Can once-a-month cooking really work?

The idea: spend a whole day cooking once each month, so that meal prep later on is quick and easy. Buying in bulk is cheaper, and cooking in bulk is more efficient. What's not to like?

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    Ingredients for mass breakfast burritos: Saran wrap, eggs, black beans, tortillas, salsa, and green onions. Make enough to last for a week (or a month), freeze them, and voila! Instant meals for pennies instead of a dollar a two apiece.
    Trent Hamm / The Simple Dollar
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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.

A 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).

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 this is actually quite fun.

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 is absolutely vital when you’re doing this. 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.

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.

First, 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.

Second, 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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