Suzanne Mulholland, aka The Batch Lady, shows how you can make 10 meat-free meals for a family of four in one hour. Sophie Morris tries it out
It hadn’t crossed my mind that giant bags of prechopped frozen onions existed until I find myself buying two of the things in Sainsbury’s at 9pm on a Thursday evening. I sling these into my trolley along with frozen garlic, sweetcorn and pre-sliced peppers. My shopping list also features 14 fresh peppers, readycubed root veg, pre-grated cheddar, microwave rice, six tins of chopped tomatoes and nine tins of various types of bean.
This isn’t some oddball, pulseled diet, but my first foray into the Batch Lady method, a familyfeeding hack by Suzanne Mulholland - the “time-saving guru and a family-cooking expert” - who promises me that this load, once back in my kitchen, will yield 10 meat-free meals for a family of four in 60 minutes. That’s 40 portions, or one-and-a-half minutes per portion.
I understand the need for prechopped veg, but I don’t want my daughter to grow up thinking an onion is a translucent square that comes from a freezer bag. Anyway, is it really quicker to put a bag of rice in the microwave than covering it with water in a pan? “This won’t work,” I think, reading the instruction to cook the onion and garlic for one minute, “until softened”. Most recipes give at least 10 minutes for the onions, and all cooks know they take at least 15, and prefer a half-hour.
But I’m wrong. The frozen onions are soft in 60 seconds, give or take. This is the first of a number of my judgements challenged by The Batch Lady cookbook. I can hear my editor cackling after assigning me to try out its recipes, because she knew I’d be too snobby for it. And when I talk to Mulholland after the cooking experiment, I soften my stance. It takes me longer than 60 minutes to make the 40 meals, but that’s to be expected as it’s my first time working with Mulholland’s method.
The 44-year-old lives on a farm in the Scottish Borders and has two children, aged 11 and 13. She’s never liked cooking, but she’s always loved time management.
She has dinner for four on the table at 6pm every evening, and still finds time to sit down and do homework with her children.
She’s running the business side of the farm. She’s there at the school gates. She’s driving the kids to hockey and tennis. She’s managing staff and a holiday rental business. Someone should be cooking this woman dinner every night of the week. I wonder if the Batch Lady would have got off the ground if Deliveroo was available in rural areas. “A lot of people who follow me haven’t cooked before,” she explains. “I tell them that this is as convenient as a ready meal, but you’ve cooked it yourself and it’s nutritious.”
Mulholland’s military-style methods were well-known among her friends when she began to teach others with a charity event at home. Social media and vlogging followed, leading to 64,000 followers on Facebook and the book, published this month.
“It’s a good starting point for people getting into cooking, and people who might buy my book but wouldn’t buy a recipe book,” she says. “To me it’s not about the recipes, it’s about the message.”
Hello! magazine has called her “cookery’s answer to Mrs Hinch”, an influencer loved for her cleaning tips. The message here is not to be a slave to the clock while maintaining a clean home and feeding your family well. There’s more than a whiff of the Stepfordian about this lifestyle, but I’m not going to quibble with Mulholland because she’s a hugely talented working woman whose children eat everything she cooks for them - whereas I’m incapable of planning the next day’s lunch and my child eats from a roster of five meals, three involving pasta.
Food, for me, really is about the food. The ingredients. The love. The time. It doesn’t feel honourable serving my husband chopped tomatoes with lentils and oregano one night, and calling it veggie bolognese, then heating through chopped tomatoes with kidney beans and chilli the next night, and calling it veggie chilli.
I’d want to add a fresh side dish and before you know it, that’s 30 minutes burned on food prep along with a huge pile of washingup. My husband loves it, though. He’d much rather I talk to him than start chopping herbs at 9pm.
“You don’t have to think about sides,” says Mulholland. “A lot of my recipes are one-pot dishes.”
This is true. She’s done a shepherd’s pie with sweet potato mash and a cottage pie with root veg mash, so you’re getting your howevermany-a-day. Recipes you can’t do in an hour, such as pulled lamb which takes 20 minutes to prepare and five hours to cook, come with three serving ideas. Lazy lasagne is made with ricotta and mozzarella instead of bechamel.
“I don’t want to be doing the same boring, monotonous things every day,” says Mulholland. “Everyone is so busy and says they need more time, when in fact you need less time. I love getting away from the mental load. If you left for work every day knowing what you’re having, that’s such a lot off your plate.”
She is right. I wish I had her energy and proclivity towards organisation. But what about spontaneity? If I know on Monday I’m having meatballs on Thursday, will they taste as delicious as if I’d felt a craving and made them fresh? “You’re not eating like that every night,” she says. “You’re cooking, say, four meals for the freezer a week, then you’re still doing normal everyday cooking. One day you’ll be going out for dinner and another making a last-minute Caesar salad, and that’s still important.”
Mulholland answers the plastic waste issue by pointing out that freezer bags and many of the frozen veg bags are reusable, and that her approach creates much less - ideally no - food waste compared to cooking a meal at a time.
She doesn’t include salt because she is offering recipes for all ages. You can season as you go, and she offers ideas for “zsushing” up dishes with more exciting ingredients if you’re eating without the kids.
There’s more than one way to batch. Gaby Chapman and Jan Petrovic published Plan, Buy Cook (£15, Hardie Grant) in January to share their 4+2+1 method, under which you cook four meals from scratch each week. Two of these are the sort of hearty one-pots that freeze well (chicken and chorizo braise, lamb curry, dahl). You double up on these recipes and freeze half, defrosting and eating two from previous weeks for variety. Another two meals are “fast and fresh” ideas cooked in under an hour, like carbonara, a stir fry or fish cakes. The final meal is a “simple supper” like eggs on toast, baked potatoes or leftovers.
What if, like me, you prefer to linger over a meal? As you were with your four-hour ragu, but quadruple the recipe.
Chapman and Petrovic say that you need to put two meals in the freezer each week to “achieve freedom from the daily dinner grind”. I wholeheartedly agree with them and Mulholland that, when faced with the tyranny of feeding a family, little compares to the rush of knowing you’ve got a delicious dinner ready to go. Tragic but true. I’m going to need a bigger freezer.