the moment, but I’ve heard it’s incredible — once I can acquire a 7-inch pan, I want to try it)
  • Oatmeal
  • Cook a whole chicken, and then use the carcass to make bone broth
  • Soup or stew
  • Homemade yogurt (sadly, I only have the 6-in-1 instant pot, so I do not have the yogurt setting – you need to buy the 7-in-1 version, linked below, for that particular setting)
  • Rice (I’ve made both white rice and brown rice, and pretty soon I’m going to try mango sticky rice
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Macaroni and cheese (pasta and all!)

There are so many possibilities that I almost wish I had two Instant Pots! The one I have was a Christmas gift from my mother-in-law (who also had no idea what it was but bought it for me anyway), and I’m seriously considering investing in another one someday. I’d like to be able to make both a main dish and a side dish using the IP (for example, honey chicken teriyaki in one pot and brown rice in the other).

Why Is This So Great for Working Mothers?

Two words: it’s fast. You can cook an entire pot roast in 90 minutes, start to finish. Something simple like macaroni and cheese takes around 10 minutes. A few nights ago I made the honey teriyaki chicken I mentioned above, and it was done cooking in the IP before my rice cooker had finished cooking the rice!

My biggest epiphany came when I realized what this magical device can do for the busy working mother.

It can cook a meal in less than an hour even if your meat is frozen.

Did you catch that?

Even if your meat is frozen.

So if you, like me, constantly forget to take your meat out of the freezer in time for it to thaw in the refrigerator, only to suddenly remember you needed to do so the day you’d intended to stick the meal in the crockpot, this machine is a miracle.

Now, there ARE some exceptions to that rule — it’s best not to pressure cook a frozen pot roast, for example, since a roast is a really thick chunk of meat and it will definitely take over an hour, even in the Instant Pot, and may not cook evenly. (This article is a good guide to cooking frozen meat in the Instant Pot.) But for other types of meat — beef stew meet, pork chops, chicken, turkey, even ground beef — it’s amazing.

Most slow cooker recipes can be converted for use in the IP (there’s a good tutorial on that here), so it’s a lifesaver if you plan a crockpot meal and then realize around 3pm that you forgot to put it in (like I do… all the time…).

What’s Your Favorite Instant Pot Recipe?

I’m so glad you asked! My favorite so far is the recipe for Fall-Apart Pressure Cooker Pot Roast. It only has five ingredients, it’s very easy to make, and it tastes fabulous. The five ingredients are a 3-4lb pot roast, an onion, 2 cups of broth or water, sea salt, and oil (I use olive oil). Ninety minutes later (allowing 20 minutes to come to pressure, and 70 minutes actual cooking time) it’s as tender and delicious as if it’d been cooking all day in the slow cooker. (This isn’t one of the recipes that allows to cook from frozen, but it’s still my favorite.)

Where Can I Get One?!

You can usually find them on sale at Amazon. See the affiliate links* below!

7-in-1 pot

6-in-1 Pot

*If you choose to buy the IP via this link, I receive a small percentage of the sale. Your support is appreciated!

Okay, I Have One… Now What?

The first thing you want to do is read the manual cover to cover. After that, there’s no shortage of resources available online!

The Instant Pot Community on Facebook is a great resource, although it can be a little overwhelming what with 400,000+ members. I highly recommend checking out the documents in the files section first, as they contain a lot of helpful links to various YouTube videos and such to help you get started.

After that, if you want to join an Instant Pot group on Facebook that’s much smaller and a little more intimate, I highly recommend Instant Pot Recipes with Kara, which is run by a friend of mine. We’re all learning to use our IPs together.

There are thousands of Pinterest boards containing Instant Pot recipes, tips, tricks, etc. My Instant Pot recipe board contains all of the recipes linked in this post as well as others that I’ve tried or am planning to try.

If you have an Instant Pot of your own, feel free to leave a comment with your favorite tips, tricks, and recipes!

The Dinner Daily

My Review of “The Dinner Daily”

Note: I wasn’t paid or otherwise compensated for this post; all opinions are my own.

Ask any working mom which regular chore is the bane of her existence, and the answer is often, “Making dinner!” It’s so hard to work a full day, drag yourself home, and then jump right into dinner preparation — especially if you have several little ones and/or are pregnant. Sometimes the husband will help, but let’s face it, most men aren’t able to prepare anything other than basic meals for their family. Meal planning helps, but that’s just one more chore to add on to all the rest, and it can be a daunting one.

I’m always on the lookout for goods and services that will make meal prep and planning easier, which is why I was intrigued when I came across The Dinner Daily. This company was founded by a working mom and promises to take the hassle and stress out of meal planning. I signed up for a two-week trial to check it out.

How The Dinner Daily Works

When you register for a membership, you’re given a selection of local grocery stores in your area. Based on the store you choose, The Dinner Daily will send you a recipe plan and shopping list based on what’s on sale in your chosen store on the day that the store’s sales are published. You can opt out of choosing a specific store; or, if they don’t have the store that you prefer to use, they’ll send you an “Any Store” plan that isn’t based on sale items (but still has a menu plan and a shopping list).

Shopping and Sales

The only store given to me as an option was my local Fry’s Food Store (a.k.a. Kroger). I was happy with this choice, because my local Fry’s also has a grocery pickup service (ClickList) that allows me to shop for groceries online and pick them up at the store. (I intend to do a post singing the praises of grocery pickup services sometime soon, because it has been a game changer for me!) If you can sign up for a store that also has grocery pickup or grocery delivery, that’s a win-win in my opinion.

I can also earn gas reward points from shopping at Fry’s, which helps keep our fuel costs down. So even though there was only one option, it was the one that was most convenient for me. The “Any Store” option would have worked as well, though, because I also have a Safeway and a WinCo nearby, as well as a Wal-Mart. (The Wal-Mart nearest my house does not have a grocery pick-up service, but the one that is approximately five miles away does.)

Menus

The Dinner Daily has a wide variety of menus, including Everything (no exempted ingredients), No Seafood, No Red Meat or Pork, Poultry and Vegetarian, Vegetarian with Seafood, and Vegetarian. In addition, each menu plan, no matter which one you choose, has options for reduced carb and gluten-free. I chose No Seafood because I don’t like seafood (my husband and kids do, but since they don’t do the cooking they didn’t get a vote).

The site has sample menus for each option, so you can take a look before you sign up to get an idea of what recipes are used.

What I loved about this service is your ability to switch out a meal. If I came across a meal that I didn’t think I’d like or that I thought my family wouldn’t like, I just clicked an icon in the menu and was presented with several alternative choices. I picked a different one and my menu plan and shopping list were automatically updated to reflect my new choices. So easy!

I was satisfied with the menus I used for the two weeks I was a member. All of the meals were fairly quick and mostly easy. I didn’t end up making all of them, but I tried Greek Burgers (basically hamburgers made with feta cheese) which is a meal a little out of my comfort zone, and they were delicious.

Each meal plan menu item comes with a suggested side dish, which is included in the shopping list. However, these are fairly easy to ignore if you have something else in mind, or if you want to go super simple with a bag of steamed veggies.

The menus themselves were arranged logically, and the ingredients are color-coded as well as numbered so you can easily identify which shopping list item goes with its respective menu item. I could save the menus as PDFs and keep them in my Google Drive folder for easy access, or access them on the site via my iPhone – perfect for me because I never remember to take a physical list to the store, but I always have my phone. I could also keep the menu in one tab and have the online grocery ordering system open in another, and easily switch between the two. I could also make the grocery list on my phone while looking at the shopping list on the computer, or vice versa.

I was pleased with the variety of dishes, and according to their FAQ, they won’t repeat recipes for two months to ensure variety.

Cost

Dinner Daily memberships are just $1.50/week or less, depending on the plan you choose ($18 for three months, $30 for six months, or $48 for a full year). I think that less than $50/year for a meal planning service is very reasonable, and it would likely pay for itself over time given the savings incurred with eating out less and not having to run to the store for last-minute ingredients or last-minute supper items.

What I Didn’t Like

My quibbles are minor. I wish there was a menu option for larger families. Your choices are for a family of 2-4 or a family of 4-6. I have eight in my family; however, one of them is still exclusively breastfed and the younger ones eat smaller portions, so I was able to make do with the 4-6 people option. I’m not sure how feasible that will be as my kids get older. It seemed to me that most of the recipes would adapt well to doubling, so that could be an option.

I also wish that there was an option to include meals made with the Instant Pot, as I absolutely adore mine. (I’m currently writing a post about how awesome it is for working moms.) However, it’s fairly easy to convert most slow cooker recipes for use in an Instant Pot, so that could work.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I was happy with the service. I was actually intending at the outset to purchase a full membership, but my circumstances have since changed (I was laid off from my full-time job) and I need to reevaluate my budget before incurring any extra expenses. Also I’m hoping that meal planning will be a bit easier now that I’m not working full-time. But I can definitely see this service being very useful to those who detest meal planning or who just want to take something off of their plate.

I reached out to the folks who run The Dinner Daily, and they graciously and generously agreed to provide a six-month membership (value: $30) as a raffle prize for one of my readers! (Happy Feast of St. Gianna! As a busy physician with several small children, I bet she would have loved a meal planning service!)

Please sign up at The Catholic Working Mother Facebook page (you don’t need a FB account to enter) if you’d like the chance to win six months of free meal planning. The raffle will run until 11:59pm (AZ time) on May 5, 2017. I’ll announce the winner on May 6, 2017, and put them in contact with the folks at The Dinner Daily to claim their prize. Good luck!

A Working Mother’s Guide to Meal Planning

Meal planning. It’s often bemoaned as the bane of a busy mom’s existence.

I struggled with it for a long time (and still do, sometimes).

I thought about purchasing subscriptions to outfits like eMeals.com or Saving Dinner, but I can be a picky eater (something my kids have inherited from me, I’m afraid) and I didn’t think the meal plans would be able to account for the varied tastes of our entire family.

I used to use an iPhone app called “Food on the Table,” which browsed items for sale at your local stores and made menus based on that, but it really didn’t fit the bill either. I couldn’t account for items I already had at home, and their recipe selection was a bit lacking. Then they merged with Food.com and started charging for the meal planning service, so I just deleted the app.

There’s an interesting site called MyFridgeFood.com where you can list all the food you have in your fridge/pantry and get recipes based on those items, but not all the recipes are that appealing – and it doesn’t help me plan what items to purchase at the grocery store.

Finally, I hit on a solution that mostly works for me, and maybe it’ll work for you too. Because, really, that’s the key. Find a system that works for you and stick with it. (When I don’t stick with this system, which is about 50% of the time, our meals are hit-or-miss.) This system may not work for you, especially if you hate Pinterest or don’t own a slow cooker. If that’s the case, try something else, and keep trying until you find something that works!

A Working Mother's Guide to Meal Planning

First, I take stock of how many meals I need, and how much time I’ll have to cook. On the days I’m working from home (usually three days per week), I can be more flexible because I’ll have a little extra time for cooking, and the ability to put something in the oven or crockpot midday or in the afternoon. On the days I commute to my office, I will need something that can be put in the crockpot in the morning and cook all day long, or something that can be prepped beforehand and put in the oven right away when I get home but will only take about 30 minutes to cook. If we have a particularly busy day with T-ball practice or an HOA meeting or Religious Ed classes happening in the evening, I’ll usually designate that as a “Frozen Pizza Night” or an “Eat Out” night. I also plan for “Leftover Nights” or “Sandwiches and Ramen” nights for when life throws a curveball (sick kids, for example).

Usually I plan for 4-5 meals and assume that the rest of the days will be covered by leftovers, sandwiches and ramen (my kids LOVE ramen, and my 10-year-old can make it herself), frozen pizza, or eating out (we’re able to budget for eating out occasionally, but your mileage may vary). I don’t worry about lunch on the weekends because I either cook a big brunch or we just have leftovers or sandwiches.

I take a quick look in the refrigerator and pantry to get a mental inventory of what I have to work with.  I take note of anything I want to use up, any meat that is about to expire, any canned goods I want to use up, and so on.

I look at my local grocery store’s app to see if there are any good sales, especially on meat. There is one particular store that I prefer to go to because I get gas rewards depending on how much I spend, which helps keep our fuel costs down. However, I have apps for the three grocery stores nearest my house and will browse all of them if I get the chance. (We don’t do bulk shopping – e.g. Costco or Sam’s Club – but that’s an option too.)

Then, armed with all this information, I turn to Pinterest, which I use as my recipe repository. I have several boards devoted exclusively to recipes, broken up into categories – Main Dishes, Side Dishes, Crockpot Recipes, Breakfast, and so on. I may further organize them one day by type – chicken recipes, beef recipes, etc. – but I haven’t done that yet (although I do have a board for Meatless Meals, for use during Lent and other Fridays when we choose to go meatless).

I have a board called “Kid Tested – Mother Approved” which contains recipes that I know my kids will eat, and that are easy for me to prepare. I have a board called “Freezer Cooking” which contains meals I’ve either made for the freezer and have been successes or ones that look promising that I want to try in the near future. (I make sure all my freezer recipes are really simple – basically throw ingredients into Ziploc bag, shut, and label, then dump and go once they are ready to be made. Nothing that involves browning meat beforehand or anything too complicated – with freezer meals I really need to operate on the K.I.S.S. principle, otherwise I get discouraged and don’t do them.)

Once on Pinterest, I either browse my recipe boards for inspiration or search for new recipes based on specific sale ingredients. Any recipe I choose, I pin to a secret board called “Meal Plan.” (I don’t know why I keep it secret – some hang-up about not wanting people to criticize my meal plan, I guess! – but that’s what works for me.) Then I have my entire meal plan for the week organized in one place for quick reference. I don’t assign a specific day to each meal (except Taco Tuesday – more on that later), which allows me to be flexible with what I make. I delete each pin as I use it. If I end up not using a pin that week because our plans changed (we were invited out to eat with family or something), then I just leave the pin there for next week’s plan.

Since I’ve already taken a mental inventory about what I have on hand, I just note down the items that I will need to purchase when I go shopping. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll have most of the items I need on hand and will only need to purchase meat, but I usually have some spices or produce I’ll need to pick up.

Meal Prep Tips and Tricks

I tend to look for recipes that can be served over rice, as I love my rice cooker (and I stock up on rice, especially brown rice, whenever it’s on sale). I often buy boxes of veggie pasta as well, especially when they are on sale for $1/box (anything to get my picky kids to eat something resembling vegetables). Anything that incorporates produce currently on sale (but with a minimum of prep time) is a bonus. Sometimes I will buy packages of pre-cut onions and veggies just to save time, although it depends on what our budget and my schedule looks like.

Some time ago (before “The Lego Movie” came out, I might add) I instituted “Taco Tuesday” at our home, and it’s been a big hit with the kids. Tacos is a family favorite and a meal they don’t mind having repeatedly, so I always know what we’re having for supper on Tuesdays. That’s a day I usually drive into work (a 90-minute commute, one way), but it only takes 10-15 minutes to brown hamburger meat in a skillet or thaw and heat frozen meat. I just need to make a mental note on which fixings we’re running low on (lettuce, cheese, taco sauce, tortillas), and I know that I always need to buy ground beef (unless I’ve stocked up due to a sale). I make my own taco seasoning using this recipe and store it in a plastic container in my spice cabinet. One batch will last us for a month or two. If I get ambitious and if avocados are on sale, I’ll make guacamole with a quick homemade spice mix. If I get really, really ambitious, I make large batches of taco meat in the crockpot and freeze it in 1.5 lb portions for future use (right now, that’s the perfect portion size for our family). Or sometimes I’ll just brown hamburger in the crockpot and store it in the freezer so I can use it for other things as well (burgers, soups, etc.). (Note: all this prep work is usually done on the weekend, if I have time – weeknights are too hectic.)

I use my food processor to cut up onions or grate carrots, and I’ll also use my apple wedger when I want to cut up potatoes in a hurry. (I tend not to peel potatoes unless absolutely necessary – takes too much time.) I cut the potatoes in half and then use the wedger on each half. I end up with some cylinder-shaped potatoes in addition to the wedges, but usually no one notices or cares.

I’m trying to move toward using mostly whole ingredients in my recipes (no condensed soup, no dressing or gravy mixes, etc.) but sometimes that’s not possible, so I try to cut myself slack.

Here’s a sample menu I might have for the week. I have one meal for each day, but one or two will usually get rolled over to the following week. These are all “tried and true” meals – e.g. I’ve made them before, the kids will eat them, and the adults like them too.

Meal #1 – Garlic Chicken, with microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side.

Meal #2 – Tacos

Meal #3 – Crockpot Ranch Pork Chops, served over rice from rice cooker. Microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side.

Meal #4 – Slow Cooker Thai Pork with Peanut Sauce, served over rice from rice cooker. Microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side. (Note: with this one, I’ll try to find boneless pork chops on sale or clearance, or a cheap pork roast on sale or clearance, and cut it up. Sometimes I can find pork stew meat. Pork loin is generally too expensive, although I’ll use that if it’s on sale.)

Meal #5 – Hearty Beef Stew (recipe #6 at the link). Side dish: Basic Beer Bread (it’s quick and easy to throw together, and goes marvelously with this stew. If you want to prep this beforehand, you can throw the dry ingredients in a Ziploc bag, and then when it’s time to bake it you just need to add the beer and mix).

Meal #6 – Easy Crockpot Mongolian Beef, served over rice from rice cooker. Microwave steamer bag of veggies as a side.

Meal #7 – Kielbasa and Pasta Skillet Dinner – one dish meal!

Do you have any tried and true freezer meals, or quick weeknight meals? If so, leave a link to the recipe in comments and I’ll add them to the Catholic Working Mother “Tried and True Freezer Meals” and “Quick Weeknight Meals” boards on Pinterest! (The above recipes are already there.)