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A Beginner's Guide to Once a Month Cooking
Article by: Kim Tilley
Dated: May 27, 2006
Look for our OAMC Cooking Plans in this edition, go to the Articles link above!
Once a month cooking, or "oamc" is a wonderful tool you can use and modify to suit your needs. It is a simple idea, really, of cooking ahead and then preserving your food using a variety of strategies: freezing, canning, drying, refrigerating. The most important tool in oamc is your freezer, whether you have a large one or just the one on top of your refrigerator. Yes, you can fit a month's worth of meals into that small freezer space - it just takes a little more creativity! I will explain various techniques below in the freezing section. Please don't be afraid to try oamc. If a month's worth of cooking is too much for you to even think about, try a week's worth and see how you like it. The basic idea is to make every cooking count! Whenever you are going to prepare a family favorite, double, triple, even quadruple the recipe if it will keep in the freezer. You can check below in the freezer section to see what freezes well and what doesn't. So give yourself a much-needed break - cook ahead today so you can relax tomorrow!
There are several different approaches to oamc. You may like one approach better than another, or you may find using a combination of strategies is the best for you. Try each one and see what you are comfortable with! Experiment! Take chances! There is no wrong way to do oamc, as long as you are using common sense and being safe! (See the safety section if you have any questions.)
Strategy #1: Cook 20 different recipes and freeze - This works fine for some people and not so well for others. You make 20 or more different dishes, which can be a lot of work but gives you a lot of variety.
Strategy #2: Master Recipes - You cook a few master recipes that can be used for several different dishes, such as baking a turkey, cooking a large roast, preparing a large batch of chili which can double as taco meat and ravioli filling, etc. This is one of my favorite techniques and you will find I have used it is many of my plans.
Strategy #3: Bulk Cooking - You make large batches of several recipes and plan to eat them more than once. We eat pizza every Friday, so we make lots of pizzas and freeze them. We change the toppings for variety. You can plan around these "bulk cooked" recipes with quick and easy meals that do not need freezing so you are not eating a whole month of chicken meals or hamburger meals. Other techniques I use to supplement the bulk cooking techinique are described below.
I use bulk cooking to stock up for months at a time. I especially focus on meats that are on sale, then do a huge cooking session of that particular meat which lasts for a long time. This is how I have written my plans. I did the chicken plan one month, the hamburger plan the next, ham another month. Each session gave me months' worth of dishes. I even had a month off because I had made so much food!
Note: I never use all of the recipes in a plan, but I put extra recipes in the plans for variety, so I can go back and use the same plan but make different dishes. I still have items I made a few months ago! After a few months of bulk cooking, you will have a nice variety of different dishes in your freezer at the lowest possible prices.
Strategy #4: Busy cooks' triple batch cooking - This is the "busy cooks" method that Lynn Nelson described on her website. Every Saturday, she makes a triple batch of a main dish. She eats one batch for dinner that night and freezes the other two. Then, during the week, she takes out two different frozen meals from other Saturday cooking sessions. That way, she is always restocking her freezer with very little effort, and she has two entirely different freezer meals she can take out whenever she needs them. You could make a couple of different double/triple/quadruple batch recipes to get stocked up and then start this easy plan.
Strategy #5: Fill in the gaps - This strategy goes hand-in-hand with bulk cooking or with the busy cooks technique. If you do the chicken plan tomorrow, you still are going to want to eat more than chicken this month! So how do you supplement what you just made? By filling in the gaps! Be extra clever and double or triple recipes on these nights - they can be frozen, used in lunches, or used in subsequent dinners. (As this website evolves, I will have separate pages for each technique and recipes.) Here are my methods for doing this:
Grilling - especially in the summer! Designate one night a week or at least two nights a month for grilling. It is easy, delicious, and your hubby can get in on the act. Don't forget to grill extra! Grilled meats can be used in salads, pitas, as fajitas, in sandwiches - you name it! Imitate those fancy restaurants, but make it yourself! Yum!
Crockpot - This incredible invention can turn almost any cheap piece of meat into a tender, delicious, morsel. I like to make roasts in the crockpot and treat them as master recipes. I shred the beef and use it in hot sandwiches, enchiladas, etc. An absolute must for the tightwad cook!
Leftover night - As old as time itself, I think. Make sure your leftovers get used. They are essentially a free meal! The best way to get your family to eat them is change them into something new. You can also label and freeze leftover meats for future use. Get creative!
Soup/stew night - This can replace grilling in the winter and use up leftovers. Plan to have soup and sandwiches once a week or twice a month. You can make big batches and freeze ahead, so next time, it comes right out of the freezer! Make every cooking count!
Quick and easy meals - I try to plan at least five of these a month. These are meals your family likes and take less than half an hour to prepare. They may be recipes you have cooked so many times you know them by heart. OR they may be recipes that rely on already-cooked meats to make them fast. Whenever I bulk cook, I always freeze 2-3 cup portions of chicken, beef, ham, etc., just for this purpose. I also keep quick and easy recipes together where they are easy to find, so that I can whip them up fast. Items I consider quick and easy: Burritos, spaghetti, enchiladas made from frozen cooked beef or chicken and frozen sauce, stir fry, casseroles, etc.
Pizza and movie night - I got this idea from my oamc buddy, Robbyn, and it is one of my family's favorite nights. We always have homemade pizza on Friday nights to celebrate the end of the week. Afterwards, we watch a movie and eat popcorn. Sometimes we rent a movie, most of the time we borrow one from a friend or the library, and sometimes we watch ones we have owned for some time. It is so much fun, and I always know what we are eating on Friday nights!
Chain cooking - This is a technique of intentionally cooking extra to use in something completely different in a subsequent meal. When you make spaghetti, you can cook extra pasta to use in chicken cacciatore, or use pasta from one meal to make pasta salad. You can cook lots of spinach as a side dish one night, to go into a lasagna or casserole the next. This is basically "organized" leftover cooking.
Choosing recipes - Your first job is to decide what you are going to cook! If you are cooking for a whole month, pick about 10-20 recipes, depending on the above strategies you are going to use. Are you cooking 20 different dishes? Are you cooking master recipes that can be used to assemble several different entrees? Are you cooking things that can be doubled and be eaten more than once in a month? You call the shots! Some tips:
Try not to overdo it the first few times.
Select recipes with ingredients that you know your family will eat, and that will freeze well. Most items with mayonaisse, sour cream and cooked eggs do not freeze well, but there are ways around this! Check below in the freezer section of this article for what freezes and what doesn't.
Don't cook and freeze things that save little or no time. Some things can be whipped up faster when they are not frozen, such as batter for pancakes and waffles (you can make them up ahead and refrigerate), pasta salads (they don't freeze well anyway), and some meat salads, like tuna fish.
Planning around what's on hand - As you are planning your meals, take a look at what you have in your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. This will save you money as well as time that you would spend shopping. If you keep a well-stocked pantry using the technique of bulk buying, this will be easy!
Planning around what's on sale - Check your local papers for weekly sales. If you start using a price book, you will come to know which sales are actually bargains and which are not. I try to plan a bulk cooking of on-sale meats that will last several months. This is why many of my plans are centered around a certain meat, so you can take maximum advantage of what is on sale.
Worksheets to use with recipes - Use these worksheets to plan the meals you will cook and freeze, and the ones that you will use to "fill in the gaps". There are three approaches you can use: the calendar method, the list method, and the table method. These may help you organize your oamc planning efforts. Use what is most comfortable for you!
Gather your recipes - bring all of your recipes together for easy reference. I like to put mine together in a "plan" like you see on this website, or staple them together. You could also put them in a notebook, or in plastic protectors that you can hang up and see while you are cooking.
Master lists - Once you have gathered your recipes, make a "master grocery list" of all of the ingredients listed in the recipes. Combine like items and make sure you will have enough for all of the dishes you are going to prepare. Make sure to include side dish ingredients, desserts, snacks, etc. that you may need.
Bulk buying - This is one of my favorite techniques for saving money on groceries! When you see a good price on an item, stock up! There is no law that says you have to only buy a week's worth or a month's worth of groceries! If toilet paper goes on sale for a killer price, buy a year's worth if you have the space! There are many items you can stock up on that will keep just fine. You can also freeze large quantities of items bought at their lowest prices and use them in future "oamc"s.
Short on storage? Put your purchases in unconventional places: canned and other non-perishable items can be stored under a bed, in a linen closet, in the basement. Get creative!
Short on cash? Give up a few luxury items or junk food items to free up money for bulk buying. Or cut down on eating out. You can also pinch money from other items in your household budget to fund the bulk buying. As you start to save more money from bulk buying items and not needing to replace them at a higher cost, you will free up even more money. Another approach is to start bulk buying in the spring, when heating bills go down, giving you a little more money to play with. You can also bulk buy fresh veggies and fruits in season during the summer months and freeze or can them. The possibilities are endless - give it a try!
Price book - Perhaps one of the most effective tightwad tools around. After you set up your price book, you can track prices on items you use and only stock up on those items when they are at their lowest price. As with many things, you only get something out of your price book if you put something into it! Click here to learn more about starting your price book.
There are several approaches to the cooking part of oamc. Do what is comfortable for you. Some people like to divide the days into: Day 1: shopping and prep day, and Day 2: cooking and assembly. If you have kids, you may want to get a babysitter for your cooking days, or like me, divide the cooking into three or four evenings. My first oamc (the chicken plan) took me 6 days! Now I can usually get things done in about two days. The secret is to work smarter, not harder. Prepare long-cooking items like soups, stews, slow cooker recipes, doughs and large meats first, then work on things that take less time, such as chopping, grating, mixing, and measuring. Don't get discouraged if you don't get as much done as you want to, just put it in the fridge and do more the next day. Practice makes perfect!
Do these steps however you want, taking a day for each, or combining, but do them in order!
Preparation - This is your day/time to prepare master recipes, chop vegetables, shred cheeses, etc. Combine all like steps in recipes and do them at once. For example, if several recipes contain chopped onions, chop all the onions for all the recipes at one time. (You can go even further and chop all of the onions you have and freeze them, for present and future use). You can also prepare doughs, sauces, marinades, etc.
Cooking - This day/time is the nitty-gritty of oamc. Finish cooking your master recipes, then prepare them for use in the other recipes you are making them into. For example, cook the turkey or honey baked ham, then divide into the parts for the other recipes (such as turkey or ham slices, potpies, etc) that they will be used for. Boil, bake simmer, fry, do all of your cooking steps today. Check out the cooking steps worksheet for more ideas.
Make sure your counters are clear of clutter and you have lots of paper towels, sponges and towels for quick cleanup, along with aprons and a mop!
Have your recipes where you can see them. You can tape them up, put them in see-through plastic protectors, whatever you want!
Take the phone off the hook, put the dog outside, send the kids to the sitter (or your spouse) and get cookin'!
Good suggestion: Plan on eating out, eating a dish already in the freezer or throwing something in the crockpot for dinner. You will be very tired at the end of cooking day! I always throw something in the crockpot before I start cooking day; it's my "insurance" that dinner will be taken care of. You can even double or triple the recipe so it is an oamc dinner!
Assembly: This is the day/time that you "wrap up" your cooking. If you have planned well on prep day, and made progress on cooking day, it should go pretty fast. Assemble your dishes, cook if needed, or freeze. Make sure you label everything that goes into the freezer and put any reheating instructions on the label if you think you may forget. You can also tape items to the main dish that are to be served with it, such as taping a bag of tortillas to a container of taco meat. Check below in the "freezing" section for ideas and tips.
Ziploc bags are very handy. I buy cheap freezer bags to put the meats in (you can't reuse them after meat is in the bags), then double bag them in the nicer freezer bags that I can reuse again and again. You can also freeze sauces, shredded cheeses, chopped veggies and other items in ziploc bags, close them tight and put them on their side, patting them flat. You can get a lot of food in a small freezer this way.
Freezer containers in a variety of sizes are a necessity! I find the most useful sizes to be the 2-cup (good for sauces and gravy), and 5-cup (good for entrees that are put on rice or pasta) sizes, as well as the larger 11-cup sizes (good for casseroles, fried rice, any dish that is served whole with nothing else added). I try to buy most of my freezer containers at yard sales and thrift shops.
Aluminum foil - Great for freezing in, I like to wrap up pizza in foil. Just don't forget to label your foods!
Plastic wrap - Another alternative to double bagging. If you want to reuse Ziploc bags, wrap the meats thoroughly in plastic wrap, freeze on a cookie sheet, then place in a Ziploc. Take the meat out of the Ziploc before it thaws, so no blood gets in the Ziploc. If in doubt, throw it out! Don't take chances!
Foil containers - Some people love to use those disposable foil pans to put large entrees in. I don't use them, but some of my friends love them, and even line them with aluminum foil, then lift out the frozen dish and reuse the pan. You can do this with baking pans too.
Pyrex casseroles - I like these a lot! They cost about $5 each at Walmart and you can use them to bake, microwave and freeze in. I bought myself one a month as a reward for doing oamc. I stopped at four! I bought the 11-cup size, which is very versatile. I have prepared lasagnas, deep dish pizzas, pot roasts, roasted chickens and casseroles in them. I take the dishes straight from the freezer, take off the top, then defrost, then bake. No broken glass! I think these are worth the investment. They are deep enough to store baked goods in also.
Freezer inventory - keep a list of everything you freeze, and mark it off when you use it up. This is very important! I like to keep mine with my meal plan, usually on the refrigerator.
Here are some general freezer guidelines. For more information, check out the website for the National Food Safety Database:
Never refreeze raw meat! If the meat was frozen raw the first time, you must cook it before refreezing!
If in doubt, double bag it! Protect your food investment by making sure it is protected from freezer burn.
Don't allow meat or eggs to defrost at room temperature. You are creating an opportunity for bacteria to grow, which can result in food poisoning! Instead, thaw these foods in the refrigerator or use a microwave. Better to be safe than sorry!
Breads and other baked goods can be thawed at room temperature quite nicely and safely. They can also be refrozen but may get dry.
If you are in doubt as to whether a food is still good, toss it!
Many items keep well in the freezer from 3-6 months. Check the websites below for detailed information on how long different types of foods keep. Most of the oamc recipes posted here tasted fine even after a 3-6 month period of freezing, but I wouldn't go too far beyond that amount of time.
There are lots of great books available on the subject of freezing. Check your local library for the following:
Stocking Up 3, by Carol Hupping and the Staff of the Rodale Food Center
Will it Freeze? An A to Z Guide to Foods that Freeze, compiled by Joan Hood for Home and Freezer Digest
How to Freeze Foods: The International Harvester System of Food Preservation
Complete Guide to Home Canning and Freezing, by the United States Department of Agriculture
About the Author
Kim Tilley, a tightwad at heart, is a wife, a mother of three active boys and the founding editor of Frugal-Moms.com. Frugal by force and later by choice, Kim cut her income by 60% to stay at home with her children and discovered that anyone can live better for less. Her work has appeared in print publications such as The Tightwad Gazette. In her free time, she entertains herself by chasing kids and finding ways to create something from nothing!