Do you ever have "one of those days"? You know the ones. They're the days when the kids are cranky, one of your sons has a missing shoe, the cat gifted you with a hairball -- in the missing shoe, the phone is ringing every two minutes, the toddler broke a glass on the kitchen floor, and it isn't even 8 am yet. You spend the entire day just trying to catch up and maybe catch a breath while you're at it. Then you look at the clock and realize dinner was supposed to be on the table 15 minutes ago. What? You never have those days? I'll bet you and Martha Stewart hang out for coffee and laugh at the rest of us, don't you?
When it has been "one of those days" the obvious American answer to the age old question, "What's for dinner, Mom?" is to stuff the kids in the car (minus one disgusting shoe) and head to the nearest Fast Food chain for some R&R. But the words of all the health food gurus nag you throughout the meal, "What are you feeding your kids? Is this really good for them? Is it good for you? Will you fit in that swimsuit? Will they ever invent a real time photo shop app that follows you around and makes you look fabulous?" And if you have those days several times a week....you're in real trouble. You are drowning in a sea of ketchup and there aren't even any french fry life boats to save you...
Enter our hero: Once A Month Cooking.
The basic idea of Once a Month Cooking is this: With a little bit of pre-planning (which either you do, or you purchase a book or menu planner to do for you), you end up with a freezer full of entrees that will last you a whole month. The way I do it (or to be truthful, the way I did it before my toddler was born. I keep meaning to get started again and haven't managed it yet. This post is meant to light a fire under me...) But the way I have done it is to break the work into 3 days.
*Planning Day: This is the day I put my menu plans for the month together, check my pantry to see what I have, and finalize my grocery list. At the end of this post, I will give you my "go to" sources for recipes, pre-made plans, in-depth instructions, etc.
*Shopping/and Prep Day: This is the mega-grocery-store-run day. I try to go without the kids if possible, because I am buying a month's worth of groceries. It requires a wee bit of focus. But I have taken my brood along many times and we all survived the experience. Prepare for some sticker shock at the checkout. You are actually saving money buy cooking in bulk, because there is less waste and you can often get better prices for bulk items. But it still looks like a lot of money.
When I get home with all the loot, I will pre-chop anything I can. Because I am making a whole month's worth of entrees, I really save time by adding up all the chopped onions, etc. I will need and doing them all at once in the food processor. I do this for anything I can. If time permits, I will usually pre-brown any ground beef I need to brown and pre-cook any boiled chicken I will need. If I have anything that can go into the crock-pot to cook overnight (like beans or something) I will get them started.
*The Big Cook-Off Day: This is the big day! I try to plan this for the kids. I try to make sure the little ones have fun, absorbing activities to do while close by me. Now that I also have older kids, they can either help me in the kitchen or help with the little one. If you have available friends or family, this would be a great day for your kiddos to go for a nice, long visit. In desperate times, I have even stayed up nearly all night to do the cooking so that the kids were okay and not neglected, but I don't recommend it. They need a rested mommy in the morning. In about 8 hours of cooking, you have completed enough nourishing, home made meals to last all month long.
When you are ready to serve a meal, all you have to do is thaw the meal and follow the directions (which you have conveniently written right on the meal, so you don't even have to look it up.) Most meals can be easily rounded out with a simple salad or other veggie and some bread. Now you can rest easy for the month.
Some other great uses for your freezer meals: You can take them to a friend who has recently had a baby, someone who has been in the hospital, or a neighbor who just needs to know someone cares. These are also great for the elderly. If you have an elderly loved one, you can package these in smaller portions and stock their freezer for them. Now you know they have access to nourishing food without excessive effort. When I was pregnant for one of my children, I knew there would be no one to help me after he was born. In preparation for that time, I made 6 months worth of freezer meals (we have a lot of freezer space.) The only down-side to being that prepared was how sad I was when we cooked the last meal. I had got out of the habit of wondering what was for dinner...
Some of My Freezer Cooking Resources: Once-a-Month Cooking -- by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg
This is the book that taught me the skill of freezer cooking for the month. It has multiple menu plans complete with grocery lists, pre-prep instructions, cooking day instructions, serving day instructions and even ideas for rounding out the rest of the meal. There is a whole chapter that teaches how to cook using this method.
I have two copies of this book -- the original and the revised. I like both, but a lot of the recipes are different. I think I still like the original best -- perhaps I'm just nostalgic...but maybe you can find a used copy somewhere. Even if you can't, the new one is definitely worth it. They also have a sequel -- Once-a-Month Cooking -- Family Favorites with more menu plans and recipes.
Don't Panic -- Dinner's in the Freezer -- by Susie Martinez, Vanda Howell, and Bonnie Garcia
This book is full of awesome freezer meal recipes. There are instructions on Freezer Cooking, but it doesn't have the careful pre-planning and menu plans that Once-a-Month Cooking has. I use this book to substitute recipes we didn't like in the Once-a-Month menu plans, or to cook a single meal in bulk for the freezer.
Frozen Assets -- by Deborah Taylor-Hough
More great freezer recipes. This book also has several chapters dedicated to planning for once a month cooking.
www.30DayGourmet.com -- This site has tons of information, recipes, e-book samples, and the like and you can sign up for their newsletter. They also sell a book called 30 Day Gourmet's Big Book of Freezer Cooking. I don't own the book, but I keep eyeing it. But the big thing I keep salivating over is their 30 Day Gourmet Edition Advantage Cooking Software (because anything with a name that long has to be good, right?) The software allows you to use their recipes or plug in your own recipes. Then you just select the recipes you want to use for your menu plan and it gives you a detailed grocery list. It even has a "Recipe Report" so your recipes are handy, a "Container Report" to make sure you have enough of the right containers to freeze your meals, an "Action Report" so you'll know what needs to be chopped, browned, etc. and an "Appliance Report" to make sure you know what kitchen appliances you will need. It's like the Once-A-Month Cooking book, but it rewrites itself for whatever you want to make. It's only available for PC, though, and I use a Mac. Sigh... Excuse me while I quietly weep....
I really have to go now. I feel a Big Cooking Day coming on. I must plan...