Saturday, August 03, 2013

Craziness in the Kitchen (aka Once-a-Month Cooking)

My life is rather crazy these days. Despite the fact that I have not held a fulltime, for pay job in many years, my hands are in many pots, and there are many things for which I am responsible.  Joel is a fulltime pastor at Oconee Presbyterian Church, we have three teenage boys--Adam is a sophomore at Presbyterian College, and Daniel and Michael are in 11th and 9th grades respectively at North Oconee High School.  I am also the primary point person for my Dad's care.  He lives in a nearby assisted living, so that's not as time-consuming as it may sound, but I am responsible for his medical care and financial affairs, and go visit with him or take him for a meal two or three times each week.   I am an ordained Presbyterian pastor, but my current ministry is math teaching and tutoring. I taught middle and high school math for a few years prior to the boys' arrival, and have tutored for the past twenty-five years.  I currently have both traditional and homeschooled students, and see about twelve to fifteen each week during the school year. I also dabble in pottery, and may one day get an Etsy site up and running.  For now, I sell mugs at Jittery Joe's in Watkinsvlle, and to friends and family here and there by word-of-mouth.  

It sounds like a lot, and some days it feels like a lot.  But mostly I feel blessed to be able to do so many things that I love.

My first venture into once-a-month cooking was when we were in seminary in 2003 or 2004.  We were both in school at the time, and the boys were 5, 7, and 9, or thereabouts.  I was feeling very anxious about our upcoming semester and our tight budget of both time and finances.  I didn't want our health to suffer, and knew we didn't have the money to eat out very often.  So at the end of the summer, once the boys had gone back to school but our classes had not yet started, I gave it a try.  I got the cookbook from my friend Steve Kopp, husband of fellow student Karen Jolly, and began to flip through the pages.  

My first thought was that there were many of the recipes the boys would NOT eat.  They were not overly picky eaters, but at the time they were not fond of anything with more than two food items combined.  So casseroles were out, with the exception of a very few.  And there were nights when I knew I would not need a ready-made meal.  We did wonderful cookouts on the playground each Friday night, we often had church suppers on Wednesday nights, and did occasionally go out to eat when time and money allowed.  So I flipped through the book and found ten or twelve recipes that looked like they would be winners, and set to work.

My kitchen was a tiny galley-style kitchen, but I managed to get a few meals put away. I loved the ability to pull something out of the freezer in the morning, and have a good meal that night.  For me, it's been more like once-every-six-months cooking because 15-20 meals will typically last two or three months.

So I've done this now several times over the past eight years, usually in late August when I know the back-to-school crazy train is about to start.  Then I'll do it again in the early months of winter, when there's little else to do, usually in early- to mid-January.  I've done it enough times that it's no longer daunting, and I have the preferred recipes down pat so that a lot of them are automatic for me.

As for exactly how it all gets done, it's something you'll have to figure out on your own once you decide what dishes to make.  I will say that I highly recommend you doing a mixture of chicken and beef (if you eat both) because if you don't, you'll get really tired of chicken pretty quickly. Trust me.

This is my freezer before. Notice our staple "go-to" meal of frozen pizzas.
I stock up on the good brands (Freschetta and DiGiorno) whenver they are less than $5.00 at the grocery story.  

The basic process is this:

  • Find your recipes and make a master grocery list of how much meat, produce, freezer bags / containers, etc. you need.  (Make sure you have plenty of heavy duty foil as well as a Sharpie marker on hand.)  
  • Two days before prep day, do all of your shopping. 
  • The day before prep day, do all of your meat cooking.  It takes a long time to brown 12# of ground beef and cook 10# of chicken. While the meat is cooking, you can do all your chopping, dicing, spice gathering, etc.  
  • Then on prep day, it's basically just a massive assembly of recipes--measuring spices, opening cans, blending, and stirring.  

Typically, I dice 6 or 7 onions and 3 or 4 peppers for the recipes I use.  

Browning the ground beef takes quite a while, so plan for that!
And borrow a large pot or skillet if you can to make it go faster.  

So here are just a few random tips, in no certain order.  Except #1 is most important  :-)

1.  Make sure you have a bottle of your favorite beverage on hand on prep day.  You will want it when you put your last meal in the freezer at the end of the day.  For me, it's a white wine in August, and a good red wine in January.

2.  You cannot easily do this with small children in the house, especially the first time.  Farm them out for at least five hours on prep day. Or have someone come over to entertain them while you work.  Or do it on a day when your spouse or partner can be responsible for parenting.

3.  Make sure your dishwasher is empty when you start.  Run it frequently, even if it's not full, or use it to place dishes to drain / out of the way.

4.  A deep freeze / chest freezer is a must for more than 6 to 8 meals.  It's worth the investment, trust me.  And a food processor is highly recommended.  Borrow one if you don't have one.  I will never not have either of those items again.

5.  Start simple.  Do 6 or 8 meals to start, just to get a feel for it.  Maybe 3 or 4 chicken and 3 or 4 beef.

6.  Clean as you go, but don't stress over how messy the kitchen is.  This is a hard one for me, but it's just not worth the anxiety.  Know that it will be clean before you go to bed, and if you are too tired, ask your significant other to clean it for you, or have a friend come clean it for you in exchange for his or her pick of a meal from the batch.

This was taken about 2 hours into an 8-hour day. 
7.  Either plan for one of your meals to be dinner on prep night, or better yet, plan to go out that night--if going out is not too stressful to you because of young children.  I typically will have the tetrazzini for dinner on prep night.

8.  Check the portions for each recipe, and split them if the numbers work better for your family.  Many of the casseroles (lasagna and meatball sub casserole) feed 12, but could easily be split into 3 smaller casseroles for 4 each.  The first couple of times I did this, we had a lot of leftovers each time, and we are just not a leftover-eating family--unless Adam is home from college, then he eats ALL leftovers readily and eagerly.  :-)

9.  Go ahead and make sure you have ALL ingredients for the meal on hand, even though the noodles may not be cooked until the night you eat that particular meal.  A very few require additional ingredients just prior to cooking, and it's frustrating to have something ready to cook and realize that you used that can of cream of mushroom soup for something else, gave those egg noodles to the food pantry, or forgot that you didn't have buns.  For the record, grated cheese freezes very well.

10.  Many recipes call for the old, red-label Campbell's soup.  These are not the healthiest soups, sometimes high in sodium and other nastiness.  Here is a link for homemade cream of (anything) soup if you are really feeling adventurous.  I haven't yet tried it, though.

11  These recipes are not lowfat.  My guys don't really have to worry about that, but I do, so usually I will have a small portion of the entree, and eat more salad or fresh veggies.

12.  Prior to shopping / prepping days, look over the recipes and make sure you have a general feel for the flow of things.  You will definitely want to multi-task, and the more you can do at once, the less time it will take you. I typically have 2 or 3 stations in the kitchen, with one recipe in process at each station, and I have the printed recipe right there at the station so I don't forget what I'm doing!  It might even help to re-do the recipes in a more "step-by-step" visual format rather than paragraph style.

That's all I can think of to share about this.  This is one of those things where DOING IT the first time is really hard, but after that, it's much less daunting.  It's funny to me how folks talk about all the organization or energy or whatever I have when I mention that I do this, but the truth is that I DO IT because I'm not very organized about meals on a day-to-day basis, and don't have the energy at 4:00pm to do anything about it, especially now that my primary work (tutoring) is done between 4:00 and 8:00 each day.  Massive-Meal-Prep gives me an out on those 30 days when I simply cannot decide what to have for dinner, or don't have time to put anything together because my day has been one, big interruption.  

And this is my freezer after--33 entrees, ready to be pulled out to thaw in the morning,
and cooked or warmed for dinner that night!  
If you haven't gotten the recipes from me yet, give me a tap and I will make sure you have access to the ones I use.  But I would suggest that you just browse for some online to see what strikes your fancy.  Every family is different, and now that our boys are older, the meals we like are not as toddler-friendly as they once were.

If you've been thinking about doing this, now is a great time to start.  Go for it!  And if you do try it, I'd love to hear about your first experience.