The clock strikes 5 o’clock and my home seems to transform into a war zone. The baby’s flinging toys across the living room and my preschooler is repeating over and over, “I’m hungry. I’m hungry.”
Sound familiar? For many parents mealtime mayhem is just part of the daily grind. But it doesn’t have to be. Stay-at-home and working moms alike are discovering the benefits of what is known as once-a-month cooking (OAMC), also known as bulk or freezer cooking. The cooking method involves setting aside a day or two to cook a month’s worth of meals and then storing them in the freezer.
Some freezer cooking veterans cook everything one or two weekend a month, so they don’t ever have to worry about dinner during the week. Although I haven’t reached that level of pre-planning, I do frequently make double batches of meals to freeze, so I’ll have a meal on hand for particularly busy nights. Not having to worry about what’s for dinner brings peace to the dinnertime hour and allows us to focus on family time.
Not only does this style of cooking mean less time in the kitchen and more time with your family, buying in bulk can help stretch your food dollar. To be extra frugal, shape your meal planning around what specials are going on at grocery stores. Chicken on sale? Then stock up on it and plan to throw together some casseroles, enchiladas and other dishes where chicken plays the starring role.
In addition, having a stockpile of ready-made meals just might come in handy when a friend is in need. When a friend of mine as a baby, I often have an extra batch of scones or a casserole to offer her.
Cooking ahead of time helps with entertaining, too. If we’re going to have company, then I may just do my marinade for pork tenderloin ahead of time and freeze it. That’s one less thing you have to do.
Since my main course often no longer requires any prep time other than a quick zap in the oven or microwave, I can also get more creative with side dishes.
And believe it or not, whipping up a lot of meals ahead of time doesn’t demand the culinary skills of Rachael Ray. Nor do you have to be a highly organized domestic diva to pull it off.
Ready to simplify evening chowtime? Here’s how to get started with freezer cooking:
• Start slowly. Follow my example and don’t feel like you have to practice full-blown OAMC to enjoy the bliss of occasionally pulling out a ready-made meal out of the freezer at suppertime. An easy way to get started is to make a double batch of a favorite family recipe such as lasagna and freeze the extra one. If you do this a few times a week, you’ll soon have a stockpile of prepared meals in your freezer. Once you’re ready to take it to the next level, choose a handful of recipes that share some of the same ingredients. For instance, pick out two chicken entrees and two dishes that have beans in them. Then make several batches of these four dishes and viola! You have a stash of meals ready to pull out on busy nights. You can even apply the principles of freezer cooking to special circumstances or seasons. Why not make several batches of your favorite cookie dough for the holidays? Divvy it up into perfect party portions, wrap in plastic wrap and freeze until you need it for your next potluck or dessert party.
• Stick to tried and true recipes. You can eventually get a little more creative with your menu, but I’ve learned to not get too exotic. You don’t want to end up with mass quantities of something everybody hates. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to bland casseroles. I’ve found that you can freeze just about anything.
• Get out the sharpie. Labeling your meals keeps you from having to dig through stacks of mystery freezer bags. It also helps to maintain an inventory of what’s in your freezer. (A few of my friends have seen my freezer inventory hanging up on my refrigerator and have called me a big geek. I do like charts and maybe I get a little crazy with them, but I think they’re a bit envious that they’ll be slaving away in the kitchen while I’m playing with the kiddos). Cross off meals as your family eats them. Be sure to freeze items into meal-sized portions.
• Plan ahead. If you get overly ambitious and want to try to cook just once a month, be sure to plan your marathon cooking session a week ahead. During this time choose recipes, make a grocery list and then head to the store. You may want to begin pre-cooking on Thursday and Friday. For example, you could brown all the meat you need for the dishes and chop up all the veggies. When Saturday arrives, roll up your sleeves, don an apron and be prepared to spend most of the day in the kitchen. This day certainly can be a little tedious. (I tried it once and decided I wasn’t ready to be this ambitious yet). However, bear in mind that OAMC ultimately turns an evening chore into a monthly task. Remember to treat yourself to a meal out or order a pizza on your big cooking day – you deserve the break.
• Get help. I first learned about OAMC from a busy mom of six who went to my church. Taming the dinnertime chaos sounded appealing to me, so I did my homework (and I also wrote an article about it). An invaluable resource that found a home on my bookshelf resource is the Freezer Cooking Manual from 30 Day Gourmet: A Month of Meals Made Easy by Nanci Slagle. The book includes worksheets and shopping lists to work from when designing your menu. The book is available here. Other books you may find helpful include: Once-a-Month Cooking, Revised Edition : A Proven System for Spending Less Time in the Kitchen and Enjoying Delicious, Homemade Meals Every Day by Mary-Beth Lagerborg and Mimi Wilson and Frozen Assets: How to Cook for a Day and Eat for a Month by Deborah Taylor-Hough.
• Learn by trial and error. My OAMC friend recommends taking notes of what did and didn’t work. And keep at it. You’ll figure a system out that works best for your family.”
Here’s a good list of freezer dos and don’ts if you’re new to freezer cooking.
Also, here’s a freezer-friendly recipe for crispy chicken my family enjoys.