Can Once-a-Month Cooking Really Work?

A long time ago (summer 2007, in fact), I wrote about once-a-month cooking, in which a person basically spends one solid day once every four weeks or so preparing food for home use so that meal prep later on is much easier.

Ingredients for mass breakfast burritosA quick note: I’ve never actually done this before, but I have done big pieces of it. I have prepared large quantities of food for the purpose of freezing it and then popping it out later as convenience food – my homemade bulk breakfast burritos are an example of this. On a few Saturdays, I’ve done several such batch productions at once, which probably add up to a month’s worth of meals but wasn’t explicitly planned as such.

Since this is such a useful money-saving and time-saving idea, I thought I’d offer a big collection of useful resources to help you plan to do this type of thing, as well as my own plans for attempting this in the near future (mostly to stock up before Sarah heads back to work this winter).

Getting Started

A great website for learning more about once-a-month cooking is Once-A-Month Mom, which offers up a full packet of information for once-a-month cooking … once a month! Here’s the october 2010 menu, which includes three breakfast options, four lunch options, and eight dinner options. Along with this is a printable grocery list, instructions for preparing all of it, and labels for everything that identify it and give you final prep instructions.

If you want to try this out and just want the whole package spelled out for you, this is the way to go. It’s really well done! However, I tend to want to decide for myself what I want to make, so I basically do the same thing on my own.

Choosing Recipes

For starters, we recognized that we would need to cover thirty of each meal for everyone. However, from that, we realized that we would likely not eat that often together and we would sometimes eat other things, like oatmeal for breakfast or eating out for dinner or traveling to visit others.

As a result, we decided to make 48 individual breakfast meals, 48 individual lunch meals, and 24 family dinners.

Beyond that, we had to decide how much repetition we would tolerate. For breakfast and lunch, I can tolerate a fair amount of repetition, but I don’t like to repeat things more often than every week when we’re looking at dinner. So, we decided to prepare 4 different individual breakfasts (12 duplications of each), 4 different lunches (12 duplications of each), and 8 different dinners (4 duplications of four of them, 2 duplications of 4 of them).

I think this is an incredibly important part for people to do themselves. While I think there is a lot of value in what Once-A-Month Mom does, I think the biggest value comes from extracting individual recipes from the site and incorporating them into your own planning. If you pick the recipes yourself and tweak them yourself, you’re going to wind up with meals you like and enjoy and are willing to eat more than once in a month, which isn’t a guarantee when you follow the planning of another site.

So, if you want to give this a shot, I recommend hitting cookbooks and recipe boxes yourself. Find recipes you know that you like. I suggest doing much like I’ve done above – choose three or four breakfast recipes, three or four lunch recipes, and six or eight dinner recipes, depending on how much repetition you want.

Make a grocery list that includes everything you’ll need for the correct number of multiples of each dish.

So, let’s say I’m going to make breakfast burritos for one of these meals. I have a recipe that makes 4 burritos. I’m going to make 24 of them, so I multiply each ingredient by 6 and add them to the list.

What recipes did I choose?

I actually ended up selecting a lot of the recipes already posted on The Simple Dollar. We’re making the aforementioned breakfast burritos and very similar burritos for lunch. We’re making some chicken pies and some spinach-pesto lasagna. We’re also pre-making some homemade pizzas and chicken-broccoli crepes.

By starting with a foundation of recipes that we know are fairly inexpensive, reasonably easy to prepare, and have a clear point where we can stop, pack them up, and then cook them later, we can do an awful lot of our meal prep in one day at home.

Making Labels

This is absolutely vital to the process. The best thing you can possibly do is get a set of Avery printer labels, then make labels for every single item you produce that both identifies the item as well as what needs to be done to finish the item. I recommend getting large labels so that the instructions are easy to read on them. Avery’s website offers templates to make it easy to print on them.

If you don’t have a printer, you can always label by hand. However, never put an item in the freezer without labeling it. It’s incredibly easy to look two months later and have no idea what something is, at which point it’s a loss.

Cooking Large Frozen Items

When you cook large frozen items, like a casserole or a full meal in a single baking dish, you can use a few rules of thumb to fix the recipe so that the cooking instructions work for a frozen dish.

1. Add 50% to the cooking time

If you have something that needs to cook for 30 minutes at 350 F, turn it into 45 minutes. If it’s 60, turn it into 90 minutes. This is a good rule of thumb to start with, but it’s not always exact, particularly on very thick dishes.

2. Cover the dish with aluminum foil for most of the cooking time

If it doesn’t say to cover it, cover it for all but the last 15 minutes of cooking. This keeps the top from burning due to the extra time in the oven and helps keep the dish moist.

These two changes will get you close to where you want to be. As always, you should check the dish before it comes out of the oven, because the exact time you need to add varies a bit based on the exact content of the dish. If you find that it needs longer, take note of it for future use and adjust the instructions on the other frozen dishes in your freezer.

Good luck! Doing this not only saves you time on busy evenings when you need it, it saves you time overall, and it certainly saves you money because you’re eating at home more often and are able to buy ingredients in bulk.

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  1. Daria says:

    When my children were small, I bought a book called “Once a month” cooking. My children were picky eaters so we couldn’t make all of the recipes but the greatest value to me was that it brought my husband and I closer together as we worked side by side in the kitchen. It made my husband a more confident cook as I taught him how to substitute ingredients and he later branched out to trying recipes on his own. I found making a big batch of meals very helpful. I didn’t work full time, but part-time work plus children’s activities, were a hectic time and the prepared meals made life less hectic and our food budget very economical. I don’t due once a month cooking now because it’s just the two of us and we mainly eat vegetable stir frys which are quick to prepare. I also made big batches of choc. chip muffins which my kids ate for breakfast and I would make sandwiches that I froze for their lunch boxes.

  2. Cheryl says:

    I did this when my husband and I were both working. I adapted the recipes for lower fat and calories and divided into 2-3 serving sizes, so it lasted us more than a month most times. I still use the Italian Tomato Sauce and some of the other recipes. We live and travel in our RV half the year, so not much freezer space for cooking ahead.

  3. Johanna says:

    Trent, here’s a constructive suggestion from one writer to another: It pays to be careful when choosing titles for your articles. You can write the best article in the world, but if the title sets up expectations that the article doesn’t meet, readers are going to be disappointed.

    For example, only choose a question as a title if the article actually answers that question.

  4. Aerin says:

    I’ve done batch cooking like this several times, and it works very well. We don’t eat the batch meals exclusively for the month, but use them to fill in the menu for those nights when we don’t have time to cook. Having something already made in the freezer cuts down on our desire to get take out, and the homemade meals are much healthier than a lot of the prepared heat-and-eat foods.

  5. valleycat1 says:

    It’s just my DH & me at home & we have very limited freezer space, so this doesn’t really work for us. Not to mention the storage space needed beforehand if you’re trying to gather the ingredients on sale over time.

    However, neither of us minds leftovers – either actual repeats or a remake into something else (roast chicken to stir fry to chicken pot pie to chicken enchiladas, for example), so we often do cook a big meal on the weekends and then some version of that for lunches and/or dinners a number of days afterwards.

    I also would usually rather put together a quick fresh meal than wait an hour and a half or more for something frozen to bake. For awhile when this was the big thing, there were actually storefronts you could go to put together the meals – but there was no price savings by the time you paid for all their prep work!

    I’m somewhat with Johanna on this too – I expected this to be about how this worked for you, rather than something you’re planning to do but expect it to work based on the cookbook’s say-so. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing some cooking marathon articles & hopefully some “look what delicious meal I pulled out of the freezer tonight and let cook while we were all outside playing while Sara was at school open house ….”

  6. LeahGG says:

    This might work if you have a chest freezer, but if you have a standard fridge on the bottom, freezer on top model and you have more than one person in your family, this is a non-starter, I think. Besides, things like chicken are so easy to make that I’d rather cook them fresh each time.
    And yes, you didn’t answer the question you asked in the title.

  7. Teri Pittman says:

    recipezaar has both menus and grocery lists. I don’t do once a month cooking. I do bulk cooking on the weekends (bread/pot of beans/one other dish that can be reheated for a couple of meals).

  8. Cheryl says:

    #5 You don’t have to wait an hour and a half for something frozen to cook. Take it out the night before and put in frig to thaw. Then it only takes the regular amount of time to cook.

    There used to be a OMAC site that advocated putting the finished dish in a ziplock bag and flattening it out so many bags could be stacked in a frig top freezer. I prefer freezing in square shapes, then take them out of the container and vacuum sealing. Then I take out of the bag and thaw in the original container.

  9. LeahGG says:

    Cheryl and ValleyCat – Why do things take so long to defrost?
    If it’s something that’s likely to take a long time to defrost, then I shove it in the microwave for a bit…

  10. Peggy says:

    @ #6 Leah – It’s just me and my hubby, and I do batch cooking in a standard over-the-fridge freezer. I freeze soups, stews, sauces, and casserole fillings in zipper bags (the quart size works well for the first three; gallon size for the last), stacked on top of each other.

    I should add that I alternate using pre-made things like that with cooking chicken or pork chops. That combination seems to offer the most flexibility for the least effort, at least for my family of two.

  11. AK says:

    I have a standard side-by-side freezer and have cooked enough breakfasts and lunch/dinners for DH, a toddler and me for a month or more. It took a little of planning, but it all fit.

  12. Rebecca says:

    I do this a lot, although not 100%. Things like lasagna and enchiladas take about the same amt of time to prep regardless if you make one or 3 pans. So I make multiple pans and the extras go in the freezer for later. Same with soups, chilli, bread, etc. I also freeze pizza crust, sauce, pie crust etc for fast prep without using store bought.

    We use a freezer meal about 2 times a week, sometimes less, or more. Like this weekend I am laid up after foot surgery and on Vicodin, which means I am not good for much, but can tell husb to pull this out, set temp, set timer, etc. We have been eating healthy meals rather than take out because I planned ahead.

    This sort of thing is great for when babies arrive too.

  13. Diana says:

    I love the once-a-month cooking idea and use it myself. I don’t follow anyone else’s plan, but mine works perfectly. For one thing, I don’t try to overplan the quantities I’ll end up with. It would be impossible, considering that I use the same cut of meat to make a variety of entree’s (eg. several pounds of hamburger might be made into spagetti sauce, chili con carne, taco filling, and stuffed cabbage rolls). I just separate out what I need for what I want to make, and keep making more things until I’ve used it all up. In other words, when I make up my menu prior to shopping, I have a general idea of what I’ll be making and buy the ingredients to make them. Then, as I finish each entree, I separate them out into 2-3 serving sizes per quart size freezer bag or in aluminum foil, as appropriate. No labels yet. All those entrees will be placed inside a gallon size freezer bag and I just lable that one. I do the same with my side dishes. It’s important that when you put things in the plastic bags that you get the excess air out and flatten the bag down to freeze without wrinking. That will prevent them from sticking together as much. I also make most of my desserts this way. Granted, there was some trial and error to get things right, but the benefits are nothing short of astounding. I do it all in the 3-4 days following my shopping trip, but literally don’t cook for at least a month thereafter. At first, I used only my small freezer in the fridge, but have since employed a small chest freezer which is getting fuller and fuller. I could already (this is only for the past 4 months) eat for a month without shopping now. My savings is HUGE and the variety is wonderful. There is simply no waste at all. Oh, and something I do that I have heard isn’t recommended, but has never been a problem is quick defrosting. I put the indivdual plastic bag in a dishpan of hot water long enough to easily remove it from the bag and put it in a microwave dish on defrost. It takes almost no time this way. If the bags get too stuck, I put the gallon bag into warm water just long enough to get them apart, and return the rest to the freezer. Have never had a problem doing this. I always have something to feed unexpected (or expected) guests, and get to enjoy the company instead of spending hours preparing for one meal, too. No downside in my book.

  14. holly says:

    There are people online in assorted grocery shopping/cooking sites that absolutely swear by cooking this way – and it is often a 2 day process; one for prep & one to actually cook. I do want to get into making things like the breakfast burritos and healthy muffins so I am better prepared but I already batch make pancakes, waffles and 2 serving egg dishes.

    For me as a single person household, I prefer once a week. I want to get the highest value for my limited grocery dollar so I watch sale & clearance prices to determine what I make. This week its was 3 ½ lb of chicken legs, roasted; then I removed the skin & deboned Weighed out 3 oz portions – got 6 servings. Ate one on cooking day and froze the rest to become: stir fry, fajitas, chicken pot soup, chicken/veg/pasta, chicken & avocado tostadas…….later this week or over the next few weeks.

    Last week I made my Mom’s swiss steak: chuck steak, can of diced tomatoes, bell pepper and sliced mushrooms – ALL bought on sale and got 5 servings. Ate 1 serving-rest in the freezer. I have lentil stew, pot roast, chicken soup, roast beef, browned ground turkey (tacos, taco salad) and a few other things in the freezer right now. I will be making chili and lasagna in the near future. Lunch is generally a sandwich, soup or planned leftovers. Dinner prep time is about 15 minutes.

    Two weeks ago it was individual meat loaves & garlic mashed potatoes – still have about 4 servings in the freezer.

    I also buy things like cilantro, onions, mushrooms, berries and bell peppers at rock bottom sale prices and prep (clean, cut into usable pieces) and freeze as they occur. Why should I pay $1.99/lb for bell pepper in January when I can buy it now for $0.49/lb?

  15. cherie says:

    I have done OAMC but much prefer bulk/batch cooking – have done it for years and want to put, in big print, some advice that is not loudly announced enough:

    DON’T FREEZE RECIPES IN BULK YOU HAVE NOT TRIED!

    There’s nothing worse than a freezer filled with things no one likes that you spent time and money on

    Freeze what your family likes after eating it once, but freeze only one, and make sure they like it after it’s frozen [and if they don't ask someone who knows better if you could have frozen it differently or at a differentpoint in the prep]

    Only when it’s been successful should you invest time and money in making more than one

  16. Gail says:

    Let’s take savings to a new level. Forget the Avery label maker. Use a piece of masking tape and a sharpie to label and date what the item is. The masking tape never falls off, and is so much more economical than spending more money on new stuff you don’t need. Just a thought…

  17. Evita says:

    Well Trent….
    Have you REALLY tried it for a full month?
    DOES IT WORK FOR YOU ?
    - is it practical ?
    - is it economical ?
    - are there pitfalls ?
    do tell!

  18. Evita says:

    ….. and I second Gail’s suggestion about the labeling. I freeze a lot of dishes for my Dad and keep a masking tape dispenser and sharpie in the kitchen. These “labels” are very cheap, quick, and easy to remove without residue before putting the container in the dishwasher.
    Avery labels are a luxury for me. And not very eco-friendly….

  19. de says:

    I did once a month cooking for several years, then switched to “batch” cooking. You would be surprised how many meals will fit into a refrigerator’s freezer if you freeze them flat in ziplocks and store them like books. I use 8×8 pans and pop them out when frozen. They fit perftectly in gallon zip locks, and I can them put them in a square glass pan to defrost in the microwave.
    The Frozen Assets yahoo group archives are a great resource, as are the books by the group’s moderator. Googling OAMC plans will turn up menus from vegan to low carb.
    Batch cooking and prepping ingredients for the freezer, along with my slow cooker have saved us tons on not eating out after a long day. It is worth researching and trying it out regardless of your circumstances, unless maybe you live out of the back ofyour van or in a hotel.

  20. Cheryl says:

    Avery labels don’t stay stuck very well at freezer temperatures. I go for a sharpie pen and freezer tape, or write on the sealed edge of the vacuum sealer bag as it will be cut off when opened.

  21. Aryn says:

    I like once-a-month cooking in theory, but I’ve never tried it in practice because I actually try not to make the same thing more than once every 2-3 months. So, I’d have to cook 30 dinners at once, and that’s just not practical. I do freeze extra portions of fall/winter foods like chicken pot pie, turkey and bean soup, and chili. Then it’s a treat when I dole them out two months later!

  22. Diana says:

    It has actually been a slow month for me because I’ve been knee-deep in computer problems (I do have my priorities, after all), but I did want to mention that cooking this way, whether it’s for a week or a month, isn’t as difficult as it might seem. a few days ago, for instance, I made spagetti and meat sauce. I had one serving and put 6 double servings into the freezer. I also put on a pot of kidney beans for the chili con carne I was making yesterday. The crockpot did all the work. All I had left to do was to brown the meat, add the tomatoes, tomato paste, spices and let it do it’s thing. Had some chili for lunch, and put the rest in 5 double serving bags for the freezer. The beans I didn’t use to make the chili went into a freezer bag for a future recipe. I decided against making the stuffed cabbage rolls today because I was pressed for time, so I came up with a new version that I’ll call ‘cabbage rolls unwrapped’. I just made meat balls with ground beef, an egg, precooked rice, minced onions, salt and pepper. Instead of precooking the cabbage and going through all the work of coring it, burning my fingers getting the leaves off, etc., I just cut about half of the uncooked head into thick strips. I layered the bottom of my crockpot with the cabbage, then covered that with the meat balls, another layer of cabbage, another layer of meatballs, and then covered those with leftover cabbage leaves. I poured a can of tomato sauce over the top, then brown sugar, and raisins. Total prep time, not including cooking the rice, was only about 10-15 minutes. The kitchen smells heavenly and when it’s ready in the morning, I’ll have enough for 7-8 servings. I made a large bowl of cole slaw with the remaining cabbage. The beauty of packaging things up in 1-2 serving packages is partly because they thaw quicly. But, I’ve also found that it’s almost like putting money in the bank when I send some of packages to the chest freezer out in the shed. I intentionally cooked more rice than I needed for the cabbage rolls and froze it in several packages, too. It will become rice pudding, spanish rice, broth and herb flavored rice side dishes, and my breakfast cereal, too. One of my favorite breakfast Mom used to make was white rice with raisins cooked in, milk and brown sugar. If 30-days is too much to think about, I’d recommend taking it more slowly. A couple of once-a-weeker’s will convince most people that it’s a pretty darned good idea.

  23. Briana @ GBR says:

    This was a great resource, especially since I’m about to start a diet soon. If I make meals ahead of time, I think I’ll be less tempted to eat out (and badly) during lunch and for dinner. Definitely visiting the site, making my list, and going for it!

  24. Emma says:

    I found a very easy way to get started with freezer cooking, without having to plan an entire month of meals in advance, or devote a weekend to cooking (which can be somewhat overwhelming for the first time!):

    Slowly, every night when you cook something, get in the habit of thinking: “Can this recipe be doubled/frozen?” If the answer is yes, then make a double or triple batch and throw it in the freezer. Eventually you’ll build up a stock of frozen meals, and get into the habit of cooking extra and freezing.

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