Freezer Cooking Another Way

I like to do Freezer Cooking, OAMC (Once a Month Cooking), whatever you want to call it. I like to cook. But the reality is that there are nights where I blasted well don’t feel like cooking. Maybe I’ve been on my feet teaching all day. Maybe I’ve dived into my writing to the point where I look up and realize it’s getting on to dinner time and I don’t want to take the time out to make a meal that night. Maybe the family’s just plain busy and it’s not realistic to dump the cooking duties on someone else. So, I like to have a few meals in the freezer for those times.

If you do a search for some variant on the keywords “Crockpot Freezer Cooking” you’ll find a new method for making meals for the freezer that has taken me two days to fall in love with.

What you need: A slow cooker, some recipes you like, some gallon freezer bags, and a freezer. (And you have to like crock pot meals. If you don’t, stop reading now. This isn’t for you).

This is a psycho easy way to have meals prepped to pop in the crock pot of a morning. My family and I prepared about a month’s worth of dinners this way and it took us an hour and a half from start to cleanup. If you don’t have a sous-chef you might want to tack on another half an hour to 45 minutes, but that’s about it. Still, you’re looking at under three hours of prep time for a month’s worth of dinners. This is nothing like the all-day cooking sessions for classic OAMC.

When you do classic OAMC, you cook meals in advance, thaw them and then heat them up on the day you want to serve them.

With Slow Cooker Freezer Cooking, you only do the prep work and store the uncooked meals in the freezer to thaw and toss in the crock pot the morning before you want to serve it. Just prep everything like you would to pop it in the crock pot, but put it in a freezer bag instead, and freeze it flat. Yes, it’s that easy.

One thing with this cooking method, you’re gonna wanna label everything, and add any special instructions. I don’t freeze most of these meals with a lot of additional liquid. So if you need to add stock, or coconut milk or something like that when you cook it, write those instructions on the bag. Don’t count on remembering it.

If you’re a crock pot aficionado, you probably already have dozens of recipes. Don’t sweat it, they’ll work using this method. I do recommend browning the hamburger so you can drain the fat for any meal using ground beef, but other than that, no real cooking in advance is necessary.

If you need some recipes, these are some that I used for my last session. They fit in a three quart slow cooker, and will usually provide a couple of meals for my three-person family. (Why yes, I do freeze leftovers for another meal!) If you’re using a six quart crock pot due to a larger family, you’ll want to double these recipes, but they won’t fit in a single gallon freezer bag.

White Chili

½ lb. Dry white beans, cooked (or two 15 oz cans)

1 lb. chicken breast, diced

½ c. chopped onion

2 T chopped garlic

1 T oreganof

1 T Cumin

2t. black pepper

1 can chopped green chili peppers

Put all the ingredients in a gallon freezer bag. Freeze.

Defrost in the fridge for 12-18 hours, put in crock pot, add ~1 quart chicken stock. Cook 6-8 hours on low, serve with salad.

Chicken Curry

1 lb chicken breasts, cut into small pieces

3c. potatoes, diced

1 c.  plain yogurt

1/4 c.  raisins, ground

1/4 c. cashews, ground

1 c. peaches, mango, or apricots, diced

½ c. onion, diced

3T garlic, chopped

3T fresh ginger, chopped

4 T curry powder

Put all the ingredients in a gallon freezer bag. Freeze.

Defrost in the fridge for 12-18 hours, put in crock pot, add 15 oz can coconut milk. Cook 6-8 hours on low, serve over rice.

Mascoma River Greenway Route Tour

So, here I am on a disused train trestle bridge having my hand held like a daggone three year old while my heart is trying to pound through my chest and I can’t stop myself from looking down through the gaps in the trestle to the Certain Death below.

No, in Real Life, I was in almost no danger. The ties were less than a yard apart and were mostly steady. Even if I’d fallen, there was no way in the world I would have fallen through ties that close together and strong enough to hold a train. Ah, irrational fears. Silly me, I thought to mention my fear of strange dogs to the organizer of the Mascoma River Greenway when I went on a tour of the prospective route. What I did not mention was my strong distaste for unprotected heights.

Lebanon, New Hampshire, never let it be said I do not love my adopted city. Virginian I may be, but I’m doing this for you, Lebanon. You need a greenway.

Most of the work for this greenway has already been done. See those railroad tracks? Railroad tracks mean a graded rail bed, and a very strong fill. You need that to support the locomotive. As you will see in this series of pictures, we do not have intercity rail to any great degree in rural New Hampshire. Like most of the rural US, we drive when we want to get somewhere quickly.

So, there’s all this work that was done at least fifty years before I was born, and that work still stands. The cuts and fills are still there, the structure of the bridges are still quite sturdy, despite Miss Scaredy Cat having trouble keeping her heart rate down going over one of them. This means all we need to do is get those rails up and make the surface smooth enough for bikes. Smooth enough for a bike means smooth enough for a pedestrian.

Lebanon is full of enthusiastic bikers and walkers. Many of us move here because we like The Great Outdoors, we’re relatively health-conscious, and most of us would just as soon keep down pollution using green methods of transportation.

Enthusiasm for safe and pleasant walking or biking, as well we recreation areas, can be seen even among the improvements put in by locals. At the beginning of the Greenway, just outside of the tunnel under Hanover Street, a young man chose to create a “pocket park” as an Eagle Scout project. As you can see, it looks wonderful and is a great place to hang out and enjoy a little piece of the Mascoma River.

There is also local support for the Greenway. As we were walking on the stretch of the trail between High Street and Slayton Hill Road that is open to the public, we saw an elderly local, cane in hand, who urged us most emphatically to get moving on the project, as she’d like to see it completed!

While we do not have the extraordinary work that would be required were we to be starting from scratch, there is still (in my own profession’s parlance) a non-trivial amount of work to do. Check out the picture to the left. As we crossed over the bridge over Slayton Hill Road, we moved on to the areas of the trail where the rails are still lying disused. See the trees growing up between the rails? Since the railroad hasn’t been active for a long time, plant growth is taking over. However, Greenway. This means that while we need and want a place to walk and bike, we also want plants and growth around us. This is intended to be a multi-use trail that will retain the natural beauty that our area has in such abundance.*

There is serious evidence that even the parts of the Greenway which have not yet been properly constructed are being used by residents. There are clear paths beside most of the overgrown rails and informal access points worn smooth by many feet. Even in advance of the trail opening, it is being used, telling us that improvements in walking or biking conditions would open it up to even more pedestrian and bike traffic, safely away from busy roads.

The estimated cost of the project is $2.1 million. Yes, that’s a fair amount of money to raise, but the payoff in terms of walkability, property values and safe, green transportation will be worth it.

You don’t think so?

How would you rather get somewhere?

I took the picture on the left today as we were walking over the 89 bridge. I know how I’d rather have gotten to the movie theater or Price Chopper!


* In fact, though I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to show it to you, I saw quite large and beautiful deer bound across the trail we’d just crossed towards the end of our hike.

Would have baked a cake

I’m baking a cake for my son’s birthday party tomorrow. Now, today was a busy day and I had to do a lot of shopping, so when I was making the list, I considered picking up a box o’ cake mix and making one from that.

I didn’t.

This isn’t a “go me, look at what a good Mommy I am” moment. The cake I am making probably won’t taste much different from a mix. It’s your incredibly basic chocolate cake that I’d be perfectly comfortable talking a ten year old through making. The reason I didn’t buy the boxed mix was nothing more than looking in my pantry, realizing I had everything I needed to make a cake anyway and figuring it was stupid to spend the money, plus the knowledge that in terms of time, it would have been six of one, or a half a dozen of the other. If I hadn’t had all the ingredients, it might have been a box o’ cake.

I would have felt no guilt about that, either.

It did get me to thinking, though, about how we perceive the effort involved in making a meal as well as a book I’d read recently.

When researchers watched thirty-two two-income families cook dinner for four days, here’s what they saw: It took people an average of fifty-two minutes from the time they opened the refrigerator door to the time they sat down at the table, whether they used a box kit like Hamburger Helper or cooked everything from scratch. The only difference was that meals cooked from scratch required about ten minutes more active time— minutes spent chopping and sautéing, for example— than box mixes.

McMillan, Tracie (2012-02-21). The American Way of Eating (pp. 211-212). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

While it’s partially a matter of perception, she goes on to say something else that’s a really interesting point:

Box meals don’t save us time any more than going out to eat does, and they don’t even save us money. What they do instead is remove the need to have to come up with a plan for dinner, something that’s easy when you’re a skilled cook— and bafflingly difficult when you’re not. The real convenience behind these convenience foods isn’t time or money, but that they remove one more bit of stress from our day.

McMillan, Tracie (2012-02-21). The American Way of Eating (p. 212). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

It’s why I, who am definitely a skilled cook, considered choosing a box mix for a cake when preparing for a party. It wasn’t that it was going to save me time, really. What it meant was that I wouldn’t have to go to the trouble to look up a recipe for the materials I already had on hand. (My smartphone has become my cookbook. What can I say?)

Though one thing Ms. McMillan may not have considered (and this is probably because as she mentions in her book, kitchen skills played no real part in her childhood or growing up years) is that even skilled cooks will order out or have an easy go-to when tired or stressed. There are ways to avoid it if one knows how, of course. Meal planning, shopping to a list, planning meals based on likelihood of how busy one will be on a particular day – all of these things are necessary to being able to have cooking be less of a stressful chore and more of a pleasant routine. And this isn’t a skill that’s generally taught, even in home ec classes these days.

Saving money by buying whole chickens

I’m on rather an economy drive lately, but I like to eat well.

I’ve discovered a way to save a whole bunch of money on meat.  In my area, a boneless, skinless chicken breast runs over three bucks a pound when not on sale.  Even on sale you’ll never see it for less than about $1.99/lb.

I can pretty much count on one of the area grocery stores having a sale on whole chickens for between $0.89 and $0.99/lb most weeks.  Now, you might say that you get sick of a whole roast chicken all the time, and fair enough.  Sure, I do the thing where I roast a chicken, save some of the leftover meat for chicken salad, then make Garbage Soup out of what’s left every now and then, but it’s not all you can do with a whole chicken.

One thing I’d never done was cut up a whole chicken into its various parts.  If I was going to use the parts, I bought the chicken cut up.  Noticing how much cheaper the whole chicken often is, I decided I needed to learn to cut up my own.

I tried it yesterday, just because, well, I like learning new things.[1] I watched a video on Youtube about it, then on my very first try it took me something fewer than five minutes.  It might not be as cool or as pretty as a professional can do it, but it’s a large enough money savings, I’m all good doing this.  Yeah, it’s a little yucky, but I feel like if I’m willing to eat meat at all, I need to suck it up on the yucky anyway and get real that I’m eating an animal.

Now, not everything I make uses chicken with bones in.  In fact, a lot of it doesn’t.  Next time I find a good sale on chickens, I’m going to learn to debone the chicken.  I’ve been given to understand it’s fairly quick and easy.  I think Elliot Yan claims to be able to do it in 18 seconds, so I’m sure I can do it in a couple of minutes.  The next time I buy a chicken, I’ll debone it and possibly even portion it out already cut up for stir fries.[2]

I’ve seen people talk about the waste involved.  We don’t eat the bones! Who eats the wings?

No we don’t eat the bones, but I cook with chicken stock a whole bunch, and not just soups.   Rice made with chicken stock is delicious.  Beans and rice, jambalaya and many other dishes that use water have a richer flaver, and are more nutritious[3] with the stock anyway.  Bones and chicken backs make fine, tasty stock.  So, no, it’s not wasted.  I just save them in a bag in the freezer for the next time I’m going to make stock.

As far as the wings?  Don’t you ever have parties?  Buffalo wings, and variations thereof are pretty popular ‘round here.  I’m saving mine for the next party I throw.

It does take some time to cut up and repackage a whole chicken, but it doesn’t take that much and it’s not even hard.  If you’re looking for a way to save money on meat, I have to encourage you to give this a try.

[1] And next week, it might be a new programming language.  C’mon guys, I wasn’t kidding when I said it was my job to learn stuff then talk about it.


[2] Which will make my son happy for the nights he cooks.  He detests cutting up chicken.

[3] If you’re worried about calcium intake and are not big on dairy, this is another great way to get your calcium. When you make homemade stock, it leeches from the bones.

Dumb Choices

I’ve ranted about this before, though I forget where.

There’s a new marketing campaign to sell more crap manufactured food called Smart Choices.

There’s been some discussion on various forums involving health, fitness and eating where one idea came up that boggled me.  A parent was expressing the idea that it’s hard to combat the marketing techniques with the children.

You have got to be kidding me.

You control what goes in the grocery cart.    You control what you pay for.  Yes, little Knucklehead might roll around on the floor screaming and crying for his treasured Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.   No, the glares awarding you the Crappy Parent of the Year award from other grocery store patrons isn’t much fun when you don’t placate the child to make him shut up so they can go back to shopping in peace.   I get that.  I’m a parent.  Been there, done that.  Dragging a kid along the floor who has gone Gandhi in protest isn’t fun.

Thing is, little Knucklehead probably isn’t that dumb.  Screaming hurts one’s throat and cold grocery store floors aren’t really all that much fun to lie on.  If you keep saying no consistently, they’ll get the point.

If you can’t handle enforcing a no when it comes to cereal and you’re the one with the checkbook, I don’t even want to think of what it’s going to look like when your kids are teenagers.

Sneaking Up on Freezer Cooking

Freezer Inventory

I’d mentioned that it is important to have a freezer inventory if you’re doing Freezer Cooking, Once a Month Cooking or the like.   You’d think you wouldn’t.  Surely you’ll remember all that work you went to when putting up that lasagna or soup, wouldn’t you?

Friends, you won’t.

Here’s a truncated example of the freezer inventory system I have.  I have a chart (made it in Excel, don’t snigger) listing the meals I make.   I have up to four check boxes for how many full family meals I have frozen.  An empty space means there’s no meal of that sort frozen.  A diagonal line sloping up to the right means I’ve added a meal.  The crossed line means I’ve used that meal, so it’s gone now.

This gets posted on the fridge, so that I can keep the list updated easily rather than wasting time and paper printing up a new one every time I add food to the freezer or heat up a frozen one.  Anyone can draw a diagonal line.  Anyone can heat up dinner, too.   This is a good system if more than one person in the house is serving meals.

Cook from Scratch

I’d posted a survey in my LJ about cooking and cooking habits. It’s probably pretty skewed, as anyone who reads my stuff is going to be interested in cooking. They’d soon stop reading out of boredom, otherwise, as household management and cooking is a definite interest of mine.  (We all have to eat and live somewhere.  How about systems to streamline things so you’re comfortable?)

It got me to thinking.  When we go to the beach, we stay in a couple of condo units that are basically a large two-bedroom apartment, complete with a reasonably decent basic kitchen.    When we go, we cook in rather than eat out.  With 6-12 people together, restaurants are far, far too expensive to be practical for a week’s stay!

This year, my mother did all of the cooking, but one meal my brother made.  *wince*  I had a project due when I got back, but you know, I really should have made at least one or two dinners. (Don’t let me get out of cooking a couple of meals next year, Mom).

Here’s the thing — I learned about prepping ahead from Mom.  Since she was doing the cooking, this means that meals were often put on to cook slowly in the oven, or simmer slowly on the stove while we enjoyed an afternoon at the beach.  Come five or six in the evening, we’d come up to the unit and there would be a heavenly smell wafting through the corridors.  It brought comment from many of the other people who weren’t making dinner.  They would be going out, or calling in for pizza or some such.

I used to wonder why in the world this place didn’t have  a crock pot as standard equipment (I’d be lost without mine!) when I realized that 80% of the people there wouldn’t use them.

Honestly?  I’d always chalked it up to people not wanting to cook on vacation, rather than a daily habit in their regular lives.   When I was growing up, one cooked dinner most nights.  Mom worked a couple of evenings a week for a little while.  I was old enough (12 or almost 13 when she started), so I cooked.  This was a family tradition.  When she was a teenager and her mother worked full time, Mom was expected to get her brother and sisters together to make sure dinner was on the table when Nanny got home1.  Cooking dinner was what one did. Working mom or not, somebody was cookin’ dinner.

But I have a question:  If you don’t cook, how in hell do you afford to feed your family?  I am hardly going to claim to be the world’s most frugal kitchen manager, mind you.  My family of three spends about four hundred dollars a month on groceries, so you can’t say I’m exactly cookin’ cheap.  (Those fresh veggies in the bento do add up!)  I don’t shop at dented can stores, I don’t clip coupons (it’s usually for pre-processed stuff I don’t use, anyway).  The only really frugal things I do are to look for cheap cuts of meat, eschew canned beans in favor of dry and cook from scratch for the most part.

I saw an advertisement in the grocery store bragging:  Meal for Four for Under $15! as if this were some sort of wonderful thing.  I started ranting at my shopping partner (I think it was my son that time), “Well, I would bloody well hope so!  Good God, what are people serving?”

Wondering if this was a knee-jerk response from sitting on my high horse, I got out my price book when I got home, and figured the price per serving for some of  my usual recipes.  Understand that this reflects the fact that I don’t pay more than $2.50/lb for meat.  I do watch sales. I don’t buy organic food hand-raised by virgin elves under the full moon, either, okay?  Making dinner for four usually costs me between $5.00 and $8.00.  How can you afford to spend much more on that?  My household isn’t poor, but we’re hardly wealthy, either.  How can you afford to spend fifteen bucks (or more, apparently) on a typical weeknight dinner?

If I didn’t cook from scratch, there’d be no way I could pull that off.

1Stories about her explosive reaction if dinner were not ready when Nanny got home are now stuff of family legend.


Eatin' Cheap

in experimenting with the idea of trying to work out a way to eat on a buck a meal, I was doing some calculations on food prices.  I’d always heard beans and rice were a cheap meal.  I often wondered about that and did the math.  You know, if you make it from dried beans, you’re looking at about a $1.20 for a pretty filling meal. That’s figuring in onions, garlic, peppers, spices and all that smack.  I think beans and rice are going to show up in the menu rotation a lot more often. At least, unless someone in the household complains too much.

I then did the calculation on my typical breakfast.  This wasn’t looking for sales, but simply what I got.  I usually have steel cut oats, nuts and some sort of dried fruit.   The oats themselves are about .21/serving.  The nuts and dried fruit (if I’m not eating raisins and I usually don’t.  Dried berries or apricots are GOOD) drive the price up to somewhere around $1.75/serving.   I think I need to get my lazy ass to a bulk food store at some point because I know I can do better than  that.   Still, not too bad when compared to the Starbucks liquid dess^h^h^h^h^h drinks so often favored by the rushed among us.

Still, it was sobering to realize that’s still considerably over a buck a meal.

Cookin' Cheap

I’ve really become distressed lately at this idea that cooking/eating healthily is expensive.

Let’s give Ramen a score of ~$0.50 a package. (I’ve seen it on sale for less, yes)

For $.50 a serving, I can have (according to this week’s local grocery story circular):

  • Two Apples, or
  • A serving and a half of fresh broccoli or
  • Two servings of rough cut oatmeal or
  • Five ounces of chicken (if I’m willing to cut it up rather than buying pre-cut parts, and that’s gonna keep you full longer than the fucking ramen)
  • Four servings of brown rice or
  • A serving of flavored yogurt or
  • Four ounces of grapes (which is a lot of grapes)

Sorry, I don’t buy that a crap diet is cheaper. I’ll grant that there are plenty of people who don’t understand how to make a menu, or how to use leftovers well, or how to employ home-made soups and a freezer to prevent product waste, or don’t understand how to use fat healthily to promote saiety (read: Olive oil is your friend). But I don’t buy the idea of a crap diet being cheaper.