As a result of needful mental and physical therapy for one of my daughter’s the start of the year, my school days increased in time by a couple hours. As a result, January dinners consisted of late meals, rotisserie chickens, occasional food delivery and semi-toxic packaged foods. It was expensive, unhealthy, and untimely, and I knew something had to change in the progressing months ahead.
Years ago, my mother got into once-a-month-cooking. We bought all our groceries, except produce and milk, for the entire month and planned a rough menu for the month. I remember helping my mom cook and freeze all that food. The idea of having all the meals prepped for each day sounded lovely….just pop it in the oven and bake. So, I began planning for the first round in February.
Honestly, I am still undecided on whether once a month cooking is going to be a long term effort or not. I just cooked up our monthly meals for March and so as I am heading into our second month of prepped food, I jotted down some thoughts on the subject so far.
Health: Stepping away from quick, store-bought meals is certainly a step in the healthy direction. As I prep the monthly menu, I am also able to incorporate a better balance and plan meals that use whole, real foods and pair easily with any veggies I have on the side. I can also prep meals to freeze that do no contain sugar or unhealthy carbs. So, I do feel there is an aspect about freezer cooking that gets the healthy planning and prep done and ready to go.
Quality: A drawback of freezer cooking is the loss of fresh. I can still roast a side of broccoli to go with the lemon pepper chicken or toss a salad to go with the Alfredo, so it isn’t that we do not eat anything fresh. However all the main dishes which are protein based are frozen. And there is no getting around the fact that once anything has been frozen its quality, flavor and nutrients do go down. So, I am mindful that there is a loss in the quality of the food I cook from the freezer.
On the flip-side, I do a lot of meat marinating. It was so successful last month, I doubled the marinades. Meat that has been marinated for a day is incredible, and the marinade helps break down the toughness of the meat. I rarely think long enough ahead to thaw chicken, marinate it, and then cooking it up. But, marinating fresh chicken and freezing it gets all that work done and the meat is ready to grill, fry, or bake. We noticed the long term marination in the freezer turns out excellent meat once cooked up.
Time: An absolute time saver, but not without a transition in how the time is spent. After cooking all the food for a month, my weekly grocery trip is cut down to grabbing a few gallons of milk and some produce. So, my shop time is definably less than if I went out weekly.
What takes the most time is planning the menu, I look at store sales the first of the month, figure what recipes I will make, then add needed items to my grocery list. I print out a list of all the recipes and ingredients I have purchased for a quick daily reference. The grocery shopping trip is a good morning too as I hop from store to store to gather the ingredients needed.
The longest day is the cooking day. Last month it took me an entire day to make all the food, but I did include lasagna and sweet and sour chicken on that month’s list which is a huge money and time bomb. This month, I was able to get all the prep done by noon. So, the type of meal I choose seems to make a big difference in the prep and cook time.
Expense: Here is where I am loosing. Since I only purchase meats on sale, I would buy chicken breasts at .99lb instead of 1.39. When I cook one time for the month, I must use the sales that are going the week leading up to my cook day. After that, I must ignore all other sales for the month because I simply have no money left in our grocery budget. So, either I restrict my menu to whatever is on sale, or I buy items that are not on sale to make the recipes I want. In order to make this work for me, I have been doing a little of both. So, the toll on the grocery budget is showing.
Stress: I must say, the trying to figure out what to cook and then making dinner late in the evening after a long day is stressful. It doesn’t help that the children tend to hang around and groan of their hungry tummies in the process. However, menu planning, grocery shopping, and cooking for a month is also a bit of a stress. The first weekend I attempted this monthly cooking experiment was very stress riddled, but I had a lot of unknowns going into it. The second time around was a huge improvement. So, I think long run, having a day set aside to cook is far easier on a busy momma than cramming dinner making into the end of a long day.
I did notice however, that our family did not eat all of the meals I prepped for last month, so some of those meals I am rolling over into this month. So, in a few more months, I may not notice the injury to the grocery budget as I continue to roll over meals.
Hospitality: I love having ready meals in the freezer! It makes me feel free to invite folks over without wondering what to make for them. We have plenty of options ready to go. I also can take a meal over to anyone in need at any time. It is set and ready for me to bake for them or for them to pop in their own oven. Having meals in the freezer is a huge asset to any home-maker, much more if there is a whole month of food in in the freezer.
Will I continue monthly cooking? For a while, yes. I am curious how our grocery budget will accommodate this new method of cooking, so if I find it unaffordable, I may alter my menu planning. But for now, it is a profitable experiment.