Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Tips for Cooking in Bulk

I love to cook. Happily, my family likes to eat. Unfortunately, it isn't often that the two can coincide - by the time I get off work, head up the mountain, check the mail (we don't get home delivery), pick up the kids, and get home, it's 6:30PM at the earliest. Not a lot of time for checking schoolwork, running baths, doing laundry, etc., let alone preparing a balanced meal. Thank goodness for crock pots!
Whenever I get a chance, I have a cooking marathon, preparing and freezing as many meals as I can (the challenge is then remembering to take something OUT of the freezer in the morning, but that's another post). This week I had several days off, so I really went to town. This is just one of our three freezers:
Three baskets on the left have cooked beef, pork, and turkey to be used in future meals. The fourth basket is elk meat rejects for the dog. The rest of this very large chest freezer is complete meals, stacked in order by date made. Bring on the zombie apocalypse! (But, please don't cut the electricity, or I am in deep doo-doo.)
I thought I would share a few tips I've learned along the way, for anyone else interested in preparing for the end of civilization - or in just getting ahead a bit. I am by no means an expert, but happy to let others learn from my earlier mistakes!
The first thing you'll want to do, of course, is plan what you want to cook. I base my menus on what is on sale, what I have that needs to be used up, and what just sounds good at the time. I try to mark recipes that my family liked, and make a mix of old stand-bys and a few new things. Whatever recipes I choose, I double, triple, or quadruple them - why make just one meal when you can make four, with basically the same amount of work?
From there, you'll need to make a grocery list. One of my best purchases ever was the 30 Meals in One Day software. It comes with bunches of simple, tasty recipes, and makes it SO easy to add your own. You can also change ingredients/amounts, and it will automatically change amounts if you want to double/triple/etc. You can even search by a particular ingredient if you have, say, twenty pounds of broccoli, and you are running out of ideas.
More pertinent to this step, you can click on recipes to make up a menu, and it comes up with a shopping list - adding up how much chicken you need, total, for example. The shopping list is arranged by section of the grocery store - and that is also easy to edit, in case your local store, hypothetically speaking, thinks bagels belong right next to Twinkies. Ahem.
When I'm getting ready for a big shopping trip, I make myself actually go and eyeball each ingredient in my cupboard before crossing it off the list - I probably don't have to tell you how aggravating it is to get halfway through a recipe and discover that no, actually, you do not have as many eggs as you thought you did.
In addition to groceries, you'll need to think about storage. Do you have the freezer space? What will you be packaging the meals in? How will you label them? I use both plastic containers with sticky labels, and plastic bags I can write on. Both have their good and bad points - plastic containers are reusable, and stack more neatly. Plastic bags use less space, though, and it's easier to get excess air out.
If you have a chance, it's helpful to do some food prep ahead of time. Have a spare hour? Look at what ingredients you are going to need a lot of, then shred some cheese, chop some onions, or brown some ground beef (with onions and garlic is usually a safe bet).
The night before you cook, get anything frozen out of to defrost. I like to start with a clean kitchen, all dishes washed, floor scrubbed - although it doesn't always happen that way! You'll at least want all the counter space you can make available.
The day of your cooking marathon, take a few minutes to set your kitchen up. Decide where you will be doing most of your chopping/peeling/can opening, and set the trash can, mulch bucket, and/or recycling tub nearby. Otherwise, half your day will be spent walking over to one or the other!
This was bag two today.
Thanks to L., aka Mr. Grabby Hands, I had to keep the recycling tub outside the kitchen door - a nuisance to go in and out, but I have to say I am really happy we can now recycle plastic bottles and tin cans here! That was easily half my trash!
It can also be good to keep a 6-year-old handy - it's C's job to empty the mulch bucket every time it gets full.
Have a shopping list ready. "What???" you say, "I just went on the mother of all shopping trips!" Yes, but you are about to use up everything you just bought, as well as many things you had at home. You aren't going to remember them all by the end of the day, so have pen and paper nearby, and write things down immediately when you get close to the bottom of the barrel.
You may also want a rag or roll of paper towels. I prefer a rag for wiping my hands, and a sponge for counter spills. I also prefer not to think about how much bacteria is on them both by the end of the day.
I'll walk you through one of today's recipes. I used to work on several recipes at once, but lately I've found I need to be able to stop at any point and take care of minor disasters. Funny, I never had that need up until a year and a half ago. Hmm.
This particular recipe is for a Hawaiian chicken - sort of an amalgamation of various recipes I've come across. You can either leave the chicken whole:
Or cut it into chunks.

I usually cut meat into chunks, for two reasons - one, it goes further that way, and two, it's easier to serve when you have a variety of stomach sizes to feed!
At this point, I am already going to deviate from my 'recipe'. Before I start cooking, I'll sometimes dig out things that have been sitting in the cupboard for a while, but which aren't part of any recipe. I put them right in front of me, so I am constantly thinking, "Hmm, could I add that cocktail sauce to this?" You can also puree leftovers and toss them in with all sorts of meals. You can put anything from squash to applesauce in with chili, and your husband will never know. Unless you...er...blog about it.
In this case, there were two flavor packets left over from a box of Asian rice, which I thought might give this an extra zing. In they go!

Next, a can of pineapple rings. I want half-rings, so I'm cutting them in the can, then tossing them in, juice and all.

Now we need some pepper strips. God bless Birds-Eye. 

I buy these by the gross. I prefer fresh vegetables for the most part, but these work out MUCH cheaper, and save a heck of a lot of time! In they go - no need to thaw, you are just going to refreeze them:
Now, slice or dice some onions, depending on your family's preference.

Toss them in, and give it a good stir.

Pretty! But, I think it needs more pineapple. I'll go with chunks this time.

That's better. And, done! I just need to label the bags:

I've tried different brands of freezer bags, and I don't have a clear preference yet - feel free to weigh in with yours! I try to keep directions clear but simple. I don't want to have to go back and look the recipe up again, but I also don't want to write a paragraph on each bag.
When portioning out your meals, put a little in each bag at a time, moving back and forth - you are less likely, that way, to end up with all the juice or whatever in one bag. That also helps keep the portions equal-ish. Use trial and error to figure out how much you need for one meal. I usually figure one big scoop for each adult, one for the kids to split, and one for just-in-case. Of course, the way C. has suddenly been eating everything in sight, I may have to rethink that soon.
Get out as much air as you can, and make sure everything is sealed.

Then, if your freezer is not in your kitchen, or if you don't want to keep opening and closing it all day, find something to store/carry your meals in:

A few miscelleneous hints:
* Keep frequently used ingredients out all day, but unless you have the counter space most of us dream of, don't try to get all your ingredients out at once.
* One Bowl, One Pan. Get out your biggest bowl, and your biggest pan, and use only those all day. You don't have to scrub between recipes, just give them a wipe and a rinse (being aware of raw meat issues, of course - do use soap!) The same can go for most utensils. If you are faced with a sink full of bowls and spatulas and greasy frying pans at the end of the day, you will not be filled with any sense of acomplishment. Trust me. One bowl, one pan.
* What's for supper? Some advocate going out to eat that night, but I really don't feel like going anywhere - I'm covered in food splatters, and I smell like onions! You can plan to order pizza, or set aside one of the meals - the one that brings family members into the kitchen to see what the wonderful smell is - and serve that. It's really not fair, imo, to tantalize them with good smells all day, then tell them they're having sandwiches.
* Clean as you go. This goes along with the one bowl, one pan rule. It is very much worth your while to stop when you spill or spatter, and wipe it up. Again, you do NOT want to step back at the end of a day of cooking, and realize you will spend most of the next day cleaning up!
That's all I can think of at the moment. I hope this helps someone, and would love to hear your tips as well!



  1. My problem is I grew up cooking in bulk - there were 5 of us, three of them boys, and I did a lot of the cooking - but it's really hard to make small enough meals for just one person. I've been living the joyous single life for about 10 years now and I still haven't quite got the knack. I do freeze small portions, but without the freezer space...

    1. I sort of have the same problem, when it comes to portioning things out - when we did foster care, I had as many as ten kids at a time, so it still never looks to me like I have enough food! We've been lucky recently to find freezers very cheaply, so I can satisfy my cooking addiction without having the same leftovers eight nights in a row!

  2. My family is obviously small, so I don't necessarily need to cook in bulk, but I do really like to prep a lot of things ahead of time. Who has time to cook a nice dinner with a toddler running (or crawling) around at 5 p.m.? I've mainly stuck to huge pots of sauce, turkey meatballs, soups, etc. but now that the husband has a smoker, I see lots of meat in the boy's future. Mama is still sticking to mainly meat-free. I'm a cheap date ;)

  3. Jealous! In an apartment now and not much freezer space - can't wait to get a house to cook ahead like that - and grow my own veggies.



  4. Awesome tutorial! Great deal on your chops you menioned. Thanks for your comment. :) Those are some of my favorite frozen veggies. Our Save-A-Lot has these...so much less expensive than purchasing peppers and onions to chop yourself.