January 3, 2017

How to Organize a Once a Month Cooking Plan

I know this is long, but bear with me!

This is the process I follow in setting up a large freezer cooking plan.

Decide how you want to do it.

• You could do "x" number of meals in a weekend version with lots of different entrees.
• You could double what you make each night (or triple), resulting in one to eat and 1-2 meals for the freezer. In two weeks with tripling, you would have a month's worth of meals stored in the freezer while having provided dinner for your family at the same time.
• You could just do sale based plans. If chicken breasts are on sale this week, you get them and make 5 or 10 different meals, all chicken based. Next week, hamburger? Do the same. That way your menus reach a point where you are always eating sale bought items instead of shopping each week deciding what to make.

Ultimately freezer cooking in this way will increase the variety of choices in your freezer.

Select the recipes you want to try. I would suggest you start with a small number of about 3-5 your first time doing this so you can figure out the process without overwhelming yourself.

Identify how many of each recipe you want to make. You will find that it is practically as easy to make three separate batches of the same recipe as it is to make one batch.

Once you have identified the recipes and number of batches, put together your ingredients list by copy and pasting as many times as needed into one shopping list and then consolidating all the ingredients into a simple shopping list. I organize my list to match the aisles in my supermarket to make it easier for shopping. It may seem like a large list and a lot of money, but remember, you are preparing several dozen meals potentially.

Go through the shopping list and check your home inventory to identify what you have on hand and what you need to buy. Be sure to include any containers or supplies you might need – ziplock boxes, freezer bags (gallon and quarts, most commonly), sharpie marker, freezer wrapping paper, paper towels, trash bags, etc. Check *EVERYTHING* including spices, condiments, etc. Don’t assume that you have enough on hand. Sometimes when doing these larger cooking plans you use more of an ingredient than you expect and you don’t want to find out on cooking day that you have 1/4 cup of soy sauce when your recipes require 3 cups. Ideally, do your shopping a day or two ahead so that you don’t have to do anything but prepare recipes on your big cooking day.

Next, go through each recipe and look for steps that can be done in advance. Write those steps out separately and then consolidate them across recipes. So for instance as one of the advanced preparation steps, I would write:

Slice mushrooms for chicken marsala (3 cups for 2x batch); teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry (16 oz for 2x batch), chicken a la king (8 oz for 2x batch), chicken broccoli bake (16 oz for 1x batch).

Each ingredient is broken out separately following that format. Look for any ingredient that calls for any kind of prepping (slicing or shredding cheese, browning ground beef, precooking and dicing chicken, chopping vegetables, etc.).

Do your advanced prep work the night before your big cooking day, if possible. It makes it easier on you to spread the steps out a bit. Wrap everything up tightly and put it in the fridge overnight. Be careful about cutting up things that may discolor, though you may be able to do it if you put the ingredient in a little fruit fresh (citric acid) or lemon juice water.

By grouping the advance steps together and consolidating them across all the recipes, you reduce the amount of cleanup and work with each individual recipe. You may also find that kitchen appliances like food processors and blenders are very handy with completing these tasks.

After the advanced steps are all written out, then look at the recipes from a processing perspective. Which dishes use the crockpot (for preparing, not for serving)? Which will require the stovetop? How many burners for each recipe? Are there any dishes that require long simmering times? Do any recipes require any cooling steps? I also take note of any recipes that don’t require any cooking (i.e. marinades that are stirred together and poured into ziplock bags with meats). These are ideal quick recipes to put together while longer cooking things are simmering.

Once you have identified these steps you can plan out the order of making the recipes. You may want to start long simmering things early and then be doing something else while they cook. Same with anything that gets prepared and chilled prior to completing the recipe steps.

Here’s an example of a few of my steps. I literally write them out together for every recipe individually (being sure to include the name of every recipe in every line – so not just cook chicken; it’s cook chicken for teriyaki chicken and veggie stir fry) and then rearrange them as needed for best time management and workflow. I find it helpful to have a master list of all the recipes with each recipe including a paragraph afterwards of items needed for it (i.e. number of gallon/quart bags, etc.) and the individual steps (so I can copy and paste them each time I set up a new master cooking day if I am not always using all the same recipes). When I do this with baking, I also include oven temperatures, time to cook and pans needed – cookie sheets, muffin pans, 9 x 13 pans, etc.). This way I’m not trying to make all cookies that require cookie sheets and not having enough available.

Prepare chicken noodle-less soup – Start simmering for 30 minutes on back left burner
Lemon Glazed Chicken – assemble and freeze (no cooking needed)
Orange Teriyaki Chicken – assemble and freeze (no cooking needed)
Process chicken noodle—less soup in pressure canner on back left burner. (75 minutes for pints, 90 minutes for quarts)
Cook veggies for teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry on front right burner.
Cook chicken for teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry on front left burner.
Cool chicken and veggies for teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry.
Cook chicken a la king. Assemble and freeze.
Assemble teriyaki chicken veggie stir fry and freeze
Assemble and freeze chicken cacciatore (no cooking needed)

I use lots of ziplock bags and freeze them flat with many of my recipes. This way, you can stack them like books vertically or horizontally to fit better in your freezer. Plus they thaw faster when you want to cook them. I also use tupperware containers. I use small rectangular ones that lunch meats often come in, which are two cup size. That equals one pound of ground beef or chicken, cooked.

Do your cleanup along the way. I tend to use the same large bowl over and over again when assembling marinades and just give it a quick wash between recipes. This way I don’t end up with a huge sink full of dishes at the end of the day. Same with measuring cups. I rinse and wipe as needed when using wet ingredients.

On the other hand, I have multiples where it is handy. So when I assemble meatloaves, I have 3-5 plastic salad bowls that I line up assembly line fashion. I go down and dump the ingredients per batch into each bowl (versus doing 5 consecutive batches in the same bowl). So much faster to create multiple batches that way.

Make notes as you go along as to how much each recipe is making, any changes you would make next time, any things that would make it go faster, any changes you made this time to the recipe, etc. Take COPIOUS notes AS YOU GO ALONG!!! Do NOT assume you will remember at the end of the day what you meant to remember. I promise you it will all be a blur. I write my notes on my printouts, then input those changes into the computer after I am done, along with any notes I want to remember for next time.

You’ll find that when all your ingredients are prepped ahead of time and your steps are written out logically, the time to assemble recipes is greatly reduced. With a list spelling out all the steps, your day will be well organized and go smoothly.

Here’s a summary of the overall process:

Three days to two weeks before:
Set your cooking day.
Choose your recipes.
Assemble your shopping list.
Determine your advance prep options.
Identify the order of preparing and assembling recipes.
Start clearing out room in your refrigerator.

Two days before:
Print out all your recipes and instructions and shopping list.
Print all labels that you plan to use. These would include instructions for preparing the recipe on serving day.
Go shopping for all ingredients.
Organize your freezer to give yourself maximum room for spreading things out that will need to freeze quickly (ideally flat).

One day before:
Do as much advanced prep as you can – chop veggies, brown meat, precook chicken and dice, slice or shred cheese, etc.
Make a stock in your crockpot if you plan to use homemade stock for your recipes. This will also help clear out your fridge/freezer potentially.
Assemble all recipe ingredients that don’t require refrigeration or freezing.
Doublecheck that you have every ingredient you need for all your recipes.
Pull any items that need to thaw in advance out of the freezer.
Clean your kitchen and clear as much stuff off your counters as you can if it isn’t related to your big cooking day.
Make sure all your pans, dishes, etc. are clean and ready to go.
Run the dishwasher last thing and empty it before you go to bed.

Day of:
Start early!
Make yourself a dinner in the crockpot or plan ahead for take out. You’ll be too tired to cook your own dinner that night.
Take regular breaks.
Drink lots of water.
Wear comfortable shoes and clothes that can get dirty.
Prepare lots of recipes!
Clean as you go.
Pat yourself on the back!

January 1, 2017

My January 2017 Menu Plan

I thought I would share my menu plan for January 2017. Sometimes I get inspiration from looking at other people's menu plans.

1   Sun   Grilled salmon, roasted zucchini/squash
2   Mon   Beef with Mushrooms and Asparagus, caesar salad
3   Tue   Chicken a la king over biscuits
4   Wed   Beef stew in crockpot, bread in bread machine
5   Thu   Stuffed shells, salad
6   Fri   Hamburgers/Brats on grill, chips, pickle
7   Sat   Smoker: Pulled pork, roasted vegetables
8   Sun   Roast chicken, salad, cranberry sauce or apricot chutney, roasted vegetables
9   Mon   Hamburger and Barley Soup in crockpot
10   Tue   Chicken paella
11   Wed   Caesar salad with grilled chicken breasts
12   Thu   Salmon noodle bake with broccoli
13   Fri   Black beans and rice and andouille sausage
14   Sat   Bacon wrapped pork tenderloins, macaroni and cheese, broccoli
15   Sun   Meatloaf, steamed carrots, corn
16   Mon   Ham and noodle bake casserole
17   Tue   Pork carnitas in crockpot
18   Wed   Marinated chicken thighs (bourbon chicken?), steamed carrots, corn
19   Thu   BBQ Ribs in crockpot, macaroni and cheese, salad
20   Fri   Shrimp scampi
21   Sat   Fried catfish
22   Sun   Lasagna
23   Mon   Pot roast in crockpot with vegetables, mashed potatoes
24   Tue   Taco Salad
25   Wed   Spaghetti, salad, garlic bread
26   Thu   Chicken paprika, asparagus, noodles
27   Fri   Green and white lasagna bundles, salad
28   Sat   Garlic steaks, lobster tails, baked potatoes, caesar salad, garlic bread
29   Sun   Pork Roast, sweet potatoes, green beans
30   Mon   Asian Lettuce Cups with Spicy Ground Turkey Filling
31   Tue   Chili in crockpot, cornbread