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Once a Month Cooking

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Once a Month Cooking

Once a Month Cooking
Written by Donna Conner

How many times have these scenarios happened to you? After slogging in from work one day or chasing kids all day, your loving spouse (remember: for better or worse), looks at you and says "Hey, what's for dinner?" At that point it dawns on you that, drats!, you forgot to take something out of the freezer to thaw. What do you do? At my house, we would look for the phone number for pizza delivery.

Or better yet, after work, you carpool kids to scouts, dance lessons, soccer practice, it's already getting late and everyone is hungry, what do you do? Drive right on through the nearest drive-thru for burgers. That REALLY starts to hit the pocketbook after a few trips, especially with those hollow-legged youths!

Wouldn't we all feel better if we could get a nutritious, appetizing meal on the table for our families with a MINIMUM of fuss? Interested in knowing how?

Welcome to Once a Month Cooking (OAMC). Or otherwise known as Make Ahead Meals (MAM), bulk cooking, freezer cooking, batch cooking, cooking ahead. The names are endless!

Here is the concept:

All at one time, usually a weekend, cook all sorts of food and put it in the freezer. Now all you have to do is thaw, re-heat and serve! No more questions of "what's for dinner", no more rooting in the fridge and pantry to see what wonderful concoction you can create while your loved ones are whining "I'm hungry!" No more headaches.

Why Do It?

You must be wondering, why should you even consider cooking ALL weekend, when the last thing you want to do is slave over a stove.

Here's why I do it:

No more stressing over what's for dinner. The night before, I take something out to thaw (in the fridge, of course) and I already know what's for dinner.

More time with my family in the evenings. Instead of whipping up dinner from scratch each night, all I have to do is re-heat and serve. Adding side dishes is a snap.

I know my family is eating better. We are getting healthier, home-cooked meals, instead of pre-packaged convenience foods.

Grocery bills are cut in half! My husband pointed out that for a family of 3, and our little one is only 3, I would spend about $100 a week in groceries. The first 'session' of cooking that I did was enough meals for 3 weeks. I spent a total of $126 and that included paper goods and diapers. That is about $42 a week, versus $100. The second 'session' I did, ended up lasting us 10 weeks, and I spent a total of $278 dollars. Or $27.80 a week. Yes, I had to purchase things weekly still, like milk, bread, produce, but even that kept my grocery bills down to about $50 a week. How can you save that much? You are buying in bulk now and getting a much better price. Instead of buying 3 pounds of hamburger at $1.59/pound, you are buying 30 pounds of hamburger at $.79/pound. And if you are shopping the loss leaders and planning around those, you can save even more!

The reasons why people cook ahead are endless. Perhaps you are on a restricted diet and it takes a while to prepare your special foods. Doesn't it make sense to do a lot at one time?

The Methods:

There are as many different ways to cook ahead as there are cooks in the world!

Here are a few:

True OAMC:

Spending 2 or so days a month, cooking a variety of foods to put into your freezer.

Mini Sessions:

Cooking enough just for a week or two. Got only the small freezer in your fridge? This may work better for you. This is also good if you shop the loss leaders of your store. If chicken goes on a really good sale, you buy 10 or so pounds and cook away! Next week it may be beef or ham.

Double Up:

Making lasagna for dinner? Make two or three and put them in the freezer. You already have the pans dirty, and the extra effort to do several in an assembly line is minimal. Each night double your recipes and at the end of the week, you have 7 meals already in the freezer. At the end of two weeks, you have 14 meals in the freezer to pick and chose from. Before you know it, you aren't cooking much anymore daily. And that, my friends, is the idea!

Prep work:

All this sound like too much to deal with? Start small. If you hate to cut onions, buy a 5 - 10 pound bag and chop or slice them all at once. Divide into freezer bags and you are done! To use, just thaw out. Know that you use browned ground beef a lot? Well, instead of frying up one pound, fry up 5 pounds. Put the other 4 pounds in the freezer. While you are at it, season a few with taco seasoning and your Mexican meal nights are halfway done. Now when you want a meal quick, pull out a bag of hamburger, thaw it in the microwave or skillet, add your recipe ingredients and there you go! Got a great deal on a 5 pound block of cheese? Hate to grate cheese? Grate it all at once, and freeze it. You would be surprised at the amount of time that you save by already having the prep work done!

Storing your hard work:

Now the last thing you want to do is root around in the freezer and find a package of something that is covered in ice crystals. That is freezer burn and it effects the quality of your food. Proper freezer storage is essential. Freezer zipper type bags are ideal. As long as you get all the air out. Press it out with your hands, seal it up part way and suck the air out with a straw (be careful not to suck up any food! Been there, done that!). Vacuum sealers work wonderful if you have one. Glad now makes re-usable oven-ware that is freezer to oven to dishwasher safe. Just ensure that no excess air is trapped in with your food.

Air = freezer burn.

And most importantly LABEL LABEL LABEL!!!! Just trust me on that one!

The Do's and Don'ts of Freezing Foods

The facts of life are simple. Some foods freeze well, others do not.

Here is a general Guideline:

Foods that do not freeze well:

Cottage cheese (as purchased)
Whipping cream
Cream cheese (as purchased)
Hard cooked eggs (turn rubbery)
Sour cream (as purchased)
Cake icings made with egg whites becomes foamy
Cream fillings and soft frostings have an undesirable texture
Pies made with custard or cream fillings become watery or lumpy
Fried foods tend to lose their crispness and become soggy
Fruit jelly in sandwiches may soak into the bread
Mayonnaise tends to separate

Foods that change somewhat during freezing:

Potatoes in soups and stews may become mushy and discolor
Gravies and other sauces may separate and need to be re-combined by stirring or processing in the blender
Thick sauces may need thinning after freezing; thin with broth or milk
Seasonings like onions, herbs and flavorings used in recipes may change during freezing
Vegetables, pastas and grains used in cooked recipes are usually softer after freezing and reheating. Undercook them before freezing or add when the dish is re-heated
Heavy cream can be frozen, if it is only to be used in cooking, not to whip.
Raw veggies will lose their crispness, but can be used in soups, stews, etc.
Cheeses change texture. Most hard cheeses turn crumbly, which is fine for shredding, but not slicing.

Foods that are wonderful to freeze:

Here's a tip, if you can purchase it frozen at the grocery store, then you can, most times, freeze it yourself!

Milk, just thaw in the fridge and shake well
Bread and pizza dough
Cookie dough
Spaghetti sauce
Soups or stews (potatoes and carrots may get a little mushy)
Mashed Potatoes
Twice baked potatoes
Raw meats
Cooked meats:
Pre-cooked hamburger
Pre-cooked sausage
Cooked, diced chicken
Sliced or cubed cooked ham
Sliced or crumbled cooked bacon
Fresh Veggies that have been blanched
Apples/peaches for pies or jellies
Parbaked pizza (then treat like a store-bought pizza!)
French Toast

The list is really endless.

Hints, Tips and Terms

So, thinking of giving this a try? Well, here are some hints and tips to get you started:

1. Plan, plan, plan. It takes a lot of time in the beginning, but it gets easier with more experience. Definitely make a menu plan and a complete grocery list.

2. Review recipes and combine and chop all onions, peppers, celery before hand. Ditto for shredded cheese if you didn't purchase it that way.

3. Clean the kitchen before you begin. Clean counters, get out the can opener, and make lots of space.

4. Fill the sink with sudsy water before you begin to wash as you go, and always start with an empty dishwasher.

5. Don't forget to eat.

6. Make sure that you have plenty of containers andpermanent marking pens. I just slipped up a couple of weeks ago and used a water soluble marker which quickly disappeared in the humidity of the freezer.

7. Wear shoes with good support. Sandals won't get it, nor will bare feet. Your feet will thank you at the end of the day.

8. Make only one family size portion of any new recipe. You can always make more if it's a hit, but the worst thing that can happen is to have a freezer full of untried foods that might not be accepted by the family. (Please take this tip to heart! Been there! Done that!)

9. Cook ahead anything that you can before the big day. It's a lot easier to start with a supply of diced cooked chicken and cooked ground beef than to have to tackle everything at once.

10. Plan something for dinner on a big cooking day. It can be an easy crockpot meal or a take-out pizza or one meal of what you're making, but plan for it. You'll be too tired to worry about it at 6:00 on a big cooking day.

11. If you want to include baked goods, consider doing them on a separate day from your main dishes. They take totally different ingredients and pans and make different messes.

12. If you're doing preparation intensive meals (stuffed shells, manicotti or cabbage roll type things), start them early in the day while you're still fresh. Oh, and anything held together with toothpicks does NOT store well in freezer bags!! Ask me how I know!

13. Clean out the freezer and the fridge before you shop. You'll need the space.

14. The more different dishes you prepare the longer it will take. It's not a problem to make 6 meals each of 4 recipes, but the menu will be pretty boring after about a week.

15. Concentrate on one recipe at a time. I was doing 7 different ground beef dishes one Sunday afternoon and I got confused when trying to do three at a time. Led to some interesting combinations! You can brown all at one time, but keep the assembly limited to the one at hand.

16. Check even your normal spices before beginning a session. It's not fun to run out of basil or Italian seasoning or garlic when you're in the middle of cooking. The last thing in the world that you want to do is make an emergency run to the grocery.

17. Find someone that practices this and ask tons of questions!

OAMC ~ Once a month cooking ~ the term comes from the book "Once A Month Cooking" by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg

Flash Freeze - Simply freezing items in a single layer on a cookie sheet or tray till hard and then bagging together. This way the food does not stick together so you can use however many you like at a time. Great for meatballs, waffles, pancakes, onions, hamburger patties, etc.

IQF ~ Individually Quick Frozen

ęcopyright 2002 Donna Conner All Rights Reserved.

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