Friday, April 17, 2009

Making Dinner Easier

I've always thought the Once a Month Cooking idea was great. I've just not seemed to do it. My family likes new recipes occasionally, but prefers tried and try meals. Sweetheart is rather, um, particular about food.

After that mild understatement, let me just ramble on an idea that works for us. The first time I thought I'd try OAMC I searched online for ideas and recipes. There are a lot of them out there! But since we eat the way we do, I realized it would do me no good to make a freezer full of food we won't eat.

The first time I did this, I carefully thought out meals that would freeze well and be easy to reheat. I made massive lists for shopping and for planning out the cooking. It was a lot of time up front, but worked great. My mom also came over to help she babysat and washed a lot of dishes. It was great!

Lately, I've not been too good about meal planning. There are just days I forget to defrost meat, or plan ahead. This has led to a lot of hassle at 5 pm and meals that weren't so great. It's even meant a few calls to Sweetheart to pick something up on the way home. I don't like that. I mean, I like eating something I don't have to cook, but it is expensive and often not as healthy.

I decided last week I needed to do something. So, I made my grocery list of the things we needed and what was on sale at the grocery. Then, after the boys went to bed I went shopping. I got all our needed things and loaded up in the meat department. All natural chicken breasts were $1.49 a pound in the family pack. I got a lot of packs! Several other meats we usually eat were on sale as well.

I put everything in the fridge when I got home and crashed since it was after 10 pm. The next morning while the boys were eating breakfast I got cooking! I cooked several batches of bacon first. I hate cooking bacon, especially because I tend to burn it. This is why I did several pounds at once. I only burned one batch. Once it cooled I put it small batches in bags for the freezer. Now I can just take out a small amount as needed.

Once I got the bacon burning/cooking I started the next rounds. I baked a huge turkey breast and a giant pan of chicken. I just seasoned them with salt and pepper and baked them until they were done. I also put a pot of white beans on the stove and filled the Crockpot with spareribs.

Once the bacon was done, I cooked up bratwurst. While that was going I started cleaning and prepping the produce I'd bought the night before. I always use more fruits and veggies when they are all cleaned and prepped. That led to making up a couple of jars of salsa-one for the fridge and one for the freezer.

Did you know washing, peeling, and cutting five pounds of carrots will turn your hands positively orange? Several pounds of those went into the pot for Carrot Ginger Soup. Some were sliced for the Cassoulet and the rest into sticks that were packed in jars of water for the fridge.

When everything was ready, I made the Cassoulet--beans, bratwurst and chicken, tomatoes chopped (pre-salsa) carrots, and spices. That went into the oven for a bit with the turkey that was still baking. A second pot of beans, red this time, simmered behind the Carrot Ginger Soup.

The turkey was sliced thin for sandwiches and put into small bags for a few days worth and tucked into a bigger freezer bags to keep it all together. Even the ribs were divided into several freezer tubs for several nights of dinners.

Calzones were planned for dinner so I needed to make ricotta cheese. Once that was going, I started the dough. Pumpkin asked if we could have lasagna. Since I was already needing ricotta, mozzarella, tomato sauce and basil for the calzones, I figured I might as well assemble lasagna. I browned the ground buffalo and added the tomato sauce to it. Once the ricotta was drained, I took part out for the calzones and set it aside. It was then quick work to assemble the lasagnas. Those went into some glass loaf pans I have and were tucked right into the freezer.

In the middle of it all, the boys played and I took frequent breaks to read to them and build train tracks and dispense kisses. I love having a kitchen that's so open they are always in sight!

I was able to get so much done. I was exhausted by the time we sat down to calzones for dinner, but was thrilled to have so much done. I didn't get everything done I'd planned, but that was ok. The next day I grilled several more packs of chicken, the rest of the buffalo in patties, and a steak that was on sale. Once they all cooled, they were packed into the freezer in smaller portions as well.

By the end of that, I had the main parts of at least 30 dinners in the freezer and all of it stuff we like. Yes, washing all the dishes took f.o.r.e.v.e.r. ! This week has been a breeze though. I've just pulled whatever we want out of the freezer in the morning (or afternoon!). Then it's been so easy to make salads and veggie plates because everything already ready to go. I've also been able to send Sweetheart off with a variety of things he can keep in the fridge or freezer for his lunch at work. Also, I plan to cook dinner most nights and just use the freezer dinners as needed.

It made a giant mess and I was worn out by the end, but it will pay off with all the time and money saved at the end. I like doing this my way because I am able to just use simple, easy dishes my family loves and not have to try and figure out a bunch of new recipes, or buy new things we might not use again.

I am writing this post just to encourage others of you out there to try it yourself with the things YOU like. I didn't include specific recipes, because I don't really follow them anyway. But I'll pass on what I can if anyone is interested. This is something anyone can do.

If cooking is not your thing, you can start smaller of course. One change I made awhile back was simple, but saves a lot of time and money. Any time I grill chicken, I grill several packages of chicken. I use the boneless skinless pieces and just salt and pepper them. Once they are done and cool, I pack them loosely into freezer bags. This is great because we can still have grilled chicken even when it's snowing~like today.

I can then just take out what I need, occasionally banging on the bag with the meat hammer, and put the pieces I need in the fridge or defrost them in the microwave. I toss them on pita bread with bbq sauce and cheese and veggies for quick pizzas. Yesterday I chopped up pieces and served them with a big salad when I had a neighbor over for lunch.

Last night, I tossed the leftover pieces of chicken with my sesame ginger salad dressing I'd mixed for the lunch. I cooked some rice noodles and added them and some of the cooking water to make a quick Asian Noodle Soup. The boys had their chicken with bbq sauce and salad and everyone was happy.

There's no need to buy the bags of frozen grilled chicken if you have a grill. Besides, am I the only one who thinks the chicken always tastes funky from the "solutions" they inject in them? Finally, preservatives aside, I believe it's a lot less expensive by the pound.

The best tips I can give are to take a few minutes to plan out what you what to do and see where you can do double duty. For example--chopping the tomatoes all up in the food processor and removing a cup for the Cassoulet, then adding the rest of the ingredients to the processor to make the salsa meant I only needed to wash everything once. Also, plan on baking things together like the chicken and turkey that need the same temperature. It saves time and energy.

Finally, make sure you label everything!!! It may also help to put an inventory list on the freezer door to keep track of what you have on hand. And make your life easier by starting with a clean kitchen and an empty dishwasher. It'll fill up fast!

Does anyone else have any ideas or suggestions for ways to make making dinner easier? What works for you?


mer@lifeat7000feet said...

Hi Kimberly!

LOVE this post.

I do most of the same kind of meat/veggie prep, but on a two week plan. It's more manageable for me and helps ensure I use what's in the freezer!

Have you ever cooked bacon in the oven? When I do big batches, that's how I do it...on a cookie sheet. It's so much easier and less messy than in a skillet!

Also, I usually prep my veggies and put things like grapes, carrots, broccoli, edamame in ziploc bags/small containers for school lunches. I know you're not in the packing lunches phase yet, but it is so nice to reach in the fridge in the AM and grab a container!

Keep your great ideas coming!

Shan said...

Dearest Kimberly,

That was a wonderful post! I too, like to cook what my family likes and not get too fancy with recipes that call for things they just don't care for. It surely doesn't save time, money or effort if nobody eats dinner, LOL!

I always have liked the idea of cooking mutiples of things at the same time. It is so nice to have wholesome meals already to go in your freezer instead of having to rely on fast food in a pinch.

I like your idea of putting the smaller freezer bags inside of very large ones. I believe that Brenda over at Coffee, Tea, Books & Me does just that as well. I tried the idea and it sure helps keep things organized in the freezer.

Are you getting snow? We are having "Thundersnow" out here in the foothills...I am not sure what it is going to do?!

Yours kindredly,
Honey Hill Farm

Bernideen's Tea Time Blog said...

I was amazed that yourkitchen layout is exactly like mine except that we put the island in the basement and opted for my antique table and chairs. The cabinet and placement of applicances and soffet is the very same.

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...

That gives me lots of ideas and also makes me tired. :)

I have many times put meat in the freezer thinking I'd remember what it was without putting a label on it.

Isn't it amazing how all food kinda' looks alike frozen and you don't have a clue what it was even a week later?

Farmgirl Cyn said...

Hi Kim! Thanks for stopping by!
I don't do OAMC, tho I have in the past. What works for me is to make a menu every week, trying to utilize what I already have in the freezer, and supplementing when I don't. I try to stock up on canned tomatoes when my home-canned ones run out. And I usually have some boxes of frozen, chopped spinach to toss into a pot of soup or for a quick dip. When hamburg or chicken or beef is on sale, I usually try to get a couple extra packages. I love to try new recipes, so this gives me a chance to squeeze a couple in every week, and still have some tried and true stand-by's. And that's what works for me!!!
Can't wait to try your homemade cracker recipe! And I've been making my own laundry soap for over 3 years now! (loved your cracks about not being Pioneer Woman!)

Thia said...

I also want to recommend cooking the bacon in the oven. If I do it on the stove it's either not done enough or burnt. I put it in a glass casserole dish and check it every 7-10 min. That's on 350.

Taryn said...

Wow - you were busy!

I used to hate cooking bacon too- until my mom told me to bake it. Then it always comes out flat and I haven't gotten grease everywhere. Do you bake your bacon?

Amy Genn said...

Well, 2 minutes of browsing your blog and I'm a fan! I'll add you to my blog list and read you often.
We are kindred spirits. I love tea parties, pretties, Anne of Green Gables, etc.
Thanks for stopping by my site!

Kelli said...

I love your idea of using the "Once a month cooking" technique for things your family will really eat. I think that is what has stopping me from doing it before...I don't care for the usual recipes. All of your hard work will pay off!
P.s. I love your bright and happy kitchen!

Missy K said...

This is wonderfully encouraging. What I find the best about it is that it is so many very different foods. Most of the OAMC plans I've seen seem to rely on slightly different variations of essentially the same casserole.

Such good information-- and timely for me-- I have fallen off the "meal planning" wagon and needed a boost back on!

tonia said...

i am exhausted.


you are a wonder!!!

we don't eat much meat, but i do cook big batches of rice and beans for the freezer. the biggest bummer for me with our gluten-intolerance is that gluten-free breads don't freeze well. they just crumble into nothing. so i've had to learn to cook/bake every day. next time you pull bread from the freezer, thank the Lord for me. :)

you inspire!

Roxie700 said...

I did not read all of the messages here so someone might have told you; if you do not know you I used to hate to cook bacon and I burned it more often than not. Then I learned to cook bacon on a cookie sheet (the kind with sides) in the oven. I just line a pan with foil and bake at 350 for about 20 minutes. The bacon is perfect every time. Flat, not burned, and very tasty. I usually do 3 pounds at a time. It keeps well in the freezer.


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