Cooking Once a Month
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 3 May-June 2000 pp. 91-92
"Mom, what's for dinner?" Do these words strike fear into your heart? Do you ever find yourself wandering the grocery aisles at 4 PM, searching for inspiration, bargains, and above all, something quick? Maybe your family routine is such that time before dinner is at a premium. Or maybe, like most of us, you could use a few more hours in your day and a little more cash in your pocket. All of these are good reasons to consider learning about bulk cooking.
You've probably heard of bulk cooking before—it's certainly not a new idea. It's also referred to as freezer cooking, batch cooking, and OAMC (once a month cooking). Perhaps you were one of those new mothers lucky enough to receive frozen meals from friends and relatives after the birth of your baby, or maybe you've given one to a friend in need. What you may not realize is how adaptable and helpful this concept is in everyday life.
Preparing several meals at one time just for the freezer does take some advance planning, but it is well worth it. Pick out several different recipes that you know will freeze well. How many depends on how much time you have to batch cook and your freezer space. Plan to make at least double batches of everything. Write down all the ingredients you will need (remembering to double or triple quantities), check your pantry for items you already have, then go shopping.
When choosing your recipes, check your grocery store flyers to see what's on sale and keep in mind that most foods (especially meats, dry goods, and some canned goods) are less expensive to buy in bulk. Did you ever wonder who buys those 10-pound "budget packs" of ground beef and 5-pound cans of tomatoes—and what they did with them? Buying in bulk can help you to batch cook three meat loaves, a large pot of spaghetti sauce, three meals of chili, some meatballs, taco filling—all at bargain prices. Remember that you won't be eating ground beef every night for a week. You can space these meals out as desired. A month from now that chili will still be yummy, even yummier when you think about how easily it got to your table.
The next step is to do all of your preparation work in bulk, preferably the night before you cook. Chop all of the vegetables you will need for all of the meals you are making. Consider sitting at the kitchen table to do it. It may feel strange at first, but it is easier on the body than standing for a long time. Look at your recipes and see what other steps could be combined in batches. Are you cooking one thing (such as ground beef, sauteed onions, or dried beans) for many recipes? Try browning all the ground beef, then dividing the cooked product among several dishes. Some people find it easiest to do batch cooking around one main ingredient; for example, you could make five different recipes using chickpeas. Before you begin cooking, look over all the recipes to be sure that all possible advance work is done. Also keep an eye out for things that naturally go well together (like two recipes that could cook in the oven at the same time), or things that will clash if done together (two meals that both require the use of the big soup pot), and plan appropriately. Then just dig in and begin working your way through the recipes.
You might want to consider keeping records of the process, so that if it works out well, you can use the same plans another time. Keep a list of the recipes you used, your shopping list, and your plan for the preparation work (such as vegetable chopping and precooking key ingredients).
Batch cooking can be adapted to your family's lifestyle. Whether you freeze an extra meal or two occasionally or cook for a day straight once a month, you can reap the benefits. It is very satisfying to know that when you are planning a busy day you can just get up in the morning, check the list on the freezer, take something out to defrost, and know that the main work of dinner is finished.
These techniques are also expandable to other meals and occasions. I have a friend who regularly freezes half of the cookie dough that she makes. Then it's easy to have cookies in a jiffy. And when you bake only half a batch at a time, you don't have the same nutritional consequences when they are all eaten in one day. When I have extra time on the weekends, I like to make a double batch of pancakes. I cook them all, then freeze half of them. Later in the week, the frozen pancakes heat up quickly in a microwave or toaster. This also works with waffles. Compare the ingredients and cost of ready-made pancakes or waffles available in your grocer's freezer with those you make at home and you'll be convinced of the benefits of this approach.
When your main dish comes ready to heat from your freezer, you may find that you have the time for all those nice extras that you tend to skip because you don't have enough time. Wouldn't some warm corn bread be lovely with that chili? Some of those extras freeze well too, so you can have them even when you are pressed for time. And when the meal is planned in advance, you can think about what you might like to serve with a particular main dish and have those ingredients already on hand. You'll save the time spent on those 5 o'clock dashes to the grocery store.
Although it's a labor of love, getting a tasty, nutritious meal that everyone likes on the table every night can be quite a time-consuming task. Try letting your freezer do some of the work for you.
- Label, label, label. Frozen food is notoriously hard to identify. Unless you really like mystery casserole, take the time to label. Permanent marker works well on freezer bags and foil. (Keep one in the drawer where you keep your foil and bags, but only if your toddler won't find it there. It's called permanent marker for a reason). Use freezer tape to seal packages.
- While you are labeling, add some basic reheating instructions such as oven temperature and baking time. Then you won't have to get the cookbook back out later. Remember to take your dinner out of the freezer in the morning so it will be defrosted and cook faster.
- Keep a list of what is in the freezer. Just write it on a sheet of paper and stick it to the front of the fridge. It doesn't have to be fancy. (And your friends will be impressed with your organizational abilities.) This will save your frozen fingers from digging through the piles of mystery baggies. (Did you remember to label?) Cross things off the list as you remove them so you will know what you will need to cook again soon.
- Use rigid plastic freezer containers, self-sealing bags made for freezing, and/or freezer-quality aluminum foil. The lightweight foil doesn't hold up in the freezer. Double-wrapping with regular foil is not always cost effective, and the lightweight foil often tears too easily to be dependable.
- If you don't have much room in the freezer, self-sealing plastic bags are space savers. Make a place in the freezer where they can lie flat to freeze. You might need to lay the bags on a cookie sheet at first to make sure they stay flat while freezing. Once frozen, the bags can either be stacked horizontally or stored standing up like books.
- Tomato and other acidic foods don't keep well with aluminum foil over the long term (more than one month). Cover a pan of lasagna with plastic film first then put foil over it. Do the same for pies.
- It's a good idea to set your freezer temperature down low the day before you cook, but read your refrigerator manual for guidance. Some models take cooling power away from the refrigerator part to cool the freezer. Cool cooked food before putting it in the freezer. It should be no warmer than room temperature. To avoid overtaxing the refrigerator, you can cool it first by putting the pot of food in the sink with cold water. Transferring it out of the hot pot first works even better, but then there are more dishes to wash.
- Freeze in meal-sized portions. If you only need half a loaf of cornbread for that chili meal, cut the baked loaf in half before you freeze.
- Freeze items that might clump and stick together (grated cheese, pancakes, mini muffins) flat on a cookie sheet until frozen (1 hour or less, usually), then remove from the sheet and place into a freezer bag.
Bowen, C. The Basic Basics Home Freezing Handbook. London: Grub St., 1997.
Good Housekeeping Essential Freeze-Ahead Handbook. London: Ebury Press, 1997.
Taylor-Hough, D. Frozen Assets. Beverly Hills, CA: Champion Press, 1999.
Wilson, M. and Lagerborg, M. B. Once-A-Month Cooking. New York. St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.
Your local LLL Group Library probably has a copy of WHOLE FOODS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY (1993 edition), which has a number of healthy recipes suitable for freezing. For ideas, see the "Food Shower" section on p. 268, and "Easy to Freeze" on p. 273.