A 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.