Winter is a time that I usually spend organizing and cleaning stuff since I can’t spend a whole lot of time outdoors without turning into a human popsicle! So one of my winter projects is usually to go through my root cellar and my food storage, rotate stuff, check quantities, check the seals on all of my canning jars to make sure they’re good, and make a list of the things that I need to restock.
I want to share something that’s gotten me pretty excited, and maybe it’s something that will excite you as well: meals in a jar. These meals will:
- Help you take inventory of your food storage from a different perspective.
- Help you rotate your food storage.
- Give you a better idea of how much you actually need to store of specific food items that you know your family likes.
- Allow you to experiment and work with your food storage without compromising the shelf life.
- Allow you to create healthy, delicious, and inexpensive “fast food” meals for your family with a 5-8 year shelf life.
- Extend the shelf life of some of your spices, pasta, and other store packaged items.
- Give you one-skillet meals that will be ready in less than 30 minutes, allowing you to spend less time in the kitchen and have more time for things you’d rather do.
Well, I decided I had to try this. The idea of being able to combine ingredients from dehydrated and freeze-dried foods** to create meals ahead of time was really appealing. (I might also have a ‘thing’ about seeing glass jars with yummy contents lined up neatly on my pantry shelves, but that’s another story.)
Starting my Meals in a Jar adventure
So this is how it happened. First, I had to order some 300 cc oxygen absorbers. I chose some that were in packages of 20. I figured working with 20 jars at a time would be comfortable. (I realize you can purchase them in larger quantities and repackage the unused portion with a vacuum sealer, but, hey, I was already getting ready to do enough repackaging, for Pete’s sake!)
Next, I checked my pantry to make sure I had the proper quantities of ingredients. In some cases, the freeze-dried and dehydrated foods I had on hand required me to experiment, so I cooked one or two of the recipes with what I already had and made adjustments accordingly. I made sure to jot this new version of the recipe down so I could duplicate it multiplied by 20!
I printed out labels with the cooking instructions and a place to mark the date that I packaged them. Then I gathered my 20 jars (wide mouth works best) and sterilized them. I did this far enough in advance to make sure that my jars were good and dry. I also made sure I had lids and rings on hand.
The Meal-in-a-Jar process in detail
The morning I attempted this, I assembled the ingredients and began systematically filling the jars with the ingredients. (Oh, and I measured a set of them into my skillet too…might as well be fixing tonight’s dinner while I’m putting in my kitchen time!)
Using a wide-mouth funnel, I measured an ingredient into a jar and shook it down to help it settle. (If you’ve not worked with canning jars, I’ll just mention that it’s tempting to bang the jar on the counter, but it’s bad for the jar and can weaken the bottom of it. So, bang it on the palm of your other hand or on a towel-covered counter.)
Once those ingredients have settled, throw in more ingredients, and shake it down again. Throw in still MORE ingredients…. Shake your head and mumble about how, “That’s never gonna fit.” Shake down the ingredients and be pleasantly surprised that they all really DO fit after all!
At this point, I placed my lids in a warm place, like on a cookie sheet on the wood stove or in a warm oven. This softens the gasket a bit so it’s easier to screw the ring down and get a good seal.
It’s also important at this point to make sure the rim of the jar is completely clear of any food particles.
Continuing on, I placed the oxygen absorber in the top of each jar, being careful that the corners would not interfere with the lid coming in contact with the rim of the jar. I positioned the lid and tightened down the ring. Then I waited for the ‘plink’ as a vacuum formed inside the jars. It was really that easy!
No hot water bath. No pressure cooker. It’s called, “dry packing”. Using the oxygen absorber to form an airtight seal, these meals will have an extended shelf of 5-8 years on average, according to Chef Tess as long as they are stored in a cool, dark, dry location.
What I discovered pretty quickly is that I need to stock up on more spices. When you make a dozen or more batches of a recipe, you quickly go through items like basil, oregano, garlic powder, and onion powder. It was interesting to find out exactly how many meals I could hope to get out of a # 10 can of freeze-dried ground beef or sausage crumbles. When you are making twenty dinners at one time, you get a real good perspective on what you should be stocking in your pantry!
Other things I learned about Meal-in-a-jar
- I now have a cool new way to store pasta and rice!
- I need to stock up on more canning jars, lids, rings.
- I had the best success rate of jars sealing when I warmed the lids with a dry heat so that the gasket was softer.
- Wide mouth jars worked the best. Standard will work, too, but I REALLY had to work to get the ingredients shaken down enough to seal. I also had to finagle the corners of the oxygen absorber down and ‘hold my tongue just right’ to get the lid and the ring on without the oxygen absorber trying to creep out.
- I live in an area where it can be very humid in the summertime. Planning to assemble these meals in the winter with the woodstove going was probably the best environment for working with my freeze-dried foods.
- I did the math and found that if I purchased everything I needed to make 20 of these meals (assuming I already had the jars, lids, rings), each dinner for 4 would cost between $6.00 and $8.00. That means the cost per serving is $1.50 to 2.00. That’s pretty good for a nutritious, delicious meal! At that price, my food storage is a really economical option. Not to mention the money I’ll save on gas going to the grocery store.
- It feels really great to see those ready-made, healthy ‘fast foods’ on my pantry shelf! A couple of hours of work have saved me time in the future for other things. And they look beautiful lined up on my pantry shelves.
I modified one of Chef Tess’s recipes based on what I had in my pantry, and this is what I made.
Saucy baked Ziti with Sausage and Mushrooms
*Put the following in a quart jar:
2/3 cup tomato powder
½ cup freeze-dried onion
1 t oregano
1 t basil
¼ t marjoram
Dash of thyme
2 T cheese blend
1 t sugar
1 cup sausage crumbles
1 cup (3 oz) ziti or other pasta
1/3 cup freeze dried mushrooms
2 T carrot dices
If there was extra space, I packed more pasta in there, piece by piece.
Directions: Place contents of jar in a covered skillet, along with 4 3/4 cups water. Simmer 15-20 minutes until pasta is tender and sauce is thickened. Serves 4.
I’ve found a terrific way to not only rotate some of my food storage, but open it up and see exactly what’s inside! Taste it, study it, make sure my family likes it, and then have fun repackaging it into ready-made meals that will be quick and easy to fix in a pinch! Meals that will still have a lengthy shelf life! I hope you give this a try as well.
*This recipe was created using food products from Thrive Life. Using other brands may require slight adjustments to measurements.
Guest post by Holly Cooley. This article was previously posted but we updated the article.