Monday, November 2, 2009

Cooking One Day for the Month

Years ago, I read an article about cooking one day for the month.  It intrigued me, but I never did anything about it.  My usual pattern was to cook two or three dishes for the week on the weekend, and it worked even if I often got sick of what I had made by the end of the week.  Then I bought the Oct. 2007 issue of Cooking Light.  It had a fabulous marinara sauce recipe that you could use as a base in 10 different recipes.   I finally decided to give the concept of having one marathon day of cooking for the month a try.

I chose a three-day weekend for my first attempt.  I planned out the menu and grocery shopped on a Saturday and then devoted Sunday to cooking.  I made that marinara sauce and used it for a chicken, pasta and chickpea stew; a Weight Watchers (WW) lasagna, and the base of a fabulous sausage, peppers and veggies pasta sauce I made up based on one served at Filomena’s, my favorite DC Italian restaurant.  I also made a WW beef enchilada casserole and a large soup.  I divided everything into individual portions and froze them.  I kept opening my freezer to admire the beautiful sight of all those stacks of plastic containers.

My first experiment was a huge success.  It saved time, it saved money, and it saved me from food boredom.  I loved how efficient it was, and it greatly increased the variety of my weekly diet.  Everyday, I could grab something different out of the freezer to eat.  I wouldn’t get sick of it, and it decreased waste.  I wasn’t throwing out food that had gotten too old, or I could not face eating again.  To increase variety, I might make one dish on any given weekend, but I also tended to freeze some of it so I wouldn’t get bored with it.  I also did not have to spend a good portion of every weekend meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking anymore.

Whenever my freezer emptied out after a couple of months, I’d do another session of cooking on a large scale.  I’d often start with some serious planning and play with what recipes I would use.  I might spend time cooking on one or even two days, but I’d then be set for two or even three months before I had to do this again.

It turns out that you don’t even have to spend much time pre-planning.  Three Sundays ago I woke up feeling the need for some productive distraction.  In less than a week, I was leaving for an annual conference I was putting on for work, and the work stress level was too high.  I had brought some work home, but I just couldn’t face doing it.  The night before, my 1995 Dodge Neon had broken down, and I feared it was the end of the line for that old car.  Buying a new or slightly used car was not going to be cheap, and 2009 just feels like a year that I should not spend much money for lots of reasons. 

By 1:00 p.m., I had decided I would do a marathon-cooking day as I had absolutely nothing made in my refrigerator or freezer.  I sat down, picked out 9-10 recipes to make, and made a grocery list.  I grabbed a cart and some bags and walked to my local Giant as I was without wheels.  I hauled all the groceries back and started cooking. 

By the end of Sunday night, I had made WW Bella Braised chicken with whole-wheat penne pasta, my version of a WW Kentucky Burgoo soup/stew, WW kielbasa-bean soup, quinoa beef picadillo (Mexican ground beef dish) and WW Middle Eastern lamb slow cooker soup.  Monday night after work, I made lentil stew, WW slow cooker lentil soup, WW red beans and barley and WW turkey burgers.

My total grocery bill was $122.31.  With the addition of some frozen chicken and other staples I already had, I made 67 individual meals and froze them.  I’ve been surprised by how much money this method of cooking has saved me.  As you can see from my list, I was in the mood for soups and stews and the meals are very Weight Watchers friendly. By doing this, I’ve given myself a great start on another successful two months in my journey to becoming a healthy writer.  I’ll supplement my freezer with some runs for fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products, but I may not cook much more until 2010.  Cooking one day for the month (or quarter) is always a great gift to myself.

Have you ever cooked one day for the whole month?  Do you have any suggestions on how I can improve this process?  Do you have recipes for healthy dishes that freeze well?




Elise Hayes on November 2, 2009 at 8:06 AM said...

Hey Michelle! I love the picture of all those individual containers stacked in the freezer--what a great thing!

I haven't tried the one day cooking spree for the month (although I would do it for my daughter, when she was still on baby food). I do have other friends who have tried the monthly cooking sprees and love it. Since I'm at home a lot this year, I'm not feeling the need to try it, but next year when my schedule gets insane again, it may be worth trying out...

One variation on this theme that some friends used to do was take part in a cooking club. Each person was responsible for making two or three dishes a month--and they made a *lot* of those dishes. Then they'd freeze portions and swap them with the other members of their club.

It meant that you'd get to eat other people's recipes and cooking a good part of the time, and my friends said they were less likely to get bored with the food that way. On the other hand, of course, your tastes may not always match the others in your group, so that could be an issue!

Michelle Butler on November 2, 2009 at 10:20 AM said...

I love that photo too. :)

I highly recommend trying at least once a cooking marathon. On some level, I just enjoy doing it, but it also saves so much time and money. I remember what you did for Sophie, and this might not be much more time consuming.

I've heard of cooking clubs as a concept but have never seen anything about actually joining one. I've also heard of a for profit company that helps one cook for the month, but I don't know the specific details on that as well.

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) on November 2, 2009 at 11:41 PM said...

You know, I'm really intrigued by this idea. I really need to do some menu planning and give it a whirl. Maybe Santa will bring me a small deep freeze. :)

Oh, and I love the sound of the lentil stew and the chicken/pasta/chick pea stew. Hey, it's getting cold. I'm in the mood for soups and stews now, too.

Michelle Butler on November 3, 2009 at 10:47 AM said...

Both the stews are pretty good. I can share the recipes in future healthy cooking columns. The lentil stew is from the better homes & garden cookbook, and the other is from cooking light. You might actually be able to find that online. Lots of the cooking light recipes get posted by bloggers, etc.

Amy on November 3, 2009 at 6:32 PM said...

I was contemplating doing this for a living for people and came up with lots of easy recipes. For instance, if you grill a lot, freeze the steaks or chicken in the marinade. As it defrosts, it marinates. It works the same with brining. Brining lean pork loin is the only way to get it nice and juicy and keep it lean. Make your favorite brining liquid and let it cool. Place your pork loin (chops, roasts, etc) and pour the brine to cover. Seal and freeze. Works great!

Mary on November 3, 2009 at 9:55 PM said...

I have done this for my family for the last 15 years. it is an awesome time saver and much easier on the wallet. I love the possibility for proper portion control as well.
Good luck with the car. It has been a good soldier!

Michelle Butler on November 4, 2009 at 9:46 AM said...

Thanks so much for the suggestions. I've never brined, but the show American's Test Kitchen jokes about how they brine everything. That's where you put stuff in salt water, right?

Michelle Butler on November 4, 2009 at 9:54 AM said...

Some of your comments through the years have inspired me as well. Any particular, favorite healthy recipes for stuff that freeze well that you'd like to share? I'm always looking for more. I follow your pasta trick. It seems to me you have to be the most careful about freezing dairy and veggies.
Yes, the little, dodge neon has served me well, but it is the end of the line. Everyone I know who knows stuff about cars told me I'd be crazy to put the amount of money it would require to fix it into such an old car. It was well above what it's worth, so it's being donated to charity today. It sounds like it goes to a "legal chop shop" and whatever they get for it will go to the Red Cross.

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