Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Once-a-Month Cooking

Ahhh, the irony. My last post was from early June when we were in Costa Rica--reflective and deep. Today's post is at August's end, and is about cooking--matter-of-fact and practical. And such is the pattern of my days...

A few years ago, I discovered the idea of "once a month cooking." I hit upon it after spotting this while perusing a friend's cookbook collection. Not all of the recipes would be to our family's liking, nor did I need 30 frozen meals, so I adapted a few of them, cut back on number, and gave it a whirl. That was probably in 2007. I am not a regular by any means, but I do tend to have a big cook-fest in late summer / early fall to help me through those busy months at the end of the year. It is great for our budget in two ways.  Obviously, it keeps me from being tempted to suggest going out on those days when I'm too tired to think, let alone cook. And it allows me to take advantage of buying meat in bulk, either at Costco or at bargain prices from Kroger. It also makes late afternoons much more pleasant because I can generally enjoy the afternoon AND have a good meal ready for dinner. And it makes it fairly simply to have dinner guests on short notice if the opportunity or need arises. I have also added this cookbook to my collection as well, although most of the recipes that I use now come from the first one.

The kitchen, about halfway through
So yesterday was The Day. I think this was my 5th or 6th time to do this, and I've finally got a set list of meals to build.  This makes it easy because I also have a set shopping list, so all I have to do is skim it to see what I have on hand and what I need to buy.

Typically, I prefer to shop one day and cook the next, but yesterday I did it all at once, making it a bit more taxing than usual. And I got a later start too, so the day was very long. But by 6:00, I had successfully prepared and frozen 19 entrees, which should last us for at least a couple of months since I typically use two of the frozen meals per week. The other nights are easy-prep things like burgers or tacos, or are planned nights out, like Wednesday dinner at church or our once-a week family night out at Zaxby's, Your Pie, or something like that.

Most entrees are frozen in gallon-sized freezer bags, but a few are in plastic Glad containers. Using a Sharpie, I write what is in each, as well as the preparation instructions, on the bag or lid, making it easier when prep time rolls around.

Here's what I ended up with in my deep freezer. And a small deep freezer is a necessity (the small ones aren't that expensive) if you want to do more than 5 or 6 meals at a time.

The finished product/s--21 frozen entrees, ready to go!
3 bags of herbed chicken *
1 chicken and rice pilaf *
1 Chinese chicken morsels
1 marinated flank steak *
1 savory beef tips
1 biscuit beef bake
1 Balkan / Swedish meatballs
1 taco pie
2 chicken tetrazzini
1 green chili enchiladas
1 oriental chicken
1 wild rice chicken (tip: go light on
        the onions and celery)
2 chicken packets
1 beef pot roast (crock pot meal) *
1 teriyaki chicken (crock pot meal) *
2 easy beef stew (crock pot meal) *

Since I've done this several times now, I have a pretty good system for what to do when, and how to make the most of every minute I'm in the kitchen. For instance, the first thing I did was to put the 16 boneless chicken breasts in a pot of water to cook. While they were cooking, I assembled most of the raw meat entrees since they mainly just involve combining a few ingredients for the sauce / marinade, placing the raw, rinsed meat in a freezer bag, and pouring the marinade over it. (If you are new to the whole process, or want an easy way to have just a few meals in the freezer, fixing just a few of these would be a great way to start. They are marked with a * in the list above.) When the chicken was done, I set it aside to cool while I browned 5 pounds of ground beef. While the beef was browning, I assembled the meatballs and rolled them out, then put them in the oven for a quick broil. I also cooked the pasta for the tetrazzini in the chicken pot / broth. Then I assembled the ground beef items, cut the chicken in bite-sized pieces, and sprinted for the finish line. By 5:30, I had everything finished and was in clean-up mode. We had the chicken packets for dinner (the boys love these), adding some fresh steamed broccoli and sliced pineapples (from a can) to finish the meal off. My preference is usually to go OUT on the night of my cooking day, but I wasn't really in the mood to go out, and neither were the guys, so that was good for all of us.

It's great to look in the freezer now and see all the meals that are ready to go with just a bit of forethought. You do have to remember to thaw them either the night before or the morning of, but then again, that's part of the ease for me because I totally don't have that 4pm "oh-no-what-are-we-having-for-dinner" feeling. And yes, there are some nights when I don't want anything that I have in the freezer, so I will cook from scratch, but that's always a choice, not a necessity, so it's much more pleasant.

I could probably make the whole process a bit less costly--by making and freezing my own chicken broth, or buy truly bargain shopping / store-hopping for the best deals, or by buying in bulk. (This time, NONE of the beef entrees were on sale, but I bought them anyway...). However, I consciously chose NOT to shop at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter because it stresses me out. I did opt for Kroger over Publix, which probably saved some $$. And I did not have many coupons to use because my clipping has suffered these past few months, so I don't have any good ones on hand. (Yes, I do need to use mobile coupons more than I do...). But all-in-all, I'd say 21 entrees for around $250 (I spent $300 at the store, but probably had close to $50 or so of other grocery items in my order.) isn't too bad. That's around $12 per entree. Add the necessary sides, and you're looking at a meal for 4 (usually with leftovers) for around $15, which isn't too bad.

Since I started doing this, there are even more resources on the internet for recipes, etc. I added a couple this time (the teriyaki chicken and the easy beef stew) that I had seen on Pinterest. And there are now several once-a-month cooking blogs out there, too. But if you are interested / intrigued by this, I'd suggest giving it a try. It's really easy once you get the hang of it, and makes meal prep so much easier!