A Primer On Once A Month Cooking

foodA while back over at Get Rich Slowly, J.D. talked about once a month cooking, which refers to a process of doing most of the effort for a month’s worth of home-cooked meals in one day, so that the other 29 days, the effort is minimal.

I was quite interested in the topic, as it seemed to be a great way to cook frugally at home without continuous effort each and every day, plus it was something that my family used to do growing up (at least to a degree). Unfortunately, I found the book on the topic to be rather disappointing – it was loaded with recipes based on convenience foods like Velveeta cheese.

So I decided to wing it myself, instead focusing on Kim Tilley’s wonderful beginner’s guide to once-a-month cooking, and here’s what I learned:

Have plenty of freezer space The more freezer space, the better for this. Stock up on freezer Ziploc bags and freezer-safe pans with lids as well. Almost everything you make will go in the freezer for at least a while.

The straightforward “make thirty prepared meals in one session” is just too much for me to endure I love to cook and I simply can’t do this one – it just doesn’t work for me. Even if I make double or triple batches of the same dish, making ten or fifteen different meals at once in one day is just too much.

Instead, I found that a mix of more mild tactics works for me:

Triple/quadruple batches of favorites. If I work to prepare a favorite meal, such as my tuna noodle casserole, I’ll instead make three casseroles and store two of them in the freezer. They last for a couple of months, so I pull one out in four weeks and pull the other one out in eight weeks. Even better, I synchronize these with times I find ingredients for them on sale, so if there’s a big sale on tuna or egg noodles, I plan on making three tuna noodle casseroles that week.

Chain your ingredients Let’s say, for example, I want to have pasta with a meaty tomato sauce one night, then another night have shrimp fettuccine alfredo. I might have the first on Monday night, but cook a double batch of fettuccine and save the remaining pasta for two nights and have it on Wednesday with the fettuccine alfredo. Since I’ve just got a bag of the alfredo sauce in the freezer and the pasta’s already cooked in the fridge, supper is a breeze.

Focus on prepared ingredients rather than finished products Rather than completely finishing every meal, instead make an enormous batch of, say, homemade tomato sauce, make a large number of packages of this, and then use them regularly over several months. I’ll even go so far as to spice some bags for spaghetti and some for pizza in advance.

Focus on items that are in season Are there tomatoes all over the place? Make tomato sauce and tomato paste and store it for later (nothing beats fresh tomato sauce). Around here, there’s usually a sweet corn season in late summer – we will buy a bunch of it, literally cut it off of the cob, and bag it for later use – it’s a delicious side vegetable for every meal and can be used as an ingredient in chowders and succotash and the like.

Huge batches of soup are fantastic! Do you like chili or beef stew or chicken gumbo? Make an enormous pot of it, then bag up the leftovers into serving-size bags. Works like a charm.

Using these techniques, I often reduce my real cooking to perhaps two weekends a month. The rest of the time, I can either prepare a dish simply for the joy of cooking, or I can just pull something out of the freezer and make a delicious homemade supper really quickly without much mess.

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  1. I just began employing this type of thinking and cooking, and it’s been working out very well for me. Boy, has it saved time! Last night I prepared 20 of my tasty breakfast burritos, stuck in 2 per plastic bag, threw em in the freezer and now I can grab a homemade meal in the morning on my way out.

    I’m beginning to do this with dinners as well. I’ll make a bunch of chicken breasts, rice, shrimp, potatoes, etc. – and mix ‘n’ match for different meals into tupperware. Into the fridge/freezer they go, and boom there’s several meals that I’ve already made.

    Big attraction of all this: no need to get out the pots and pans every day. Doing dishes is very time consuming.

  2. guinness416 says:

    We find Indian food great for this. A biryani or curry made in a large pot, tandoori chicken breasts stuck in ziplocs in the freezer and so forth. Then it’s a case of getting some naan from the fridge and warming it up. Bang – dinner ready in 5 minutes.

  3. Amy says:

    I have nowhere near the freezer space to cook a month of meals, but I still use a version of this technique. I make double or triple batches of things like pasta sauces when I’m otherwise cooking, and big batches of soups or stews on the weekend when I have odds and ends piled up I need to use. The goal isn’t to replace normal cooking, just make sure there’s always something super easy to reach for on nights when I might otherwise be tempted to order takeout.

    I also buy things like ravioli and prepared soup to keep around for nights like that. Sure it’s cheaper to make your own, but buying high-quality prepared foods is still a better deal than eating out or ordering in.

  4. Mrs L says:

    Can you post your recipe for tuna noodle casserole? I’ve been trying to find a recipe that I like, but so far have not been successful.

  5. Jen says:

    I have done this in the past. If you want some great recipies you can buy a month’s worth with various types of recipes at savingdinner.com

    And as for freezer space, you put them all in plastic bags and freeze them like pancakes so there is no wasted space.

  6. Elaine says:

    I can’t bear to do much of this in the summer though. Taking food out of the freezer when there’s tons of fresh stuff to be had in season is ridiculous to me. Besides, what’s in season can change from week to week, nevermind a month’s time. During the summer I subsist almost entirely on fresh fruits & veggies. Sure I’ll freeze and can and dry them for the winter when they won’t be available, but I’m not doing any once-a-month cooking until October at least.

  7. Millionaire Mommy Next Door says:

    I’ve tried once a month cooking – ONCE. All the list making; grocery shopping; washing; dicing; measuring; for 20 meals at a time… YIKES! While it was WONDERFUL to have so many great meals ready and waiting in my freezer, I never could bring myself to do it all over again.

    Now I’m hooked on monthly visits to Supper Solutions (http://www.suppersolutionsinc.com/). They make the menus, shop, dice, and clean the kitchen for you. It takes me about 2 hours to make 24 dinners. It is a little more expensive than doing it all myself, but time is money… besides, I’d rather spend the time saved with my family anyway.
    ~Millionaire Mommy Next Door

  8. Elaine, I wish I had the time to cook every morning and night :-) I love taking advantage of fresh produce and meat, but being that I’m a bachelor, this is far from ridiculous and saves me a lot of time and money compared to my other option of eating out :-)

  9. Kathryn says:

    I second the request for your tuna casserole recipe. Do you bake then freeze or freeze before it’s baked? After it’s frozen, how do you heat it up again?

  10. I agree with your opinion on the book. I got it out from the library a few years ago and was sorely disappointed. I made a few of the recipes and they were bland and not at all exciting. It’s much better to focus on making things like sauces, which are what take the most time in a meal. Also, meatloaf is a great thing to freeze. I don’t do pasta as much because I just don’t like how it reheats.

  11. Allura says:

    A variation on this that provides recipes & shopping list is the “Freezer Menu Mailers” at http://www.savingdinner.com (no affiliation). The whole thing is a bit overwhelming for me, but I’m thinking of giving the 5 beef/chicken/etc ones a shot. These you do all the prep work ahead, but you don’t cook it till that day.

  12. margo says:

    I am one girl, living alone 50% of the time (my boyfriend travels extensively for his job). When I cook something, I better be prepared to eat it 4 – 6 times over the next couple days, or I’ve wasted a lot of time and food.

    I’ve tried freezing things before, and found that alot of times I end up with badly freezer-burned or very icy meals that just aren’t very appealing. I do freeze, for example, 3 out of a package of 4 chicken breasts from time to time with good results. But, with fish (for example), high-quality but purchased for much less than normal at our local farmer’s market, I tend to not get good results.

    I have a keen sense of smell and I don’t like to reheat fish even 24 hours later.

    Lately I’ve considered buying one of those appliances that vacuum-seals food for you, and possibly doing more of the freezing individual portions of meat and fish. This would enable me to defrost one serving at a time, and cook up simple recipes with a single portion of frozen veggies and maybe some quick-rice in the evenings.

    Does anyone have one of those vacuum-seal appliances? Do you recommend?

  13. Elaine says:

    Who says I cook every morning and night? Fresh fruits and veggies don’t need to be cooked, or if they do, a quick steaming for 5-10 minutes is all you need. A lot of things are only in season for a short time, so I take advantage of it as much as possible.

  14. Jess says:

    I usually make double or triple batches of our favorite meals. I keep the reheating instructions for whatever is in the freezer taped inside the cabinet to the left of the fridge so my husband can pop something in the oven if he gets home first. I like it because, even though I love to cook, after a full day of work, I don’t always want to. And, I know everything that goes into my recipes – and you only get everything dirty once!

  15. Elaine, I didn’t mean it in the sense of making larges meals every night :-) Just meant that prep time is reduced dramatically for me when I prepare a lot of meals at once and freeze them. Very bachelor-esque; works so well for me though.

  16. kazari says:

    If you are after some great OAMC recipes, try http://savingdinner.com/
    I definitely recommend them – and there’s no ‘convenience food in them’. You buy a mega-mailer, and it has 20 meals for 4 – a shopping list, and prep instructions. I like it because there’s a vegetarian version, a low-carb, and a heart-healthy one. Sorry for the shameless plug, but I’ve found it incredibly useful.

  17. Brip Blap says:

    The general principle is to fix multiple servings at once. I don’t have the patience to cook multiple servings of multiple dishes in one day, and certainly don’t have the freezer space unless I invest in a freezer unit for the garage. But no-one should cook a single serving dinner – even if you’re single you should cook enough for 3 at once. Just don’t eat it all at once!

  18. Jay says:

    By trial and error, I’ve found that making a weeks worth of food works pretty good for me. Making any more than that and I get “bored” eating the same combinations and then tend to ignore food in the fridge. Usually half a day on the weekend is spent on cooking for the week. What I end up doing is cooking up a huge batch of a couple of main dishes and smaller quantities (2 or 3 days worth) of side dishes. So we have to cook a couple of side dishes towards the middle of the week, which is not that time consuming. There is also a lot of variety this way, which is important for us.

  19. Cathy says:

    My problem with once-a-month cooking is that I think a lot of dishes don’t taste right after being frozen (or the texture gets funny). That said, I’m always looking for ways to reduce time spent in the kitchen. Robin Miller’s recipes (from the Food Network) are great.

    Also, another once-a-month cooking resource is Debi Taylor Hough’s Frozen Assets: http://thesimplemom.wordpress.com/cooking/freezer-cooking/

  20. plonkee says:

    I should probably get into this more when I have some freezer space as I can’t stand washing up.

    Having only a fridge at the moment, the only way to cook and eat multiple portions is to eat the same thing two or more days running. I live to eat, so that is not fun.

  21. reulte says:

    margo
    I used to have one of the vacuum-seal thingies. It did work ok, but it was simply something else to do along with cooking and it crowded the counter space. It was one of the older (1970’s model) ones. I’m sure the newer ones are more compact. I just use freezer bags – sucking out excess air with a straw for a ‘vacuum’ seal — and reusable cartons. One secret with fish is to freeze it with a little milk then let it thaw with a bit more milk to take away some of the freezer taste. Of course, that is before cooking. After cooking, I just haven’t found a way to freeze fish well and just use the fish with a strong sauce or make a ‘tuna’ salad spread with it for next day’s lunch.

  22. Bill says:

    We use a vacuum-sealer – the Food Saver

    Though we use it to package/repackage foods for the chest freezer, not to store individual meals.

  23. Dawn says:

    I agree with savingdinner.com. It helped us save money, find interesting recepies, and streamline the cooking process (we also used the weight loss one, and we did lose weight).

    And if you want to do the freezer food, she has menus for $3 that rely on one main ingredient (say chicken) and make 5 freezer recepies, or there are larger ones for $9 that make a month’s worth of recepies for the freezer. I’ve used some when I know something is coming and I’ll be unable to cook. All have been very tasty.

  24. cyndi says:

    I also read the article on once a month cooking and the book I saw mentioned was Once-a-Month Cooking by Mimi Wilson & Mary Beth Lagerborg I got it for under $10 on the Jessica’s Biscut website & it’s loaded with wonderful recipes(NO VELVEETA CHEESE) – It also provides you with recipes for side dishes to be made with each main meal. Totally worth checking out.

  25. Beth says:

    The best book I have found for once-a-month cooking is “The Freezer Cooking Manual” at http://www.30daygourmet.com. The book includes simple recipes along with calculations for multiple servings. They also provide worksheets, shopping lists, nutrition information, and advice about how to prepare your big shopping day…or to do smaller sessions if you can’t devote an entire day to cooking (like me.)

  26. Gregg says:

    Margo,

    I read your comment about freezing fish. When I was in Louisiana many years ago, the locals put their fish filets and shrimp in either a zip lock bag (or small 8 ounce milk carton) and filled them with water, so the fish was completely covered.

    I tried this with amberjack, and it stayed fresh for years.

    To remove the fish taste/smell, squeeze a lemon in a small bowl, and rinse the fish, then pass it through the lemon juice before seasoning. I then found a good season salt mix and cayenne pepper removed the taste and smell.

    Gregg

  27. DaKine says:

    I agree with Frozen Assets by Debbi Taylor-Hough. She has the blog, but it is also a book you can check out of the library with info on freezer cooking once a month, twice a month and for singles.

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