Mini cooking day

I try to do a cooking day every few months to prepare some casseroles and meals in advance so that when life gets crazy I have a secret weapon in the freezer to save my sanity and feed my family. I had planned to do a big cooking day with some friends this August, but life got nuts for all of us and it just never materialized.

Earlier this summer our big freezer decided it was time to go to the big appliance graveyard in the sky.  We lost a LOT of food – and a lot of the stashed meals I had. (sad face)  We were so fortunate to have a small refrigerator in reserve so we still have an extra freezer for storage and I’ve been trying to decide if I could stuff it with freezer meals or not.

I have been so busy with work and appointments for my Girl that I was really feeling the pinch of not having my secret weapon to rely on.  So, this past weekend I decided to do a mini cooking day.  I used the Labor Day holiday to my advantage. SuperMan went with me to the store and helped me shop (he’s great at finding deals) and I came home and spent a few hours doing some cooking.

Since my new freezer is small, I couldn’t do a lot of meals. I will probably  have to do smaller-scale cooking days from now on. But I did manage to make a couple meatloaves and some chicken spaghetti ahead for busy nights.  And we’ve already used one of each this week as we’ve been busy with doctor visits and I haven’t been home to cook early.

It’s a little extra work on the front end to do a cooking day, but it is SO WORTH IT in the long run. When you are stressed out, tired and frazzled it’s hard to make healthy decisions for feeding your family. I tend to want to fall back on take out meals.  That’s not only less healthy (generally speaking) it’s also a lot more expensive.

Rather than spending $30-40 on a take out dinner, I just doubled my portions for my meatloaf and chicken spaghetti recipes.  And we had dinner for probably $10-15 instead of more than double that. And it was GOOD. And I knew all of the ingredients were wholesome.

I can’ t recommend that you try this yourself strongly enough.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

Here is how you can get started:

  • Pick a couple recipes (2-3 to start with) that you know are family favorites and would freeze well.
  • Work out your shopping list – if you’re doubling your recipe be sure you double your items on your shopping list.
  • Shop your pantry and freezer first. Use up what you have before you go buy more. (save money!)
  • Go shopping for your remaining ingredients. Don’t forget disposable pans and zip lock bags. You won’t want to tie up your casserole dishes in the freezer. (This also makes it easier to gift a freezer meal to a friend if she needs it one night!)
  • Pick a day when you have 2-3 hours (at least) to work in the kitchen.
    I suggest doing your prep (vegetable cutting, etc.) the day before if you can. That’s more efficient for cooking day AND you divide the labor over multiple days so it’s not so tiring.
  • For your cooking day, fill your sink with hot soapy water so you can clean as you go (in case you need to reuse your utensils or bowls)
  • Clean everything off the counters that are not related to your cooking project – give yourself as much working space as possible.
  • If the family isn’t helping, banish them from the kitchen (if you can) for less distractions.
  • Lay out your recipes and place your ingredients next to your recipes. Lay out the utensils and bowls as well.
  • I usually start with the recipe that requires pre-cooking first – like when I need to cook chicken for a casserole, or brown ground beef.  Get those started first.
  • Assemble your dishes.
  • This is going to sound crazy, but DON’T SIT DOWN. Keep going until you finish. If you stop, it’s hard to get going again. Trust me on this one.

When you’re preparing the finished dishes for the freezer, here are a few tips for you:

  • Use multiple layers to ensure you get a good seal. I usually use plastic wrap AND foil. I have had too many experiences where I’ve only used foil and someone slid something on top of my dish in the freezer and tore the foil.  Doubling up your layers lessens the risk of a ruined meal and also helps to preserve the moisture in the dish and protect from “freezer flavors” getting in your food. *Don’t forget to write a note on top of the dish to remove the plastic wrap!* Melted plastic wrap would be a nightmare in your oven.
  • Use labels to identify what the dish is, whether it needs to be defrosted first, and how it should be cooked. Be sure to take into account the fact that you may be pulling it from the freezer and cooking it semi-frozen. I’ve found that adding a few minutes to the cooking time normally called for in a recipe helps to ensure you don’t pull out a half-finished dish from the oven. This also helps if your hubby or kids are doing the cooking – make it as easy as possible for them to be successful!
    You can also write directly on the foil with a sharpie if you don’t have labels.
  • Stack your items in the freezer – and consider adding a label to the outside edge so you can easily see what’s there without having to pull out the whole stack.

Here are some of the recipes I use in my freezer –

You can also do chili and taco meat easily in the freezer.

If you’re a freezer cooking gal, I’d love to hear any tips or suggestions you have!

And if you’re not – I hope you’ll give it a try!

menu planning at the next level

Many of my close friends are teachers.  As we neared the beginning of school I started to think about how crazy our lives were about to become with schedules, homework and after-school activities.  And then I thought about my friends… the teachers who spend their days devoted to other people’s kids and often find themselves at the end of the day with tired bodies, hungry families and no plans for dinner.

And so I decided to start a new tradition this year.

We did a cooking day.  A monster, stock  the freezer, cook until you drop kind of day.

Planning & Preparation

After I suggested the idea, one of my sweet friends helped me to put together our menu of dinners and to complete all the shopping for our cooking day.  We picked five dinners we thought would be winners and made a spreadsheet (I’m that kind of gal) with the menu, the recipes, and the grocery list of all the items on the recipes we’d need to buy.

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We planned for one meal per recipe per family, included things like disposable casserole pans and freezer bags to make the storing even easier.  We sorted further into which stores we were going to purchase items from, planning to go to our local warehouse store, Aldi (for the bargains) and then finishing up whatever we couldn’t get at those two places at the grocery store.

And then we planned a massive shopping trip. It was a rainy day when my friend Cindy and I headed out with the girls in tow and our shopping list and grocery bags at the ready.  We started at Aldi and got as much there as we could, finishing up at our local grocery store.  (in a side note, I was amazed at the bargains we found at Aldi. They’ve got my business in the future, for sure)

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That afternoon, Cindy took the chickens (8 of them!) and roasted them at her house. I took the sausage and hamburger meat and got it prepped at my house.  That left us down to assembly and minimal cooking for the next day when the rest of the crew joined us to work.IMG_3545[1]

I also decided to go ahead and make the batch of spaghetti sauce that we were planning to freeze for each family.  That’s the most sauce I’ve ever made in my life, but it turned out soooo good.

I couldn’t help but think of my grandma (who taught me to make this sauce) and wondered if she was looking down on me and smiling at my massive cooking project.

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Cooking & Assembly

Saturday morning dawned bright and early and I was wondering what in the heck I’d been thinking with this cockamamie scheme to do a massive cooking day.  I sure hoped the promises I’d made to my friends worked out and that everyone was happy with the results of our work.

I sorted all of our groceries on the counter with each recipe, writing the basic measurements for the recipe and assembly instructions on a piece of paper with each pile of ingredients.  I was hopeful we could just move from one recipe to the next and follow those cheat sheets to do the assembly.

Once Cindy and Kim arrived, we tackled the most time-intensive recipe first (chicken spaghetti) and moved on from there.  The kids got in the game, too, helping with assembly and packaging also.

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I was surprised at how smoothly it went – and how much fun we had.  We worked hard, for sure, but there were a lot of laughs, a lot of fun and we loved spending time together.

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Here’s our finished spread of food.  The kids were pretty proud of themselves for helping us (and we were so appreciative)  We ended up with EIGHT meals per family (after our original estimate of five) because some of the recipes cooked up larger portions (11×13 pans) and we split them into two smaller casserole dishes.

The exciting part was that we ended up with a per-meal cost of about $8.  So, around $60 per family for everyone to eat healthy and happy for the first month of school.

In addition, we’ve all been thoroughly enjoying our dinners.  My friends have been reporting in when they’ve used a dinner and we’ve all agreed it was well worth the time and effort to do this.  It’s been so nice to pull one of the dinners out of the freezer at the end of a busy day and know that your family is going to eat some good food and you don’t have to kill yourself to provide it.

So, I am pretty sure we’ll be doing it again.  I’ll keep you posted on what we decide to do in September.  Here’s our menu for August’s dinners:

Oh, and one other thing – we had enough food left over that we were able to sit down together and have BBQ chicken sandwiches for lunch! A well-deserved lunch to celebrate our hard work.

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