Whatever you call it, the concept remains the same. You cook meals ahead and freeze them. Now, when you do this, the resultant meals are not going to send your little gourmet taste buds into quivering delight. You’re not going to be getting perfect meals at their peak of flavor. If that’s what you’re worried about more than anything, chances are good that cooking is a hobby or profession with you and you’re unlikely ever to let your hand rest on the phone while you argue with yourself that just because you’re tired from a long day at work, the kids are whining and you don’t feel creative, that it’s not an excuse to call for a pizza. If this is not your world, freezer cooking will likely mean little to you.
Now, while I genuinely do like my gourmet meals (I live with a chef, after all), I’m not up to that kind of cooking every night. There are times when I just want my damned dinner and to be able to sit down with the family and not sweat too much how dinner got there.
There are a lot of ways to do it. You may have heard of Once a Month Cooking. I’ll provide some links at the end of this article, but I do not do this. If it sounds like a good idea to you, try it and let me know how it turned out. You might sell me on it.
What I do is a little different. I’ve seen it called “Mini sessions”. I’ll have a certain kind of meat, then make a bunch of meals to freeze centered around that. So, when I do my hamburger session, I’ll make meatballs, chili, shepherd’s pie, Impossible cheeseburger pie, and burritos. My hamburger session is the big session and it takes about four hours. The last chicken session, I made chicken pot pie, chicken curry, and froze some diced, cooked chicken that I can throw in a stir fry, or make into a spaghetti sauce — whatever I get a wild hare across my butt to do. I think it took me about two hours of actual work. I don’t count the time stuff is in a crock pot and I’m blissfully in the bath. On my Italian session, I made a big ole pot of marinara sauce, pizzas, and two lasagnas. That’s the quickest, and takes an hour or so, again not counting the time I spend screwing around doing other things while the marinara sauce cooks away in the crock pot.
To supplement this, I’ll make planned-overs. I’ll make a big pot of soup, cook it all day in the crock pot, have half to eat and freeze the other half before I serve the meal. That’s a little trick I got from the Organizedhome.com. If you don’t do this, people going back for seconds, or picking all the meat out, or whatever, will prevent that extra you cooked from being a full meal.
I’m not going to provide a million recipes, or anything like that. The links at the bottom of the article have all this stuff quite well covered and I see no need to get into it again. What I do what to talk about is how to make it work, and explain why it might be a desirable thing to do.
First on desirability? It’s cheaper — a lot cheaper. I actually questioned this when reading about bulk cooking in its various forms. All of them were extolling the virtues of a home-cooked meal, and how it was cheaper than being all worn out and wanting to go through the drive through. Well… I’ve got the home-cooked meal most nights covered. I cannot recall the last time when even a working majority of my household went through a drive through. It’s been a few months, I can tellya that! We’ve ordered a pizza to be delivered twice in the last six months. Resorting to fast food is just not something my family has really ever done much. So, the savings there would be minimal. You get the savings because bulk cooking forces you to plan. (If you have a menu plan and shopping list you stick to over a period of months, then this method is not going to significantly increase grocery savings. You’re already doing well. Pat yourself on the back). Bulk cooking also reduces waste. Have you ever bought something with an eye to making a meal down the road only to put it off until the ingredients are spoiled? This happens when the menu plan strays from the reality of how much time you’ll actually spend in the kitchen! If you’re preparing meals to freeze, you’re not going to have a problem with that. It’s cooked, it’s wrapped well (more on that later), and it’s going to keep awhile in that freezer. Less chance of green hairy stuff in the back of the freezer demanding voting rights.
Second? It saves a lot of time. It takes about 10% more time to assemble two lasagnas at one time than it does one. It doesn’t take twice the time to double or triple most recipes, so once you’re cooking, you might as well freeze ahead. I can tell you I love coming home, popping those burritos in the oven and feeling free to kick back and noodle on the ‘net, play with the kids or take a hot bath while dinner is cooking. I don’t know about you, but I come home tired and being able to relax knowing that I’m going to be able to have a good dinner with my family feels good to me.
So, how do you make this work?
The first thing you need to make sure of is that you have the proper equipment. While you can do a bulk cooking session just with the standard pot, pans and knives, there are a few extras that make things nice. The two biggest, in my opinion, are the six quart crock pot and the food processor. The food processor cuts the the dicing time to almost nothing, and the crock pot is great not only for prepping soups, stews or stocks, but the really big one is perfect for planned-overs. I also get disposable aluminum pans for casseroles and such. If you don’t want to go that route, it’s a good idea to get a few extra baking pans of the size you’ll use for the casseroles. You can spray the pan with cooking spray, line it very well, assemble your casserole in it, freeze it, then pop it out of the pan to wrap and then reuse the pan later. You also must have some way to mark the wrapped meals. I promise you that you will not be able to just look at a properly wrapped meal and be able to tell what it is. Freezer labels are cheap, as are permanent markers. Protect your investment of time and money with this stuff.
Next, you need your plan. I really recommend some good cooking software to streamline the planning process. I use Mastercook and like it a lot. You can create a meal/cooking plan directly from the recipes you have, scale them to the quantities you want, and create a shopping list directly from that. (One that you can put on your PDA. That, I really, really like!) However, there are some links at the bottom of this article that list some very good websites that have recipes and can generate shopping lists from them as well. In your plan, I think it is a good idea to take a look at the sales. If there’s a big sale on some sort of meat, it’s a good time to plan a cooking session around it.
So then, you need to shop. My mini-sessions usually yield between 8 and 10 meals, so it’s a respectable-sized grocery run. I have shopped on the same day I cooked, but that’s a long day. I don’t recommend it if you can avoid it. Of course, you know all the standard shopping rules about not shopping hungry and sticking to your list.
Once you’ve made your plan and shopped, you’re all ready to cook, right?
Nope. Not yet.
Take a look at your counters. Do you have ample counter space? (In my 37 years, I’ve lived 8 months with ample counter space). Cluttered? Clear them of everything you do not intend to use for that cooking session. Yes, that means the coffee pot. Stow it in the bedroom, or wherever for the next few hours. You’re going to need all the space you can get. Move the crock pot to another surface once you’ve got the stuff you’re going to cook in it set up. You can put it anywhere near a plug where a child won’t pull it down on top of her head, so be creative. If you’re not going to use the mixer, move it. The more space to spread out for the assembly-line stuff, the better. Make sure that all your cooking utensils are clean and ready to go. If have a dishwasher, make sure it’s empty. Fill your kitchen sink with hot, soapy water so you can clean as you go. You do not want to end this session with a huge mess, and if you clean as you go, you won’t.
The cooking itself? You know how to cook or you wouldn’t be considering this. Do keep in mind that because you’re putting together several of the same sort of meals at a time, you can make the assembly line process work for you. When the meal is assembled, however, comes storage.
You have gone to a lot of work. Oh sure, in the long run, it’ll be a lot less work than making a meal every day, but still, you’ve put a lot of time and money into this, and you don’t want it wasted. Make very very sure that you cool down your meals before you wrap them and put them in the freezer. Many chefs, if they intend to freeze food immediately, use waterproof containers and ice water baths to chill the food in preparation for freezing. Once the meal is cooled enough to put in the freezer wrap it well and keep the air out! Air is what makes freezer burn possible, after all. I buy professional grade wrap from a local warehouse store (it’s actually cheaper than what you get in the grocery store in addition to being of superior quality). If you are using freezer bags (and choose freezer rather than storage bags. A spoiled meal is more expensive than the increase in price on the heavier bag), make sure you get all the air out before you close it. If your freezer space is limited, remember that you can freeze foods flat in freezer bags, then restack them in better ways once they’re blocks of ice. Freeze things in a square rather than round to make better use of limited cubic as well. If space is not a big consideration, one trick that can work well for soups and sauces you will reheat is to freeze them in the pot you will use to reheat them, then take the frozen disc out of the pot, wrap the disc well, label and date it, then pop it back in to reheat whenever you like.
Do remember to label and date. This is a biggie. No, you’re not an exception. Label the food, date it and keep an inventory. I personally have a list of meals with boxes next to them, and I cross off meals as they’re used. I know of people who use a whiteboard to make a list and just erase as used. However, you really, really do want an inventory.
After all this is done, whenever you want to cook one of the meals, take it out of the freezer to thaw it in the morning, reheat it that night, and you’re all good.
Cooking software, recipe sites, and shopping list generators
- AllRecipes.com — If you join, you can create a recipe box of your own and other’s recipes, and generate a shopping list from that. I’ve used it for years as my recipe lookup and have always been satisfied.
- Cook of the Month — This site is directly designed for Once a Month Cooking with meal planning and shopping options. It has an option to put your shopping list on a PDA.
- Mastercook — This is the software I use.
Vegetarian OAMC recipes