How many times have you come home from work, or from a busy day of running errands, incredibly tired, only to realize there’s nothing for dinner?
If you’re like me, this has happened to you countless times. And, if you’re on a tight budget like me, it isn’t always as simple as digging in the phone book to have a pizza or Chinese delivered to your door.
When this happens, I usually get up, deal with the tiredness and throw something together, but; sometimes I realize that it requires another trip to the grocery store… and that only perpetuates the misery.
This has led me to the wonderful world of Once a Month Cooking, which is not as awful as it may seem. Once a Month Cooking (OAMC), Once a Week Cooking, Cooking ahead, Freezer cooking, whatever name you decide to give it, helps you save time and money and avoids those aforementioned chaotic scenarios. Cooking everything you need for a month’s worth of dinner at one time sounds crazy, but I promise it’s not that bad! If you’re short on time, or too timid to try a month right off the bat, cooking for a week at a time is a great way to get started.
The key to success with this endeavor is planning. If you plan every detail, it will run much more smoothly than running into it blindly. First, plan your meals. Look for things that freeze easily, and compactly. I will give tips for this later. Also, look for recipes that have ingredients in common, as you will save money with buying in bulk. After you plan your meals, plan your grocery list. For recipes that share ingredients, just update quantities as you move along through the meals. This is an essential step that you want to be through with, because the last thing you want is to be in the middle of cooking and have to run to the store for an absolutely necessary ingredient. And finally, look at your schedule. Plan your shopping day a few days in advance to your cooking day. Both of these days need to be free from excessive tasks other than the one at hand. A whole day devoted to shopping means that you have time to focus on getting everything you need, and comparing prices from store to store gives you a better chance at saving money.
For instance, after I select my meals for the month, I look at my grocery stores online circulars and plan what I’m buying from each store. Then, I tally up a total pounds of meat and head on over to my local Sam’s Club. I also do a survey of my cabinets to see if there is anything else I need to buy in bulk, or if I’m running low on something like flour, that I don’t use very often but always like to have in my kitchen arsenal.
Cooking Day has arrived. How do you start? First, clean your kitchen. Prepare your sink with clean dish water so you can wash while things cook and you can stay ahead of yourself slightly. Empty your freezer and make sure you have plenty of room. Then pick a starting point. This will vary from person to person and how much they are willing to take on at a time, but for me, I choose a meat be it chicken, beef, or fish and look at all my dishes that require it. For instance, I’m having burritos, meatloaf, and lasagna this month, so I will grab all of my ground beef and cook it together. From there, I will separate it and focus on the individual recipes so that I don’t end up having the burrito seasoned beef in my lasagna!
From there, you want to be sure that you have let all the food cool properly and you want to freeze it without air because freezer burn will ruin all of your hard efforts, wasting the time and money you just spent, and still leading to the “What’s for dinner?” fiasco we’re trying to avoid.
Here are some good methods to use:
Freezer Bags: Always use freezer bags that are marked for such purpose. I have recently switched to the Reynold’s Handi-Vac System because no matter how much I tried to get all of the air out of the bag, I still ended up with freezer burn a few months later. The system is not expensive to purchase, and is much more effective than pressing out the air yourself and praying. It does require a special freezer bag that is slightly more expensive than the others, but definitely is worth the money you’ll save by not throwing out food. They come in quart and gallon sizes. Freezer bags are best for meals that have a lot of liquid. When freezing them, place them on the freezer shelf until frozen, and then stack them so that you can save space without having frozen your bags to one another.
Foil/Plastic Wrap: The most important thing to remember with this method is that your foods must be completely cooled before using it. This method works best for foods that require a certain pan for cooking, or need to keep shape. To use this method:
1. Line a pan with foil.
2. Cover the foil lining with plastic wrap. Be sure to use enough to cover the ENTIRE dish.
3. Place the food into the dish and seal the foil and wrap securely. DO NOT ALLOW AIR IN!
4. Put the food in the dish and into the freezer.
5. Allow it to sit long enough to freeze into shape.
6. Remove the dish.
Now you have the food safely frozen along with the use of your baking dish for other meals that you may make prior to this one, so your dishes aren’t filling the freezer with your food. When you’re ready to cook the meal, thaw it slightly, remove the foil and plastic and cook through in the oven!
Vacuum Sealing: The other option is to purchase a vacuum sealer system to use. You can search for these on various websites, but be sure to read reviews to see which one is best for you.
Finally, let me leave you with the following tips.
· Always allow food to cool completely before attempting to freeze.
· Label, Label, Label! Make sure you know what’s what, and when it was frozen so you can rotate stock and ensure freshness. You may even want to include simple instructions such as cooking temps and times so that you don’t have to waste time referring back to the original recipe.
· Remember that most frozen goods will only last 5 to 6 months.
If you don’t want to go through cooking all that at one time, you can also just double up your recipes for a few weeks, and freeze the other half. Soon you’ll have a build up of quick dinners. All you have to do is pick something and thaw it, and you’ll always know what’s for dinner. Your weekly grocery store trips will take next to nothing as you’re stocking up on items like milk and bread, and your world will be much less stressful!