Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Menu Planning 101

This may seem pretty basic indeed, but for me it took several years and adding many, many babies to my family to realize how helpful it is to plan a simple menu for at least a week at a time.  I've shared before how just a one conversation with my husband about what was important to him began a revolution in how I plan and cook meals for our family.  The next big step for me was planning a menu for all three meals per day and snacks too for a week or more at a time.

I personally like to plan meals for at least two weeks at a time.  This way, I can shop for non-perishables ahead of time and then I can also look to the menu with confidence when thinking about the week.  I have a nice little magnetized dry-erase menu (pictured above) on my fridge, and every week I write in breakfast, lunch and dinner so that everyone in the family can see what is for each meal.  They still do come and ask me "what's for dinner, breakfast, lunch....?" But the menu is there so everyone can see it.  I like having a menu plan because it also helps the children to see what the items I have bought are for.  Last year I stopped buying packaged and processed snacks to have in the house.  They were for the most part not that healthful, plus they cost quite a bit of money when you add things up.  So the fruits and vegetables we have in abundance in our kitchen are for the taking whenever anyone may need a snack.  Other than that, most items are for a specific meal, and the children have learned (for the most part) to leave those things in the pantry, fridge or freezer.  

Here are some tips that may help you in planning your own menu:
  • Make a list of your family's favorite meals.  These are the things they like so much that repeating them once a week or so won't bother them.  Include lunches and breakfasts as well as dinners.
  • Make a list of easy meals you can throw together fairly quickly.
  • Refer to your list of meals you may have in your freezer ready to be used (if any)
  • Pull out a blank calendar, or even just make a list down a page with each date and then B, L, and D down the page so you can fill in what you will have for each meal of the day.  If you prefer, at least just plan your dinners.  I really do like to have each meal planned.  I think in general it helps make the house run more smoothly, and it keeps us from needing to resort to fast food or pizza so much.  :)
  • Fill in the favorite meals a few times in the month or over your two week period for which you are planning. Try to have your schedule for the time period for which you are planning nearby, so you can plan a simple meal or plan to take something out of the freezer on days when you may not have as much time.  If you want to make several times a recipe, plan to do that a few times throughout the month on days when you have more time to spend in the kitchen.
  • If you want to try new recipes, plan these according to your schedule (easy or complicated)
  • Either post the month's menu plan in a spot where your family can see it, or at least post a week at a time.
  • Use your menu to plan your weekly shopping trip!  If you have a plan, you will be a lot less likely to have to run to the store many times throughout the week, so you will save money in the long run, and you will have what you need for all the meals for a week or two so you can be flexible!
  • BE FLEXIBLE!!  This is a theme in the life of a homeschooling mom (or any mom really, for that matter)!  The menu is your tool to help you not panic when it comes to meal times in your home.  If you have a plan and have shopped for at least a week's worth of meals, then you can flex as necessary and switch things around as life shifts and throws its curves at you!  
"She is like merchant ships; 
She brings her food from afar.
She rises also while it is still night
And gives food to her household 
And portions to her maidens..."
Proverbs 31:14-15

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Basics of Freezer (Bulk) Cooking

I haven't posted in a while, but I have been writing, so here is the first in a little mini-series about meal planning and freezer cooking (bulk cooking) I had promised previously.

When Todd and I first got married, I wasn't completely clueless in the kitchen, but I still had a lot to learn.  We began having children, and before I knew it I had three children all under the age of 3 years old!  We wanted to homeschool the children, so we decided to "practice" by beginning with preschool.  I soon found that I was so preoccupied with caring for little ones, teaching them a little nursery curriculum that I found through A Beka, and trying to keep the house running (including laundry and meals), that I wasn't doing the best job with most of it!  I sat down with my husband, and asked him to help me prioritize all the things for which I was responsible.  I was actually surprised by his response. His top priority for me, of course, was teaching and caring for the children.  After that, he told me if I could get meal planning and cooking under control, it would greatly bless him.  For my husband, the "clean and tidy" house wasn't at the top of the list.  I had thought that it was, so once the children and I were finished with our "school time" each day, we had gotten to work straightening and cleaning up so when Todd got home the house would look presentable.  Oftentimes, however, when he would arrive home, I would suddenly realize that I had no idea what I would be cooking for dinner that evening.  I would rush to throw some chicken breast in the microwave, steam some broccoli, and slap some BBQ sauce on the side.  Not exactly the best meals ever.  Once I knew how important this was to my husband, I began to find ways to help me prepare meals without having to spend all afternoon in the kitchen.  There had to be a better way. 

A friend of mine told me about a book entitled Once-a-Month Cooking.  I decided to buy the book and try this thing out.  It completely revolutionized the way I thought about cooking.  I really do enjoy cooking.  I love trying new recipes, and I enjoy the process of making a hot, home-cooked meal, fresh bread and baked goods.  However, I also needed to survive this busy time of my life.  The babies kept coming fast and furious, until we had 6 ages 7 1/2 and under.  Freezer cooking helped me survive, and even thrive during this time!  The way I freezer cook has taken on a different style over the years, but now that I have teenagers to help me, I may try the once-a-month method again.  I will be sharing how I plan my menus, what I do to get meals in the freezer right now, as well as the tried-and-true (but truly exhausting) method of cooking for 30 meals in one day (errr, weekend, usually in my case).  

How I did it in the early days
After buying the book, I just dug right in and tried the 30 meals in one day method.  The book also has meal plans for two weeks worth of meals.  I soon realized (especially at that time in my life,when I had only 3 little ones) that when I cooked a month's worth of meals, I was actually cooking for at least 1 1/2 months' worth of meals.  Between leftovers, eating out, traveling, etc. I always was able to stretch out my freezer meals. I started out by trying to write certain meals down for certain days of the month, but I quickly found that I could just as easily just keep a list on my freezer of what meals I had in there and simply cross them off as we ate them. I still like to have a general plan, but if I need to juggle something around it's no big deal.  

There are a few things to think about if you are going to try to do a cooking "day":
1.  The cooking day really ends up being the whole weekend.  I would chop and prep Friday night (my husband would usually help me with this).  Saturday was the big cooking/assembly day, and then Sunday I always had dishes to clean and maybe a meal or two left to assemble.  If you go into it thinking that it's all going to be finished in one day, then you might be a bit shocked.  Plan to be consumed with cooking for the whole weekend.  This is pretty much true even if you are just doing the two-week plans. 

2.  Plan for your husband to take the kids for the entire day Saturday, or arrange for a babysitter.  It was really useful for my husband to take the kids away from the house for a good chunk of the cooking day.  They would be gone for several hours.  If I had a nursing baby, I would obviously have to keep the baby nearby, so I wore the baby for a lot of the day, or tried to entertain him/her in the swing, etc.  If you have a nursing baby who will need you every few hours, maybe hire a babysitter to keep him/her happy and occupied between nursing sessions, or if you have a family member in town this would be a great time to enlist their help!  Having kids on top of you for cooking day will slow you waaaaaay down and possibly hinder your success in completing the cooking in a timely manner.  So be prepared to have them occupied by someone other than yourself.  My husband took the kids on some really fun outings on my cooking days.  They visited a reptile farm, the Austin Zoo, numerous parks and swimming holes, window shopping adventures, etc.  It can be a great time for dad to make memories with the kids.  If you have older children, as I do now, they can help you on cooking day!  I'm thinking if I do try this bulk method again, I will definitely offer my older girls some incentives for being my cooking partners.  It could be a fun, bonding time as well.  

3.  Prepare yourself for a long time in the kitchen and lots of work.  You will be exhausted at the end of this weekend, but it is well worth it.  I used to open my freezer every couple or hours and just take in the beautiful sight of all my meals made and ready to be served with a salad and side dish.  It was a huge weekend, but it saved me tons of time in the kitchen for weeks to come!

4. Invite a friend to cook with you and split the meals.  I did this most of the time when I was doing once a month cooking.  Occasionally we made two of everything, other times we each took enough for 15 meals.  Still not too shabby, and I had a partner to share the load, have fun with rather than spending all those hours working hard alone.  One friend was super efficient, and we always finished faster!

The Process
If you use the freezer cooking books, they have shopping lists for you, and all you do is shop for the ingredients listed.  They will tell you what to prepare in advance, and the order in which you will assemble the meals.  The books also tell you what types of freezer bags or containers you will want to use to freeze the meals.

If you decide to choose your own recipes, you will need to compile a grocery list from all the recipes.  You will make yourself a list of to do's, such as what you will need to chop the night before.  You can then group your recipes according to common ingredients (chicken dishes, beef dishes, etc) and make yourself an assembly order.  Then you just work through it on cooking day, letting things cool and then freezing things as you go.

Here is an example of a general order:

Shop and chop (onions, peppers, any other veggies)
Brown ground beef, if necessary
Pre-cook chicken, and dice or shred if called for in your recipes
Start something in the crockpot so you will have one meal ready to freeze in the morning!

Cool and freeze crock pot meals
Chicken recipes (including marinated raw meat that you can freeze in bags to thaw and grill later)
Ground beef recipes
Beef stews
Vegetarian meals

Finish any meals you may not have gotten to
Put remaining dishes left to cool in fridge overnight in freezer
Wash remaining pots, pans, measuring cups and dishes

Tips for cooking day:
  •  Definitely have at least one or two crock pot meals cooking overnight Friday, and cool/freeze in the morning.
  • Have your assembly order and recipes well organized, and laid out.  If you have a recipe stand, use it to easily see and follow assembly order and recipes
  • Move your trash can right next to your work area
  • Wash pots and pans as you go
  • Take short breaks between recipe groups to wash things, or sit and have a cup of tea so you can keep going
  • Place your spices in a row on the counter so they are easily seen and used
  • Have one set of measuring cups for wet ingredients and one for dry
  • Make sure you have purchased the right kinds of containers for your recipes--foil pans and heavy duty foil for casseroles or lasagnas, quart-sized, gallon-sized and 2-gallon sized freezer bags
  • Have masking tape and permanent markers nearby to label your meals before freezing.  You may prefer to make typed labels ahead of time on the computer. 
If you want to choose your own recipes, here are some tips:
  • Choose family favorites, and double those.
  • Make sure you have a variety of chicken, beef or pork, and vegetarian dishes.
  •  Make some soups, roasts, and casseroles
  • Have a few recipes that are good for serving when you have company or meals that you can take to someone who has just had a baby or surgery or whatever. 
  • Plan according to how many burners you can have going at the same time, and also according to oven space.
  • and other recipe websites will convert the ingredients list according to number of servings, so if you want to double or triple a recipe, this is an easy place to start. 
  • Choose recipes that freeze well: honestly, almost anything will freeze well. Pasta dishes may need to have pasta slightly undercooked.  Don't try to freeze things like raw potatoes.
Equipment to have for bulk cooking:
Blender or mixer
Crock pot
Food processor or grater 

*Pots, pans, skillets
1 extra large pot, canning kettle, or 2 large pots
1 large saucepan with lid
1 medium saucepan with lid
1 small saucepan
1 large skillet
1-2 rimmed baking sheets

*Bowls and containers:
1 set of large med and small mixing bowls
8-12 small to med bowls or plastic bags (for chopped, grated, sliced ingredients)
Heavy duty aluminum foil
Freezer bags--both gallon and quart and 2-gallon
Foil pans, if needed

*Misc tools:
Can opener
Cutting board
Hot pads
Kitchen scissors
Knives (cutting and paring)
2 sets measuring cups (dry and wet)
2 sets measuring spoons
Metal or plastic spatula
Mixing spoons
Rolling pin
Rubber gloves
Rubber spatula
Veggie peeler
Wire whisk 

Ways to freeze more effectively:
Use gallon sized bags.  Lay flat to freeze.  Almost any meal can be frozen in gallon or 2-gallon bags.  Casseroles with toppings put in separate bags (main part in larger bags, and toppings in quart-sized bags) and place all together in a 2-gallon freezer bag. Label all with permanent markers before freezing, or type labels.  Make a master list to post on freezer with what you have frozen so you can cross off  you use the meals.  

What I do now:
I really did enjoy my once-a-month cooking years.  It was wonderful having everything in the freezer for weeks and weeks.  However, I was unable to continue to do this as my children got older and we had more weekend activities.  BUT, the once-a-month way of cooking really changed the way I look at meal preparation.  Now I rarely cook anything without either doubling or tripling the recipe to have enough to freeze for another meal or 2 (or 3 or 5!).  I have lots of recipes that I know my family loves that I have adapted to freeze.  I keep several of these "staples" in the freezer so that I can plan to pull something out of the freezer for us to eat at least once a week.  I always have at least 10 meals in my freezer at any given time.  Sometimes the number drops down, but I can replenish it in a couple of relatively easy days of cooking a recipe we love times 3 or even 6.  I decided to stop the bulk cooking day because it was really hard once we had more children in soccer and other weekend activities.  I didn't see how I would be able to dedicate an entire weekend to cooking.  The ideal would possibly be to cook a bulk day and then supplement the freezer throughout the weeks by doubling or tripling recipes as you may have time to cook. This is probably what I will do next.  On a weekend where I may have time, do some bulk cooking, and then just keep those meals on hand for times when we really need them.  I can do this in combination with slow cooking and making other simple meals.  Over the next few days and weeks, I will give you some examples of my menu and meal planning and how I can put all of this into practice.